Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Great Debate: Story vs Rules

Bannister Nicholas posted some interesting thoughts on the topic of Does Story Trump Rules?... it's a messy subject because there's a huge amount of room for debate, and the terms are not really definitive, and there's a great deal of emotion vested in this topic by many players of RPGs. So, that said... here I go. Diving into the mess head first.

I got to thinking about this never-ending debate between RPG Gamists and RPG Storyists. Which takes precedence over the other? Story or Rules? Usually the answer is related to what people on either side of the debate claim is more "fun". Some think story is more fun (as long as the story goes the way they feel is fun ... some stories are actually not fun, though they are definitely stories. For example, as Bannister points out, Romeo and Juliet is a classic tragedy).  Other people feel that playing RPGs as a game is more fun.

Of course one might immediately notice that "fun" is completely subjective. For some people playing an RPG as a game is the most fun. For other people playing an RPG as a story is the most fun. Usually the debate turns into a burning pile of turds when either side claims that what they think is fun is the only true fun, and what the other people think is fun, to borrow a nasty turn of the phrase from yesteryear, is BadWrongFun. This claim that one group's fun is wrong is at the heart of the entire controversy. I've written about this in the past and don't care to regurgitate my position endlessly on this, and it's all old history by now anyway, so I'd like to move along to what occurs to me about all of this.

So there's two orientations for RPG Players (more, actually, but let's keep it simple for this discussion). There's Story Orientation and Rules Orientation. Sometimes people want to orient their game towards Story, sometimes they want to orient towards Rules. For those who prefer Story-Orientation, the objective is often stated to be Immersion. And since Immersion is fun, Story wins for them. In the other case of Rules Orientation, the objective is to play a Game, and for those people this is fun.

What seems to be the case, and what makes this so messy and un-resolvable, is that RPGs appear to straddle this strange realm between these two incompatible worlds of desire.  What makes it so difficult to resolve is that most players seem to want both from their RPGs, but in differing degrees based probably on something as whimsical as their mood of the moment while they're playing.  In one turn strict adherence to the rules seems perfectly justified to them, while in the next a fudged die roll so that the plot does not get derailed by an errant bit of bad luck feels just as justified.  It's kind of schizophrenic, actually.  But I do see it quite often among most of the players I know.  It's odd, but there you have it.

What is almost impossible, I think, is to actually balance the two objectives. This is because, I think, in the case of Rules it's a binary proposition. You are either following the rules, or you're cheating, and in games cheating is not allowed. But for Story Oriented players cheating seems ok so long as the story is interesting, or meaningful, or at least fun, and it doesn't happen constantly.

There are risks with both styles. For story oriented players the risk is that the GM will railroad the game in order to create a "fun" story.  Usually this means, in most cases I've encountered, that the Players win.  They save the princess, get the loot, kill the monsters, or what have you.  However, the problem is that this takes away their agency as players and that ruins their fun because it eliminates challenge in the game. On the other side for Rules gamers there is a risk the GM will secretly or overtly cheat (or make mistakes), or the players will cheat (or behave like munchkins), which ruins their fun because cheating is Not-Fun.

What is really at issue here, I think, is that from the days of yore, RPGs have attempted to fuse into one game, two completely different and incompatible objectives. Making a game both Story oriented and Rules oriented at the same time is, well... seemingly impossible.  The problem is that this goes back to the very foundations upon which RPGs are built, and has its roots in the difference of style between Gygax and Arneson, if I have the history right. Gygax was a Rules oriented player, stemming out of his love of Wargames, as is reflected in the development of the miniatures game Chainmail, which became the original Dungeons & Dragons. On the other hand Arneson, whose focus was on Story, came out with an alternate view of the game, of which Blackmoor is a quite wonderful representation, that focused more on the story aspect.  So the schizophrenia of RPGs was born at the dawn of the hobby, it seems.

Since then the game has twisted into a rather complicated braid of Rules and Story with a zillion variations on the mix.  And since the struggle between the two orientations has been going on since the dawn of the hobby, and will probably continue to be debated for a long time to come, I don't think it is likely there will be answer to the question "Which is better?" any time soon.  This is probably ultimately because one's play preference totally subjective.

All I ask is that people not claim that their own preference is the "One True Way", because neither preference is better than the other. And in most games, there is a fusion of both aspects. One of the principal roles of the GM is to balance the two during the course of each game. Sometimes the Story gains the upper hand, and the GM adjudicates things along Story lines, maybe fudging a die roll, or placing a monster somewhere other than directly behind the next turn of the corridor. Sometimes the Game predominates the GM focuses on the rules, battle map tactics, and the exact factors involved to accurately derive the necessary die rolls needed for success. I see GMs swinging back and forth between the two all the time. I know I do. Because frankly, I like both aspects and I think both are necessary for me to have a truly enjoyable game. But dang... it really is a difficult thing to balance well! It takes the right feel for the thing. And I don't think you can teach that easily at all. It just comes from experience... or intuition.

So for those GMs who may be new to this debate, and who are hearing both sides tugging at their sleeves with "Do it my way!", I just want to mention, there's a difficult but rewarding middle way.  You can see it as the small red region on the diagram above.  My experience tells me that this is the target to shoot for when GMing, as difficult as it may be to hit.  Good luck, and happy gaming to you!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On Racing Against the Clock

Ok, I just finished reading Sax Rohmer's "The Mystery of Fu Manchu", which, by the way, was an excellent read. At the end of the book there is an exposition titled "Appreciating Dr. Fu Manchu" by Leslie S. Klinger. She writes:

"... Fu Manchu stories combine demonization of Eastern culture and denigration of effete intellectualism with high adventure and gripping suspense. The emphasis is on fast-paced action set in exotic locations, evocatively described in luxuriant detail, with countless thrills occurring to the unrelenting ticking of a tightly-wound clock. Strong romantic elements and sensuality described, sexually attractive women appear throughout the tales, but ultimately it is the fantastic nature of the adventures that appeal."

Now it seems to me that any Gamemsaster worth their salt is going to do well at most of these things, should they happen to want to replicate the kinds of adventures found in "The Mystery of Fu Manchu" (and who wouldn't?).  High Adventure and gripping suspense?  Yup, we got that down.  Fast-paced action set in exotic locations, evocatively described in luxuriant detail?  Can do!  Countless thrills?  Yup! No problem!  However, there is one sticking point. And it's an important one. It's that bit about "countless thrills occurring to the unrelenting ticking of a tightly-wound clock".

Here's where the RPG as a modality grinds up against the imperatives of Pulp Fiction. The fact is, with a novel the author controls the characters, and so at that final crux moment when all seems lost, and the hero figures out some fabulous solution to the peril and thwarts the diabolical plan, and it all makes perfect sense and is thrilling and awesome - it can happen just like that. That's possible achieve because he author knows the villain's entire plan, and can sit and think for hours, days even, about how the characters will respond in just the right way, at the exact right time in order to elicit the greatest suspense for the reader, and final cathartic victory of the heroes.  It's wonderful, and we readers joy in the thrill of the chase and the final culmination of Aha! at the end when the hero wins the day.

We poor Gamesmasters, however, do not have this luxury at all. Not by a billion miles. First, we have no time to think whatsoever. Once the ball is rolling it is our job, of course, to keep it rolling as fast and furiously as possible. Two, the players control the characters, our heros, not the Gamesmaster/author. Three, the players are (usually) the audience and protagonists at the same time, which creates perplexing conditions in relation to our objective. And lastly, the player is rarely if ever privy to the knowledge of the machinations of the antagonist, nor can they be, as that would ruin the fun of the thing for them as players. The result? Well, I won't say "disaster", exactly, but let's just say - this is very hard to pull off in a traditional style RPG.

The thing is, in order to create suspense for the audience (in this case the Players) we can not divulge the villain's secret machinations to them until the absolute last second, if at all. It's up to the players to puzzle things out and come up with the right answer.  That's the fun of the game, after all.  And so the result is that the players having to make split second decisions with incomplete understanding, are more often likely to fail than succeed - just as the heroes in the novel are - except for them the author does a splendid job saving them with their great and just-in-time wit and wondrous luck - something we Gamesmasters aren't in a position to do without breaking the rules of the game!

Really, if the machinations are properly planned by the antagonist then the solution is not likely to be dead obvious. And this of course leaves plenty of room for the player to make the wrong decision. In fact, it should be likely for the player to make the wrong decision, unless we have our master-mind antagonists be actual imbeciles. Fu Manchu, it should be said, is not an imbecile. Rather our heroes were either incredibly brilliant at the right moment (half the time), or incredibly lucky (half the time).

But can our players be expected to have to be both, consistently?  After all, every 50/50 chance taken via the roll of the dice decreases the overall odds of survival dramatically! It becomes, I'm afraid to say, a preposterous proposition for our players. If we created the scenario with integrity (meaning the antagonist plots things out as they ought to) then the player characters are very, very unlikely to actually survive the game. Not because the Characters themselves are not as resourceful and lucky as Nayland Smith, but because the dice and the lack of Player knowledge make it nigh on impossible.  Too many split-second decisions must be made with brilliant deductions, nuanced thought, pin-point accurate recollections, and against too many live-or-die dice rolls to make the odds of success more than infinitesimal in a real game.  In a novel, everything just happens with wondrous synchronicity because the author makes it so.  In an RPG nothing of the sort can happen.  We rely on the player's wit, and their luck, to see how things turn out.  It is a very different animal.

So the kind of game that is required in order to create the same atmosphere and suspense as a Fu Manchu novel is not very well embodied by the traditional style RPG, I'm afraid. And so I think it is fair and interesting to ask, how would one design an RPG so that the effect, the suspense and thrill, can be obtained?  I think there are probably dozens of answers to this in the great wide world of Indie RPGs... however, can one devise a way to do so without the loss of the core mechanic of players rolling dice, and experiencing the same mystery, awe and fear as the characters in Sax Rohmer's novels?

In other words, I put this puzzler out there for my Old School friends - how would you as a Gamesmaster, or player, solve this problem with a traditional style RPG? All answers, thoughts, and angst-ridden soliloquies are welcome!

Please visit to join the Free Open Beta of the Mythos Machine!

Friday, May 05, 2017

The Twin Lords of Whitewode

Spoiler Alert!

(don't worry folks, as it happens my players never check my blog - it's ok ... shhh ... it allows me to post out here for you guys while we play).  hee.  Later they'll be like "omg".  shhhh.
Brothers of two feathers...



The ancient and accursed township of Whitewode holds from time to time one or the other of these twin masters of evil.

Scarparelli as he appears in the Mythos Machine 

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Tolkienian Magic

I was on Imzy today browsing around and OculusWriter asked a question which got me thinking...

"Discovering how magic systems work can be the most geek-worthy part of reading fantasy stories. Do you enjoy one detailed magic system, or many interlocking ones? Let's spark some awesome! Share your favorite magic system moments!"

Here's my reply:

My preference is for Tolkienian Magic ... as discussed here ...

While I have yet to work out exactly how I wish to implement this in my World via The Mythos Machine ( I do plan to do so sometime within the next ... oh ... eon or so. Hopefully. At any rate, that's the style I would like my system to embody for at least one of my Worlds.

The hard part is divorcing from the standard, which is this kind of awful focus on Weaponized Spells, such as Fire Ball and Lightning Bolt. Really overt Kill-Magic. Nothing could be less magical, in my mind, than a "Magic User" standing there and casting a Fire Ball from his fingers. Magic should be cloaked, mysterious, unfathomable, even while adhering to it's own occult laws.

How to get there from here is my challenge. I accept. Just don't expect me to work it out quickly. I don't do anything quickly, it seems. Ah well... I must learn to accept this and keep plodding. Maybe my totem animal is the tortoise.

Of course one of the biggest problems with implementing Tolkienian Magic is that Wizards are extremely rare, and are in fact celestial avatars named Istari, and manifest in the world for the specific purpose of fulfilling Illuvitar's Almighty Vision. There are only five of them in Arda. So ... that kind of puts a damper on the whole "I wanna play a magic user!" kind of thing, if I develop my system based on Tolkien's vision of Magic. For Tolkien's Arda it makes perfect sense, and goes a long way to making magic balance in his world.

The problem with the standard RPG model is that were a world like that to actually exist, it would very likely get torn apart by competing magical forces and factions, and would rapidly devolve into chaos and insanity. Read OD&D's magic list and think. What would our world be like if during the medieval era something like 20% of people had access to this list of spells? And magic items? In my mind I see a world of fire and ice, and endless intrigues and destruction untold. My guess is that if you toss in mythical monsters, and powerful evil forces... yeah... I kind of think we'd not have a world for long. It would be overrun by monsters, and the last straw to seal the deal would be human pride, greed and lust of power. So as I see it, magic as D&D posits it is only workable because GMs curtail what the evil forces of the world would actually do with it. Otherwise, we'd not have a game for very long. And that's the only reason magic of this sort works in RPGs.

So the first thing to tackle would be to figure out how to have a world of very rare magic, and very rare magic users, and not unbalance the game to the point where the players feel like they can't have all the fun they want. After all, at least 20% of my players want to play Magic Users.

So ... how to get there from here ... It's a puzzler. But this would be the first step at least in the process of working out how to turn Tolkienian Magic into an RPG system. So catch me in an eon or two and I think I'll have worked it out by then, possibly. In the meantime, any thoughts you may have are quite welcome! :)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Setting up the Business - The Challenges Thus Far

As I go through the process of starting my own online business I am discovering some interesting, odd, and frustrating things along the way. It seems there'a a lot of confusion as to how to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together in a way that is both economically realistic, and legally valid. In fact, those two are at such odds it almost feels at times like it's impossible to do both.

I'll provide a few examples.

1. COPPA. As some of you know I've run up against the COPPA laws earlier and paid a fortune to my lawyer to resolve the question. It was incredibly expensive to finally get an answer. So it was NOT cost effective at all to go through all of that. And even when all was said and done, I'm still potentially vulnerable to accusations of COPPA non-compliance, though at least now I have a reasonably well founded way of arguing my case in court, should it come up. The tricks involve not allowing anyone under 13 on my site (legally - ie - the terms of service prohibit it), and to also not collect any personally identifiable information (which may hobble my marketing efforts, but what the hell - I'd rather be a little hobbled than in jeapardy of the Government's $60,000 - $360,000 dollar fines ( The odd part about this one is that I notice many popular websites in the RPG community are completely ignoring this threat. Ok. Good luck. It may turn out that the Government is a gigantic paper tiger and just tries to scare everyone into giving them money but in fact never actually gets around to dealing with companies that scoff at their laws. Could well be. No idea. But apparently that is the gamble many of our RPG online services are gambling on. Ok. Best wishes.

2. DMCA. You need to have this protection if you have a website where people can upload or create content. It protects you from copyright infringement by your users. Another legal barrier, but at least with this one I was able to figure out a way to make it not-soul-crushingly expensive to deal with. In this case the standard procedure is that you get a DMCA Agent to handle DMCA requests and pass them along to you with a tad bit of advice. Typically however, DMCA Agents are lawyers who charge you their standard legal fee for handling incoming requests. That might run somewhere between $100 - 400 per DMCA request. The problem, actually, however comes from the fact that they will charge you that standard rate for processing anything that comes into their office via whatever means it has been sent. Since the law has it that you must put in your Terms of Service your valid DMCA Agent contact information, which includes an email address, phone number and physical address (PO Box not allowed - it must be a valid street address), what do you suppose happens when spammers get a hold of that information? They spam away, of course. And guess what? The DMCA Agent will very happily go on to charge you for their time in weeding out spam from legitimate DMCA correspondence. Funny that. The solution? Get a Street Address box from UPS for $350 / year (roughly) and handle the DMCA take down requests yourself. Yes it's a cost. But it sure as hell beats the $2500 setup fee that the DMCA Agent wants to charge, and then the ongoing fees for processing the copious amount of spam that is likely to start coming your way after the spammers get to your Terms of Service.

3. Subscription Service State Tax. It used to be that websites were exempt from sales tax, and no states charged a tax on services run via the internet. That was great for early startups. Now? Oh noooo. Now everyone has to pay the State Taxes wherever the individual States have determined that they charge for Internet Subscription Services (Software as an Service aka SaaS). A lot of States don't, but a lot do. And not only that, but they may charge different rates based on the exact street address of the customer. So two guys living next door to each other may wind up paying a different sales tax rate on your subscription service. And you have to account for it, and pay those States the correct tax per customer. Yay. Fun stuff. So how are you expected to do that? Well I'm trying to work that one out now, but it's a bear. So far I have it that if you sell PDFs through DriveThruRPG or IPR then you're covered because they are responsible for handling the tax.

But what if you are running a subscription service that does GMing functions, like Roll20, or CityOfBrass? Well, then you're pretty much SOL so far as State Tax requirements are concerned. You have to pay them, or you risk running up against the IRS. And who really wants that to happen? Well, apparently some of the existing companies running SaaS services for the RPG community don't actually give a fig about it, because it seems that they're not charging any taxes on their subscription services. Or at least if they are they are giving no indication of doing so - and I think that if they are, then they actually do need to be indicating that they are doing so on the subscription payment page. Maybe they are. But I see no indication of it so far. At any rate, what's the solution look like? It's hard. As far as I can tell what you can't do is use PayPal for subscription services because their method of maintaining the tax information is not only completely manual, but also limited to entering one tax percent per State, which isn't what is required. Too limited, and so you may still run up against the IRS if you take that route. So that's not an answer. An alternative is to use a service like ChargeBee, which does payment services, and integrate that with another service named Avalara, which handles State Tax rates. The two of them combined ought to provide you with a means by which you can handle State Taxes automatically, without having to get your hands dirty with a manual process. However, setting that up seems to be a bit complicated. At least I'm unclear as to the process at this point. Maybe it's easy in the end. But I'm doing a lot of research in advance to try to figure this out, and so that's chewing up a lot of my time. In the end, the solution may turn out to be really easy and not too expensive. But I'm not there yet. So I don't know. I can hope, though, right? And don't even get me started on the EU VAT. My solution to that is simple: I'm not offering my service outside of the USA.  Period.  Tooooooo complicated.

Anyway, these are some of the business-end issues that have been consuming my time and resources while I try to establish the Mythos Machine as a going concern. The fact is, though, I have zero indication that the product I'm trying to develop will be accepted in the Market. I do know I've put in a huge amount of work on it, and I also know that I personally happen to really enjoy what I created and find it very useful for my games. But that doesn't mean anyone else will, right? So time will tell. And in the meantime, I'm committing myself to an enormously time consuming and expensive effort to get it out there. It may be a huge mistake. Probably is, frankly. The market is fickle, and competition is fierce. And in fact, the expense of doing so is just high enough that it may turn out that I can't afford to run the operation unless a sufficient number of people decide it's worth contributing money to. Thus far, no one other than my mom and my girlfriend have contributed a dime. Which is fine. It's my gamble to make. The point of my mentioning it at all is just to record what the process has been, and where my decision making has come down. I want to try to give the Mythos Machine the best shot possible, to find out if there's a market for it or not.

There's a good chance that what I created over the past 20 years (I started working on project this in 1997) will find a niche market of fans who think it's great. And if I have enough support from them then I think I can keep the project afloat financially. I hope so.

Anyway, that's where it's at. It's been a vastly interesting amazing even, learning process. I'm expecting to have all the pieces in place reasonably soon. The last piece being the Subscription Tax issue, which I'm still working on. What's gnawing at me is that I see other sites comparable to mine appear to have completely ignored the question. I find that puzzling as can be. Can you really afford to just ignore this stuff? ... I guess in the view of those who are doing it the answer is "Sure. Ignore it." but I feel that somehow this is probably such a terrible choice in the long run that I'm pretty sure I won't go that way. After all, I'm not in this to grab everyone's money real-fast and then run off to my underground Luxury-Fortress. I'm in this to provide a long term solution that helps gamesmasters create their own wondrous worlds and support them for decades and eons to come. So I'm thinking I need to set this up right, and not risk the business just because setting it up the right way was, well, kinda hard, and pretty expensive and took a long time.

And that's it for my report. I will post again on the solution for the SaaS State Taxes when I've worked that piece out.

Best wishes fellow Entrepreneurs! It's a hell of a ride, but the rewards are great if you can work it all out!  And remember... it's always darkest before the dawn!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Plot Map - Battle at the Church of Whitewode - Explaination

Spoiler Alert!

If you are one of my players you may not want to look at this until the end of the Campaign.

This is the current Plot Map for the Whitewode Campaign in my world of Elthos.

What is a Plot Map?

I'm glad you asked.  This is a technique that I've been experimenting with to provide myself with a visual queue card while I am Gamemastering.  It shows a great deal of information about the current state of the Campaign, including where the main Characters are in relation to one another, what paths they have taken, or may take, where the key places and events are, and the array of forces in the scene.  It also may show symbolic references that remind me which Elkron are in play, and what they may be trying to accomplish.  This one Plot Map acts as a snapshot of the game in it's current state.  Together the Plot Maps form a visual history of the Campaign, so that later I can use them to recall major events, characters and influences.  It's been extremely helpful for me while GMing, and also a pretty cool form of documentation on the Game Story.

The key to it is include as many of the major elements as possible in a small a space as I can manage.  This way, one sheet can be used to remind myself of important points during the play of the game.

To give an idea of how this works in practice, if you take a look at the lower right corner you'll see the Church of Whitewode (which is on fire) up on the ridge overlooking the town towards the West Gate.  There is a beam of moonlight hitting the Church steeple in which Hermel (H.) and his daughter Peaches (P.) are attempting to use the silver bell in the steeple to reflect the moon beam towards the blacks sphere of darkness atop the West Gate Citadel, in which the obsidian alter is located.  Nicholas Blair is attempting to cast a massive spell from atop the tower to thwart the Pech and Gnoll Armies situated on the marshes before the township.  Just outside the Church are Thorgrim (T.) and the Gnoll (Gn1) waging a fierce battle against one another (revenge), while below the Church are Reverend Russel (Rev R.) and Reverend Trask (Rev T.), each of whom are taking different routes.  Reverend Trask has taken the Treasure of the Lizard King and the escaped prisoners to the West Citadel, while Reverend Russel is attempting to climb the stairs to the Church to aid Hermel and Peaches in their task.  You will also see that the Gargoyle (Gg.) is on his way to also provide aid to our heroes, while the Gnoll's brother (Gn2) is simultaneously making his way towards Reverend Russel to kill him before he can aid anyone.  Just below the crescent moon you can see the Spire that is White Tower, near where Delvin is actually located with the 12 musical children whose rescue is the goal of the quest.

Ok that's the lower right hand corner.  You can see how glancing at the picture would be far easier for me during the game than peeling through my notes. Obviously this wouldn't be necessary were it not for the fact that the Whitewode Campaign is enormously complex.  It is the equivalent of a Soap Opera in RPG form.  But that's a topic for another post, why I decided to create the Campaign this way, how I approached it, and whether or not I think it's a successful method. Stay tuned for that post as well.  I will publish it after the completion of the Campaign.

In the meantime enjoy the Plot Map, and hopefully if you're also running a complex Campaign this concept of Plot Mapping the thing may be helpful to you.  Best wishes and happy gaming!

Ye Old Trolls of Elthos

So I've been Gamemastering my world of Elthos since 1978, and to be absolutely honest, until this most recent Whitewode Campaign, no one had yet encountered a troll.  Yup.  30+ years later, finally - a troll!

Now, I should say my trolls are not standard stock issue D&D trolls with the green skin and carrot noses. No way. I never could stand that kind of troll. I don't even know why, exactly, but my reaction to that concept for trolls has always been "Holy Yuck-I-Don't-Think-So!" They just didn't look like what I imagined "real" trolls to look like. Again - no idea why. But my vision of trolls must have been formed from some old fairy tale book I read as a child and have long forgotten. At any rate, the trolls of Elthos are large, heavy boned, and girded round with huge bellies and large round noses, long unkempt hair, and dress in peasant cloths, often with a skull cap made of a whole cow hide. They're big fellows, and are ambling, stupid, selfish, and a bit overly fond of very simple riddles.

"Why did the hobbit cross the road?", asked Bob Ruckbottom, the older of the two trolls, and therefore the smarter one. He knew the riddle after all.

"Oh, let me think on it, Bob," said Tom, his brother.

"Ok, you do that. If you get it, I'll give you my best ruck-sack", Bob added for good measure.

A while later, Tom answered as follows, "Cause he had no shoes?"

"Noooo," said Bob with a huge guffaw. "To get away!" he proclaimed with a uproarious laugh.

And so, that's just how trolls are in Elthos. Big lumbering and dumb as a sack of sand. That said, on the other hand, they're also have bones made of stone, and skin flecked with iron. They regenerate their wounds at an alarming speed, and if you don't burn them once their heads have been chopped off, then they'll grow back a new one and come hunt you down. They're really not very nice.

Now once in a long while, a troll or two will be spawned just a cut above the rest. Either smarter, or stronger, or quicker than your average lot. These trolls go on to gain fame among the troll-kin, and usually become heroes of their clans, one way or another.

Such a hero was Babayuma "Bob" Ruckbuottom. He knew his riddles he did. And so one day, after he had utterly smashed a local brigade of King Varin's troops at Old West Bridge, just outside of Whitewode before it had sunk under the ground (it was a cursed village, don't you know), the King stood forward on his chariot, and offered Bob the job of keeping the Toll at the Bridge. Why would King Varin do such a thing? Well, no one knows for sure, but historians think that there must have been several reasons for it. One, the thinking goes, was that Bob was a capable and frighting warrior, and so no one would dare to avoid the toll again. Another was that the King could tell by the riddles Bob would ask his knights before crushing them that Bob was not an ordinary troll, but one of those that had slightly more than half a brain. Thirdly, it is rumored that for some reason Bob decided at some point that he wanted to be a Knight - and this was something the King could offer him in exchange for his service. Finally, there are some who say that King Varin was a Wizard of no small skill who had the ability to overpower weaker minds and make them loyal subjects through the craft of his speech. Whatever the case, Bob accepted the offer to be the King's Troll, and was knighted on the spot, and because of this he took his post in a cave just below the West Gate Bridge, and from that time forth, collected the King's toll with a loyalty and ferocity that begger's the imagination. And from that time forth everyone paid the toll, and there were no more sneaks, and no more bum-rushes over the bridge, and in the end, Bob amassed a huge fortune in that cave of his. When people needed to go to Whitewode, they would pass over the bridge, and those who knew how things stood would put a tin piece in the stone bowl for each person or animal crossing the bridge. But those who asked what the "1" on the sign signified, Bob would lie, and say "One Gold!".  Few people had the courage to argue with Bob, and those who did didn't last long.

Also as time passed King Varin passed away, and the kingdom passed away and the lands fell fallow, and after the Ogre Wars the men who lived in the great valley of Glendale were killed off or chased away further to the south. In all that time the curse of Whitewode took it's toll on the town, and it sank slowly under the ground, until it merged completely within Grimdel's enormous cavern. Only a single hole at the top of the cavern showed through a beam of moonlight now and again. And there lives Bob the King's Troll in his cave below the bridge at West Gate. There's a sign there that reads "Toll: 1" which King Varin had made for him, and below it, a stone bowl carved out of the cliff face next to the cave's entrance. Over the years, Bob acquired a couple of guard dogs, which were also of trollish blood, to help him keep his treasure safe.

And so once every ten years, Bob would haul whatever toll was due the King up to the old White Tower at the top of the cliffs, and report to the King's Wizard there. And of course, Bob would keep the rest for his own maintenance. And thus, Bob's treasure was quite large. And the King's Toll treasure of the White Tower was also quite large, though that one was comprised of tin coins, while Bob's was made up of gold. It had been 800 years since King Varin knighted Bob, and so you can imagine that after all that time, two rather substantial treasures got built up, slowly but surely. And so there is Bob to this day, with his two troll-hounds, and living peacably enough for a troll under the West Gate Bridge. If you should happen to pass that way, just drop a tin piece in the bowl on your way across the bridge, and you'll have no trouble with Bob.

Naturally, my players declined to do so. They got in a fight with Bob. I was fairly certain, comparing Bob's mighty stats and regeneration to their capabilities, even though they were all veteran adventurers, that Bob and his dogs had the upper hand and would be likely to kill off half of them, if not all. BUT - Hermel was smarter than Bob. He created an illusion of a flower pot, in which was a Sun Flower. Now, these Sun Flowers grow magically in the cavern, and are cultivated by the fey who don't care much for trolls, and they have served to keep the trolls out for many long centuries. There's only a few such flowers growing in and around Doctor Sniloc's manor some distance through the cavern south of Whitewode. Having run into them there, Hermel understood their signifance, and when they encountered Bob, he created an illusion of one. And this was the one thing that could frighten Bob enough for him to retreat back into his cave.

Now some of you might ask, how could Bob have collected the toll in the daylight before Whitewode sank under the ground? Well, King Varin built a covering for the bridge so that Bob could attend to his business without having to come in contact with the sunlight. Eventually, that covering was torn asunder once the town sank, and became that very formidable wooden bridge-door which bob could use to close the bridge and bar the entrance to his cave ... just in case a dragon or somesuch thing might come some day. And it did. And Bob didn't mind. He was safe in his cave, barricaded in and unassailable in his little fortress with his two dogs, Fido, and Fifi.

And that, friends, is what trolls are like in Elthos.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Mark Knights Review of Elthos

Following is the verbatim text of Mark Knight's Review of the Elthos RPG Mythos Machine. I am posting it here to preserve a copy in case the original is blown away by any sort of internet treachery in the future...  Without further ado... Mark Knights' Review (published in Sept 2015):

I replied to a post a few months ago now saying that I would love to help out beta testing a game that was unusual. It is a universal RPG but had a piece of software that had been developed with it that would help the GM and players by enhancing the game innately. The Beta was a demanding schedule, I started late and soon realised that there was no chance, with my schedule, to keep up with the needs of the Beta. The author (of the game and software – Mark Abrams) was also seeing this across many of the participants and so changed his tack on the beta and opened it up to an open Beta test so that he can get many testers, who will find those bugs at their own pace and the updates can go ahead. The game is Elthos Role Playing Game and the Software is known as the Elthos Mythos Machine.

Elthos RPG
The entire thing is in open Beta and as such you can sign on and register and grab a copy of the rules. I would suggest that you do this in an effort to help Mark Abrams thoroughly test the Mythos Machine – but more on that later. The current rule set is available for download once you register and log in at the portal for the game and software. The rules started at version one and quickly escalated to version 8 which is where it currently stands.

Elthos is designed to be a Universal RPG that the GM uses to apply to his own worlds. As an example the book takes a fantasy styled look throughout so that flavour can be added to the text and examples making them a little more interesting. There are also sketches of the world that is presented which are wonderful in breaking up the text as it is not really a standard fantasy setting. Creatures riding dragon flies and the like make it really nice evocative art in a sketched style and I really liked the intrusions it made on my reading.

The system uses a One Die System (ODS), that is a D6 system. Any resolution, as a standard rule, has you rolling a d6 against a target number determined by the task resolution table. For example, if I were to try and poke you in the eye, the Task Resolution Table looks at my “Poke in the Eye ” skill and your “Defence Skill” and gives a number that I need to roll on one die. It may also tell me that I am too good in the art of poking in the eye and automatically hit, or you are too good at defence and I don’t even have a chance. It is a simple mechanic and worked well here. This is an extensive discussion about it in the rule book that shows the depth that the author has gone to in considering it.

But of course the author knows that there are people out there that like rolling dice and so he has also opted to implement other systems that can be used as alternates from 2 to 4 dice resolution tables. This is a nice touch, but not entirely needed, although I am sure there are people out there that will make use of it. In reality the ODS has the same effect as multiplying the dice out and is the simplest option. That is one of the funny things about RPG’s though, the simplest is often not the option that gets chosen.

Some of the reading in this book is hard going. Dense text that are trying to explain and justify the use of the rules often left me having to reread a passage or two and on one occasion asking Mark what it actually meant. This is a minor criticism though as this problem does not often materialise while you read, just every now and again.

The entire book is an example of how this system can be used, the real value is the system itself. It talks about building a character and then gives the classes (it is a class based system) that any standard fantasy setting would give. Now, when I review a Universal system I always have a setting in my head that I ask myself “Can it do that?” Now in the case of this book that looks at traditional fantasy it would not fit but the discussion is always talking about how this is an example and how you can do the creation yourself and I can clearly see a way of me doing a post-apocalyptic sci-fi western that I was thinking of as I read it. It would take some work on my part, but if you are not prepared to do work you are probably not looking at a Universal system as a GM.

Also, throughout the text Mark keeps reminding that there is the Mythos Machine available to us on the web that will help us build and flavour the entire game. There are very few situations where this prompt is not mentioned. The Mythos Machine will solve our concerns and worries. So let us now turn our eye to the…

Mythos Machine
Normally when I do a review of an RPG or a piece of software I do one or the other. This is the exciting part of Elthos. It has an entire game support/campaign support system built right alongside it. It is rare these days to find this occurring. It is normally a third party creating an app that fits a system or a generic app that fits multiple systems. The truth about the Mythos Machine is that it fits seamlessly with the Elthos RPG. If you want to play the setting that is in the book itself there is very little to do. If you want to create your own world there is a little more to do but it is really made wondorously easy by this bit of software. And just between you and I, if you wanted to use the Mythos Machine to record a campaign that did not use Elthos as the base system, it would work.

Logging into the Mythos Machine I did not know what to expect. The website is dated in appearance and the system prompts look fairly basic at the start. I followed along several of the tutorial videos that Mark has done and loaded to YouTube. He has a beautiful skill based system ordered at the bottom of your main login page to see where you are up to in your videos and what you should watch before you get to x skill. These videos are well done and in the case of several of them they have been updated during the Beta.

There are two modes to the Mythos Machine, one as a player and one as the GM. I logged in as a player to start with and made a character. The system worked OK but the interface was a little clunky. Not having people to play a game with had me a little behind the Eight ball but I could see this was a useful tool as a player. Interacting with information from the world and recording the character, not to mention managing any formula that are required is a great thing for a player.

But the magic in this system is not in the player controls. The brilliance of this system comes when you nip over to become a GM and the entire Universe of possibilities are offered up to you to play with. That may sound like a stretch, and it probably is, but the modular system that has been built into the Mythos Machine to create your world and campaign is utterly breathtaking. Mark has truly thought through every portion of this and has shown a level of understanding about what GM’s play with (or want to play with) and intuitively added them.

The interface is still a little on the clunky side but this tends to be the truth of all database systems. I started playing about with this interface to make my post apocalyptic sci-fi western and I had to catch myself. I was having way too much fun and I was going down the rabbit hole of building a campaign that I loved and would never play. I called it Captivity and first I played with the base rules system changing it so the players only got on roll of their stats. I added up the world and then I went into skills and did some modification and then I was headed to armor when I realised that I was about to chew up a massive part of my life customising this system.

Look at all the configurable goodness, I am in love…

I can only say with the utmost confidence that this is a brilliant and easy to modify tool that does everything and more that the Elthos RPG says it can do. It allows you to play with practically everything at a granular level. You can map out complete campaign arcs, one off adventures, characters, NPC’s, the magic system or psionics or whatever you want to do. It allows you to quickly and easily build classes and introduce them and it all flows so seamlessly with each other.

I am a programmer, with a big degree to show it and I am stunned at the amount of work that is laying in this application. It will be a tool that inventive GM’s will quickly learn and love using but the true beauty of it may not be apparent to everyone. This is a shame because I have seen some apps created by teams of people in the past that are just nowhere as elegant as this system.

In Conclusion

This game and system are in Beta testing phase. It is an open Beta too so I think that if you can, join up. Help Mark refine this system to the best it can be. If you can keep him informed of what works well and what is a little clunky in the rules as well as the system then this game has a very bright future.

For me, as it stands at the moment Elthos the RPG is a nice little system that is well thought out and obviously a work that the author has thoroughly thought out and it is a labour of love. He discusses it being a little based in the 70’s and 80’s games but I really feel that it has a level of originality in it. For me it is a good system and a very workable system but with the way the book is written it may put off people who do not know where to start in running their own desired game setting. It possibly could also do with a dedicated GM section too.

The real winner here is the Mythos Machine. I can literally not think of a system that works so seamlessly together. It still needs a bit of work on interface and usability but it is so powerful that I am saying you should sign up to the Beta right now just for this! All the things you wonder how you will do works brilliantly through this application and allows you a marvelous amount of power in building your own game worlds. Get to, download the rules and log on to the Mythos Machine – you will not regret it!

Many thanks to Mark Knight for this absolutely lovely review!

Monday, April 03, 2017

Notes On OD&D - Part 34

Continuing on with the 5th Level Clerical "Spells"...

Men & Magic
  • p33 - Explanation of Clerical Spells - 5th Level
Dispell Evil: Similar to Dispell Magic spell, this allows a Cleric to dispell any evil sending or spell within 3" (90') radius. It functions immediately. Duration: 1 turn.

Ok, this seems fair enough, though I would have thought this would be a lower level spell (I always thought they should not be called spells, but miracles, but heck, that's probably just me). Maybe 4th. After all, the Cleric's main bag is, I thought, dealing with evil, and such. So to have this so high up in the spells hierarchy just feels a bit off. I could be wrong. And I'm sure it largely depends on how the game is played. And it may well be that in those days, when OD&D was first played, the whole concept of the game was so much more focused on the wargaming side that this may have been just fine, and no one thought twice about it. In other words, if you're playing a miniatures game on an 8'x12' table with armies and such you might not be thinking so much in terms of the "story" aspect at all. So this may have been totally find for how the game was payed in those days. Curious to hear if anyone has any experience of it from that era and might be able to comment on my conjecture.

At any rate, I give this 5 out of 5 Stars for usefulness.

Raise Dead: The Cleric simply points his finger, utters the incantation, and the dead person is raised. This spell works with men, elves, and dwarves only. For each level the Cleric has progressed beyond 8th, the time limit for the resurrection extends another four days. Thus, an 8th level Cleric raise a body dead up to four days, a 9th level Cleric and raise a body dead up to eight days, and so on. Naturally, if the character's Constitution was weak, the spell will not bring him back to life. In any event raised characters must spend two game weeks time recuperating from the ordeal.

Hmmm... ok the way this is phrased may be a little confusing. I think what it means that a 9th level cleric can raise a dead body if that person has been dead for up to 8 days. And as for the weak constitution, I'd rather that this was a little more specific. But I will take it that a "weak Constitution" means those below average, which on 3d6 is probably 9 or less.

The only other questionable aspect is that it can't be used to raise Hobbits. Really? I mean, common. Hobbits are nice guys. You should be able to raise them. :p

I rate this 5 out of 5 Stars for usefulness.

Commune: A spell which puts the Cleric in touch with the powers "above" and asks for help in the form of answers to three questions. Communing is allowed but once per week maximum; (referee's option as to making less frequent). Veracity and knowledge should be near total. Once per year a specially communing should be allowed wherein the Cleric can ask double the number of questions.

Hmmm... ok. Not crazy about this one. Not that it isn't useful, it probably is. But it feels too static. Three questions? Ok, I guess so. Not crazy about it, but I can see why they chose to do it this way. You don't want to leave this sort of thing open ended I guess. And besides, they did add the caveat that it's up to the GM so that helps. But my real problem with this is that it's such a game changer when it goes into effect. From my viewpoint as a GM I don't like it. I'd be forced to give away my best secrets to any player who achieves this power. Yuck. Not so great. From the Player point of view though? Yup Yup Yup - sign me the hell up! So ... meh. Problematic.

I rate this, however 5 Stars for usefulness.

Quest: This is similar to Geas, except that the character sent upon a Quest by the Cleric is not killed by failure to carry out the service. However, the Cleric may curse him with whatever he desires for failure, and the referee should decide if such a curse will take effect if the character ignores the Quest, basing the effectiveness of the curse on the phrasing of it and the alignment and actions of the character so cursed.

Too weebly. Not that great. I don't really see the big difference between the MU version and this one other than the "you die" aspect. I guess from a flavor perspective it sort of makes sense, kind of. Except, if you're a Cleric and the reason your version of Geas doesn't kill is because you're too much of a "good guy" for that, then what's the point of Cursing?! Oh I'm too good to kill you, but not too good to curse you! Mwahaha! I don't know. Something doesn't seem right about it to me.

I rate this 3 Stars for usefulness.

Insect Plague: By means of this spell the Cleric calls to him a vast cloud of insects and sends them to where he will, within range of the spell. They will obscure vision and drive creatures with less than three hit dice off in rout. The dimensions of the Insect Plague are 36 square inches. Duration: 1 game day. Range: 48" (1440'). (Note: the spell is only effective above ground.)

Ok! That's persuasive! It's a huge area, and I could see this as being incredibly useful under certain, and highly variable, circumstances.

I rate this 5 out of 5 Stars for usefulness.

Create Food: A spell with which the Cleric creates sustenance sufficient for a party of a dozen for one game day. The quantity doubles for every level above 8th the Cleric has attained.

Ok, not terrible, but this is another one that I would kind of think belongs at a lower level than 5th, as it seems out of synch with the power of the others at this level. But still, when you're hungry, you're hungry and this is definitely a nice to have.

I rate this 3 out of 5 Stars for usefulness.

Ok and that's the end of the list of Clerical Spells!

Overall, I rate Clerics as being damn kick-ass character class in OD&D on account of that they are both mystics and fighters, and so they pack a heck of a punch.

Note: There are Anti-Clerics (listed below) who have similar powers to Clerics. Those Clerical spells underlined on the table for Clerical Spells have a reverse effect, all others functioning as noted. The chief exception is the Raise Dead spell which becomes:

Finger of Death: Instead of Raising the Dead, this spell creates a "Death Ray" which will kill any creatures unless a saving throw is made (where applicable). Range: 12" (360') (A Cleric-Type may use this spell in a life-or-death situation, but misuse will immediately turn him into an Anti-Cleric.)

Anti-Clerics: Evil Acolyte, Evil Adept, Shaman, Evil Priest, Evil Curate, Evil Bishop, Evil Lama, Evil High Priest.

Ok that's it for tonight. We pick up next time with the last of the sections in Men & Magic, which has to do with Magical Research and Books of Spells. Till then, ciao! :)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Mutual Collaboration Society

Over the past couple of months I've been working on establishing the concept of a Mutual Collaboration Society for the Mythos Machine.  The goal of the Mutual Collaboration Society is for members to give one another free and unhindered use of one another's RPG materials for both their own gaming purposes, and also for any derivative works they would like to use them for. It is a share and share alike system.

So Gamemasters through the Mythos Machine can contributes to the central pool of creative materials by making their creations in the Mythos Machine "Public". The Things that people can make "Public" in the system are all are:  Weapons, Armors, Equipment, Races, Classes, Mystic Powers, Skills, Heritages, Money Exchange Rate systems, Cultures, Places, Campaigns and Adventures (the last two are not implemented yet, but will be soon if all goes as planned).  All "Public" Things will show up as Shared items in the World Things Trading Post in the Mythos Machine.  Gamemasters can peruse the lists of Things and import the ones they like into their own Worlds, and then modify them as they wish (ie - the originals remain intact and unchanged in the original GM's World).

Members of the Mythos Machine community can mutually draw from these items for their own games by importing a copy of them to their own Worlds, and / or for creating non-commercial or commercial derivative works as they wish. This allows people to legally share RPG materials with each other, and do what they wish with them.  And once something is made "Public" then the author grants a license for others to use it.  It is kind of like Creative Commons for RPG content.

So in the Mythos Machine, anything the GM creates, including their entire World, can be set as either "Public" or "Private".  When "Private" the Gamemaster retains full copyright ownership, and no one on the system can see it except the Players in their World, if the GM has granted permission for the Players to see those items.

Thus a World can have a mix of "Public" and "Private" Things.  Here are the rules for Public and Private ownership according to the Terms of Service for the site:

If the Gamemaster (GM) creates a "Private" World (which it is by default), then whether or not the GM makes things within it Public or Private:

1. No one but the GM can see their World.

2. No player can join the World for generating characters because the World itself is "Private" (usually while under construction).

3. Nothing from "Private" Worlds will show up in the World Things Trading Post as Shared Things.

4. The "Private" World is eligible to be loaded into the Packaged Worlds system (when available) and be sold at a price set by the GM via the Mythos Machine.

5. The GM retains full copyright ownership of their World and can do with it whatever they wish (commercial or non-commercial) - which is to say they could publish the world in any medium outside of the Mythos Machine if they wish to, or convert it into any format or medium they wish.  No one else has any license (or ability) to use those things other than the GM for any purpose.

If the GM makes their World "Public", but keeps everything in it "Private" (all individual Things (weapons, armors, places, classes, etc) that they may create) then:

1. The other members of the site can select the GM and view the World's Description and House Rules and Genre selections.

2. Players can join the World and Generate Characters in it.

3. Nothing from the World will show up in the World Things Trading Post as Shared Things (since all the Things are "Private" even though the World itself is "Public").

4. The World is no longer eligible to be loaded into the Packaged Worlds system from that point forward.

5. The Things that are "Private" are owned by the GM, and no one else can see them except the Players who may interact with some or all of them during the Character Generation process if the GM allows the Players permission to access any or all of those Things.

If the GM makes their World "Public", and make any Things in it "Public" then:

1. "Public" Things from the World will show up in the World Things Trading Post as Shared Things and;

2. The Things that are "Public" are owned by the GM, but a license is granted to everyone on the system to be able to Import (ie copy) those Things into their Worlds, and use them for derivative works for commercial or non-commercial purposes, in the Mythos Machine or outside of it. 

Of course we already have such a system in Creative Commons licensing. But what we don't have is a platform on which this concept is embodied so that people can easily find and share their work with each other, and easily and quickly incorporate those things into their Worlds. Not at least in the way the Mythos Machine does it.

So why do all of this?  For those who want to create RPG content, the world is rife with great ideas floating around the web.  But a lot of times you can't use that content because of legal complications.  This system is designed to allow RPG content creators to share ideas more easily, and to use them for whatever they can think of.  So you have an idea for a great Campaign that is based on a fantastic Mythos Machine based RPG you played in last night?  No problem.  You're free to create that.  You want to make a book out of it?  No problem.  You want to beautify the book and sell it on DriveThruRPG?  Again, no problem.  Everyone is free to use the materials they find shared on the Mythos Machine for whatever downstream projects they want.  And so can you.

The act of Sharing on the Mythos Machine is as simple as making something "Public".

What do you think of this concept?  I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.  Would you find this useful to you as a creator?  Would you be willing to share your creative content with others on this basis?  Would you like to have a central repository of Things that you can draw on for your own games, or ancillary works?

I'm hoping people will find this concept useful and compelling.  What do you think?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Some Thoughts on Narrative vs Tactical Combat

I wrote this as a comment in relation to this post, but thought it enough of an interesting point that I might post it also to ye'old Elthos RPG Blog, so here you have it...

The problem with Theater of the Mind is that it's fine so long as people feel like they are not unfairly disadvantaged by not being able to execute actual tactics, which may increase their chances of survival if they're good at it. So once a TotM game starts to feel to the players like the battle is going against them, at least in my experience, the Players then tend to want to resort to tactical maps. So long as they're winning, though, they don't care. The problem of course is that a lot of times they would have had to have looked carefully at the tactical situation before the battle started, and by the time they are switching over to Tactical Mode after the fact often as not it's too late - the mistakes are already made.

The key to tactical maps, and the reason people like to use them, is that they make the battle very clear to everyone, so no one can say after "that couldn't happen" or "you didn't explain that they enemy could xyz", etc. It's a fairness measure. The problem, of course, with tactical maps is that they break immersion by forcing everyone to think in terms of stats and numbers, distances and damage. Once that happens then the narrative aspect of the game gets curtailed.

So... trade offs.

I like to take a mixed approach. I may show the tactical map at the beginning of the battle to get them oriented, and then put pieces on it and move them around in a general sense until things get complicated, and then resort back to the tactical map. This is an imperfect solution prone to problems of deciding when to do TotM and when to go Tactical, but it is manageable. At least for me with my players. Sometimes, though, we go full tactical, and other times full narrative. It depends on what the mood in the room is.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Notes on OD&D - Part 33

Continuing on with the 4th Level Clerical "Spells"...

Men & Magic
  • p33 - Explanation of Clerical Spells - 4th Level
Neutralize Poison: A spell to counter the harmful effects of poison. Note that it will not aid a character killed by poison, however. It will only effect one object. Duration: 1 turn.

As it turns out, a "turn" is a trick issue in OD&D. But the most it can be is 10 minutes. Which, in my opinion, even at its best, makes this a kind of really pretty rinky dink spell. 1 turn? And THEN you dieeeee! I don't know. Sounds like that should have had a longer duration to me. But then again, it's a little hard to tell from this distance. When they played this game in 1974 they may have been doing stuff with poisons that I'm simply not aware of, and there's a reasonable chance that it makes sense in the context of the way they used to play. Not sure. But in my current World if this spell lasted 1 turn, and then the player character perished, then my players would probably never take this spell. Kinda sure about that.

On the other hand it may be that while the spell lasts for 1 turn, it does mean that the poison never again has an effect because it's been neutralized. But then why have it with any Duration at all in that case? Mmm... meh. Looks a little borked up to me either way. And add to that there is a good chance that the "turn" spoken of is not 10 minutes, but 1 minute, and it just goes down hill from there. My players would revolt.

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

Cure Serious Wounds: This spell is like a Light Wound spell, but the effects are double, so two dice are rolled and one pip is added to each die. Therefore, from 4 to 14 hit points will be removed by this spell.

Ok that's not bad. I'm down with that. Solid clerical spell there. Yup.

I rate this spell 4 out of 5 for usefulness.

Protection from Evil, 10' Radius: this spell is the same as that for Magic-Users.

Recap: Protection from Evil: This spell hedges the conjurer round with a magic circle to keep out attacks from enchanted monsters. It also serves as an "armor" from various evil attacks, adding a +1 to all saving throws and taking a -1 from hit dice of evil opponents. (Note that this spell is not cumulative in effect with magic armor and rings, although it will continue to keep out enchanted monsters.) Duration: 6 turns.

Ok, now I'm a bit mystified. They don't really treat Clerics in OD&D the way I expected. I thought Clerics would be the 'clearly religious dudes' who fight Evil (or the opposite). in which case, I would think that Clerics would have at least some advantage over Magic-Users when it comes to dealing with the Evil guys. But in this case we can see that it's a big "Nope" on that. Interesting, and sheds a little more light on this dig through the dusty tomes of ancient gaming. I do wonder if there was really no distinction made between Clerics and Magic-Users in the fight against Evil (or the opposite). I tend to think they'd have focused on that somehow, and maybe this spell is just an anomaly in an otherwise sensible game-universe... maybe. Curious.

I rate this spell a 4 Stars out of 5 for Usefulness (it is useful after all).

Turn Sticks to Snakes: Anytime there are sticks nearby a Cleric can turn them into snakes, with a 50% chance that they will be poisonous. From 2-16 snakes can be conjured (roll two eight-sided dice). He can command these conjured snakes to perform as he orders. Duration: 6 turns. Range: 12" (360').

Hmmm... not seeing this as the most useful spell in the world, though it is interesting. Summoning poison snakes in the middle of an opposing group of villains could cause them to panic, possibly, and maybe if you're lucky do some damage. Especially if they are poisonous. So that could work. I'm sure there are other creative ways to use this spell as well. Clearing out a tent of guards, or some such comes to mind. But still... I'm thinking that for 4th Level this is wackadoodly lame. Maybe it's just me, but I can't fathom taking this spell until there just ain't nothing left to take. Probably.

I rate this spell 2 Stars out of 5 for uselessness.

Speak with Plants: This spell allows the Cleric to speak with all forms of plant life, understanding what they say in reply. Plants so spoken to will obey commands of the Cleric, such as part to allow a passage and so on. This spell does not give the Cleric the power to command trees as Ents do. Duration: 6 turns. Range 3" (90').

Ok that's potentially quite useful, especially if plants can communicate with each other. There are those who say, after all, that plants form a vast communications network over the surface of the earth. Did you know that? So they may be privy to a great deal of very interesting information. So there could be a potential bonanza in being able to communicate with plants. They might even be able to tell you where the enemy is lurking. So yeah, I'd say this could be pretty darn useful. And it would suddenly make Clerics stand out as "really good to have around". I would definitely take this one.

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

Create Water: By means of this spell the Cleric can create a supply of drinking water sufficient for a party of a dozen men and horses for one day. The quantity doubles for every level above 8th the Cleric has attained.

Roger that. If you're hauling through the desert, or expect to be trapped in a dry dungeon for a long time, this could be useful. Otherwise, not so much. Under some rare circumstances it could be a life saver, but I would still shy away from taking this one.

I rate this a 2 Stars for uselessness.

And so there we have it. The 4th Level Clerical spells. Sorry, but I'm not really impressed with this set. Maybe 5th will make it all worthwhile. Stay tuned to find out next time when we cover 5th level Clerical spells.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Some Thoughts Regarding Tolkien's Aragorn

I wrote this as a comment to this Wonderful thread, and I thought I'd share it on my blog here.

The original post is about how Aragorn of the Books differs from that of the movies, and why. Interesting post. The comments were also very worth reading, and this post is in reply to one which suggested that Tolkien's hero was something our modern world can not quite accept because our culture does not allow us to have unadulterated heroes any longer. "We expect our heroes to be flawed and human, and have doubts about their true potential which they must overcome as they grow and change", as the OP puts it. So my comment here is in response to this idea.

I would also add that there may have been an underlying purpose behind Tolkien’s work that should also be considered. As a professor of Anglo Saxon literature at Oxford Tolkien was steeped in the medieval classics. It was not merely plot devices and literary conventions that occupied Tolkien’s mind, but the spirit of the age of which he wrote.

I read that Tolkien was teaching at Oxford when World War I broke out. He went and enlisted like all patriotic Englishmen. He survived honorably through the worst that the war could throw at him, and from those experiences he gave us such scenes as the nine black riders hunting the hobbits in the wilderness. I read that during the war Tolkien got caught behind enemy lines, and nine mounted German cavalrymen hunted him through the murky woods. I mention all of this to give a rational for saying that we should allow Tolkien the gravitas he deserves.

I think if you asked him, Tolkien would say that Aragorn, as he wrote him, was an embodiment of heroism for all time. In the same way that Thucydides wrote the Peloponesian War “for all time”. Aragorn is meant by Tolkien to be an example, a paragon of what it means for a human being to have a true noble virtue.

I think Tolkien believed that having a myth of our own in the 20th century was something we desperately need as a civilization. We’ve been, I think he felt, mechanized and automated into a heedless lumpy mass, and ground to dust by the weight of our burdens under a sauron-like malevolence known as “Progress”.

I think Tolkien, who saw his share of horrors, believed in the eternal truths of justice, goodness, and love and felt that they must be enshrined anew generation by generation, or the knowledge of them is lost. And that happens only at the last gasp of any civilization.

By renewing the legend of the Good King, through Aragon, I think Tolkien may have felt more that it was his means by which to pass on to the next generation the awe and love of Majesty itself. Love in its majesty is awesome, I think Tolkien would say, because it is Goodness and Strength personified. And each generation must have its champions to pronounce it again so that the people remember and are renewed as well.

My impression is that Tolkien knew something our contemporary angsty age has forgotten. He knew why we could no longer tolerate reading about true nobility. He watched as the old world was torn asunder around him, and the last vestiges of nobility uprooted and destroyed. I think he understood the modern plight far better than most of us do today. He was there before and after the Great War. And I believe there are those who would say, and rightly, that there is a vast gulf between the worlds of Before The War, and after it. And his literature, I feel certain, was his way of reminding us of what was lost.

I could go on, but I’ll stop here. I think we should honor Tolkien by trying to understand not only what he wrote, but why, and also what its true influence has been on all of us who are enamored by his wonderful stories. One of the reasons I think we are so attached to them is because they present us with a rare vision of nobility that in the deep recesses of our hearts we still admire.

Monday, January 30, 2017

On Sandboxing and Game Balance

I've been Gamemastering since 1978, and I've always run a "sandbox" (what I used to call "free flow") game.  The way I have done it all along is to create a framework in which the world's history, current events and Main Non-Player Characters (NPCs) exist independently from the Player Characters.  So the primary NPCs are busy going about their business in my world with our without the Players.  They have objectives and try to achieve them.  Some of them are good guys, some of them are bad guys.  Some are lawful, and some are chaotic, and most fall somewhere in between.

When the Player Characters enter the world, whose name is Elthos btw, they can, but do not necessary have to, cross paths with the major NPCs and/or their minions.  Sometimes the PCs may join forces with them, or wind up fighting against them, or sometimes just wave as they pass by.  Often times they wind up in opposition with the goals of the NPCs and so a conflict ensues.  These conflicts usually engage the minions who may be running missions in accordance with their leader's objectives.  The PCs will in these cases try to stop them.  Eventually, perhaps, word of these efforts reach the upper tiers and a Main Character NPC may become aware of the Player Characters, and begin to work against them actively.  Especially if they've been successful at thwarting their plans.

This all is as it should be and this style of play lends itself to being fun for both myself and the Players.  I never quite know how any given game is going to go, nor do I try to steer the Players toward any specific objective or goal as the GM.  That said, they may be in the service of a Main Character NPC who definitely will be trying to steer them toward a specific objective, but I take on that role of NPC as though I were playing the Character him or herself, so I don't consider it me as GM trying to steer the group toward an end goal for the game, and I certainly don't tell the Players which NPCs they should have an association with.  I leave all that decision making to them, and flow along with whatever they decide.

Sometimes this leads to difficult situations.  They may, for example, decide that some activity is so wrong and terrible that they must wage a campaign against it.  But the underlying story, the Main Character NPC, and the situation may cause them to engage with an opponent that is completely over their heads.  When the fighting starts, they may realize that they're totally outnumbered, or out classed by the forces they're opposing.

And this is where the problem of Sandbox and Game Balance come in.  Some GMs try to always establish a balance between the PC group and their opponents, in an effort to keep the game fair and avoid the twin problems of Too Hard and Too Easy.  While the goal is laudable, in some respects, it is also, I find, impractical to some degree.  The reasons why are as follows.

One, it is very difficult, depending on the RPG rules, to determine what the balance between two forces actually is, especially in cases where you have randomized initiative rolls to determine who strikes first.  I've surmised from my studies that getting an accurate calculation as to what percent chance either side has of winning would involve the use of binomial math, and after going back and forth on that for some time (I originally thought deriving a calculation would be relatively easy), I was informed by mathematicians far better than I that the only practical way to do it would be to run simulated combats between the two groups a hundred or so times and find out from that what percent of those runs results in one side winning over the other.  I'm pretty sure that most GMs don't do that.  And I'm pretty sure that most GMs actually just eyeball the thing and say something like "Yeah, 10 Orcs and an Orgre ... that shouldn't be too hard for these guys", and leave it at that.  The problem, as we all know, is that this is a hopelessly inaccurate process and the results vary considerably, especially if the forces arrayed have unusual powers at their disposal.

The second problem is that as GM of a sandbox world, I'm never quite sure I know who is going to actually be in a battle at any given encounter.  This is because the Players may split the party.  Yes, I know - everyone knows - you should never split the party.  But since I don't tell my Players what they should do, I simply go with whatever they decide to do, they wind up splitting the party (as often as not to their regret, but so be it).  So no matter how maticulously I might (and I don't) try to create "Balanced Encounters" there's really no way I will know if the encounter is harshly one sided or not until the moment the party encounters it.  After all Players may split the party exactly one moment before the actual encounter ("Ok, we'll bust the door down and charge into this room, but you guys go down the stairs and block any Orcs that may come up this way while we fight whatever's in there.")  This kind of thing has been known to happen.  So attempting to create Balanced Encounters as often as not simply doesn't work.  This is a result of allowing Players to do what they want, even if it is not necessarily the best idea in the world.  And yes, there's pros and cons to this approach.  Some GMs avoid it by running Railroad Campaigns.  And while some will argue that such a thing should never be, my own feeling about it is that it's ok, so long as the Players are ok with it and everyone has fun.  But I don't run Railroad Campaigns and I don't want to.  I like the free flow style, and I find it more exciting a way for me as GM to play the game.  After all, why should the Players be the only ones who get surprised?

So for me, I tend to sacrifice Balance for Freedom.  I let the Players do what they want to do, without much guidance (especially if they don't ask for it from any NPCs who might be able to offer advice).  But at the same time the Player Characters are at risk of encounters that can squish them like little bugs if they aren't careful.  Or be way too easy for them.  The way I handle that is by randomizing the encounters to a certain degree.  So while I know that a certain area of the scene (in this case the secret underground township of Whitewode) has a certain kind of opponent, I don't determine in advance exactly how many there are, or even what their exact composition will be.  I roll for it at the time.  To make this work for me, I usually generate the NPCs randomly in advance, but when the encounter happens I roll to see how many of those NPCs happen to be on the scene.  So what happens next is to some degree a matter of luck, but it also very much depends on how clever the Players are when they hit the encounter.  I have rules in my game (Elthos RPG) that allow for a variety of ways to attempt to cut and run in case the odds are overwhelming.  Sometimes they take advantage of that to escape before they get themselves killed.  Other times they plow in and hope for the best.  As it happens my Players are damn lucky die rollers for some reason, and most of the time they manage to get through and achieve their goals.  I've often been shocked by the incredibly good timing of their "Critical Hits".  But that's luck for ya.

At any rate, that's how I handle my Sandbox world in relation to Balanced Encounters.  I don't really try too hard to make the Balance, I just let things play out based on the luck of the rolls.  Sometimes it goes poorly for the PCs.  Sometimes it goes poorly for the NPCs.  But either way, the risk of calamity makes the game exciting, and when those incredibly lucky rolls do happen you can bet there are loud cries of delight and amazement around my table.  As there should be.  :)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Notes on OD&D - Part 32

Ok moving on to the 3rd Level Clerical "Spells"...

Men & Magic
  • p32 - Explanation of Clerical Spells - 3rd Level
Remove Curse: This spell is the same as that for Magic-Users.

So I think what we should take way from this is that Clerics and Magic-Users really were more or less equivalents. There is little to distinguish the two by spells themselves, because the spells both work the same way mechanically, and there is significant overlap between the two classes. So what is the the difference then? As far as I can tell, the major difference is that Magic-Users were intended to be non-fighters, whereas Clerics were a combination of Fighter and Magic-User, with a focus on slightly different kinds of spells. As I've already covered the overlap, I will move on, but you can review the spell list distinctions in Notes on OD&D - Part 15.

I rate this spell 3 out of 5 Stars for usefulness. (I don't see it coming up that often, frankly)

Cure Disease: A spell which cures any form of disease. The spell is only method to rid a character of a disease from a curse, for example.

Um... uh... wait. This is a bit confusing. So a curse can cause a disease. But Remove Curse doesn't work on that. Only Cure Disease works on that, despite the fact that we have Remove Curse sitting right there above this spell. Um ... ok. Kind of squirrely. I would think it should be, in this case, that if someone is diseased by a curse that either Remove Curse OR Cure Disease would work to cure it. Meh. As a GM I would prefer a less convoluted arrangement. I suspect my players would feel the same. But ok. Its D&D v1, some bugs included.

I rate this spell 2.5 Stars out of 5 for usefulness (because it's confusing).

Locate Object: This spell is the same as that for Magic-Users, except that the base range is 9".

Ditto on my comment above.

I rate this spell 3 out of 5 Stars for usefulness.

Continuous Light: This spell is the same as that for Magic-Users, except that the light shed is equal to full daylight.

Ok, this suggests a superiority of Clerics in terms of dealing with those monsters which are destroyed by daylight. This includes:

Surprisingly, perhaps, trolls are not included in those creatures effected by full daylight. I'm a bit miffed at that. There may be other monsters that are affected by daylight as well, but conducting a few searches in google failed to produce a list of them, so I am thinking that the above list will do for now. If I find in Monsters & Treasure others that should be included (I'll be surprised if daylight has no bearing on Shades, and the like), I will add them.

I rate this spell 4 out of 5 Stars for usefulness (because full daylight is a good thing).

Ok that section was easy. Very few spells, most of them overlapping Magic-User spells which I already covered. So yah. Until next time, ciao.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Battle of Whitewode with TTS

Currently in the World of Elthos ...

Our heroes are still trapped in the cursed township of Whitewode as it comes under assault of the Pech Army. Praymar, the albino lizard-prince is rallying his Lizardmen forces behind the East gate. on the other side are Gnoll archers peppering the town with flaming arrows, and who have set the the main gate on fire.

Within the township Praymar has set his trap. He ignites the bonfire in front of him, and orders the Lizardmen to open the gates. He expects the Gnolls to charge in en mass, and be attacked on the flanks by his Lizardmen.

The two armies are equal in size, at 30 troops each. How will things turn out for Praymar? Stay tuned...

As for the layout here, I am using Tabletop Simulator to create the scenes.  It's a nice little piece of software from Berserk Games.  I am using it both in-house on one monitor that my group looks at, and also online with a friend who lives a few States down the East Coast, with whom we connect with via Hangouts.  I share the Tabletop Simulator via Hangouts, and have another computer with a webcam via which he can see all of us in the room, and we can see him.  It's a very functional setup, and works rather nicely to keep both Sam, and my group, engaged-as-hell in the game.  :)  If you don't mind paying about $20 bucks for Tabletop Simulator, and the associated learning curve to use it, then I do recommend giving it a try.  If you do, or are using it currently, please let me know what you think of it, and how you go about employing it for your games.  Curious to hear other people's experience with it.  Mine's been solid good thus far, despite the learning curve and relatively minor hiccups.