seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I've been thinking, as I wrote in my last D&D post, about how to do the more natural settings in my new campaign in a way that both explores the economic questions and maintains the sense of whimsy and adventure you want in a fantasy adventure and it struck me that the obvious approach is to use Fey. The very nature of Fey adventures is tied up in questions of contracts and obligations, it's inherently economic in nature. Players want to exploit a mine, but in order to gain access they need to make deals with the local fey, whose goals may be orthogonal to predictable economic aims, but whose practices are definitely economic in nature.

This creates a really interesting potential scenario: Beneficial contracts that players make with fey accrue immediate guild merits (XP) toward levelling, but if a deal with a fey is ever breached, players lose those guild merits and potentially can de-level. I really like this effect, it makes breaking fey contracts have real, meaningful teeth to the players on a metaphysical level.

Larger contracts between Auction Houses and fey kingdoms are also a wonderful source of adventure hooks, as such deals no doubt require periodic acts of maintenance. I'm imagining a scenario like where the Deal is that in order to ensure safe passage across a river in fey territory, all the Carter's Guild needs to present the local fey lord with a small, somewhat obscure but not valuable gem every year- the kind of payment where the players might wonder what the hell the faeries want with it. The players try to cross the river and the fey lord, wearing an outfit beautifully adorned with hundreds of identical gems showing that this Deal has been in force for centuries and revealing the intricate way that this ageless lord executes plans over long time scales, denies them passage until they present him this year's gem. And he doesn't deny them passage by force, but with a simple but immensely powerful teleport spell. Any time they try to cross the river, they end up back where they started. I can do so much with this kind of story element.


So I'm going to need to think up the details of the organization, such as it is, of the fey in the Mannheim Vale. I definitely want multiple kingdoms/courts of fey, but I probably also want individual loner fey creatures.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
In a couple months the rotation in my regular D&D group is going to work its way around to me DMing the on-going campaign. I've been a fill-in one shot DM for the group for years and have in various contexts run one shots and two and three shots over the years, but have never run a sustained rpg campaign before. I'm very excited.

My goal is basically to run Capitalism: The RPG. The setting is a homebrew called the Mannheim Vale setting, and it's a setting I've used to run one-shots before. It's a late-medieval setting where three kingdoms hold in dispute the Mannheim Vale, a geographically isolated area, with the result being that it's ended up being fairly ungoverned, home to subsistence farming goblins and a few esoteric hermit cults. But the vale has mineral resources of interest to a rapidly industrializing late-medieval power, so that my one-shot adventures have been tinged with the sense that this geographically isolated area is unlikely to stay untouched by the larger powers for long, and that in fact the triggering events of my one-shots have been the early probings of the major powers. I propose to explore in more detail the conflict as the long-time inhabitants of the vale deal with the influx of newcomers with their own agendas, from the point of view of the colonizers. I plan to exploit the tendency of D&D adventurers to, er, exploit, by directly converting economic externalities into plot hooks. And I plan to encourage the tendency of D&D adventurers to exploit by supplementing and modifying conventional XP systems to particularly reward players for discovering and laying claim to resources that have long-term economic value. I want discovering a vein of ore to be more valuable to a player than discovering a monster's treasure horde. But I want mining that vein of ore to bring with it story consequences that make players learn to ask if the reward is worth the human cost.

Players will be all affiliated with one of the numerous Auction Houses of Holern- powerful vertically integrated medieval guilds headed by a Chief Auctioneer (generally a high level bard). I want them to all be affiliated with different Auction Houses so that they're jockeying against each other, working together for the good of Holern and the joint venture but particularly attuned to how they can benefit their own sponsoring guild.

I haven't quite decided on the mechanics of my XP system modifications yet. I was at first thinking of replacing XP for combat with a mechanic I was thinking of as "XP for Profit", as a play on OD&D's "XP for Treasure". But it got messy, it would pretty much only work if players actually operated a fairly substantial economic ledger, which seems like a big ask. I'm thinking now to simplify- minimize or completely ditch XP for combat, and use a guild-based leveling system where players gain levels when they provide enough benefits to their guild to get a guild promotion. Finding a monster treasure horde might be worth a guild merit or two- they're not going to say no to enriching the guild treasury with the percentage of the haul that their guild member of course remits... but finding an exploitable mine, or uncovering a new kind of medicinal plant, or charting a faster trade route... those things are worth multiple guild merits.

This could all turn out to be a total disaster, in which case I'll tweak it as I go, but I'm really excited about getting the chance to try to tell a story like this over a longer time scale.



The other thing I'm worried about is how to tell stories in Capitalism: The RPG while still have it compellingly be a fantasy world. How do I maintain whimsy and magic and fantasy while exploring the economic questions that are interesting to me? How do I keep it fun for players?

I feel like I have a pretty good sense of how to do it for the setting's primary urban locus, the city of the various Auction Houses. My favorite bit of backstory about the city is this: The Council of Seven that rules the city politically is traditionally headed either by a human or a dwarf, alternating on three year terms. This is a political compromise between the two largest races in the city, but it is not a statutory arrangement and every so often, typically when the dwarves and humans are deadlocked on some issue, an elf has served a term as president of the council. And there was that one time that a minotaur ruled the city for three years... His big public works project as council president was a large public park with a fiendishly difficult unsolved labyrinth as its focal point.

I get how cities work, I have a feel for their nuances and I know how to generate fantasy and whimsy in an urban setting while making all the nuts and bolts of the city feel real. I'm going to have to work harder when characters are out exploring the wilder areas to hit the balance between the pure economics and the fantasy adventure. But I'm excited about the challenge of this, too.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
At the last minute on Saturday night, I popped into a pickup G+ Hangout game of Tears of a Machine, a new rpg about giant robots being kickstarted right now: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/robotclaw/tears-of-a-machine

Premise is loosely based on the anime Evangelion, which I know nothing about except that apparently it was one of the inspirations for Pacific Rim. You play as teenagers who are jacked into giant killer robots stolen from the evil aliens. Essentially they ripped the robot brains out of the things and shoved a teenager in its place, so the only thing keeping the mechs from going crazy and rampaging is a teenager's ability to keep control of their emotions. The game's most important mechanic in combat isn't your technical ability to do damage or outmaneuver the enemies, it's balancing your pilot's emotional control against the mech's lust for violence.

The result is very character driven. A character's choices out of combat have a direct influence on how combat plays out.

I played one of the older characters, a child of privilege from a family with defense contractor connections. She was stuck between her desire to lead and her disconnection from the other characters' lives- both of the other players were playing orphans. When the latter impulse took hold, she acted selfishly, putting her own needs first and assuming that her fellow pilots would be fine. When the former impulse took hold, though, she rallied her team despite adversity and moved everybody past obstacles together.

Then in battle, it all fell apart when her mother's car was threatened by one of the enemy robots. She lost control of her emotions, lost control of her giant robot, and nearly lost the battle when she sacrificed the mission for her personal needs. It was a fascinating version of the many vs. one dilemma because there were so many other confounding factors in the choice.

The game was a lot of fun, and people who like giant robots and rpgs should check out the Kickstarter.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Incredibly busy, full, fun weekend.

Spent Shabbos at my sister's apartment in order that I might attend Free RPG Day at the comic and game shop that is next door. The guy who runs the store had asked me to prep a couple of the modules, and I ended up running the beginning of a Vampire: the Requiem adventure, despite no prior experience with any World of Darkness games.

I keep mentioning the weird line between D&D gamers and Vampire gamers and people keep objecting that I'm making something up, that they know lots of people who play both, or they themselves play both. I maintain that the line exists, that most D&D players think of Vampire players as lame goths and most Vampire players think of D&D players as huge nerds, even though I know plenty of people of people who cross the line regularly.

In any case, I have crossed it, if it exists! I had a lot of fun running Vampire, and so did my players, none of whom had ever played it before. We had a really well designed, interesting adventure and I was able to guide them into the right mindset to think about their characters and what their characters wanted out of a scene at any given moment. Across the room, another gamemaster was running X-Crawl, a goofy, boisterous, parodic dungeoncrawling adventure. There was a sharp, noticeable contrast between the table affects in the two groups- The guy who asked me to run the adventure told me that it was interesting watching how quiet and serious everyone looked at my table and how loud and excited everyone was at the other table, and yet everyone had fun.

The adventure I ran began with the players, in media res, killing the Prince of the city. It's the type of scene that usually serves as the climactic moment of a significant adventure, and it was much fun and wrongfooting giving it to them unearned and seeing what they did with it. I tried to set it up by pulling each one aside and talking them through the process of figuring out why their characters wanted to kill the Prince, and it really helped enrich the one-shot experience, because it gave everyone that initial insight into their characters and it gave them a motivation in the scene beyond surviving and getting power. One character was doing secretive experiments into vampire biology, and he sought to examine the blood of the Prince, without raising the attention of the others. Another player was more focused on particular details of the Prince's records, as an information and power broker. Another player had no particular concern except making sure the Prince was really, really dead and covering their tracks.

Afterward, we closed the shop and played board games for the rest of the night. Space Cadet, a zany cooperative game where each player mans a battlestation on a starship by playing a minigame like tile matching or pushing a token across a mini shuffleboard while an hourglass ticks down, was fun if brutal. Seven Wonders was a refresher of a game I probably played with Alai three or four years ago, a tactical resource management card game that I did surprisingly well at given that the other players all had much more familiarity with its nuances.


Sunday I went to Philly to see the Philadelphia Opera do Thomas Ades's "Powder Her Face", having missed it when NYCO did it this season. The last time I went to see an Ades opera, we walked out at intermission because we were so frustrated by the dramatic decisions and not sufficiently impressed with the music to overcome them.

I... didn't walk out this time. It was interesting, actually- at intermission I overheard some other audience members talking and they were all debating the same question: was it funny, or wasn't it? Everyone seemed divided on the question. I'd guess probably a half to two thirds of the audience liked it, which is really not all that promising a statistic.

"Powder Her Face" is about the Duchess of Argyll, whose mid-century sexual scandals and divorce titillated London. It jumps through time, but looks at her life from the perspective of the Duchess in the early '90s, a haggard and bitter woman in denial about the depths she has fallen to.

It thus falls into a subgenre of contemporary opera I described to [personal profile] sanguinity as "Sad Old Formerly Famous Lady Mopes About the Good Old Days". Rufus Wainwright's "Prima Donna" was another example, and I imagine the "Anna Nicole" opera that NYCO will be bringing to New York next year is another example.

And I think the best way to compare "Powder Her Face" to "Prima Donna" is to say that "Prima Donna" is the American Office to "Powder Her Face"'s British Office. "Prima Donna" is a lot less savage and nasty in its humor, and even when it thwarts and then laughs at its protagonist, it's a lot more sympathetic.

"Prima Donna" has this moment, my favorite moment in the whole opera, where the diva sings the triumphant song of her youth to seduce a young journalist, and the melody is luscious and for a moment it works, for a moment she's got the journalist under a spell and the whole audience too, and then her voice gives out suddenly and everything lurches to a halt. It is magnificently executed by Wainwright, and it is at the heart of the difference between "Prima Donna" and "Powder Her Face"... "Prima Donna" at that moment is more than just an exercise in laughing at a woman's downfall.

I suspect I may have found it funnier if I were English. If the opera is about anything, it is not about the Duchess of Argyll, but about the English class system. There are four singers- the woman singing the Duchess, the bass who sings not only the Duke but all male patriarchal authority figures, and a tenor and soprano who sing all of the lower class roles- waiters, electricians, maids, unsuitable mistresses, etc... And I think the opera is trying to struggle with the weird tensions of the English class system, the way titles and nobility and money entitle not merely privilege and comfort but entry into a completely different set of social expectations. But the opera's epilogue, with the two lower class singers becoming the next residents of the Duchess's hotel suite after she leaves, signals a societal rejection of that paradigm.


In any case, it wasn't terrible, and it didn't make me as angry as Ades's Tempest, but I wasn't anywhere near as enthusiastic about it as I was about the opera I saw on Monday night, Daniel Catan's "La Hija de Rappaccini", in a glorious outdoor staging by the Gotham Chamber Opera at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Gotham Chamber Opera is defined by its commitment to doing small-scale, rare operas in exceptionally well-executed productions. I've never left a GCO performance unhappy, I've never left a GCO show, even one where I didn't like the opera itself as much, anything less than pleased with the quality of the production. Excellent singers, skilled and well-conducted orchestras, beautiful set design that always makes perfect use of the space, whatever the space is.

And "Hija de Rappaccini", a late 20th century spanish language opera inspired by a Hawthorne short story, was perfect for the setting in the park. Especially in the final scenes, the garden on the stage and the Garden writ large blurred together sensually under the catalyzing effect of the luscious music.

It's the story of a scientist who believes that he can use poisonous plants to create an elixir of life. Raised in his garden, his daughter Beatriz habituates to the poisons she lives among, but herself becomes poisonous to others, so she is trapped in the garden and trapped in the world her father has created for her. Until everything changes...

A young medical student takes an apartment overlooking the garden and spying her in her element, secluded and mysterious and lovely, he instantly falls in love. Catan beautifully represents this falling in love process in the dream sequence he concludes Act I with, a swirling mix of femininity and fantasy punctuated brilliantly by the student Giovanni's utter conviction that it is Beatriz's dream that he is living in, not his own. I've complained plenty of times that opera, for all the time it spends on every aria, often doesn't invest enough time in convincing us that an emotional bond has formed, but this dream sequence economically achieved that goal, whilst serving as a marvelous counterpoint to the cold, emotionless association Rappaccini makes between science and 'truth' in an earlier duet with his daughter.

Throughout the opera, the medical student sings longingly of his home in faraway Naples and I was struggling to fit it into the opera's Edenic schematic. Was there some version of the Eden story where there was a place before Eden, I wondered, until I realized that I was subconsciously trying to make Giovanni the Adam figure, allied with his poisonous Eve. This was completely wrong. Giovanni was the snake, trying to lure Beatriz away from her garden of rationality and science with his destructive romanticism and his promises of a better life in Naples! This is a Faust story where Faust the Mad Scientist is the Hero, where science is right and skepticism is trying to tear it down!!!! It's also an Eden story where it's the man who tempts the woman into evil instead of vice versa. Holy shit how rare are those things?

The score, a reduced version of the original opera, was for two pianos, a harp, and a percussionist. That instrumentation gave a lot of room for moody, dark, very modern chromatics (the program compared it to Strauss and especially Debussy) to live alongside a sort of South American neoclassicism (reminded me of Villa-Lobos's Bachianas). It was lovely, sensual and moving. I can't remember the last time I cared so much about the death of an operatic heroine.
seekingferret: Josiah Bradley in Prison, Reading Fantastic Four (josiah2)
I did a bit of a kickstarter binge this summer, as basically every gamer I know seems to have, and premiums are starting to roll in.

I've seen a PDF rough draft of the first Appendix N adventure, which looks like a lot of fun, and also looks cheap and hasty. I don't think it's a company I'd buy from again, but I think the adventure looks well-suited to running on G+, so it's not a loss. And their mapmaker really is brilliant.

When I saw that the Stonehaven Miniatures Kickstarter had a Dwarven Bard mini, I had to buy in. Dwarven bards are the best. The minis came in this past week, and they look great. Unfortunately I don't actually know how to paint minis, so I guess I'm going to have to learn. I ordered a mini-painting starter kit from Amazon.

I've been getting regular updates from Dwimmermount, but... I have no interest in them. I'm waiting for the book. I don't ever plan to actually run Dwimmermount, but it seems clear that the book is going to be a fountain of great DMing ideas and advice. I'm looking forward to flipping through it and brainstorming. Dwimmermount, for the uninitiated, is a 1E-inspired Megadungeon designed by James Maliszewski. It is inspired by 1920s/30s pulp SF and fantasy, with the massive dungeon being among other things a potential jumping off point for portals to other worlds, as well as an ancient and fascinating and dynamic location in its own regard.

And the new Tabletop Forge beta is out, but I haven't had a chance to run anything with it. I guess the moral of this post is: Guys, I have a new low-level adventure and the D&D Next playtest rules have a new edition and I have a neat new toy to play with to run maps in Google Plus. Who wants to explore the Ruins of Ramat with me?



Unrelatedly, Nate Silver briefly turns his attention back to baseball, his original statistical home. http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/the-statistical-case-against-cabrera-for-m-v-p/

I think he is wrong to argue that these statistical indicators tell us that Trout was more valuable than Cabrera. I think the measures we have to evaluate defensive contributions to a team are improved immeasurably compared to even five years ago, and certainly let us make better comparisons between players than we used to be able to with simply fielding percentages, but there is still a lot of handwaviness in the analysis. I don't believe that simply because a Win Share analysis credits Trout with saving thirty runs, he actually saved thirty runs and that value can be naively added to Trout's offensive run creation.

I've been on-board the sabermetric revolution since the mid-90s, well ahead of Moneyball, but the best statistical analysts have always understood that statistics were an inadequate measure of value that needed to be supplemented with intuition and subjectivity. If a statistic tells us that ARod is a better defensive shortstop than Jeter, that means one of two things. Either ARod is a better shortstop than Jeter, or the statistic is wrong. Shortly after the Moneyball revolution, the Wall Street Journal began a regular sports statistics column written by Allen St. John, and every week I would read it and rage because St. John never took the time and thought to parse out which of the two choices were the right one.

Now I would never accuse Nate Silver of that particular mistake. Silver obviously knows to validate his statistics. I just think he's overestimating their fit. Defense is full of intangibles and unmeasurables, and the work-arounds that modern statisticians use to create usable defensive statistics are powerful, but not all-powerful, and they're still workarounds borne of our inability to directly measure precisely what Defense is.

The point is, statistics are good, but they're not yet perfect at measuring what makes a baseball player great, and they're limited by all the usual GIGO that haunts a mathematical model. If statistics give us a result that is counter to our intuition, sometimes we need to put a human check on them to make sure it's not the math that's at fault.




Also, unrelatedly, I got to the issue of Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos where we get a racist squad member. It is so unintentionally hilarious. And pretty awful, too. The racist squad member tries to ally himself with Reb and Fury against Izzy, Dino, and Gabe, except that Reb and Fury are all "What the fuck are you talking about? We don't take bigots in our squad," which is hilarious when your name is Reb and you're a walking talking Southern stereotype. And then at the end, the racist gets injured by not listening to Izzy the Jew, and Gabe donates blood because they match on blood type, and then the racist freaks out because he has negro blood in him now. Except then Nick Fury gives him a talking to and he gets kicked out the Howlers, but the very last panel suggests that he has learned his lesson and wants to apologize to Gabe and Izzy.

I think I need more Howler/Isaiah Bradley stories, is what I'm saying.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
Playtest went okay. Needs a fucking skill system that makes sense. Not that I would use it correctly most of the time, but it'd give me the guidance I'd need to actually do logical things with noncombat dice use. There was a lot of fumbling "Uh... yeah... give me a dex roll, I guess? And if you can justify any of your skill bonuses, go ahead!"

It also needs monster creation rules. I was going to have to borrow and fudge the bear stats from a different system if my players decided to fight my bear. Fortunately they ran away.

Mostly, as Alai put it, the rules got out of the way and let us play. Which was fine, but I was never clear when that was because of the rules and when that was because I didn't know how to use the rules. Either way, we had a good time, but this game still has a lot that dissatisfies me. And I don't feel like we adequately playtested it in the sense of pushing it to discover the specific problems with the system. Further research required.


I like this setting I invented in thirty seconds, though. The Mannheim Vale is a vale that is geographically isolated from the major political entities of the continent. It has several small goblin villages, along with a few longtime visitors that have established good relations with the goblins by leaving them alone, trading fairly with them. And now there are rumors of adamantium ore in the hills! It's destabilizing the political situation and putting the autonomy of the vale at risk. And I was able to hint at all of that politics subtly enough that the players got that things were going on, but also got that these weren't necessarily plot hooks and didn't need to be chased down immediately. Sometimes I've found as a DM that if I include stuff for flavor, players will decide it's important and I'm forced to make details up fast to either build plot hooks off of their interest or quickly discourage them from pursuing it without being railroady. This time, I struck that balance well. The players didn't approach the scenario as I'd imagined they would, but they never caught me completely off guard. And the stuff I'd stuck in as red herrings was entertaining enough that I don't think they minded wasting their time. My oracular dwarf hermit sage amused people more than he frustrated them, at least.

I've been pushing for a couple months for us to get together a Google hangouts one-shot of the month club with alternating GMs. I decided to view this as a soft launch for the project and at the end of the night asked for someone to step up to take the next alternation. Alai volunteered, so... this might become a thing! I am excited.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
New D&D playtest packet is out and I'm kind of ridiculously excited for the adventure I have planned. I have a great party coming- Alai, Jon, [profile] teal_dear, Nathaniel, and maybe a few others. I found a really neat little One Page Dungeon to use as the centerpiece for the adventure, and I sketched out a region around the dungeon (tentatively calling it the Mannheim Vale) that's interesting enough that I want to run more adventures in the area.

There are still things I'm dubious about with the system. I prefer a more robust skill system- Alai and I have argued for years about whether it's better to open up the skill system and allow freedom and imagination to guide what is possible to try, or to have a codified skill system with clearly assigned skill ranks. My general feeling is that there are many things you do so many times in a dungeon adventure game that to have on-the-fly adjudication for them is silly and inefficient, and to have arbitrary tables is pointless and unwieldy. The great advantage of 'modern' rpgs is their consistency of system. I think the 3E skill system is its best feature, though I've played enough 4E to have reached peace with its frustrations. In any case, 5E by the book specifically encodes a lot of on-the-fly adjudication in its skill system, so I have taken in my planning notes to referring to the equivalent 3.5 skill roll alongside the attribute roll so that I can better conceptualize what's going to happen. I'll see how I like it in game.

I also don't like that the playtest leaves it to the DMs to design the adventure this time (no pre-rolled adventure in this playtest packet), but didn't provide monster generation rules. I like that I get to test the system on my own adventures, but the sample of monsters in the bestiary is inadequate for my needs. (Maybe we're actually supposed to just keep running Caves of Chaos with the rules updates? I'm not sure) I'm going to be doing a mixture of reskinning and number-fudging to get the creatures I want, which is fine, but it's not what I ought to be doing in a playtest. And the way monsters are designed in this system actually seems nice, clear, and easy- once we get monster-generation rules I think I'm going to like building monsters in this system.

I'm glad they added opportunity attack rules to this revision, and I like the rule. I think I like turning the five foot step into a ten foot step but sacrificing an action for that. I think that lets you balance the opportunity attack rules without bogging combat down in minutiae of tactical movement the way constantly five-foot-stepping in melee does in 4E. On the other hand, tactical movement can lead to dynamic, exciting combat, so I'm looking to see if the fighter's new maneuver abilities make up for the loss of detailed tactical movement.

I think I'm also going to move toward one of the optional slow-heal rules. Especially in a one-shot, I don't want players doing the camp in the middle of the dungeon after every combat maneuver and I think slow-heal ought to make players more careful and conscious about managing hit points. And if not, they'll die. :)

But yeah, this should be fun. Will report back after the playtest on Monday.
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I'm in a new D&D campaign that grew out of the old one. I've written a few times about my Dwarven bard, Kelin Rolfsson. The DM advanced the timeline five years, made us start new characters, and has been telling a story about how the world has changed, in part because of decisions our old party made.

The world of the last campaign had been a world of racial and economic tensions, a world of dangerous creatures and great unknown (but not uninhabited) vistas to explore, mysterious cultures to try to develop trade relationships and friendships with. But it was a world, essentially, at peace.

But some of my last party's actions had exploded the tenuous coexistence of the gnomes and the dwarves, leading to an all-out war of conquest by the gnomes and the war-forged battle engines they created. At present, led by their mighty war-forged and supported by their dwarven mine slaves, the gnomes are the most powerful race on the continent and are pushing for even greater conquest. The last dwarven kingdom is in exile. Human nations straddle free territory and occupied territory, and those free human nations that remain are forced to tread carefully or risk losing their access to metal and other goods they need. The elves find their commitment to isolationism in their forest fortresses tested by the new world order. It's really neat to see how the world has changed, and the feeling of 'continent at war' gives the whole adventure a powerfully grim feeling.

My new party is a small group of disaffected adventurers who longs for a return to the old balance of power. My comrades are a human thief escaped from gnomish occupied territory, a human druid cut off from his family when the elves of the Reach threw up their defensive posture, and probably a human cleric when our fourth player is finally available to play. I'm playing a half-orc paladin of Bahamut, Murook of Clan Torm from the swamps where small groups of swamp dwarves, humans, and half-orcs have for centuries managed to coexist despite widely different cultures.

I've given a lot of thought to how half-orc culture looks in this world, because orcishness is hugely racially fraught in D&D and I didn't want to just stumble around through that quagmire. I decided to reject completely the idea that half-orcs are the offspring of orcish hordes raping human women. I don't want to be anywhere near that. My half-orcs are an entirely separate species, not able to breed fruitfully with humans or orcs. They look like a cross between humans and orcs in their physical features, and presumably all three along with elves and dwarves and gnomes had a common proto-humanoid ancestor.

Culturally, half-orcs are beings of hybrid identity. They are a small population and they almost always live in communities that are mixed-race, like Murook's swamp habitat, so they tend to absorb memes from all of the surrounding cultures. There are ideals from human, dwarven, and orc culture that find their way, in some remixed form, into half-orc society. There is, for example, a tendency in half-orc culture to aspire to the [Rousseauian] primitivism of orc society as a pastoral ideal, and therefore Murook and his clan have forsworn the use of steel, and are suspicious of overly complicated technology. Murook's weapons are made of an alchemically hardened bone, and if he uses steel he mortifies himself with self-inflicted wounds as an atonement for the failure of his discipline. Contrariwise human ideas about hierarchy and leadership and social structure inform half-orc clan structure far more than orcish ideas.


All of these ideas are things I've put together in conversation with the DM, and I've really enjoyed the world building. On the other hand, my party had a long argument last night surrounding the fact that philosophically, one of the other players doesn't like world building as a player- he prefers to step into a world that the DM has created and explore it, and finds the idea of the players collaborating with the DM on world building as we go a little frustrating and alien. I think I mentioned before that we call the campaign world "Poof" because when we're improv-ing and telling stories, if we like something we make up we say "Poof" and with DM approval the detail becomes part of the world building. We ended up with swamp dwarves because one of the other players was riffing on dwarf culture and we decided we liked the detail he'd embellished.

I love playing in a campaign like this. I love the mixture of discovering storylines planted by the DM and inventing stories of our own. But I recognize the other player's preference as valid and wonder if we can participate in a campaign that's deferential to both play styles.

Weirdly, my greatest frustration with the campaign is the lack of random encounters. This is a DM preference- he prefers encounters that have some design backstopping them, he says. If he wants there to be something eventful on a trip, he will add it. In last night's session we took a 6 week journey toward elven territory that went entirely uneventfully, and just passed with a moment's mention, and that was frustrating to me because it felt like a 6 week journey is a great opportunity to discover the world and the creatures that are in it. Just having a single random encounter on the way would have made the journey a lot more memorable. I think the fear is that it can turn the game into an XP grind at a sacrifice of story.

Legend

Nov. 30th, 2011 11:17 am
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
I saw a slashvertisement for the Legend rpg system being offered as a pay what you want download with all proceeds going to Child's Play, so I grabbed a copy and kicked in a few dollars. I'd never heard of it before, but having read through much of the book in the past few days, I'm impressed.

Legend is a D20 mod that takes some of what I think are the good innovations of 4E and works them into something that is mostly 3.5ish. The class progression system is a really elegant compromise between customizability and simplicity- you pretty much have to multiclass to do anything interesting, but multiclassing is always designed to be close to balanced and it's always designed to be incredibly easy to apply. If I wanted to run Dorfin Maltby, my mercenary fighter-mage that took me a couple hours of tweaking to design in 4E because of the annoyance that is the hybrid rules, I'd just say "I'm playing a barbarian with the rage track swapped out for the tactician spellcasting track" and I'd just about instantly have a character close to my character concept.

Legend is... I'm not sure I'd say it's purely gamist, I think it's a hybrid of gamist/narrativist (there's a lot of things that would make a simulationist cringe, like increasing melee range with level), but the writing is purely gamist. It's written in the voice of game designers who have spent a lot of time thinking about the trade-offs of rpg design and are trying to justify their design decisions to the reader. A lot of the rulebook is spent discussing game philosophy. This is not a sourcebook for newbie gamers, though I think the game itself probably is. But I really enjoyed it because if you discuss your first principles you make it easier for someone with different preferences to deviate from the rules without breaking the game. If I'm more narrativist in my impulses, I can see where I can fudge the magic rules safely because I understand what motivated their design decisions.

I'm not as convinced by their gimmicky social interaction rules, but it's a gimmick that's worth a try at least once, and it's not essential to the system that you use their social interaction system.

In any case, if I end up at Eve's for New Year's I'm going to try to run a crawl using the system. It looks like it's fun and lightweight in the right places despite taking advantage of the D20 system's ample capacity for complexity and customization.

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seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
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