Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Troll Hunting

I recently watched the movie Troll Hunter, and was pleasantly surprised. The trolls are adequately rendered in CGI for a low budget film, and don't detract terribly from the movie. That being said, the screen appearances of the trolls are the weakest part of the movie, and it goes up exponentially from there.

It is shot in Blair Witch/Cloverfield camera POV style, but fortunately the shakey-cam is kept to a tolerable minimum. The acting is rather good (but that might be because it is all in Norwegian and subtitled). The scenic landscape is beautiful. The pacing of the film is quite well done.

The trolls design in the film seems to be primarily based on the artwork of Theodor Kittelsen. There is some pretty cool internal troll mythology in the movie. Like the idea that trolls are born with one head, but as they age, they grow more "heads". These other heads are not really heads at all, but are designed to make the troll more fearsome and intimidating to other trolls (and attractive to the troll ladies!). Only the original head can actually see.

Theodor Kittelsen: Very old Troll!

Trolls are stupid... hardly more than bestial intelligence ("I saw a troll try to eat its own tail once"), which allows them to be played comically if the DM so chooses. They are divided into two main types (mountain trolls and forest trolls), and have turf wars which involved flinging very large boulders at one another. The tend to lair in groups of a half dozen or so, and vary wildly in size, from say 30 feet to over 200 feet.

Trolls can also smell human blood. Specifically in the movie, the "blood of a Christian". But in your campaign, it can be the blood of any nationality. I like that idea... that different nationalities smell different. As in "Fee Fie Fo Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!" Maybe someone from the PC's home country crossed the troll before, and the troll has a particular hatred for his countrymen. The human smell can be covered by "troll stench", a viscous rub of "everything you can squeeze out of a troll".

One of the great ideas in the movie is that trolls do not cross the landscape without leaving evidence of their passing behind. From this trail of destruction left in their wake, you can generate a pretty good guess as to their size and number. Often their passing is mistaken for tornadoes that came in the night. Attacks on livestock or wildlife by smaller trolls can be mistaken for bear or other mundane animal attacks.

Since trolls are turned to stone in sunlight, they can only travel by night, and must find shelter from the sun.
They can never be more than 12 hour's travel from such shelter.  This can lead to making some fairly good guesses as to where a troll's lair might be in a given region.

I have to say that I'm inspired to design a troll adventure after seeing that movie. Particularly after seeing the humorous scene of the hunter in a home made suit of armor trying to draw a blood sample from a troll under a bridge. With three billy goats as bait no less. Now THAT was funny.

For an entertaining movie, I give Troll Hunter three out of five stars. For inspiration for gaming material, I give it a solid five!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The "Aragorn Style Ranger" as Fox Mulder

"Are you frightened? Not nearly frightened enough. I know what hunts you" -Aragorn

Just what is a ranger in your gaming world? Is it simply a fighter who is wood-wise or "skulks around in the woods", as I've seen him described? Some sort of dual weapon wielding martial arts expert? Mythmere's blog has an excerpt from the  transcript of  Class Design: From Assassins to Wizards, with Monte Cooke, Bruce Cordell, and Robert J. Schwalb.

"Greg: Are there any classes that you're now interested in because of the design work you've been doing?

Rob: They're all awesome, but I think I would have to pick the Ranger. There's so much stuff going on that I'm excited for each version. You could make up a beast ranger, or an Aragorn stye ranger or a Drizzt style ranger and they all feel awesome and icon"

I don't pretend to know what a Drizzt style ranger is. All I know is that it has something to do with Forgotten Realms, which I've never played nor read any material on.

So, just what is an Aragorn style ranger? In Middle-earth that is a very complicated question. It has to do with an ancient line of kings, some atlantean style shenanigans, a race unto themselves and quite a bit of other esoteric stuff that might or might not fit into your campaign world. The more you use, the more sense there will be of "ripping off" Tolkien.

But what is the essence of such a ranger in D&D? I'm a long time AD&D player, and use that for all of my gaming reference. There were bits about surprise, tracking, and general woodland stuff. But here's the most interesting part to me:

1) They use d8 hit dice instead of d10 as a fighter

2) Against certain "giant class" humanoid opponents (which include a large number of monsters from kobolds and goblins to trolls and giants), they add their current experience level to the damage done on a successful attack.

So, the d8 indicates that fighting is not their primary focus. Toe to toe with a fighter of the same level, they would lose. They actually fight like a cleric. However... and here's the fascinating point... they get considerable extra damage to certain classes of monsters. They are monster hunters.

I'll say it again. They are monster hunters. All of their other skills... tracking, surprise, etc... are in service to this one idea. They devote their lives to hunting monsters.

Think about any normal society. Over generations, they go to war, build civilizations, get complacent, then weak, then fall. But not rangers. While everyone else is sitting cozy by the fire, telling stories of how terrible it was in the bad old days, the ranger is living and breathing those days. They know that any semblance of peace that is painted onto the landscape is temporary; there are things just beyond the edge of the woods... things that only come out at night.. that want to rip out your heart and eat it. They want to steal your children, drink your blood, and use your corpse as a puppet.

Knights are fairly good at dealing with such things when they are told about them, but they are easily distracted. They are the ADD characters of the gaming world. They'd rather be tilting at each other in a tourney and then feasting with their ladies than mucking about in the woods, sloshing through muddy graveyards, or crawling in dark holes in the ground. I mean... when you are only fighting at night or in the shadows, how can you get fame and glory? Give them a dragon that they can fight on horseback with 100 onlookers, and you've got a tempting target. But that other stuff?

It's for Rangers. Rangers can be the backbone of your adventuring campaign. The go-to people. The ones with the knowledge to save your ass. Because they know what you are hunting... and what hunts you.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Ouroboros of Kronos, God of Time

It is said that for each of the elements there are creatures to whom such element is the root of their essence. That is, they can pass through said element with no harm, and little impedance. Such is Earth to the Kobold or Dwarf they say, or Fire to the Salamander or Mandragora. Likewise is Water to the Naiads and the Merfolk, and Air to the Sylphs.

Thus it is that there are they say, attuned to Time itself, creatures on whom the Arrow of Time has no authority. Among such creatures are the Elf, and the Bogey. Hither and yon to they flit and dart, with tomorrow being no more or less a part of their future than yesterday. Even is told of a select few who live their very lives inversely to our own, growing younger each day, and having memories of tomorrow.

Pondering such temporal gymnastics is a troubling feat, as the very nature of "cause" and "effect" come into question. Many a paradox can arise when exploring the depths of such possibilities, and peering too deeply into such matter has been known to cause madness in men of lesser minds.

Tradition holds that in the earliest days of the Earth, that Time itself was used as a weapon. Things which were made could be unmade, and History itself could unravel and be re-braided in this manner or that. A man's very existence could be torn asunder were he to travel back in Time and undo the events leading to his own birth. For if he were never born, he could not undo his birth; yet if he did not undo his birth, he would live to attempt such a feat. 
Power was derived from traveling ever further back in the Stream of Time, attempting to undo what was done, un-make what was made, and re-forge Creation into a new direction.

For this reason, it is said, was the Ouroboros forged by Kronos. It is by virtue of the Ouroboros that the past can not be unwritten. What was (since the time of the forging of the Ouroboros) shall always be What Was.

This presents interesting issues when considering the future. If there are those who live their days inversely as we described, such that they have not yet been born, and others who consider tomorrow to be interchangeable with yesterday, does this mean that the future is firm and unalterable? For if the past is unalterable, are not the days we live in themselves "the past" through the eyes of some denizen of the future? Is the gift of Kronos, the Ouroboros, also a curse? Something that chains us to sequences events that we are powerless to alter?

I tremble to delve too deeply into the historical tomes of Calabria, for fear that I may stumble across records left behind from some traveler through the Streams of Time, and discover what fate may lie in wait for my fellow countrymen and I. What utter despair to know of a future which you are impotent to avoid!

Yet what greater horrors might be unleashed, were the Ouroboros itself to be torn asunder!

-Niccodaemus, Historian of Calabria

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Where do the Gods fit in?

I've been working on creating a post for each of the Gods in Shatterworld. I have five of them done, with two left to go.

Part of the challenge in creating a theogeny/mythology is figuring out just how these gods fit into the lives of the average joe. Are the gods "good", "neutral", or "evil", in terms that we understand.? Or do thy have their own agendas which are mysterious? How are they worshipped? Do they have temples, festivals, shrines or some other such way to pay reverence to them?

I've settled on a mythology that focuses on seven main gods. Each day of the week is named after one of The Seven, and this also mirrors the "seven days of creation", which are not quite the same as the biblical days of creation.

There are five gods who would be considered "elemental". They are gods of earth, air, fire, water, and time. The other two are gods of flora (plants) and fauna (animals and people). The idea is that flora and fauna are made up of combinations of each of the other five elements. These flora and fauna make up the "mortal world"... the world that we recognize.

Reverence for the gods is brought "down to earth", as the gods are credited with such daily things as:

The invention of the sail: Aeros, god of wind
Location of wells: Hyrdos, god/goddess of water
Smithing: Pyros, god of fire, and Gaia, goddess of earth
Engineering: Kronos, god of time

I don't associate the gods with abstract concepts like "war", "revenge", etc...
Such things would be broken down into their components. When going into battle, you might invoke Kronos in the aspect of planning and tactics. Hyrdos and Aeros in their aspects of weather gods. Seldom is one god invoked to the exclusion of all others.

One interesting thing here is that entities with opposing goals will often be appealing to the same gods for intervention. The question then becomes, "who's side is the god on?"

By keeping the motivation of the gods "selfish" or "neutral"... that is.. they really don't care about things outside of their own realms of influence, the position of the particular god in the conflict might be easier to assess. Each would want to preserve their own domains on earth... streams, forests, agriculture... a group that is destroying everything in their wake is likely to attract the wrath of more than one god.

Gods would tend to be neutral in overall political conflict. Certain gods abhor particular things. Phanes as the god of life is the enemy of all undead. He isn't too fond of murder either. Extinction of a species really pisses him off. Phusis, god of plants, doesn't like forests being chopped or burned down, or crops being salted.

If you want the gods on your side, it is more about respecting their taboos rather than just being "good" or "evil".

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Horror Movies as Plots for RPGs

I'm a long-time horror movie fan. I grew up watching and loving the old Universal and Hammer Horror films. I never cared for the Freddy/Jason/MichaelMyers types though.

When VCRs were in vogue, there were places where you could rent movies at a rate of 6 for $2.00. I'd stay up all night watching horrible indie movies.

Now that I have Netflix streaming, the old days are back. I've watched quite a few movies lately, and a lot of them were terrible. Some did, however, prove to be inspiring for RPGs. Here in no particular order:

The Shrine

This is a quirky story, of a magical type fog which hovers over a forest. Apparently, this fog has been here for a VERY long time, and there is a cult of priests that don't want anyone going near there... or coming out. In the midst of the fog is a very eerie statue of a demon. You'll have to watch the rest to find out what happens, but it is pretty cool. What the hell are these priests up to?

Next on the list is The Ressurected, or Shatterbrain

This Lovecraft piece is based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and features John Terry (Christian Shephard from LOST) and Christ Sarandon (Princess Bride, FrightNight). Terry gives a cheesy performance, but Sarandon almost saves the movie from being unwatchable. The pacing is horribly slow, but there's some wicked undead creation going on towards the end.

Satan's Playground

Here's one that is based on the urban legend of the Jersey Devil. It features one of the actors from Evil Dead, and you can see the director's passion for that movie. A car breaks down in the Pine Barrens, and one by one the passengers make their way to the only house nearby. I thought it would be interesting to use this idea, and to make the inhabitants of the house goblins who are using glamour to appear human. They come off as something trying to impersonate humans... poorly. But their characterizations are... interesting. There's even a goblinesque baby-napping.

Beneath Still Waters

I kind of enjoyed this one. It has this neat plot of an entire town that has been flooded. Great for underwater adventure ideas.

House of Blood

Sort of a Dusk til Dawn kind of movie, that would adapt very well to a fantasy setting. Werewolvey/Vampire thingies living in a remote cabin.


Nice performance from Christopher Lee. A couple of city folk interrupt a tribal magician's sacrifice, resulting in some Lovcraftian style shenanigans.

The Burrowers

Ok, this one was original. A western with some wierd and wild subterranean creatures that have very nasty dietary habits. An interesting take on D&D ghouls, complete with some very graphic results of paralysis!


I've saved the best for last. A hold on to your seat Lovecraft gorefest, with the hero stranded in a Spanish coastal town that is teeming with Deep Ones. Really darn good special effects.

If you happen to watch any of these, and actually sit through them, send me a message and let me know what you thought!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

WotC adds reprints of AD&D 1E Core Books!!!!

We'll here's a bit of news I picked up on the forums over at rpg.net. It seems Wizards of the Coast is reprinting the first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Players Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual!

To help honor his work and his memory, we created limited-edition reprints of the original 1st Edition core rulebooks: the Monster Manual, Player's Handbook, andDungeon Master's Guide. These premium versions of the original AD&D rulebooks have been lovingly reprinted with the original art and content, but feature an attractive new cover design commemorating this re-release. Available in limited quantities as a hobby channel exclusive in North America.
Your purchase of this monumental book helps support the Gygax Memorial Fund—established to immortalize the “Father of Roleplaying Games” with a memorial statue in Lake Geneva, WI.

Pretty Cool! Is that Gary as a giant wizard on the cover?

Blackout Wednesday

Find out more:  SOPA/PIPA

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Character Background, Ranger

The entire hamlet had come out to pull help pull the raft to shore. The timber from the Greenwood had been a month in harvesting, and the current of the red river was strong. It would take all hands to maneuver the floating island, and the young lad was eager to be part of the effort.

Francis Ane Hopkins

His father owned the mill, and Ulrich was almost old enough to work among the men. He was sure that one day, the mill would be passed down to him, and the responsibility of overseeing the sawing the timber would be his.

It took several hours to secure the raft, and afterwards everyone gathered on the commons for the celebration of the harvest. Thanks were offered to Phusis, lord of all plants, for the plentiful bounty. To Phanes, lord of living creatures was promised responsible stewardship of the Greenwood, that it may always be a haven for the creatures of the wild and the Clans of Men who made their home there.

The sun was low in the sky when the crowd grew hushed. The Ferry was approaching, and upon it was a vardo. Not one of those elaborately decorated colorful Vardos used by The Wandereres. This was a simple wagon, devoid of ornamentation, and pulled by a single horse. A rustic man dressed in greens and browns sat in the drivers seat.

When the ferry docked, the driver quickly scanned the crowd, gave a nod, then proceeded down the road towards the mill. Ulrich looked towards his father, and found him looking into the worried face of his mother. The two looked toward Ulrich, and motioned for him to come to them. The three walked down the lane the vardo had travelled, but it was beyond their sight.

When they arrived at the mill, the driver had already unhitched the horse and let it drink freely from the river. Father clasped the driver by the hand with a warm "Welcome home, brother". Mother embraced the man. He then knelt before Ulrich. His face was worn with age marked with a number of scars. He smelt of leather, wild game, and steel. "I am your uncle Marten, Ulrich. I've come to claim you as my apprentice".
Vasily Surikov

The vardo contained the core of the lessons Ulrich was to learn over the next several years. There were the bones of creatures from fireside tales with names like Bugbear, Orc, Hobgoblin, and Ogre. There were holy symbols and wooden stakes. And there were weapons. Sword, bow, and dagger.

Marten took Ulrich on many excursions into the Greenwood. He taught him the ways of tracking, and admonished him to "kill no wolf" in this part of the forest; "harm no bear" in another. Countless hours were spent learning the art of warfare and the vulnerabilities of "the eaters of the flesh of men". Creatures of Darkness with naught but malice in their heart, and a taste for man-flesh on their tongue. After seven years, his training was complete. Ulrich was a Ranger.

Viktor Vasnetsov

"I am late in my years Ulrich. I no longer have the swiftness of youth. I have taught you everything I know. You are my last apprentice. Take the knowledge I have given you and guard it. And when old age makes your arms too weary to wield your sword, pass on your knowledge to another, that it may never die. I will retire here with your mother and father. Come seek me when you need advice. Take this sigil ring, that other men of our ilk will know you, and offer their camaraderie. There are many dark things in this earth, yet some few have the courage or knowledge to face them."

N.C. Wyeth

Monday, January 16, 2012

Good and Evil in Shatterworld

I've never been a big fan of Alignment in D&D. First off, I don't agree with the given definitions of "Good" and "Evil". I am a traditionalist when it comes to defining Good and Evil, and hold to the views of Thomas Aquinas. Namely, that Good and Evil are not opposites, any more than Hot and Cold are opposites. In fact, "Cold" is the absence of Heat. Remove all molecular activity, all "heat", and you get Absolute Zero. In such a way, remove all Goodness, and you get absolute Evil. Evil is not a "thing", but the privation of a "thing". Blindness is the privation of sight. Illness is the privation of health. Selfishness is the privation of Generosity.

If this line of reasoning is followed, then "Neutral" as defined in game terms is actually evil. It is essentially defined (apart from Druids) as selfishness. The definitions of Evil in D&D seem more related to sociopaths than anything else.

Of course, my interpretation of Good and Evil won't necessarily match those of my players, so I'm faced with an interesting conundrum. I can either force my views on the system, re-defining the alignments as I see them, or I can "suck it up", and ignore my own views, and just go with the game definitions. As I don't see either of these as an acceptable course, I have to find a third way.

Part of that way is to discard alignment entirely. Rather, expectation for character actions is defined by the game world, and what the people and gods of that game world view as "good" or "evil". Consequence of acting in certain ways is not defined by game rules, but how the world reacts to those actions.

Each of the 7 gods in the game world have their own notion of "Good". For Hydros, god/goddess of the waters, polluting water or slaughtering water creatures is "evil". For Gaia, making the earth infertile is "evil". For Phusis, wantonly destroying vegetation is evil. And for Phanes, disregard for life itself, of animal or man, is evil.

A Cleric as healer is by default given his powers by Phanes, god of all living creatures. The question becomes, why would he be given such powers? My response is that such power is given because the character has shown a special aptitude for valuing life. It is a reward for the Cleric simply being "who he is". An individual who embraces all of creation, and devotes his life to protecting it, may find each of the gods giving him a gift. This is far from being "neutral". It is a calling to restore wholeness where ever possible... to counter the "privation" that is Evil.

A cleric can heal because he is granted the power to heal by Phanes. A Cleric can turn undead because undead are an abomination... a corruption of the creation of Phanes. To the undead, the symbol of Phanes is like a mirror, which forces to see themselves for what they are, and how far they have fallen from form in which they were created.

The Druid shares with the Cleric a reverence for all living things. However, he does not derive his powers from the Gods. Rather, the Druid has learned the language of the tree, and the blade of grass. The language of the wind, and of the stone. The Druid speaks directly to Nature as an ally and companion.

The Druid (and Bard) is not "Neutral" when it comes to man. He has bonds to his clan, and to his people. He is impartial judge in disputes between clans, and judges disputes within the clan. He protects his people from outsiders who would exploit the resources of the clan territory for their own gain. He is seldom an adventurer, unless it is to further his power, or to protect his people. He might be considered "apathetic" to outsiders, people not of the clans, but he seldom acts for his own gain. He certainly never acts to advance the cause of "Evil", unless he has been corrupted. He has no concept of a "balance" between Good and Evil. Courage, Truth, and Wisdom are among the highest "Goods" of the Druid.

Magic Users deal with demonic spirits as a matter of course. They have to be very careful not to abuse their power, and can easily be drawn down dark paths. Anyone suspected of animating the dead would be shunned, if not put on trial, perhaps burned at the stake. Anyone harming someone with magic is likely to be hung. Even simple public displays of magic can cause problems for a magic user, as they are likely to be labeled as a conjurer and trouble maker.

As for fighters and thieves, their actions speak for themselves. A thief might be able to find reputable employment, but for the most part, their abilities, like those of spell casters, are best relegated to actions that are out of sight of the general public.

It is behavior, not "alignment", that is important. People are not evil, but may act in evil ways. Monsters on the other hand, are corruptions of creation, and as such are inherently evil. Their presence, like the undead, will "radiate" evil to those who have the ability to detect it. It is actually their malice and hatred that is detected, so strong it is.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Obligatory D&D 5E Post or, I Just Dropped in to See What Condition my Edition was In (Yeah, Yeah, Oooooooohhhh Yeah!)

By now the news has spread far and wide. In case you haven't heard, Wizards of the Coast has announced plans for the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. For some reason, I was reminded of this Kenny Rogers and the First Edition song

Speaking of First Editions (see what I did there?), my gaming days started in 1979 with fifth printing of the Holmes Basic Set (Blue box, Adventure B1 In Search of the Unknown, and cardboard chits for dice), and soon moved on to AD&D, which we played for many, many years.

My friend Jeff introduced me to the game. We had all been avid gamers, playing Risk, something called Stockmarket, and Diplomacy.We heard the news stories about James Dallas Egbert III, who had supposedly had gone missing in the steam tunnels of Michigan State University while playing a game called Dungeons and Dragons. The exactly timeline is rather sketchy, but suffice it to say that by the time I was 16, I was hooked on D&D. Bad.

I have to back up here and say that my first "rpg" type gaming experience was the computer text game Collosal Cave Adventure. I had a friend, Clark, who's dad worked for AT&T. They had the computer game on a mainframe in Georgia I believe, and we would rack up long distance telephone bills playing via the computer's modem (which consisted of jamming the telephone into the cradle on the back of the computer). I first saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail on public television at Clark's House when I was about 13. It changed my life forever.

AD&D served me well for as long as I cared to play. I was never excited about new editions coming out, as it meant having to purchase new core books, which I was never really interested in. I had designed my own game world, and was happy purchasing published modules for inspiration, but tweaking them to fit into my own vision of what a fantasy game world should be.

I did pick up Arms Law from Iron Crown Enterprises, and incorporated it into my game for a while until creating my own simplified system inspired by it. Years later I wound up working for I.C.E. (about 4 years after Monty Cook left), but it was brutal days there in fateful '97. However, it was one of the best periods in my career.

I picked up the complete Rolemaster System while there, and somewhere along the lines I bought the Judges Guild set. There was some flirting with D&D 2e, and then 3.0. However, my first reaction to 3.0 and the "feats" was "wow... this sort of makes characters a few levels higher to start out with. Why not just do that?" I've purchased some products for Call of Cthulu and Pendragon, as well as assorted third party stuff. I also recall the Role Aids products with fondness.

I have admittedly never even cracked a 4.0 book until this past December when I was at my FLGS picking up a copy of Labyrinth Lord and the AEC. The quick perusal didn't do much for me.

So here we come... to the dawn of a new edition of one of my favorite games. I wish WoTC well and much success. I'm curious about what 5E will become. My personal goal is to have a simplified set of rules, downloadable for free in pdf format (which I have found with Labyrinth Lord and the AEC) which I can point to and say "Want to join my game? Here's the rules." If WoTC can pull that off, I may give it a go. If not, there's plenty of options out there.

I do have to say that I am disappointed at WoTC's decision to contract the artwork for 5E to China. There are countless talented domestic artists who would love to work on the project. I think a unified "artist's hand" is less important than the art direction itself. When I was at I.C.E., we commissioned hundreds of pieces of art for the Middle-earth Collectible Card Game from many different artists, yet the game had a unified feel. I'm hoping for something a bit less "action figurey" (read, Todd McFarlaneish), and more classic (read, Pre-Raphaelite type stuff). Click on the Shatterworld link at the top of this page to see what I'm talking about.

I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed in
I watched myself crawling out now, as I came crawling in
I got up so tight I couldn't unwind
I saw so much, I broke my mind
I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

Yeah. Yeah. Ooooohhhhhhh Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Putting the Magic back in D&D

I sympathize with JB over at B/X Blackrazor. He laments I hate the lack of magic in the D&D game.

It is all too easy to distill magic and monsters down to their meta-value. I think one of the reasons we so fondly recall the first days we ever walked down the twisting passageways of our first dungeon adventure is because we didn't fully grasp the mechanics of the game. When faced with a monster, we didn't have a list of memorized stats. When we found a glowing sword, we didn't wonder if it was merely a +1, or something better.

We can't exactly "un-eat" the fruit of gaming knowledge. We've lost our innocence. It happened the first time we peeked in the Monster Manual, even though we weren't the DM. It happened when we cast "identify", and were told that our sword was +1, +2 against goblinkind. It happened when we chose to play a magic user, and began to read through pages and pages of spell descriptions.

What then is the solution to the problem? I believe part of the solution is how you treat magic in your campaign setting. One of my first posts on this blog touched on that subject.

The basic gist of the post is that you can help to preserve the feeling of magic being "magical" by making it rare.

Another way is to keep the meta-game information from your players. In order to do this, you have to have the right players. Folks who would be on board with such shenanigans. People who would be ok with secret dice rolls by the GM. People who don't want to know each and every rule of the game. They just want to say what their character does, and find out from the GM if it works.

I won't touch on the "Old School" relevance of such an approach. Such an effort would be futile anyway, I think. People have ALWAYS taken different approaches to play. As for me, I never enjoyed the game so much as when I didn't fully grasp the rules.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Character Backgrounds for Clerics in Shatterworld

Keeping with the theme going in The Cleric as Prophet and Saint, namely that Clerics are miracle workers, rather than simple priests, I figured I would come up with some plausible backgrounds for Cleric characters in Shatterworld. These can be randomly rolled for a new character, be chosen by the player, or used as inspiration for a player to come up with his/her own background. These backgrounds would work for Paladins as well.

1) The character exhibited remarkable gifts from an early age. Wounded birds would take to flight, people were strangely obedient to the child, and the child would handle snakes and other poisonous creatures without fear. The frightened parents took the child to be raised in a monastery, where the monks to a keen interest in the child. He was taught to defend himself, and when he reached adulthood, was sent forth into the world. The monastery that raised him is his only true sanctuary, but even there many monks are envious or distrustful of him.

2) The character was a man who led a life of sin. His descent into darkness was spiraling out of control. He begged the gods for repentance, promising obedience and to serve the gods. In an instant he was transformed (perhaps even physically), and gained the power of the Cleric. He is a loner, not trusted by any of the established priesthood. He travels throughout the land righting wrongs in repentance of his past deeds.

3) The character joined the priesthood, and became a respected and important member of the local community.  In this position of power, he was witness to the corruption which ran deep within his church. He revealed the corruption to the people, and the Bishop was overthrown and replaced by a devout man. As a reward, the gods granted the powers of the Cleric, and sent him to go forth and purge the churches of corruption.

4) The character is the son of one of the highest members of the church. Once he began to exhibit the powers of the Cleric, his father became concerned for him, knowing that many within the church would fear him. He sent his son out into the world, and there are many allies of his father throughout the land that offer their counsel and protection, as well as seek his service.

5) When the character began to exhibit the powers of the Cleric, he was sent to or joined a small elite order of priests known for their gifts of healing and power. They are a powerful order, protected by the highest levels within the church, and command respect wherever they go. Unfortunately, some within the group abuse such authority.

6) The character is a true innocent, pure of heart. He doesn't even realize he gets his powers from the gods. He simply acts out of his innate goodness, and accepts his powers as being perfectly natural. He is not aligned with any church.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Druid and Bard as Seducers of Spirits

In Anatomy of a Spell, the Magic User is depicted as someone who has access to the names of spirits, and is able to command them in the name of a higher authority. The spirits are compelled to obey.

In The Cleric as Prophet and Saint, Clerics are imagined as rarities among priests; modeled on legends of saints, the Cleric can heal through a life of devotion and piety.

What then of Druids and Bards?

In Shatterworld, I make little distinction between Druids and Bards. Bards are not lowly tavern entertainers and pickpockets. They are the elite of their clans. The keepers of Wisdom through song and tradition.

Here's a great site I found with a piece titled Conditions for Entry into the Fiana:

No man was taken until he was a prime poet versed in the twelve books of bardic literature.

No man was taken until he could defend himself from within a large hole in the ground up to his belt, with only his shield and a length of hazel rod. While nine warriors having nine spears and being a distance of ten furrows away from him let fly at him together. If he let anything past his guard and got hurt he was not accepted.

No man was taken until he had woven his hair into many braids and he was set at a run through the woods, while the ones seeking to wound him were sent after him there having been just one forest bough between them at first. If he was overtaken and wounded he was not allowed entry, If his weapons had quivered in his hand he was not taken, If his hair was disturbed in any way out of its braiding he was not taken. If he cracked a dry stick under his foot as he ran he was not taken. He also had at full speed to jump a branch level with chest and stoop under one level with his knee without breaking stride or else he was not accepted. Also he had to extract a thorn from his foot without pausing in his stride or else he was not taken.

If he could manage to do all the above successfully then he was accepted into the Fianna.

This sounds more like Conan than Shakespeare. It certainly takes moving silently to new heights, as he has to RUN silently. Not to mention vaulting and tumbling as he ran. They had to be able to do something like this:

I imagine the best of them looking something like this, putting the "thief" to shame:

The only thing that guy DIDN'T do was pull a thorn from his foot as he ran.

And here, a great heroic piece by John Martin:

Bards are the badass of the badass.

Bards do not have to read or write. They get their knowledge through memory and song, passed down from one generation to the next. They can tweak a story, putting their personal spin on it, but only after mastering the story word for word as it was told to them. And they can only change it... even the slightest change... if it improves the tale without altering the history of it.

In the stories, bards and druids can affect men, beasts, and nature itself. My take on this is that opposed to "commanding" spirits as Magic Users do, or appealing to a greater power to command those spirits as a Cleric might, Bards and Druids speak directly to the spirits, and seduce them into cooperation.

They have to learn to speak the language of trees, streams, rivers, clouds, rocks, fire, and various animals. They don't memorize pre-rehearsed scripts, but rather have conversations with Nature, and lull Her into service.

And with moves like those, Nature is bound to listen.

Magic vs. Miracle

Following up to my previous post, The Cleric as Prophet and Saint, I'm continuing my explorations into the nature of spell casting, and what separates a cleric from a magic user.

In "real world" context, I think the Key of Solomon is a great reference point. The premise is that King Solomon had all of the demons under his control. Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia article on The Testament of Solomon, a pseudepigraphal work written before the 6th century:

When a demon named Ornias harasses a young lad (who is favored by Solomon) by stealing half his pay and sucking out his vitality through the lad's thumb on his right hand, Solomon prays in the temple and receives from the archangel Michael a ring with the seal of God (in the shape of a hexagram having the name of God inscribed within) on it which will enable him to command the demons (c.f. Seal of Solomon). Solomon lends the ring to the lad who, by throwing the ring at the demon Ornias, stamps him with the seal and brings him under control. Then Solomon orders the demon Ornias to take the ring and similarly imprint the prince of demons who is Beelzeboul/Beelzebul.
With Beelzebul under his command Solomon now has the entire race of demons at his bidding to build the temple. Beelzebul reveals he was formerly the highest ranking angel in Heaven.

The Key of Solomon is a grimoire which describes how to go about commanding the demons that Solomon put under his control by invoking the name of God. Here's a tidbit on how to become invisible:



If thou wishest to perform the experiment of invisibility, thou shalt follow the instructions for the same. If it be necessary to observe the day and the hour, thou shalt do as is said in their chapters. But if thou needest not observe the day and the hour as marked in the chapter thereon, thou shalt do as taught in the chapter which precedeth it. If in the course of the experiment it be necessary to write anything, it should be done as is described in the chapters pertaining thereto, with the proper pen, paper, and ink, or blood. But if the matter is to be accomplished by invocation, before thy conjurations, thou shalt say devoutly in thine heart:—
SABOLES, HABARON, ELOHI, ELIMIGIT, GABELOY SEMITION, METINOLACH, LABALITENA, NEROMOBEL, CALEMERE, DALUTI, TIMAGUEL, VILLAGUEL, TEVEMIS, SERIE, JERETE, BARUCHABA, ATHONAVEL, BARACABA, ERATICUM;1through him by whom ye have empire and power over men, ye must accomplish this work so that I may go and remain invisible.
And if it be necessary in this operation to trace a circle, thou shalt do as is ordained in the chapter concerning circles; and if it be necessary to write characters, etc., thou shalt follow the instructions given in the respective chapters.2

Here we have the ingredients I spoke of in the Anatomy of a Spell. There is the name of the spirit being invoked, the power (God in this case) through which you command the spirit, and the task you want the spirit to accomplish. There is also the obscure reference to other "instructions" that are elsewhere. In other words, you can't just cast this spell without already knowing a whole lot more about magic.

The interesting thing about this "spell" is that it does not contradict "religious belief" in its broadest sense. This is not "witchcraft" in the way witchcraft was understood in the middle-ages, which was making a pact with the devil to obtain power. This is using the name of God, just like Solomon did, to command spirits.

Regardless of the actual history of witchcraft and any contemporary views on it, the point here is to put this all in game perspective. A magic user and a cleric are not at odds with one another. They just get their powers in different ways.

In my game, "magic" closely resembles the structure from the sample above from the Key of Solomon. So what then of cleric spells? In Cleric as Prophet and Saint I suggest that the Cleric is more of a miracle worker than a spell caster. Thus is seems to me that the cleric need not know the names of the spirits who control such things as invisibility. Rather, the Cleric prays to the power-that-be (god) who controls the spirit who controls invisibility, and asks that he be made invisible by divine grace. Then presumably, the cleric's "guardian angel", or what have you, passes the request up and down the chain of command, and the very same spirit who was commanded directly by the magic user is now commanded by his superiors to make the cleric invisible.

Is all of this a bit too convoluted and unnecessary to your game? Perhaps. But having a basic understanding of how magic vs. miracle works in your world can give things a more consistent feel and raise some interesting questions.

If "miracles" are granted to the few, the proud, the Clerics, what then of the simple priest who has no such powers? What if this simple priest is ambitious, or is elevated to a position of power within the church and feels the pressure to come up with some "miracles". Might this priest not start delving into "magic", so that he can appear to be walking in the grace of the gods? This type of priest would fit in well in Shatterworld. Corruption can work its way up through "the church", and many priests who are believed to have divine power might instead just be monkeying with magic.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Cleric as Prophet and Saint

Continuing with my musings about spell casters, I was thinking about how the Cleric fits into Shatterworld.
Since it is intended to be a "low magic" setting, where the percentage of people who have ever actually seen a spell cast is very small, it seems that most temples would not have spell casting clerics. The "normal" priest does not cast spells. So either:

1) They aren't clerics
2) They are clerics who can't cast spells
3) They are clerics who can cast spells, but choose not to

My choice is to say that they aren't clerics, but simple priests. That is, "Cleric" is a specialty class, not unlike "Paladin". Just as the Paladin is a rarity among men who gets his healing abilities through pious devotion, so the Cleric is a rarity among priests. The Cleric's powers are derived through exemplary devotion to the gods.

When such a person enters a village, all who know of the Cleric's reputation will come flocking to touch the hem of his cloak, to beg for healing for their loved ones, or to merely stand in the awe of his presence.

A cleric who can heal wounds or cure poison or standard disease would be famous. A cleric who can cure blindness, cure permanent diseases such as leprosy, heal the cripple, or raise the dead would be legendary.

It is no wonder these "living saints" take to a life of wandering. The line of those waiting to be healed outside their temple would be endless.

Anatomy of a Spell

As I've been creating my entries on the Gods over at the Shatterworld campaign setting, I've been thinking more and more about what exactly a "spell" looks like from game world point of view. Keeping in mind all spells in Shatterworld summon spirits, and command them to action. Not only the God under who's domain the spirits serves would be invoked, but also the name of the power (usually one of the Archons) who commanded the spirit to obey such a summons. 

The name of the spirit would be invoked, as well as some sort of protection for the spell caster against from the spirit's vengeance. Then there would be a snippet for the expected action of the spirit, as well as the target. The basic structure of a spell would be something like:

In the name of (insert name of relevant god(s) here), I call thee forth, (name of spirit), to honor the duties bound to thee by (name of Archon or other power) for time eternal. (Perform this action), (On this target) (for this duration)

A concrete example would be

In the name of Gaia, mother of stone and steel, I call thee forth Eahmat, to honor the duties bound to thee by Aesther, Archon of Earth for time eternal. I hold thee to the oath yea has taken to seek no retribution on I, Carslen of Harrow, by whom you have been summoned. Hold fast this portal, that none may pass, until I release thee from thy task! 

There might be a symbol or three required, such as one for Gaia, one for Aesther, and one for Eahmat. The spell written may or may not include these symbols.

There might be a spell component that is referred to in code, such as "a pinch of the metal used by Aesther to cast the Gates of Banla"

Thus the rolled chance for understanding a spell. If the spell says "use the symbol of Aesther", and the caster doesn't know the symbol, then the spell can't be cast. (At least not safely). Likewise, if you don't know what kind of metal the Gates of Banla were made from, you are also out of luck.

It isn't important that the player or the Labyrinth Lord know the exact wording of a particular spell. But the more detail there is, the more opportunity for a caster to go in search of a particular piece of knowledge in order to cast a spell that he/she has found. Particularly if they rolled high and don't understand the spell.

Suppose for example that the caster knows everything except for the symbol for this particular spirit, Eahmat. A search for such a symbol might start at the nearest temple, asking the priest if (s)he has knowledge of such a spirit. This might lead to traveling to a particular city, town, or abbey that has a library that might hold such knowledge.

Not every quest has to be for an artifact of power that can shake the foundations of the earth.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Finding Scrolls

I was thinking a bit about my campaign world today, and how learning magic is based on finding lost records (spell books, scrolls, and such) rather than being taught. It got me to thinking what a magic scroll might look like, what it might say, and what kind of condition it might be in after lying around for 1300 or so years.

It first occurs to me that the odds of finding a complete scroll in good condition might be a rare thing. Successfully learning magic might require finding more than one copy of the same spell. This kind of ups the opportunity for leaving spells around to be discovered, as well as creates more reasons to go dungeon delving. So first, a chart for percentage of the scroll that is legible

Roll 2d6

2 )            5% of the scroll is legible
3-5)        20% of the scroll is legible
6-8)        50% of the scroll is legible
9-11)      80% of the scroll is legible
12)       100% of the scroll is legible

Next comes a roll to see what portion of the scroll is missing. Roll 1d4

1) lower left
2) lower right
3) upper left
4) upper right

If a caster finds the duplicate spell, and it includes his missing corner, you check to see if he has the entire spell. For instance, if he was missing 20 percent in the lower left corner, and he finds 5 percent of the lower left corner, he is still missing 15 percent. If he finds any other corner, he isn't any better off than he was before.

Here's where it gets interesting. He can try to cast the spell with his partial scroll, but the chance for miscasting is high. First, he has to have over 50% of the scroll to even attempt the casting. Then his chance of actually casting a spell is equal to the percentage of scroll that he has. So if he has 85% of the scroll, he has an 85% chance of casting the spell. Roll 17 or higher on d20 and nothing happens.
He can't try again until he finds more of the missing pieces.

If he does cast a spell his chance to cast it correctly is also equal to the percentage of scroll he has. If he casts it incorrectly, roll on the following:

Misfire Results Roll d6

1)The "target" part of the spell is missing, and a random target is affected
2)The protection part of the spell is missing, and the caster is affected instead of the target
3)The "sphere of influence" part of the spell is missing, and he get the opposite of what he intended.
   (water instead of fire, earth instead of air, harm instead of cure, attract instead of dispel, etc...)
4)The power level of the spell is missing, and the spell does half damage
5)The power level of the spell is missing, and the spell does double damage
6) Something completely unexpected happens. Roll randomly on your favorite spell chart, or choose an effect.

Once a spell is cast correctly, the spell caster will always be able to cast it correctly. (He will have been able to fill in the blanks with his educated guesses.) In standard Labyrinth Lord rules and similar, this assumes he was transcribing the scroll, and jotted down the correct information once he guessed what it was. If he was able to cast the spell but it mis-fired, he gets to roll the Misfire Results again each time he casts it until he gets it right.

Twenty Questions: Answered

Last April at Jeffs Gameblog, Jeff created a post Twenty Quick Questions for your Campaign Setting. They are questions that get right down to the meat of the campaign... at least from a player's perspective.
So here goes:

1)What is the deal with my cleric's religion?

Clerics are followers of "The Way". There are 7 prime gods in Calabria, which cover the domains of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Time, Flora and Fauna. Larger cathedrals and temples have shrines to each of the Seven. Smaller temples are devoted to each of the single gods/goddesses. A Cleric generally serves all gods, but some may devote themselves to individual gods.

2)Where can we go to buy standard equipment?

For military equipment, a town or city. There are numerous throughout Calabria. For more basic needs, a village, or with luck, a hamlet.

3)Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended?

Most people will flee in terror at the sight of a monster, or try to kill it. The odds of befriending one are slim to none.

4)Who is the mightiest wizard in the land?

Before The Shattering, a cataclysmal event which occurred 1300 years ago, it was undoubtedly one of the seven Archons, servants of the Gods since time immemorial. It is not known if the Archons were destroyed in The Shattering, retreated from the world, or chose to seclude themselves. Knowledge of magic has been mostly lost, but there are some have kept to the old ways, and others who seek knowledge anew. Alchemy is in vogue in the larger cities of Calabria.

5)Who is the greatest warrior in the land?

"Warrior" is a mercenary role in much of Calabria. There are some exceptions, with the rangers who prowl the wilds, the noble if somewhat quixotic Knights of the Empire, and the warriors of the Clans of the Men of Old. There are formal tournaments held in Oregate. Out of the participants, it is usually one of the Knights of the Empire or one of the King's knights who win the tourney.

6)Who is the richest person in the land?

Oregate is the richest territory in Calabria, and the only monarchy to survive The Shattering. The other territories are ruled by groups of powerful merchants. While there are many wealthy merchants, particularly in the cities, none compare to the wealth of the king of Oregate.

7)Where can we go to get some magical healing?

There are many wells and springs throughout the land reputed to have magical healing powers.

8)Where can we go to get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?

Aside from the magical wells, many remote hamlets have wise folk who practice hedge magic. The knowledge of the Druids of the Clans of Men is also great. Some among the Knights of the Empire are reputed to have healing powers in reward for their pure hearts.

9)Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells?

The search for magic is competitive. Sharing of knowledge is rare.

10)Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?

Large towns or cities throughout Calabria.

11)Where can I hire mercenaries?

Calabria is a mercenary economy. Nearly any town or city. Many travel the Via Imperium (the paved imperial road which winds through Calabria) looking for work.

12)Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?

There are many remote places with their own customs.

14) Which way to the nearest tavern?

Most villages will have a tavern, but not necessarily an inn. Towns and cities have inns.

15)What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?

The countryside is relatively peaceful. The occasional Wyrm or Wyvern will attack livestock. Very rarely, a giant or dragon will terrorize a locale. Most other creatures operate by stealth, and are tricky to discover.

16)Are there any wars brewing I could go fight?

Not in Calabria at the present time. However, there are many lands over the seas.

17)How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?

Oregate has many tournaments. Calabria is a mercenary economy, so there is always work for hire. 

18) Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?

I don't know. If there are, they are secret.

19) What is there to eat around here?

Grain, mutton, pork, venison, boar, roots, mushrooms, and herbs are the common fare. Wild game is plentiful. Travelers will find hospitality as most homes and hamlets. Villages, towns and cities have commercial fare.

20)Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?

There are numerous ruins covering Calabria which pre-date The Shattering. Tales of lost treasure and magic are countless. The Nameless City is rumored to hold great secrets, but only the most daring venture there.

21) Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?

The Iron Hills are rumored to be the home of Giants, and perhaps a Dragon or two.