Friday, September 29, 2006

Good News - Final Draft of ODS

OK. Last night I made the final edits on the Elthos ODS Rules. I removed, as David (my friend, computer guru, and part-time advisor) suggested, all references to the more advanced concepts such as the Cosmological Map and the Alignment System. These can be released later on and should not be part of the Core Rules which are, by my own definition, to include only those rules which are required to run the RPG. These include character creation, skills, movement, combat, magic, equipment including weapons & armor, and that's about it. With these rules you can run a very tight RPG. There is a page of supplimental rules also included, and some printable sheets for characters, and blank hex and grid maps. There's also a very brief World Weaver's and Gamesmaster's Guide. It's as tight as I can make it and I think it came out pretty darn good, actually. I will pass this through a review process and then get ready to publish. A supplimental volume which will be a Scenario Module for the ODS is also intended which I plan to work on tonight and tomorrow. I have the adventure materials. They simply need to be converted to the ODS and drawn up in a document. Should not be too hard (har har - I always say that). Anyway, the Rules having been completed I am ready to publish them. But I won't.

I want to finish the web application that runs the core functions of the rules first so that both will be introduced at the same time. I've given myself until Jan 1, 2007 to finish the website (Phase I version). I hope it will NOT take that long! Ha! I always say that. And it always takes longer! But maybe not this time! Hehe.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On the proper dispostion of the Gamesmaster

I offer this as a draft for consideration. The first part is taken from my post to the LRPGSW tonight. I repost it here along with a subsequent chat I had on IRC about the topic with Sidhain on MagicStar.

I had a minor epiphany during dinner at the cobblestone tonight (this will serve in lue of meeting notes as no one showed tonight, and thus, it was not a "meeting"), if epiphany can be considered the right word in this context. Perhaps insight would be better, actually. In any case I was trying to visualize what makes a Great Gamesmaster. What qualities are involved. And I had a vision of the wise and benevolent king, he who cares about all his creation, regardless of whether or not it is the Player Characters or the Monsters or the River of Destiny, or the township of Saptar. All things in his World are beloved by the Gamesmaster because they are, in some sense, his children, or the children of his mind. The proper attitude is to have some sense of concern for all things in the World, and possibly, in not impossible, equally.

What made me think of this was the rendition of "The Iliad" that I happen to be listening to on my way around in my car lately. I'm on in Chapter IV and listening to the debates and the behavior of Zeus and the other Immortals of Olympus. How fascinating it is! There is Zeus, most powerful of them all by far, on his Throne as King and Lord of the Gods, and he is negotiating with them over the fates of the Trojans and Achaeans. Hera, Zeus' wife, has her own mind about things, and her emotions are as vibrant and her determination as strong as the archetypal Wife. In fact this is what she is. The Archetype of Queen. With her is Athena, the Warlike Princess of the Royal Family. And so on. All arguing over who gets their way, and what they are willing to bargain. And at stake is one thing only: The Honor of the Gods. They each vie for honor amongst one another, and one must also presume, among all the celestial beings of whom they are but a mere part. Beneath them are the Titans, safely (or perhaps not so safely) imprisoned in Tarturus. The Norse Universe is even a better illustration of the point, so I will switch viewpoints to them (thinking as I do that the various cultural Deities are analogs of one another at certain levels, and so many things that apply to one may apply to the others). There the Gods have similar impulses, and similar, what we might be tempted to call, human feelings. Pride, desire for honor, courage, and worthiness are all their concerns. And to whom does their reputation apply but to their peers? Not to man, surely, who is far beneath them. Not to the fallen who are below them. But rather to those who, like all tribes of the ancient world must have felt, to their peers - those who are strong enough to overthrow them. We do not hear much of their peers, but we see examples of what they too must have feared - the conquering of the more ancient Gods (in the case of the Greek Olympians, the conquest of their parents generation, the Titans), or the Giants, or the Monsters of the Deep (the Midgard Serpent), or the Monsters of the Earth (Fenris), and so on. The majesty and the aura of Honor and Power are important to the Gods. From our point of view they may seem well situated on their High Thrones, but we are mere mortals and no threat to the Mighty Ones. However, the Giants are a threat. In the Norse Mythological conception the Gods await the fulfillment of Ragnarok, when the Giants, and the demon of Fire, and Fenris, and the Serpent of Midgard will all unite in one final cataclysmic battle and destroy the Gods, one and all. All of which is of interest from the Gamesmaster's point of view I think.

We are the creators of our worlds, and as Tolkien and the other Inklings believed, we are a kind of Sub-Creators to the Creation in which we live day-to-day. While the world around is Real, we in our minds create, as best we are able, Worlds which are of the mind. And in these Worlds we cast our imagination and weave histories and races and engrave the best ideas we can. Into these Worlds we thrust our hapless Players, hoping against hope that they will grip the World with two hands, realize their chance for greatness, and play well, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and exploring the domains which we've placed before them with interest and, if we are fortunate and gifted, with awe.

So what is the proper disposition of the Gamesmaster? He or she who runs the World? I go back to this idea of the wise and benevolent King or Queen. Why wise? Because it is the World Weaver / Gamesmaster who really knows what is going on in their World. No one else knows so well. And so the Gamesmaster is by virtue of this, wise. Or I should say to the degree they do *know* their World, are they wise. Benevolent? Well, not all Gamesmasters behave benevolently, it must be said, but I am contemplating the Proper disposition, and not the exceptions. So benevolence is an attitude of caring about the World. Perhaps it is also caring about the Story. Does the rescue of the Princess from the Dragon really lead to the Hero marrying and begetting a new generation of heroes who will wage war against the enemies of the Kingdom? That flow of the game is important, the depth is important, and the concern of the Gamesmaster to produce these things is equally, and fundamentally important. And why is it I see the Gamesmaster as King? Because in the same way that Zeus is King, the Gamesmaster should be taking the side of the Gods in his World (or God, if he is playing a World based on Judeo-Christian belief), and contemplate things from that perspective. In fact, what we see in the Iliad is that the Gods, unannounced to the Heroes, play a fervently active role in their affairs. The heroes we can imagine have scarcely much clue as to the true extent of the involvement of the Gods, for all they see is a darkness cover one hero here, and a spear missing its mark there, and a streak in the sky from a comet there. These are all portents of the Gods, but in the Iliad we see just how these Gods think and act, and just how direct is their involvement, and what their motivations are. And the Gamesmaster should, in the best of Worlds, be able to take this view as well, and place himself in the Halls of the Gods and hear the debates and swiftly act on them, as the Gods do.

This is something few Gamesmasters train themselves to do, I think, though we all must to some (varying) degree. And many Worlds have demonstrated the will of the Deities through innumerable deeds and effects within the Worlds. So it is not to say it is not done, but rather it is to say that the depth to which we can do this can serve as a benchmark for how well crafted our Worlds really are. A measure by which we can judge our Worlds and a vision by which we can aspire to greater World Weaving and Gamesmastering.

This is from a Chat tonight on IRC Magicstar network:

Session Start: Wed Sep 27 22:18:51 2006
Session Ident: #rpgchat

... [snip] ...

[22:29:47] [AspXor] Message 633 -- my latest LRPGSW post

[22:30:13] [Sidhain] Yeah..the list is members read only ;/

[22:30:22] [AspXor] oh darn

[22:30:24] [Sidhain] Isn't it?

[22:30:25] [AspXor] hold on
[22:30:26] [AspXor] no
[22:30:29] [AspXor] I don't think os

[22:30:31] [Sidhain] No it comes up NM.

[22:30:34] [AspXor] I think you can read it
[22:30:36] [AspXor] :)
[22:30:37] [AspXor] ok

[22:33:37] [Sidhain] Yeah.
[22:33:45] [Sidhain] I'm not sure if I by the supposition.

[22:33:58] [AspXor] yeah, well its a thought

[22:33:58] [Sidhain] I think the players are as much a part of the world in its creation as the GM.

[22:34:15] [Sidhain] I think my gaming is more like a democracy with a focused elected prime minister.

[22:35:28] [AspXor] This is another option, indeed. My vision of the Wise Benevolent King is something that I find interesting. I'm not sure if it really makes the grade. But somehow it appeals to me.

[22:36:49] [AspXor] I see the GM as smiling benignly when the Characters do this and that. Concern crosses his brow when things go ill for them, but equally so when they go ill for the monsters. His viewpoint is magnanimous toward all.

[22:37:10] [AspXor] Its kind of a vision I had of that sort of GM.
[22:37:20] [AspXor] I thought "cool - that's got dignity"
[22:37:23] [AspXor] and so I liked it.

[22:37:32] [Sidhain] Hrms.

[22:37:40] [AspXor] no good huh?

[22:37:43] [Sidhain] I just don't fit that the way I run things.

[22:37:55] [AspXor] Yehah
[22:38:04] [AspXor] I don't think it fits much
[22:38:08] [AspXor] with how I do either

[22:38:09] [Sidhain] I root for the pc's. I don't root for the monsters. I delight in them confounding the heroes but its more--aha they'll get him

[22:38:14] [Sidhain] and when they do it will be sweeter.

[22:38:23] [AspXor] I'm trying to fight that tendency in myself
[22:38:40] [AspXor] Its a very strong impulse with me too

[22:39:24] [AspXor] but the best GMs Ive played with to date have taken a less pro-PC attitude and I wound up, after the frustation, realising they have more exciting worlds - you FEEL the danger with them in a way that makes a difference I felt.
[22:39:38] [AspXor] But then I struck on this alternate model of the Benign Wise GM

[22:39:47] [AspXor] and somehow I almost like that even better
[22:39:51] [AspXor] though I've never seen it done
[22:39:56] [AspXor] right now it's just a theory

[22:40:00] [Sidhain] Well I know my players tend to be hapy.
[22:40:02] [Sidhain] So..

[22:40:07] [AspXor] yeah
[22:40:10] [AspXor] mine too

[22:40:38] [AspXor] I'm looking to improve the game - not that they are clamering for changes but I like to think outside of my own box

[22:40:52] [AspXor] advance advance advance
[22:41:02] [AspXor] ... rest ...
[22:41:03] [AspXor] :)

[22:41:34] [AspXor] I'm not saying this idea will work, though. I'm going to see about trying it and see how it feels.

[22:41:37] [Sidhain] Good idea.
[22:41:44] [Sidhain] I'm heading off to sleep.

[22:41:51] [AspXor] ok Sidhain, have a good rest

[22:41:54] [Sidhain] Peace.

[22:41:57] [AspXor] you too

[22:43:40] [AspXor] ok well, I guess I'll head out too then. Good night all.

[22:43:48] * Disconnected
Session Close: Wed Sep 27 22:43:52 2006

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Thoughts On Celestial Economics II

My sense of things is that the currency of souls among the demonic is something that should strike horror into the hearts of Player Characters, and it is to that point that I'd like to address my reply, eventually. Before I do, however, I have a few thoughts for general consideration.

In the Judeo-Christian world view the Devil certainly has a desire to collect souls. What gives those souls `currency' in your conception is that they are tradable commodities like coins. One devil trades two 'medium hot' souls for one 'very hot' soul, perhaps? The question of how this currency actually works is something I'm struggling with. While I find it fascinating as a story concept, I'm not sure how I would take this approach.

A few comments on the Economics of Hell...

To my mind the souls of the damned in hell are not necessarily traded, or tradable. Are they not rather prisoners in the eternal dungeon of despair? Even the demons who rule over and punish them are themselves prisoners (remember that they started out in heaven). While Hell has its economy I'm wondering if one seriously would be able to include souls as tradable. If we look at Dante's Inferno we find that it's not to specific demons that the souls are condemned (though it may be implied, I do not find it articulated), but rather to specific punishments which are in different places among the nine circles of hell. The punishments in fact are allegorically linked to the nature of the sins committed. Here is an example for Lust:

"Second Circle. Those overcome by lust are punished in this circle. These souls are blown about to and fro by a violent storm, without hope of rest. This symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about needlessly and aimlessly. Francesca da Rimini tells Dante how she and her husband's brother Paolo committed adultery and died a violent death at the hands of her husband. (Canto V)"

- The Divine Comedy

The second circle of Hell is not said to be populated by demons, though we might suppose that demons may periodically roam the area tormenting the souls there, though perhaps not. If some greater demon is in charge of this region it is not evident from "The Inferno". The point is that no "ownership" of these souls is indicated. What we do not see is an owner of the region, and I think it raises a problem with the concept of souls-as-a-medium-of- exchange. There is no Demon of Lust, or none that is apparently in charge, so there is no one to "own" these souls, except in the general sense of the Devil "owning" them.

In fact, one even has to question that assumption. Though the Devil may (or may not) have bought them, was the transaction itself legal by the laws of the Cosmic Economy (coining new term here – Cosmic Economy is combination of the Celestial and Nocturnal Economies)? As chief Law-Breaker the Devil is undoubtedly conducting illegal activities. So the question is: Are those souls really "owned" by the Devil, even if the victim signs a contract?

This question reaches a little further back – who is the original "owner" of the soul? Is it the individual, or is it the Creator of the soul? In other words, does the Soul own itself, or is it owned by God, who creates it? Perhaps in the Celestial Economy it is God who owns the souls, though when they get corrupted by diabolical interaction (sin), and particular the "selling" of the soul to the Devil, then God casts them away – not selling them, but in effect throwing them in the garbage (Hell) as "ruined goods". We get an indication of this from the Hebrew term for Hell, Gehenna which was, if I recall correctly from prior research, a perpetually burning garbage heap outside of Jerusalem. So does the Devil really "own" the souls he purchases, or has he by his purchase simply rendered the goods garbage and useless in some larger sense? To answer this would require us to explore the question of what all of these Souls are actually created for in the long run. Does God have an intention to actually use and benefit from these souls at some future time? Is that what is meant by the allegory of harvesting souls? Well, in any event that question is beyond the scope of this discussion, though at some level it may well have a bearing on the question of the Celestial Economy, since it may well be that the Celestial Economy in fact is dealt with by these very same non-fallen Souls. As for whether or not the purchased (ruined) souls are owned by the Devil or not, according to himself he does own them, and projects that point of view to his cohorts in Hell, whether it is true or not. But according to God? My guess: Doubtful. My hunch is that God looks at the entire mass of Hell as a great garbage-can into which the refuse of ruined souls are thrown and abandoned like a host of bad apples, the Devil included. What claims are made in Hell about ownership of souls is simply irrelevant to the Celestial Economy as those "Goods" are no longer at issue having been tainted and therefore ruined by one means or another.

So within the hierarchy of Hell, might we make the case that the Devil owns everyone and everything? Well, not according to Milton's vision in "Paradise Lost" where the Demons ALMOST seem more like Peers rather than Subjects, though I think this is a false projection on the part of the Devil in the poem - he is the Tyrant, not the President of Hell, so the democratic behavior is but another ruse and illusion - fittingly enough. What I find interesting here is the contrast between the Divine Monarchy in Heaven and the Democratization of Hell. In Hell the Demons seem to negotiate with Lucifer as he makes proposals, and he must persuade them of the rightness of his decisions (which invariably are wrong). They follow him because, in essence they are stupider than he is, and so to them his plans always appear to be better than their own, and his reasoning the most "Truthful" and accurate. They also have a stake in continuing to follow him, as pride would disallow them from admitting their prior mistake. (Remember, the denizens of Hell still think they will eventually win and conquer Heaven and rule the Universe. They do not admit, or believe even, that they are in a garbage can that is eventually to be emptied into the Lake of Fire. They see themselves as the innocent and oppressed, and accuse God of unfairness of Judgement which is the basis of their rebellion.) And there is another reason that might make the demons of Hell obey the Devil – he is more Powerful than they. Thus by force of will and implied threat of force he can overwhelm them, though that power is more implied it would seem than exercised. The Devil's goal after all is to prove that God is a liar in order to justify the Rebellion (Treason), and he wants to project on Heaven all of his own sins as if he is the Righteous One and God is the Guilty One. So Hell is a crooked mirror image of Heaven in some sense – it's exact opposite.

Thus, we could compare the government of Hell with the Government of Heaven, where God who knows all things, and is unsurpassed, is obeyed without any need for question, or negotiation. His plan, simply stated, is the Best Possible, and so all who dwell in Heaven are Subjects of God, not his Peers. He is unquestionably the King of Heaven. Those who don't think so, don't belong there. So this distinction between the governments of Heaven and Hell are of interest to the discussion of the Cosmic Economics as Governments always have some bearing on Economics generally.

But let me not skip over the fact that I started out with a vision of the Economics of Olympus, not Heaven in the Judeo-Christian conception, and Heaven is not at all the same as Olympus. As you can tell, I am trying to fuse Mythologies into one grand system, which may or may not be valid, or even possible. However, that's what I currently have in mind, so to continue...

In Olympus the Gods are not the All-Knowing Creators. While Uranus (a Primordial) was King, and then Kronos (Titan), and then Zeus (Olympian) in turns, none of them are nearly as All-Powerful as the One God of the Judeo-Christian concept. While I started out the discussion with a conception of the Greek (and Norse) deities as having to have an Economy due to their limitations, this could not reasonably apply to the Judeo-Christian God who is in fact THE Creator, and thus one should question if Heaven needs an Economy in the sense I have been discussing the topic thus far. Perhaps not. After all, Heaven is, unlike Olympus, a truly Otherworldly and purely spiritual Realm.

"Dante portrays heaven as nine concentric spheres, situated between the earth and the infinity. These spheres are still spatial, but inhabited by immaterial entities, although they can still be perceived as pure forms, visions of light.

Because of the nature of the vision, such senses as taste, tact, and smell, are absent in Paradiso -- we are left only sight and hearing. Vision becomes the center of the representation.

The physical structure is taken from medieval astronomy and astrology, which was then considered science. This makes Paradiso also a scientific poem, while at the same time is a journey outside space and time.

In fact, Dante moves along without realizing these two dimensions. He goes very fast, and at the same time it seems he is not moving.

This is because the heavens are only manifestations, and not objective realities. The nine spheres are only projection into space and time of the Empyrean: the real Heaven, a dimension outside space and time."

- paradiso

Olympus, in contrast, seems more physical, almost as it were half way between Earth and Heaven, requiring the Gods to eat, sleep, and come for doctoring when they are wounded. Heaven seems to require none of these attributes, nor do we discover any material aspect regarding it in Dante's "Paradiso". So, the realm of Olympus, and the 12 Olympians who correspond with the Planets and Constellations have a material and Economic, aspect, but Heaven does not.

A bit more on the buying and selling of souls...

While the buying and selling of souls is something that is familiar already in numerous tales, it does not necessarily follow that from this we can derive the concept of Souls as a medium of exchange, though it is possible to create that construct in your World, my efforts are toward making my system correspond to existing mythologies wherever possible. We learn from various sources, that the Devil will gladly buy your soul from you in exchange for limited worldly advantages, material, magical or otherwise. And witches will sell their souls to the devil in exchange for worldly power for some specified period of time, at which point they must then go to Hell.

But the buying and selling in these cases is between the Devil and the humans with whom he is negotiating. However, this raises a question in my mind. Does the Devil, who bargains for the soul, then sell that soul in Hell to lesser demons? Perhaps, if this is the case, one would then ask, for what would the Devil exchange a soul to other lesser demons? Are not souls the most precious things he "owns"? Can he transfer that "ownership"? And if so, for what would other demons bargain for such souls? Or are they given out as gifts or bequeathed for loyalty or Unrighteous Deeds or favors? Or are they instead foisted upon the demons as a form of Responsibility, and not to be considered a gift or currency, but instead is a burden to them, in so far as they must spend their time torturing their souls as prison wardens spend time shuffling prisoners around the prison. It's not that prison wardens trade prisoners and gain advantage from them. It's a job, not an adventure, and the only profit they gain from it is perhaps some enjoyment at the suffering of others, or perhaps some advantages otherwise.

So I've come down to two basic splits. One is that I'm not so sure that Souls as Currency is where I would take it, though I have to say I find the idea interesting, and possibly amusing depending on how this would be done, or potentially horrifying if done with that effect in mind. Two, the inclusion of Hell (as opposed to the underworld of the Giants, Titans, and Greater Monsters of the Greek Myths), which does require an Economy (the Devil is not a Creator – and so anything that he builds must require an economy of some sort), does not imply that Heaven also must have an Economy. Heaven it seems stands above and beyond the Universe and may not require an Economy at all. So we have a Cosmic Economy that extends from the bottom of the Universe, Hell, up to the top of Olympus (or its analogs in other mythological systems such as Asgard), all of which require goods and services of a material nature, and therefore a medium of exchange. Perhaps Souls form some medium of exchange in Hell. Perhaps not. Or perhaps ONLY in Hell do they do so. And if so, then perhaps that medium of exchange is invalid and essentially false by the standards of the rest of the Cosmic Economy. After all souls do not get traded anywhere else other than Hell so far as I know, if they even get traded there at all.

Now, based on what I have so far, I have two last points. One is that the trading of souls in Hell, or to the Devil, should evoke a sense of horror in the Players. I say this because in effect this is the most horrible thing that could happen to a person – to trade their immortal soul for some temporary gain and in the end wind up eternally trapped in the prison of Hell.

The second, and even more interesting point goes to Jarod's question of whether we might contemplate that the Cosmic Economy is "the driving force behind the visible, day to day economy of the world"? This question raises all kinds of pertinent World Weaving possibilities. It very well could be, and if so, then how? It may even be the case that the Cosmic Economy is THE driving force of day- to-day world, and our players simply do not know it, nor do they ever get much of a chance to discover it. One might consider that the Nocturnal Economy is the sort of thing driven by the needs of Hell, ultimately. It might be that in another way it is driven by the imperatives of the Celestials. It may be that where these two forces meet we find conflict on a supernatural scale. The ordinary world gets disrupted, and behind that disruption is the story of two different Boardrooms, each vying for resources or some sort of Cosmic Economic advantage.

A quote comes to mind: "In war the inexperienced soldiers talk about tactics; the generals talk logistics." Economy is all about logistics. And from the logistics of the Cosmic Economy we may be able to draw forth an endless stream of stories, all of which beneath the surface make some coherent whole dimly visible to those who have a discerning eye (or happen to have read these posts, perhaps). My advocacy for keeping this material subliminal is so that the concept does not simply blurt itself out at the Players. I would say that in the long run the greater fun of Literary Worlds would be in the discovery by the Players that there actually IS more to the World than meets the eye, and that there really is *some* reason why the Goblins are invading the Black Forest in the early autumn months. They have a plan – and that plan has an economic or political reason behind it. Waaaaay waaaay waaaaay behind it.

The eventual and difficult discovery of these facts should indeed cause the Players to feel some sense of Horror. The world is indeed vast - and at the bottom of it all is something very frightening indeed: The Devil frozen up to his chest in a Lake of Ice. This feeling of horror, naturally, can then be juxtaposed to that exalted awareness of a Heavenly answer to all of this evil-beneath-the-surface-of-things. It is that juxtaposition, I feel, that creates the conditions within which RPG Stories of true literary merit have the greater chance of being formed and experienced.

As a final note I'd like to give one example of what I mean by the concept of the trading of souls as striking horror into the hearts of the Players and being Gamesmastered subtly. Lets say that in our World we do decide to go with the concept that the Demons do trade souls. The Players discover this in some Cthuluish type setting where they have encountered the old haunted mansion, had multiple adventures and encountered the ghost of little miss McFearson who died in Hamfest during a badly botched Goblin encounter. A blue vial is seen, but not handled by the players, as they watch via a magical mirror a bat-winged red devil passing a vial of blue vapors to a blue demon over a pit of fire. The exchange is for another vial with multi-coloried vapors entwining. The red devil laughs horribly. When the vial is passed to the demon-owner he mocks the contents with some dreadful accusation - it is the soul-in-the-vial's own sins that have brought him to these eternal straights. The vial is placed in a smoldering pit of searing hell-fire and the person's soul can be seen writhing in eternal agony, cursing and blaspheming as the mirror's image fades into darkness.

Something like that. I think from this example you can get the gist of the idea of how I would go about trying to present the vision of the Cosmic Economy (in this case a Soul Trade) to the Players. With subtlety, few explanations, and shrouded in indecipherable mystery. Remember - mortals are not *supposed* to know these things.

My feeling is that it lends itself to better story overall if the concepts herein are hinted at, rather than expostulated on by the Gamesmasters. Well, that's how I usually handle things in my own game, and it has lent itself to stories of greater depth and power than the more overt mode of making such elements as the Cosmic Economy obvious to the Players by some overt explanation of the nature of it all. No matter how tempting, my advice is: Be subtle, don't over do it, and keep your Players guessing! I see Cosmic Economics as a tool to help make the under-story more coherent, and lead to surface stories that have some hidden and intrinsic coherency. To my mind this is one way to make RPG Worlds more compelling, exciting and worthy of the designation as Literary Worlds.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Thoughts On Celestial Economics

In thinking about the necessity of a Celestial (and implied Subterranean) Economy, as would be required due to the combination of needs and limitations of the Gods, I am currently looking over the Iliad for indications as to the nature, powers and limitations of the Gods. As another firm indicator that the Gods indeed have limitations, I find notable in the Iliad, Book I, the fact that the Gods not only were limited in the scope of their Powers but then even needed to sleep each night. This combined with the fact that the Gods are wounded by mortals during the combat itself, and must flee to Olympus for healing is indicative of the fact that the Gods were not All-Powerful Creators, but rather instead something more on the order of Super-Mortals with magical powers of transformation, illusion, weather control, flight, strength, and the like, as well as a limited variety of special Magic Items created for them by Hephaestus.

We learn, also in Book I, that Hephaestus created not only the artifacts such as the King's Scepter held by Agamemnon which is briefly described as having been created "with great pains" which I take to mean Great Craftsmanship, but even the (presumably magnificent) houses of all of the Gods which they individually retire to. We also learn that Hera is the Goddess of the Golden Throne (which presumably is made of a large quantity of Gold). So Hephaestus created Houses, and magic items, and objects of gold and other precious metals, magical and/or precious gems, and the like. I think it interesting to ask, where did he get the materials from?

All of this construction requires Resources - and not meager ones. Since we find that the Gods are indeed limited, being Super-Mortals rather than All-Powerful Creators, we ought to take into account that the acquisition of resources was important to them, and forms the basis of a Celestial Economy. Miners and chemists, food and logistics, transportation, exchange rates, loans, and accounts are all part of running any kind of large scale enterprise, especially where the products produced are on such a lavish (and magical) scale as those of the Gods themselves.

And and on the hermetic principal of "As above, So below", we find the implied probability of a nocturnal Subterranean Economy as well.

I started thinking about the nature of an Underworld economy in this post on the Yahoo Group RPG-Create from which I would like to quote the following passage for your consideration:

"I imagine a somber setting over a section of the world much like Cimmeria; gloom shrouded hills over-covered by steel gray skies over which Crom eternally sits and watches from his mountain. The monsters are lurking, Crom knows, in the subterranean depths. Great evil creatures, giants of the underworld, hidden in their halls of stone. Up crawl their minions into the outer lands, into the air, their goblins creep, seeking victims to bring downward. And so on the surface petty battles and fights occur. People are killed, goblins are killed. Orcs over there. Trolls in this region. Dragons in the far realms. But all serving the purpose of the masters of the depths. To bring down into the deep slaves and food. And so traps are set and humans are harvested from the surface world. Down to the depths they go, never to be seen again. And so Crom, with stormy brow, watches the lands. And in those lands he plants seeds of heroes who will battle the monsters that humanity may live. And even then, he knows that with some of those creatures (the Mind Flayers for example) there is no great hope, for the humans, even with the powers of magic, the might of their arms, and their propensity for organized warfare, the chances of long terms survival are slim. And so Crom watches and waits and gives life to the heroes as they come, and a will to victory. And so the heroes battle the goblins and the orcs and the trolls and the dragons across the surface of the world, from land to land in endless wars, and do well against them overall due to the gifts of the Gods, with the might of their arms, their magic and their holy weapons. And once in a long while some few manage to penetrate the far depths below, beyond the deepest dungeons, into deep places of the earth. And in those places our heroes battle the great monsters of the deep."

- Posted on RPG-Create

In this I describe a rough sketch of my vision of the Subterranean Economy (can anyone think of a more elegant name for this?), with the Greater Monsters running things to their own hideous advantage. This is the realm of the Underworld, and in Norse Mythology and Greek alike it encompasses entire kingdoms of giants, and mythological creatures, including the Titans themselves who sit in the bottom of Tartarus. And beyond that we might even consider the possibility of an Economy of Hell, over which the Diabolical forces have ultimate control.

So at this point I'm considering a Celestial Economy, and contrasting that with the Black Economy of the Nocturnal and Subterraineans. So how would these two Economic Systems interact? On what points would the compete? How would the Law apply? Are the Celestial Gods the Policemen of the Cosmos, in an unrelenting yet understated war against the Nocturnal and their Black Economy? What are the Boardrooms of the Gods like? Who works for them? And so on. All of these questions are grist for the mill for World Weaving, and the answers can provide some rather interesting background material for RPG Campaigns, especially when the pieces are fit into place and an overview of the system is comprehended by the Gamesmaster and/or World Weaver. My feeling on this is that building out the ideas of Celestial and Nocturnal Economics, if done well, could be a huge boon for story crafting Literary RPG Worlds.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

On Lasting Achievements

I was thinking tonight about some of the films that I love by Akira Kurosawa

...and I realised suddenly that there are two different kinds of art forms; some which leave lasting records and some that do not. Books, Films, Sculpture leave future generations permanent works of art. Plays, however, and live performances have, until the invention of recording devices in the last century, have not. We have plays as written works, and music in the form of scores, of course, but unlike the permanent arts we have no record of the millions of impromptu performances throughout the ages. There is no record of the first flute song. There is no record of the first harp song. There is no record of untold numbers of live performances through out the ages, some, perhaps many, of which were remarkable. The books and the statues however remain.

So we have Permanent Arts:

And non-permanent (the performance of) arts:
Story telling

And at the very bottom of that list are:
Role Playing Games

Why the bottom? Because unlike plays, music, stories, jokes, and poems, Role Playing Games are a hazy medium to begin with. The story itself is constantly interrupted with game mechanics. What die to roll, what stat to check. There is barely, in its current incarnation, an Art there.

Yet there is an art there. It is a major art. It is an amazingly complex and incredible art. It combines games, story telling, improvisational theater, history, folklore, drawing (creatures & characters & scenes), map making, and even with this list I'm but scratching the surface of the creative depths which Role Playing Games plumb.

Now what I would like for us to consider in my quest is how to derive more permanent records from Role Playing Game Adventures. Well for World System Creators there are Rules Books, and World Guides. Those often incorporate art and literature.

But I want more. To be meaningful. I want the stories to be known. And to make those stories worthy of the effort the first steps must be to make the World itself worthy. The second step is to make the story worthy, which is to say to find Players who can make the story worthy. And this requires setup. It requires effort. It requires that there be more to it than "lets play D&D this weekend". It must be "Let us create a work of art this season". And that art must be the game.

This goes to the whole concept of Player Characters as Actors. My feeling is that I want to start with Improvisational Game Theater (see post below) because I think it has the best shot of making the Game into something more than a mere game. It has everything an ordinary RPG session has, but one thing more. An audience. And one that expects a great story. And this makes the concept riveting to the actors. And I want the Improvisational Game Theater, when it begins to show real quality, to be recorded. But not merely recorded like a documentary of the Play, but well done. And I want there to be music. Not background music. Live performance music with the play, that reveals the mood and brings the game to life in that dimension.

I want the entire thing to be added to the permanent record as a new art form.

And then I shall be happy.

On Business Orcs & Goblin Villages

Excerpt from the Thread (revised):

...As for the economics of the Black and Grey markets - excellent questions. Of course this is a world by world challenge, but I am getting some pretty good ideas myself on approaches to this. Of course, there's the big wigs and what they do. If you read some of the other posts on the subterranean monsters recently you'll see that I'm heading off in that direction. What are dragons up to, really? What do Mind Flayers really want out of life? What do they trade? Is gold really the universal currency? If not, why not? According to Alexander Del Mar, a very eloquent economist, gold is, in fact, the ideal medium of exchange for a variety of reasons. So if that's true for Elthos, and it remains true for the Big Kahuna's, what else do they trade for? The list goes on and on. Well again, it's going to be a race by race decision and also highly subject to local variables, such as terrain, resources, politics, religion, etc.

So I think the thing to do is to individually weave scenarios and campaigns that deal with these questions, and craft stories that resolve them.

I have to stress again, to myself at least, not to jump overboard with this idea. I am concerned about the literary aspect of these concepts, and I do not want Elthos to devolve into a series of plays about Orc politics, as amusing as that might be. It would be a bit too shallow I'm afraid, unless woven against the backdrop of the heroism and glory of the opposing Society. King Oswald The Good and the Twelve Golden Peers would be too lofty a group to tackle the goblin village, and the Hamfest Hell Hounds too low level, though they could manage it with the help of the Fey possibly. And of course one does not have to "take out" said village. One could, even in Feylandia, wander through, be astonished and still manage to get out if one were cool enough about it. Or, one might just as easily end up in the slave pens. And it goes almost (but not entirely) without saying that finding the Goblin Village should not be easy. And finding it a second time should also not be easy.

One might also ask when thinking about this, is there an Ogre? Is there a witch involved? What does she do? What does she feed her pets? What does she trade? And so on.

And furthermore, while gold may be the great medium of exchange, it does not mean that it trumps the old familiar motivations, Revenge, Lust, Pride and Gluttony. Conversely we must include their opposites on the other side, Love, Honor, Faithfulness and Courage.

What makes a good story, in other words, is not a mere delving into a series of "what ifs" about monsters and their economies (interesting and helpful as that may be), but to contrast the high and the low, the light and the dark. Sometimes the tide is high... sometimes its low. Sometimes its dark out, sometimes its light. My aspiration is to help steer World Weaving toward the crafting of beautiful and intriguing Stories. Ones that not only explore interesting ideas, but also carry within them deeper themes flowing from and through the depths of human nature and the spiritual cosmos.

You can pick up the start of the thread here: Business Orcs & Troll Masters

Thursday, September 21, 2006

On Shamanism: Taken by the Fairies

A common Celtic view of the initiatory journey into the spirit world is an abduction by faeries, who may also be called the “gentry”, “the good people”, or the “the people of the sidhe” (the older gods and goddesses who dwell in the hollow hills).

To be “taken” into Faeryland, or into the sidhe, can occur in several ways. Sometimes a person stumbles into Faerie by making a wrong turn on a well-known path or, as the Irish say, stepping upon a “stray sod”. In older myths and more recent folktales, a person is lured into the realms of the Otherworld by a faery man or woman, or by a faery animal, often snow white* or colorless. A variation on this more active entry is to fall into a deep sleep or be lulled asleep by faery music or the singing of magical birds. Accounts of faery abductions indicate that the person “awoke” to discover himself or herself in the faery kingdom.

- "Fire in the Head", by Tom Cowan, p. 14-15

In the course of adventures there is plenty of room for faeries, though most RPGer's I know don't really delve there very much. Yet fairytales and folklore can form the basis for an amazing variety of great game stories. One might consider that faeries belong in the same world as goblins and giants. Yet the Fey get short shrift mostly, and I suppose that's a bit unfair, considering that the fey really do form a great link in the chain of fantasy.

In particular fairytales embody perfect game material for children, even those as old as 11, and especially for little girls, who seem to love faeries even more than the rest of us. Perhaps the faeryworld, after all, is the wellspring of fantasy. I tend to think that at least George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis might agree, though I wonder about Tolkien. His world was more somber than the feylandia of Narnia, as I think it drew more heavily from Norse Mythology than Lewis, or MacDonald. And so Tolkien's elves were made of sterner stuff than what we get from the Celtic Fairytales, or at least those that I've encountered so far.

At any rate, I am interested in exploring the feylandia further for my own game. I took a wonderful little sojourn there 2004 with the Hamfest Hellhounds. What a trip that was! You can find some of the story chapters on the LRPGSW site under Files > Elthos Chapters > 2004 Spring Season Chapters (you must join the group to get access to the file, but that's very easy to do). Well, that's the thought for the moment. I hope it encourages and inspires further consideration of the fey as a source for story.

As for the Shamanistic aspect of Feylandia, I think it very interesting that one of the varieties of Shamanistic inductions is related directly to the fey. Interesting indeed. Further thoughts on this later as I look into this further. Excellent book so far, by the way... "Fire in the Head". So was "Gods and Myths of the Viking Age" by Davidson. Very good.

* - Wondering if there is some thread here leading from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to the Sidhe? It almost seems...

As a bonus, here is Fairytale from the old world. I find it fascinating... though does not on the surface seem to make very much sense at all, and seem almost absurd in its simplicity, when one considers Shamanism and the journey to the Otherworld, perhaps it may take on more meaning...

Fitcher's Bird from Grimm's Fairy Tales

At the very least it gives us an old world view of such matters, and these too can be fodder for excellent RPG campaigns.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Considerations On Aspects Of Norse Mythology

… [the Norse] myths are a comment on human existence and a model of social behavior, an attempt to define the inner realities.

It as the appearance of a body of knowledge about the gods and their world brought together for purposes of memory or teaching.

We can see the myths as a vigorous, heroic comment on life, life as men found it in hard and inhospitable lands. The gods never cease their struggle against creatures of cold and darkness.

In his [Odin’s] cult and in the religion of the Vanir we see most clearly the shamanistic tendencies of northern religion, the emphasis on man’s powers to reach out beyond this harsh and limited world. Above all, the northern myths are clear-sighted in their recognition of the reality of the forces of destruction. The fight in a narrow place against odds, which has been called the ideal of heroic literature in the north, is given cosmic stature in the conception of Ragnorok, the doom of the gods, when Odin and his peers go down fighting against the monsters and the unleashed fury of nature. The depths and dark mysteries of the subconscious are given full recognition in the myths. The greatest terror to be faced, that of the disintegration of the mind in madness or death, is not pushed to one side. At Ragnorok a rich and wonderful world was shattered and the monsters had their fill of destruction. After that facing of reality, it was possible to see beyond the catastrophe and to imagine a new world build upon the ruins of the old.

It has been remarked that the favorite tales of the Germanic peoples and the Scandinavians, the most moving themes of their poetry, were concerned with the deaths of young heroes and with defeats in battle. The myths emphasize the remorseless power of fate…

Men knew that the gods whom they served could not give them freedom from danger and calamity, and they did not demand that they should. We find in the myths no sense of bitterness at the harshness and unfairness of life, but rather a spirit of heroic resignation: humanity is born to trouble, but courage, adventure, and the wonders of life are matters for thankfulness, to be enjoyed while life is still granted to us. The great gifts of the gods were readiness to face the world as it was, the luck that sustains men in tight places, and the opportunity to win that glory which alone can outlive death.

Gods and Myths of the Viking Age, by H.R. Ellis Davidson, p. 213-218

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lets all sing: "It's a cruel world after all... "

Regarding: Re: Tricky, Nasty, Low-Down, Stinking Dungeon Traps! 

My post conjures even more Tricky, Nasty, Low-Down, Stinking Dungeon Traps, it does. 

* The Fishing Lure Trap: The Party sees a girl floating in the middle of a circular chamber bound and and foot upside down. It's a trap. Touch the girl and the hand that touches her sticks to the girl (magic) as she gets reeled in up through a hole in the ceiling. Ice fishing anyone? 

* The Troll Feast: It is dark out, and there's a light on a hill not far away in a lonely desolate region. The Party moves toward the light, but get bagged by three Trolls. Yummy! Thanks JR! :) 

* The Spirit Trap: A Specter wants a soul to suck. He uses greed as a lure. There is a dungeon with a beautiful statue of a young girl standing next to a tree which represents a dryad from mythology. The statue is made of fine ivory. It is beautifully done. The specter hovers in the shadows waiting. When a person comes and admires the statue, if they touch it the statue poisons them, paralyzing the person. The Specter then comes for its feast. The concept of these traps is based on the idea of fishing and snaring traps that humans use to catch animals. Now for animals that trap other animals. 

* The Spider Snare: The Party finds a wicker chest full of fresh food on a table in the middle of a room. If they open the basket lid the trap is sprung. A cobweb sticky net falls on them from the ceiling. It is a spider trap. 

* The Trap Door Trap: The Party is loping along through the woods on their way to the Dungeon. They spot a strange pebble mound next to the path. They approach. Suddenly the trap door opens and a huge hairy spider leaps out, grabs a character, lurches back into the trap and slams the lid shut! Bye. 

* The Camouflage Trap: A certain monster is polymorphed as a tree branch. When the Party moves below it, the monster drops on the lone straggling character. Food good. 

I think these provide sufficient examples for the concept. The idea is that monsters (even purely animal ones) can set traps for humans. Well, when you have worlds with Trolls and Mind Flayers, shouldn't you expect it to be a dangerous world? hehe. My question is, under those circumstances, how would humans have evolved differently? I would think humans would compensate with a greater ability to sense danger, detect traps, avoid traps, etc. Or are humans in such a world more like fish. Part of the food chain, sorry.  Hmmmm... yummy?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Tricky, Nasty, Low-Down, Stinking Dungeon Traps!

Ok a bit of double cross-posting here. But I'm liking this topic a lot. Neat.

But before I send you off, one thing: Again - I honestly think that traps should be done with subtlety just as magic should be done. Over doing it is not a good thing. Characters should not be confronted with traps just for the sake of throwing traps at Characters. They should always have a purpose, a history, a plan, and a story around them. Maybe many. Ok, we're off!

After you read this:

Tricky, Nasty, Low-Down, Stinking Dungeon Traps!

Read these:

Dungeons: First Pass

Dungeons: Tricks & Traps

Dungeons: The MurderHole

Here's a few more:

* Bugbears in the ten foot pit is not bad

* The gargoyle's head with open mouth on the wall, with a Sphere of Annihilation in the mouth.

* Ye old sliding floor to the third level. sheesh. who can forget that classic?

* The ol' Lurker Above is always classic, as is the Gelatinous Cube

* Ooh, the two guards protecting two doors. You know, that whole "one tells the truth, one lies" thing. Except they both lie all the time.

* Traps which go off ten feet behind their trigger.

* Open the front door of the dungeon and it drops you into a prison cell

* One favorite from Master Davids World: There was a long very narrow corridor at the end of which was a square stone chamber with a chest of gold in the middle. In the room is an invisible six armed cave troll. We didn't know what happened when the thief got lifted into the air and rended into pieces the first time we found the place. Just up he went and scrueeench... eventually we figured out what it was. So we put up a sign "Warning: Invisible Cave Troll". Later we wound up back there. The wizard of the dungeon turned the sign invisible.

* He had another room of sliding stone pillars that were intelligent and hungry.

Note: The thing is with David's world that you had the feeling that the traps were not there as devices to muck around with Player Characters. They had the feeling of some other deeper purpose. There was a sinister underlying motif which had to do something with the ancient lost races and their doings... it was pretty impressive

Sunday, September 03, 2006

On Improvisational Game Theater

The Play
I have this idea of a Theatre in the round. There is a Gamesmaster who also is acting as the Director. There is a play going on. There are Characters on the circular stage. The lighting is dark except for the center of the stage where the main action is happening, and the stage is flat black. There are no stage furnishings at all, or possibly some black movable cubes which can be stacked to make shapes, such as the outline of a door way, or serve as chairs, or a boundary. There is the sound of wind, the tinkling of soft high bells and a deep somber sounding Japanese bamboo flute in the distance. The play relies heavily on pantomime, verbal description and sounds or music to set the scene.

The Audience
There is a breeze in the theater that comes and goes blowing silky flowing pennants, of which there are twenty-four of four colors, each with a symbol of a zodiac sign or planet on it. The seats are arranged around the stage in a circle of 6 rows and 12 sections. Three rows are the inner circle, three rows the outer circle. The number of rows can be multiplied by multiples of 2 depending on the size of the theater and number of the audience. Thus there are twenty-four Sections that the audience is divided into. Over the seats of each section is one large rectangular Tarot card of the Major Arcana (two will be added to make 24).

The Action
The actors are on the stage sitting or standing depending on the situation. When they sit the crouch on one knee, or in some scenes there may be chairs if there is a feast, or meeting. The Characters are Played by Players. The Director is Gamesmastering the Elthos World. There is a music master who sets the mood based on what is going on in the scene by playing some genre of music - usually classical. There is a definite mood depending on the story that is imbued into the scene by the music master, who is not the Gamesmaster but someone else wearing some sort of cloak and who is partially hidden. On a screen on ceiling are projected images according to what the Gamemaster wishes the audience to see. It might be the path of the party along an ancient looking parchment map through the mountains. It might be an item of power, or the image of a creature standing in a dark corridor. This is the impression screen and is meant to provide enhancement to the visual imagery of the scenes. From the ceiling to the floor is another projection. This throws a grid down on the floor of five foot squares or five foot hexes with terrain. The audience should be able to see the floor and take note of the grids. When combat occurs the grids will allow the characters to move into position as if they are pieces on a grid or hex map. They move five feet per melee if human. The entire system will use the Elthos ODS Movement Rules.  Combat would be pantomimed in slow motion so that as the dice and such are rolled the actors hear the results and can play it out.  So for example if Thorgar the barbarian gets a critical hit, the GM would say "And with a violent heave Thorgar thrust his sword through the fiendish gnome, ending it's miserable existence", and the Player/Actor would pantomime those actions in slow motion.  During combat the lighting would change in order to reflect that a battle is in progress, maybe with red, orange and yellow colors to reflect the sense of danger involved.  The music would also change to "combat mode" as well.

The Story
Each showing of the IGT is different than the last. The stories of the IGT are either episodal (like Star Trek), or Epic (like Lord of the Rings). They embody vignettes of Elthos, and may be fairy tales, adventures, or even on occasion dungeon crawls if appropriate. The Players are playing out a scene in their campaign.

The Audience Participation
The Gamesmaster calls upon the audience to volunteer to play the positions of creatures, monsters and NPC whenever called for by the action. The audience should also be able to role play to some degree, but the GM gives them motives, and probably actions as well. He might tell the audience members to start on certain (light up) grid locations. He might tell them that as soon as the door opens they are commanded to attack, or negotiate, or something else. They can if they want play the GM's direction, or they might fumble (move illogically) or they might win the encounter. All combat is decided by rolling dice which show up as large six sided dice on the stage in a square section blocked out in front of the Gamesmaster. On another screen are shown stats for the combat which may include percent chance to hit for the current encounter of whomever is currently in action. It is a turn based game, and played according to the Elthos Initiative and Combat rules. The Audience may also be called upon to vote by Section on background events in the game, for example in a trade war between Saptar and Phidel two Sections (Mars and Pluto) might each represent a Faction, and the vote determines something related to the action of the game. The Players may give speeches to influence the Audience vote.

The Over-Story
There is an Over-Story; a purpose, moral, or theme to each Episode, most often dealing with classical themes or motifs from history or mythology. The party might meet Yaga Baba, or enter the Underworld in search of the Helm of Hades, or a bride of the copper kingdom. They might go to the red desert and battle the ant-men, or make their way to the Black Empire. Or they may wander West to the barbarian lands and the jagged sea of Kaos. Or they might adventure through the lands of King Oswald. Or any number of other places. It is a live action, on stage RPG - played live. The Over-Story will be the responsibility of the World Weaver with perhaps a small Council of World Weavers to provide feedback and advice per series. Each series should last 12 weeks and cover one season.

That's the concept.

Thoughts on GM Cheating

My original Post to RPG-Create:

But Never(!) do I like to see a GM who deliberately makes things difficult and changes the stats of things mid-game just because the Players are doing well. That to me seems like a cheat. Unless, perhaps, if the Players actually get bored because the setup was too easy. Hmmm... ok ok. Maybe we need to let the GM do his thing. Maybe we need to say that GMing technique might need to stay adaptable to the situation at hand, and that the general sense of things is pretty simple: Play fair. Make it challenging. Be Flexible. Have fun.

The Reply:

I heard someone describe this Meme as "No Plan Survives Contact With the Enemy" or "Every Encounter Must Be A Challenge". It can be very frustrating if you don't know it's what the GM believes, and you make a very good plan that should have been a cakewalk.

My Reply to The Reply:

I think what you mean is that as Players when you know certain facts about, say, a dungeon, and you go ahead and make a plan for it's assault, if the GM has the "I will be flexible if my (the GM's) pre-set plan regarding who in the dungeon is were and what stuff do they have is too easy" Meme going on then it is frustrating for the Players if the Players don't know the GM has that Meme.

If I have that right then allow me to clarify by suggesting that the key factor in the change from the GM on the difficulty would not be that the Players are winning which in my mind is *Bad* GMing (ie- unfair), but rather that the Players are bored because the scenario was in fact simply too easy. So the GM 'decides' that the kobold that escaped went and got Old Berg, the Ogre, to come upstairs and thwamp on the interlopers.

Yes, that can be frustrating if the Players feel cheated by such an action. I had one GM, Master David, who on the first day I played in his world announced quite blithely and truthfully, "By the way, I cheat". At the time I found his admission both shocking and amusing. But in all, he had one of the best worlds I ever played in; a real masterpiece of fantasy-fiction. And it turned out he 'cheated' in just the way I'm suggesting – the purpose of the ‘cheats’ were to make the game fun. It wasn't rampant really, but it was decisive. David feels that Story trumps Mechanics and if the story is boring the mechanics must be overridden, even if this means he must 'cheat' to make it so. He makes no bones about that. The Players, who know he does that, don’t mind either, which is to your point. He doesn’t say when he’s cheating, he just does it. The game is fun, people are excited, and it works out well in the end. But he’s a big cheater, yup.

As an aside on the question of ‘cheating’ I noticed very early on that GMs all ‘cheat’ to some degree. Why? Well, the early rules systems (at least) encouraged it because they were not balanced very well for our games. So we wound up with the situation that if you played by the original rules strictly (and we had one GM who really did) then the world was simply too hard and everyone kept dying. We also had problems with experience point totaling and so the GMs, until they settled the issue with their own rules, would cheat and just kind of ‘assign’ experience according to the GM’s Fiat. We didn’t like it and would haggle a lot, and in the end it would work out, but that was a rough spot. The original rules of D&D (going back to 1978 or so) were not entirely ‘finished’, but were a “take it from here and build out your own”. Which we did. Until we got to certain areas that we built out on, there seemed to be a ‘cheat’ requirement. That was our take on it, though I’m sure others may have handled it differently and I’d be curious to hear how. The one GM who played strictly by the rules did have a great world, though – but the Players found it just a tad wee bit too rough (understatement).

On the other hand in other worlds the GM may try not to 'cheat' and try to go with the scenario as designed, which means that he won't throw a new set of monsters at the party if they weren't nearby in my setup. But even then you get this area of GM nuance. One might let the Kobold that escape find the Ogre and bring him back if the dungeon gets wiped too easily by the Players. Is it cheating? Well, he rolls for it. Does the Kobold (1-4) run to get The Ogre, or 5 run to get the big dog, or 6, run away and hide? So it is rolled. Does that make it a 'cheat'?

Well the only reason, in this example, that the GM rolled to begin with was to see if he can add something into the mix because said Players are Bored sitting on the coach grousing about "man, that was too easy - what’s on TV?". Hmmm... Otherwise if they didn't feel that way and were rather like "man, that was cool - lets grab the treasure and hightail it back to town while we still have a chance - and come back again later!" then the roll, in my GMerly opinion, might not be 'necessary'.

I'm not sure if this should go down as 'cheating' then. But it is definitely influencing game play on the fly, and is more dependent on Player mood than on the setup in the game. Which is to say, in this case the GM didn't think of any particular pattern for an escaping kobold in advance. He made that up on the fly, lets say. Is that fair? Or is that 'cheating'? My own take is that it is acceptable-cheating. And that’s where that huge gray area sits. What is acceptable cheating for the sake of the game? 0%? 20%? 100%? And that is where I am saying that Gamesmaster’s nuance should allow the GM to cheat within certain bounds for certain reasons which are not easily defined because the number of variables that could necessitate GM cheating are very many, interwoven, and not easily measured. In that case the GM should be given what I am calling Flexibility.

Friday, September 01, 2006

On World vs. Game Balance

It occurs to me that there's two different aspects of game design that need balancing when creating your RPG. There is World balance where you think in terms of the World itself, and then Game balance where you think about the Players and their interests. These two things do not always coincide and often clash. The way it works out is that if you take the game rules and extrapolate on them you find that the World would crash under those rules. That can't be a good thing, can it?

Let's take for example Wizards in Tolkien's Middle Earth. There were few. Very, very few. There was the White Council, who are described as follows in Wikipedia:

"In the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, the Wizards of Middle-earth are a small group of beings outwardly resembling Men but possessing much greater physical and mental power."


So there you have it. A small group. Very small. Five in fact. And why? Because in Tolkien's mind Wizards were very powerful beings and wielding magic was not for children but for the mighty and the awesome alone. Magic as we think of it, in Middle Earth, was nothing but a dim shadow of Real Magic as wielded by the White Council. That was magic. All else was a distant reflection. Thus the Powers that Gandalf possessed were those of an order of Demi-God (The Maiar), not men. Thus he could do things of great magical prowess. Yet, let us look at some of those things, because when we do we find that they were nothing much like what typical "magic" is in RPGs. What magic did Gandalf perform? Well, lets take a look at what magic Gandalf actually performed in "The Lord of the Rings".


Essentially only the Maiar (i.e. Gandalf and Saruman) are known to cast spells. However, there are some questionable cases otherwise. Higher being may imbue another with power -- such as The Mouth of Sauron. There are also "black arts" mentioned which Men practiced -- though it is not clear whether there were also "white arts" or what precisely the black arts were. For the Maiar, there are some definite effects known:

Illusion: Both Gandalf and Saruman could make themselves appear as someone else or to make one object appear as another. Or, as Gandalf does, he can keep people from recognizing him for who he really is, until he wants.

Create Light: Gandalf could start fires or make things glow with little effort, though it required an appropriate object (like pine cones).

Enhance/Weaken Nature: Spells to enhance or weaken the natural or intended purpose of objects are often done. Thus, there are spells to bind doors shut or open them. Spells may make wood rot or put people to sleep.

Mind Control: Saruman primarily, but also Gandalf could command people and even work long-lasting changes to them.

- Principals of Tolkien's Magic

What is of interest to the discussion is that Tolkien's most powerful magicians used a very subtle form of magic. It helped them greatly against their foes, but it was not extraordinary. There is no hint of Fire Balls, or Lightning Bolts, or Polymorph, or Prismatic Wall, or anything of the kind. No, rather it was all very subtle, and yet, most powerful for all that. One could sense in Tolkien's work that magic was a power not to be trifled with, not for it's own power's sake, but for the sake of those who wielded it. One did not trifle with Gandalf. And that's a fact. One also gets the sense that magic was mysterious and subtle for a reason. It balanced the world of Middle Earth. Extraordinary displays of power were not to be seen because they represented a grotesque overuse which Tolkien abhorred. No, rather he was interested in the subtlety of the power which magic presented. Even the most powerful of all beings could not make a wingless creature fly. There was no Flying Spell that could launch a man at 60 mph through the sky. It simply could not happen in Middle Earth. And so the subtlety of the magic is evident throughout the work. And this we should account as wisely done by a great literary master. Lord of the Rings, for all its darkness and light, did not present us with a World in which Wizards contested each other’s wills with flashes of light and huge explosions. Nay, friends, nay. It was not like that.

Yet, if we take the rules of a standard RPG like D&D we find that almost anyone can roll a Wizard. Extrapolation would indicate from this that there are many wizards in such worlds. Lets also consider their spells. My goodness. Hundreds of spells at each level. Sleep Spell, Magic Missile, Polymorph, Wizard’s Eye, Lightning Bolt, Fire Ball, Teleport, Time Stop, Haste, Freeze, Finger of Death, etc, etc, etc. The list goes on and on. And the spells at higher levels are such that had any wizard from the D&D World entered Middle Earth one would think he’d have taken Mordor in an hour and put Sauron over his knee and spanked him right good. Such is the power of the modern D&D Wizard. And so one must ask, where is the balance in that? Where?

I propose that there simply is none. And that no world which incorporates that free range of super-colossal spells and miraculous invocations can possibly achieve for one nano-second the grandeur and gravity of Middle Earth. Tolkien’s World relies on subtly of power, not in the flash-bang-boom of RPG rules systems. And so, based on this thought, my conjecture is that to obtain Literary Worlds we MUST curtail the magic, and return much of it to the void from whence it came. We must discard the vast majority of it, and the more we do so the more possible it is for us to achieve the Tolkien effect. That mysterious awe beneath which the mind and the heart race toward the ineffable and the unknown ancient and incredible power of that all but lost art of World Weaving.

Yet at the same time we can not lose magic altogether or the World becomes mechanized, materialistic and empty of that subtle mystery which magic affords. It is a subtle act to create a World that is balanced. It is a more subtle act by far to create one that is also Game Balanced. One wonders, can it be done at all?

My own feeling is that it can, but it is far from obvious how, nor is it easy to do. But it requires a certain deep understanding of the nature of magic and what it means historically and psychologically to our race. We have had magic for thousands and thousands of years. It was ever the same – a thing of subtle beauty and power – sometimes a thing of dread. As World Weavers we must immerse ourselves in its concepts in all their subtly – and then, and only then, can we employ the concepts to our Worlds without causing them to lollygag and gyrate wildly out of control. We must, in a word, be ourselves, Subtle.