Friday, August 12, 2011

And While We're At It: PC Quirks & Flaws

In my last post I made the case that true old school roleplaying in the D&D flavor required 3d6 recorded in the order rolled for ability scores. Check it out if you haven't yet. It's a bit longish, but mainly because of all the lists of stats. Anyway, in that same vein I will now make the case for including some sort of a system for quirks and flaws in your game.

As we said last time, 3d6 in order represent nature in the D&D game worlds. Following that same logic PCs should also have a certain amount of personality characteristics that represent weaknesses, strengths, foibles and eccentricities that we all, as people, possess. This mechanic is as venerable as the game itself, first appearing as an Arduin's Grimoire supplement. That piece listed traits or background experiences that actually gave in game bonuses or other potential help to the PC. The mechanic has continued up through modern iterations where lists of quirks and flaws have extended to the hundreds.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that you let die rolls tell you how your PC acts or behaves. The idea to is to give roundedness and a realism to each PC by showing the bad with the good, the ugly with the beautiful. We all know what this is like. I have asthma, as I've mentioned before. I also suffer from anxiety and am slightly nearsighted. These things affect my life and make me part of who I am. If you hang around me for any period of time you will notice these things and they will affect how you see me and relate to me. Something else critical is that I didn't ask for these. They are due to genetics and the environment. I would much rather have chosen some more readily apparent but less life affecting quirks like "big nose", "different colored eyes" or even "male pattern baldness". But, as they say, the Gawds have a sense of humor. So these PC quirks and flaws should be randomly determined. Don't hand pick them. The point is not to pick something you can live with. Random determination of quirks gives us a sense of nature offering up a plate of goods with which we must work.

PC roleplaying is a very personal matter. Some have a hard time breaking out of their shells. Others don't have a dramatic bone in their body. In their mind's eye, they might clearly imagine how their PC is acting and the flair with which he says certain things, but it can be hard for some people to convey that at the table. A little note on your character sheet that Dirk the Daring Dastard, 3rd level Thief has a tendency to twirl his coal black mustache, or even better chew at the ends is a colorful addition.

Good RPGs support such playing. But it's true, quirks and flaws are not a part of the D&D core element. The game can be played without them. And good roleplayers seem to do this kind of stuff intuitively. But all too often we are loathe to linger on things that might be considered weakness. Things like, Varbatelle the Fighter is deathly afraid of cats. When she was an impressionable girl of but six years she found her mother dead on her bed. Her mother's favorite black cat Instigo resting on her chest, licking the drooling saliva off of her mother's chin. She was certain with the certainty only the mind of a child can achieve, that the evil cat had killed her. The cat had always hated Varba anyway. Had scratched at her whenever she got near. The thing was evil she now was sure. For weeks, months and years after she kept a wary eye on the beastly thing; and always locked her door when she went to sleep at night to keep the cat out while she slept. At 12 years of age she finally killed the old thing. But not without suffering a vicious scratch for her efforts. Three days later she was down with a deathly fever, red streaks rising like streams of fire up her wounded arm. The crimson scratches left by the devilish feline were swollen and hot to the touch. The heat soon reached her heart and she almost died. A month later after numerous visits from the physikers she was able to leave the bed. She was not the same however and her constitution never fully recovered. Reflecting her slightly low constitution score for a fighter.

That kind of color can be inspired but the acquisition of such a silly trait. Just writing down the traits without thinking them through and working them into your character gains us little. Such a PC creation mechanic is designed to achieve the kind of roleplaying we might hope to achieve and also makes our heroes much more believable and real. It gives them depth, gives them gravitas.

I remember reading The Eyes of The Dragon by Stephen King my senior year in school. That strange little book affected me deeply. Partly because King is such a "human" writer. He knows human nature and draws that thread through all of his stories. But specifically because in the story King Roland's faults are revealed to his own sons sons, secretly and gradually. The deep bitterness that turned Thomas to the king's evil adviser Flagg for comfort was entirely believable and understandable. The work clearly shows how very human situations can create such evil. Stephen R. Donaldson's novels had also become popular again during my high school years. Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, leper and outcast from society was that series savior and hero. The idea of having such an inherently flawed and unwilling hero was a relatively new concept in current fantasy literature and was immensley powerful.

I suppose at that time in my youth I too was running into certain double standards apparent in the adult world; and I was realizing that the rose colored glasses of my youth may have been slightly defective. I was disillusioned about many things and becoming aware that the world could be a deceitful, dread place. Perhaps that is why those heroes had such an impact on me. But I also think it was their flawed natures. For in them I saw myself. I might not have leprosy or a trusted brother and friend of my father poisoning him, but I had flaws. And by 17 those flaws were affecting me in very awkward ways. Those flaws could be the end of me, or they could be my redemption. And that, my friends, is a factor worthy of inclusion in any roleplaying game.

Character Generation: A Method to The Munchkin Madness

Okay, I don't know of the RPG blog that hasn't covered the topic of "how do you roll up PCs?" So here is my obligatory foray into that most controversial of realms. Some don't see it as so controversial. I suppose in the end it depends on the GM and the players in question. But it's rare to find a system that makes everybody happy. So what I thought I'd do is examine the most common PC creation methods and see if we can develop some idea why you would choose one over another. I'll also make my case for what some consider the most brutal: 3d6 in order.

Alright first let's consider the most common methods in use today:

  • 3d6
  • 4d6 drop the lowest
  • Roll 3d6 for 12 PCs and pick the PC you prefer
  • Roll 18d6 and pick 3 at a time for each stat until all dice are gone
  • 5d6 drop lowest 2
  • 2d6+6
  • 1d6+12
  • 75 + 1d6 point allocation
  • Straight 80 point allocation
  • More complex point buy systems

And the variations that can be added to any of the above
  • Reroll 1s
  • Reroll 1s & 2s
  • In order rolled
  • In order of choice
  • Point shift methods
  • Set maximum number of ability points (80, 90, 100 etc.)

So what I did is roll some dice. Lots of dice. I could have grabbed my statistics books and done some stats to more accurately assess the power of each method. But there's nothing like the real thing. And, heck, I'm a gamer ... I like rolling dice. My little experiment consisted of going through each of these methods and rolling up ten sets of stats. Nothing like looking at actual character stats to see the strengths and weaknesses of each method, eh? I'll leave analysis to the end, so here are my results:

4d6 drop the lowest
Theoretical Average      =  12.2

11, 15, 11, 14, 8, 15    =  12.8
7, 11, 9, 10, 5, 7          =  8.2
16, 13, 16, 13, 15, 16  =  14.8
15, 8, 17, 15, 8, 7        =  11.7
15, 10, 17, 11, 11, 10  =  11.3
12, 8, 14, 15, 15, 10    =  12.3
15, 13, 13, 15, 16, 14  =  14.3
15, 14, 12, 11, 7, 10    =  11.5
10, 11, 17, 7, 3, 17      =  12.5
15, 12, 12, 14, 5, 13    =  11.8

Experimental Avg         =  12.2

Theoretical Average    =  10.5

8, 9, 15, 9, 16, 17      =  12.3
11, 11, 12, 9, 10, 10  =  10.5
10, 11, 11, 13, 9, 7    =  10.2
10, 14, 10, 9, 14, 10  =  11.2
13, 12, 9, 9, 13, 7      =  10.5
11, 12, 12, 6, 7, 3      =  8.5
13, 11, 9, 11, 10, 7    =  10.2
12, 9, 13, 5, 8, 12      =  9.8
9, 14, 8, 9, 13, 9        =  10.3
8, 9, 12, 3, 12, 4        =  8

Experimental Average = 10.2

Theoretical Average  =  10.5

18, 12, 8, 8, 8, 5  =  9.8
9, 11, 11, 7, 10, 5  =  8.8
16, 14, 9, 9, 5, 4  =  9.5
11, 9, 9, 10, 11, 12  =  10.3
11, 11, 11, 11, 8, 7  =  9.8
16, 15, 10, 10, 8, 5  =  10.7
17, 12, 15, 10, 8, 6  =  11.3
13, 13, 11, 12, 9, 9  =  11.2
18, 17, 15, 12, 11, 8  =  13.5
11, 10, 11, 11, 10, 8  =  10.2

Experimental Average  =  10.2

2d6 + 6
Theoretical Average     =  13

13, 12, 12, 13, 14, 15  =  13.3
9, 8, 16, 16, 10, 12      =  11.8
12, 16, 15, 15, 15, 17  =  15
13, 13, 14, 16, 15, 16  =  14.5
16, 8, 16, 16, 12, 12    =  13.3
13, 10, 14, 12, 16, 10  =  12.5
12, 14, 12, 14, 13, 14  =  13.2
16, 9, 15, 11, 12, 15    =  13
11, 12, 16, 14, 13, 13  =  13.2
15, 16, 15, 14, 14, 13  =  14.5

Experimental Average  =  13.4

1d6 + 12
Theoretical Average     =  15.5

16, 16, 17, 13, 17, 17  =  16
18, 17, 13, 13, 17, 18  =  16
15, 17, 13, 17, 16, 14  =  15.3
17, 15, 18, 16, 18, 18  =  17
16, 17, 18, 13, 17, 17  =  16.3
14, 18, 15, 18, 18, 17  =  16.7
18, 13, 17, 14, 14, 13  =  14.8
18, 18, 13, 16, 14, 14  =  15.5
16, 14, 18, 15, 17, 17  =  16.2
15, 13, 18, 17, 15, 18  =  16

Experimental Average  =  16

75 Points + 1d6
Theoretical Average  =  12.2

15, 15, 12, 12, 12, 11  =  12.8
12, 16, 12, 11, 12, 12  =  12.5
8, 10, 11, 12, 12, 13  =  12.6
10, 10, 10, 15, 15, 16  =  12.6
8, 12, 18, 10, 15, 14  =  12.8
13, 13, 13, 13, 13, 15  =  13.3
18, 18, 14, 10, 10, 10  =  13.3
12,16, 12, 14, 12, 13  =  13.2
16, 16, 16, 16, 8, 6  =  13
12, 13, 12, 12, 10, 14  =  12.2

Experimental Average  =  12.8

Now, before my opinionated analysis, we have to recall that almost all games in the D&D family use the same stat base. That is, 3 to 18. What some D&D gamers forget is most people fall into the average range. 10.5 is the attribute average for the system. To give you some idea of what this means: you could lift 105 pounds over your head; your IQ would be 105 (90 to 110 is average in our world), which means you likely did well in school and probably attended college; you would enjoy average health and stamina, which means you could run about a mile without overly taxing yourself, and you are sick about 5 days out of the year; you would enjoy reasonable dexterity able to juggle three balls with practice or catch a falling glass about half the time; of average looks you would enjoy a moderate circle of friends, and be capable of leading or managing a small team of of 4 to 5 people; you would find learning another language or two easy, and in fact may be bilingual already; you also could memorize your parts in a play or several mathematical formulas for easy recall; you are fairly well grounded, possess common sense, and your gut instincts are right about half the time.

Put in this way we get the picture of a person who could do just about anything he put his mind to. So let's take a very ordinary man, myself, and examine his stats:

Strength: 8 and that's on a good day. I used to lift weights, fence and do martial arts, but now I'm an overweight, asthamtic 42 year old with a largely sedentary job. Having fought before on the mat I know I could not hold my own as a fighter right now. Sad, but true.

Intelligence: 12 If I have any redeeming quality it is this (thank heavens there's at least one). The last IQ test I took rated me at 120. I have four degrees: Anthropology, English Literature, Mathematics and Education. I speak fluent Spanish, Portugeuse and can read Latin and Ancient Greek. I am also teaching myself Old English.

Wisdom: 11 I get one extra point above 10 for having been religious all of my life. And heck I'm middle aged. That at least gets me one added for age : - )

Dexterity: 9 I can still juggle three balls, but my quickness and speed have diminished. All I have to do is step on the fencing mat to know that's a fact.

Constitution: 8 I suffer here from being out of shape as well. I'm sick about twice the average (around ten days a year--unless I get my flu shot). And I've developed asthma due to really bad seasonal allergies. I don't handle stress well and hot weather wipes me out in no time (I'm prone to heat exhaustion).

Charisma: 9 People say I have natural leadership ability, but I hate leading. Absolutely despise it. So I make a good first impression, am a good public speaker (but stress for days after having to do it) but really don't make the long haul when it comes to Charisma. And my looks aren't anything to write home about either.

You might say I'm being modest. But honestly I think I represent the average American 40 something male fairly well. But here's the kicker: I go camping, canoeing, horseback riding and hiking with our local Boy Scouts. I was a fencing instructor and have belts in three martial arts. I fly-fish in the mountain streams near our home. I am the department head for our department at the school where I teach and am responsible for managing 11 employees. I teach classrooms full of children and personally manage the casefiles of over 25 special needs children. I frequently attend and testify at court cases as a professional witness. Am on three different leadership and steering committees for math instruction in our district. I am (modestly saying) a popular speaker at church, teach our congregation's Sunday school class and was at one time a pastoral leader of over 400 local members. I am also an amateur paranormal investigator specializing in monstrous phenomena and have networked with noted UFO researcher Junior Hicks (Utah UFO Display). I served in US Army Intelligence and was an expert marksman. I am a passable tracker, can identify most local mammals, birds, insects and regional fauna; and have significant wilderness survival skills. I have lived in Korea and Paraguay, South America for years at a time. I have examined petrolgyphs of bygone indigenous peoples on two continents and can speak a smattering of two Indian Dialects. Our family runs an orchard of over 200 fruits trees and manages a small farm including husbanding uor stock. In the summers I work as a biological field technician and spend my days traipsing all over creation in the woods and foothills of the nearby mountains.

The point of mentioning all of this is not to toot my own horn or post an online resume. We could all make lists like that of our own lives. I'm no different from the rest of humanity in that regard. My point is that an average guy with very average stats does an awful lot of interesting things and leads a very full life. And my second point is that I'm not hopeless as an adventurer. Back in the day I might have rated an 11 strength and dexterity and a 10 con but doubtfully any higher. Could I enter a dark cave and manage myself as an intrepid adventurer? Sure I could! I think, given my innate strengths, I would have chosen Mage as a class and done passably well as one. The critical thing wasn't that I could memorize tons of spells you see--I'm fairly limited in that regard. But that I used my native wit to employ the spells I did possess with savvy and cunning guile. That is the idea old school D&D is based upon. Normal men doing extraordinary things.

If anything my purpose is to champion the average man. It is average man that rules the world. Now, let's take some extreme examples and compare.

Truly great power-lifters do max standing presses at around 500 pounds. The current world record for the clean and press is somewhere near 531 pounds. Which, according to 2e rules, which have more info on max press vs just lifting above the head rule, places their strength at somewhere around 18/50. (1e reads slightly differently.) But max press for 19 is listed as 680 pounds. So the strongest men in the world are below 19 strength. And most lifters max out in the range of 200 to 300 pounds which puts their strength at around 16 or 17. These are very strong men.

Mensa requires that you must score in the 98th percentile of the IQ test. Which varies slightly from test to test. But generally is above 130. Which means that their intelligence ability would be 13. Given the standard curve, only two percent of the civilized world would qualify. However, there are those rare few that go higher. Stephen Hawking is 160, or intelligence 16. World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov scores 190 or a 19 intelligence. And the Guinness world's record for the smartest man goes to Kim Ung Yong from Korea with an estimate of over 210. That's one smart mage at 21 Int. And keep in mind that most college professors and PhDs (the equivalent of our world's schools of magic and home to wizards and sages) tend to score from between 125 and 140. That's 12 to 14 intelligence.

Wisdom is difficult to measure, but let's give 18 wisdom to the founders of the world's major religions (assuming we are not going to subscribe divine stats to them), which number about 200 over recorded history (a very rough statistic at best, but I'm being generous). Now, since recorded history began (figuring from the Sumerian Era) there have been about 60 billion people live on Earth. Let's double the number of people with 18 wisdom to account for those we might have missed which give us .000007 % of the world's population over time have had 18 wisdom. That's 7 millionths of a percent. The math here is extremely rough, but we can expect one person every 145 years to have 18 Wisdom. We might expect the Saints and major figures within the world's religion to have wisdom from 14 to 16. Monks and Nuns would be expected to score from 12 to 13.

Are you beginning to get the picture? If 18 is to be the pinnacle of human development attribute-wise it is going to be very rare. Even from an extremely generous standpoint. Now, this makes some assumptions about how you play D&D. We are talking real, old school D&D here. 3 to 18 were mortal scores. When you transcend 18 you were entering demigod status. Hackmaster 4e and 2e reflect this ethos well. I don't think the original game took as much time thinking about relating game scores to human scores other than saying that was the case. But even 4e reflects human maximums at close to 18 (check out this site).

But yet in many D&D games PCs run around with one or two 18s, and few scores below 12 or 13. They might as well be walking Gawds! Exceeding human norms on so many scales they are literally freaks of nature. Even real world examples of humans with an exceptional stat have absolutely normal stats elsewhere. An Olympic powerlifter might look something like this:

Str: 17
Int: 10
Wis: 9
Dex: 10
Con: 12
Cha: 7

Or even a champion MMA fighter

Str: 15
Int: 10
Wis: 9
Dex: 14
Con: 12
Cha: 10

Which would both make stats of darn good fighters. But ask most players and they might consider such PCs unplayable. Methods of die rolling that encourage inflated and grossly misrepresented stats detract from what the game was meant to achieve.

The common argument for such extreme measures is that players don't get to play the class they want to if we expect them to only roll 3d6. Well there's a reason for that too. Paladins, Druids, Illusionists, Monks, Assassins, Cavaliers, Barbarians, Acrobats, Bards, and Rangers are designed to be very rare game classes. They only come along once in a blue moon. The standard classes are classes just about anyone can qualify for: Fighter, Mage, Thief and Cleric. You ever wonder why it only takes a 9 in a prime attribute to qualify for such classes. Because they are the foundation of the game. The only unplayable PC you can roll up is a set of stats with Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom and Dexterity ALL below 9. That one you get to re-roll. D&D has a built in assumption: you are playing in a D&D world. If we let everyone pick the class we want first and then use a method which generates the stats they need to play that class, we are playing in some other game world. Sorry but that's just the way it is.

Which brings me at long last to my analysis of the above methods. One can quickly see the 4d6 drop the lowest method raises the average by a full two points. That is simply not reflective of the concept explained above. 18d6 maintains the 10.5 average but allows players to assign one or more outstanding attributes. That too is unrealistic and should be avoided. Other more cheating oriented methods, and they are as many as the days of the Sun, only compound the problem. I have chosen 2d6 + 6 and 1d6 + 12 but these raise the averages horrendously and we are dealing with freaks of nature again. The game becomes a parody of itself in this case. Heaven forbid we allow rerolls of 1s or even 1s and 2s.

Point buy methods are seen as a way to "balance" characters. But one of the tenets of old school is to forget balance. And honestly it is a gross misrepresentation of the natural biological balance of life. 75 attribute points + 1d6 is the only method I chose but you can see that it generates an average or 12 or 13 and again allows players to assign earth-shattering abilities in one or more areas. Other point buy methods can lower the average, but you still have the ability to assign too frequent unbelievable stats. Some examples of other point buy spreads are.
  • 60 points = an average score of 10
  • 63 = 10.5
  • 65 = 10.8
  • 70 = 11.7
  • 80 = 13.3
  • 85 = 14.2
  • 90 = 15 (and if you have even got close to this far you should go play Rifts or something)
So, we can see that such methods simply skew the game. Thus 3d6 makes for the best method for rolling up characters in line with the game's objectives. Given the spread above for the ten sets of stats generated with 3d6 every character class is possible except for monk. If you feel the need for magnanimity the furthest I would go would be the Method IV in the DMG which allows the generation of 12 separate characters rolled by 3d6 from which the player can pick. Anything else screws with nature.

Nature presents us with complete packages. We are not genetic engineers selecting for certain attributes when we build characters. We take what nature gives us. Which is the reason I prefer recording stats IN ORDER. Nature doesn't favor strength, constitution, dexterity, intelligence or any other factor. Nature shoots for a median. Occasionally you get an exception in one or another area. Maybe strength is high but wisdom is low. Or vice versa. That's nature man. But you can expect a statistical mean over time. 3d6 gives us this in game terms. We go screwing with Mother Nature and things get all out of whack.

So when players come to my table they are choosing to be born into a D&D world. They don't know what body they are going to get anymore than we do when we leave the womb. It is what it is. And playing an average person striving to become a hero is inspirational. It's moving. Sure we are all inspired by Conan and Batman and Spidey. But the fact is none of us are like them. None of us ever will be. But average people becoming heroes translates to our world and inspires us here and now. What if i got translated to a fantasy world now, today? Could I make it? That's what the game gives us the chance to experience. We can overcome great odds, even though we are at best average people. It is yet another case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. We rise above our native ability and do great things. I mean take a PC with 2 or 3 18's and every other stat above 14. Who wouldn't expect such a Wolverine type mutant to conquer the world?! If he dies it's his own stupid fault. Nature gave him everything! He can't blame the heavens for cursing him with mediocrity. This is the ethos original D&D was built upon. It is the old school way. And this has been my bid to get rid of all the other cheating methods and simply roll 3d6 in order and go out and make history.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Secret Fire: More Than Meets The Eye

I'm a sucker for weirdness. Weird people, weird clothes, weird books, weird movies, weird music, weird circumstances--heck if it's strange and different and in some way slightly magical I'm intrigued. You've got me. I'm hooked. At least for awhile. Alot of weird things in life are just transient phenomena. Style shifts, fads, overreaching, poor imitations at creativity, shallow, bad interpretation, faulty sensors or basically not at all weird upon second look. And then there's real weirdness. I'm not sure I've blogged about it much, but I am an amateur paranormal investigator, and an open minded skeptic. In fact I sort of subscribe to the Zetetic philosophy where such phenomena occur. I also hold some rather unconventional beliefs about role playing games that I don't talk alot about, well ... 'cause they're weird. And not everyone likes weird like I like weird. Weird can be a little scary to some people. Who'm I kidding? It's scary to me sometimes. At any rate, this may seem like a weird introduction to a role playing game shout out, but it actually fits. 'Cause "Secret Fire" is more than passing strange.

First this little post is just that, a shout out. I haven't purchased the game yet, so I can't give it a proper review. I'm going strictly on the hype, what others are saying and what comes from George Strayton's website. But this is what I take away from the game concept. First, the mechanics are touted as being based on encouraging roleplaying within the game. Which sounds like a cool concept. This is mainly accomplished via energy points which are gained as you get into your character. For those who may find it difficult players are given lines to recite when they attack or defend. Certain keywords or phrases in a description let others in the group know exactly to what you are referring. An example from the site reads,

--Dave shouts out, “Using my muscular strength, I slash at the Goblin with my longsword Garm’s Tooth, landing a serious blow for 10 points of damage! I finish the attack by slamming my shoulder into the Goblin’s chest, knocking it to the ground!”--

The template for such actions is described on the character sheet as,

"Using my (ability descriptor) (ability), I (landing/inflicting/etc.) a (damage descriptor) (blow/fireball/etc.) that inflicts (X) damage and (additional energy point effects)."

Now, some may blanch at the idea of using such arguably contrived and pre-written roleplay dialogue. However, George makes it clear that such lines will eventually be improvised and elaborated upon in the course of play. The entire point of such dialogue-based mechanics is to increase and reward roleplay within the game. And the fact is the game aims to "teach" roleplaying as an integral part of the game. You really don't seem to be able to play Secret Fire very well without roleplaying. So you either rely on stock dialogue or you get good at acting your role, or you die. Heck, you may die anyway--but you'll evidently do it with style.

So far, not too weird, right? Well it gets better. George and his development team have included some fairly overt references to the occult within the game. Now I personally don't a problem with this. In fact I think it poses some interesting questions about the game. But the picture of Baphomet from Eliphas Levi's book was an interesting choice for what basically amounts to the title page. As was the strange inclusion of the evocational sigil of the Heptogram, sometimes known as the Devil's Trap. Was this intentional or did it just look cool? I have yet to translate the Greek on the title page, and the other passages are in alphabets with which I am unfamiliar. George has said that there is a puzzle within the game, which if folks solve will unlock bonuses of some sort or other. His open inclusion of powerful occult imagery may be nothing more than following in Gary's footsteps when he did the same in D&D back in the '70s. Or it may be something more.

Then there is the strange "deleted comment" where a reader supposedly asked whether the game was a "satire" on Mazes & Monsters aiming at a spiritual experience. ... What?! To which George gives a slanted sort of response about how the game is designed to evoke a powerful experience much like great movies. A later comment by another reader speculates that the deleted comment was referring to LARPing, to which George says no. SF is played "like D&D" around a table.

And then there is his dedication. One of the more noble and strange dedications I have come across in an RPG.

"Dedicated to the work of E. Gary Gygax, Plato, Will Shakespeare, J. Krishnamurti, The Secret Society of Neo-Platonists, Eckhart Tolle, Joseph Campbell, J. R. R. Tolkien, George Lucas, Carl Jung, Thich Nhat Hanh, D.T. Suzuki, Ralph Waldo Emerson"

Which brings me to a slight hint about my own theories on roleplaying. RPGs, being rooted in the storytelling tradition which is rooted in the mythic tradition and by relation the religious or spiritual tradition, have a very powerful effect that few realize. At the least George seems to recognize this by referring to several spiritual teachers in his dedication. Not the least of which are Carl Jung and Joesph Campbell, that I've blogged about before. He is clearly connecting the power of roleplaying to its archetypal roots. While doing so he is employing powerful occult imagery that evokes a primal response in all of us on one level or another. Jung was about exploring the depths of our unconscious and the manifestations within ourselves of the greater collective unconscious. This shadowy "other-realm" is indeed an enchanted land where we, for a time at least, touched the Gods and were touched by them. Keep that in mind as you think about this quote from George,

"The foundation for TSF lies with the unknown, the dark and dangerous subworld which we all fear and yet desire to inhabit, if only for a brief time (so that we may survive and return to the world above and repeat). With that, we begin our journey…."

Subworld ... Very interesting verbal construction. Dungeon exploration = subconscious ... Underworld ... Baphomet ... Devil's Trap. It makes you think, eh? Especially if you know anything about western esoteric traditions. Fascinating stuff. Absolutely fascinating.

Now, George is not, I think, insidious. I don't subscribe some hideous ulterior motive to him or his game. Neither am I downing his game. It likely has no more subtle agenda than does White Wolf with Masquerade and Mage. But taken altogether the game strikes me as very different from our usual fare in the Fantasy RPG market. There are also diceless and player driven storyline games out there. Games that focus much more on player narrative than on GM world design. Whether he has incorporated such approaches and to what extent I still remain uncertain. I'm just gonna have to buy the book. The quality of the game appears high, and as I said it has more than its share of the weird factor.

George is apparently making a plea to become "the" game though. Not sure how that will go. He has evidently come up with a novel approach. Unless the TSF play experience is as fundamentally different as D&D was from everything else in its day remains to be seen. Somehow I doubt that it is. But I can't help but wonder. It is after all still an RPG played with dice around a table. Which says nothing against it. Just that it is yet another variation in the venerable tradition which Gary started. Which brings me to my last point. Gail Gygax's endorsement. I didn't expect to see that. The only reason I can think of to explain that is because George appears to be involved in a biopic of Gary's life. At least he seems to allude to that on his site.

So, this amazing new RPG has me intrigued to say the least. It's moniker may even come from The Secret Fire of Tolkien which represented the life force of Middle Earth itself. Whether the game lives up to that lofty ideal time will tell. But either way you can bet I'm putting this game on my to buy list.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Setting Up a School Based RPG Club

Well, it's a new school year and I'm back in the classroom. And believe it or not the thing on my mind which I look forward to the most, but am also the most confused about is our School RPG Club. If you are a teacher, parent or student and would like to see an RPG club at your school I may have some advice for you. Frankly I change the way we do things every year, so I'm not sure I speak with much authority. But the club is now in it's 6th year and we have an annual enrollment of about 25 students in a school with two grades. That's not too bad. Based on those numbers we are one of the most popular clubs in the entire school. I don't really attribute that to anything we do as a club, the credit really goes to the games, but we have learned a few things.

First off, I don't know if I can improve much over what Katrina Middleburg Creswell wrote about her RPG club on the Role Playing Tips Blog. I heartily recommend much of her advice. But some of the things that have worked for them have not worked for us. So rule number one, which should really go without saying, is Do What Works For Your Situation. The important thing is that the game must go on. So do what you have to do to make the club work for you and your situation.

Okay, my advice isn't as detailed as Katrina's, but it does apply to most situations:

1. Get Authorized Permission

Make sure you are complying with whatever rules and procedures are needed to establish a club at your school. This may or may not include writing up a proposal, filling out forms, securing advisers, getting background checks for those advisers, writing club by laws and procedures, finding a location and supplies, statement of funding etc. etc. If you are a student I would encourage you to find a sympathetic teacher to help you. If not, talk with your Principal, Vice Principal, Counselor or the like to find out what you need to do.

2. Get Members

Hopefully you're already familiar with few people that know about gaming and want to start a club. But if not, don't despair. Honestly blanket advertising is the best way to draw in members. Fliers, posters, emails, word of mouth, and don't just limit yourself to school. Put them at the local library, at hobby shops and anywhere else kids are likely to hang out or frequent. Be sure you comply with school rules if you are hanging posters or handing out fliers at school though. It is always a good idea to keep a stack of fliers at the front office and in the school library where kids check out. You'll want to have a few things on the adverts for sure. Besides a basic blurb covering what the club is about, you'll want a contact name and number. Let them know how they can sign up for the club and when the first meeting is. You'll also want to make sure you have a sign-up form for them to either pick up or give them at the first meeting. Some schools have official forms for this, some don't. Either way you'll want to be clear about club rules on the forms and have student and parent signatures.

3. Game On Your First Meeting

There is nothing that will scare off members faster than a boring first meeting. If you find it impossible to game that day, then at least have plenty of game books, maps, adventures, dice and minis to look at and maybe even roll up characters that day. Sometimes choosing what game to play and who are going to be the GMs can take a little while and it is best to try and handle this stuff before hand. This can be done by having a short check off list or voting list on the member sign up forms (good reason to hand them out before the first meeting). You can also have a GM sign up on the form as well. Somewhere they can indicate if they want to GM, and what games they will GM. This really only works if you have experienced players; because you don't want a new gamer trying to GM for club members. If she struggles that might scare off members as well. Only rely on experienced gamers for your GMs. If you do have mutliple GMs it also helps, but is not essential, to have a GMs only pre-meeting. This way concerns can be discussed, plans can be made and the club can be more generally organized. At the least let GMs know when the first meeting is and to come prepared to help players roll up PCs and get their game started. These GM meetings can be a regular occurrence if there's a need for a support group.

4. Ensure Game Set Up & Continuity

First of all, however you do it, you need a way to divide players into groups and set up GMs. There are a gajazillion ways to do this, but a few things are of paramount consideration. Pick capable GMs. GMs you can rely and their players can rely on. This usually mean players with at least a year's experience playing and preferably GMing experience. You may need to rotate them if they get burnt out, and I wouldn't expect a young GM to run a quality game more than once week. Secondly assign players in a fair fashion. Friends like to stay together, and that's okay. Try, however, to spread newbies around amongst more experienced gamers and always make sure no one feels like they are the last one picked. This can be done by assigning groups before hand at a GM meeting, or by club officers and advisers. Players should also be able to rely on a game running when they come for a club meeting. GMs should rarely if ever cancel. And the game should provide a degree of continuity over time. Don't change systems or adventures every other session. Players that have to miss occasionally need to inform GMs if at all possible and a houserule established for how to handle missing players. Finding GMs up to the task of GMing a regular game like this can be a challenge. Especially among younger players. Club organizers and officers, if you have any, need to be ready to step in if there is a need for a GM replacement. Support your GMs for they are the heart of your club. The Players are the lifeblood.

5. Be Inclusive

Running a school club that has any hope of remaining solvent for more than a year or two requires new members and non-exclusivity. An elitist attitude can kill a game club over time. Be prepared to embrace people into the club that are not like you, prefer different things and even people that annoy you. While it is critical to have basic club rules for proper behavior and gaming etiquette, we may find there are still people that rub us the wrong way. But this is a community club. Ideally it should be open to all who would like to come in and play. A school club does as much for the hobby of gaming as it does for its members. Make the club a home for rude, exclusive, elitist attitudes and you hurt the hobby as much as the club. If you and your small group of friends want to game together exclusively you should try and make that happen at home on your own time. While it is possible to set up club groups keeping friends together, it may not always work out that way. Make the club a way to network with other gamers and expand your gaming horizons. A club should be welcoming in addition to being well run.

6. Have A Problem Solving Method

Problems will erupt. Personal, game related and otherwise. Have a quiet and clear way of handling these. Let everybody be clear on what this method is. Here it helps to have recourse to authority. Usually this is either club officers or the club adviser/s. Everyone in the club should know they have a way to bring concerns to the attention of club administration. And that the problem will be addressed. When a personal problem is reported, first listen to the person concerned. Hear them out and try and understand exactly what their complaint is. Afterwards talk with them, ask questions to clarify, restate the problem so that you make sure you understand it. Also ask them if they have talked to the offending party it. And if possible work out possible solutions with the concerned member. If the complaint involves another member this often requires a brief private meeting with the offending individual. Bring the concern to their attention, and talk with them about it. Troubleshoot possible solutions with the person and come up with a plan of action. Officers and or advisers should also be in communication and check up on problems to make sure they are not chronic. And be sure to include parents were students are concerned. Other sorts of problems are often best resolved by a club vote. The important thing is to face the problem and fix it.

7. Use Retro Clones!

Okay, that's not a hard fast rule. But you will run up against how to go about paying for supplies. And game books aint cheap. That's the primary reason I recommend clones for school based clubs. They are free for download or access online, and they are very newbie friendly. You can of course game with whatever you and your members choose. But acquiring club materials can be a challenge. You can charge dues. We never have, but Katrina evidently does with success. You can have fundraisers, but they can be a real headache. You can take donations if the school allows. If you do so it is almost easier if you accept books and dice instead of money. That can create legal issues. You can even set up sponsors if you so choose. The point is you will want a couple copies of each of the core rulebooks, mostly Players Handbooks. GMs will want their own copies and players are likely going to want their own copies as well. Retro Clones provide a nice and elegant solution to this potentially sticky problem.

Well, that's about it in a nutshell. I've come a long way from trying and failing to set up our HS club back when I was a Freshman. We got shut down due to all the bad press D&D was receiveing at the time. That can sometimes be an issue even today. If you run into that let me know, there are lots of gaming advocacy sites, essays and research to back you up nowadays. In the end, if you game and have the opportunity, start a club. It does wonders for the hobby and is great for the the kids who participate. And it's a heck of a lot of fun too.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Adventures Dark & Deep: A Gygaxian Legacy

Some time ago I started thinking about a project. What would Gary's second edition have been like, had he been allowed to actually create it. I'm sure I'm not alone in this ponderation, but I did start to make notes about what would be included in the game. As I began to search the web for quotes and ideas from Gary on what exactly this might be I ran across a post from Joseph Bloch, the Greyhawk Grognard. Excellent stuff, as usual, from Joseph. But what excited me even more was that Joseph had already had the same plans for some time and was working on what he was calling Emprise--the recreation of a Gygaxian Second Edition. This was very cool, and saved me tons of work that I was probably not up to the task of performing anyway. Well, 2010 saw Joseph working feverishly to release what he ended up calling Adventures Dark & Deep. Nice acronymal play I must say--AD&D. Though the real acronym used for the game would be ADD.

Well, the game has been released in playtest form, which you can download from his ADD site. The books are divided into A Players Manual, Gamemasters Tool Kit, and Bestiary. Joseph is also working on his first supplement, or more accurately a tie in game called Adventures Great & Glorious still in development. Now, let me say that there are any number of retro-clones out there to choose from for an older style of play. There are also a great number of variants and indie games being published and on the market. You can literally pick your fruit according to your tastes, likes, desires and preferences. Many games have in fact tried to recreate what other games have done more accurately or completely. But ADD stands a bit apart in my opinion. For what Joseph has achieved is to write a game very much like what Gary might have written had he been allowed to rewrite AD&D 1e.

Every quote and reference Gary made or wrote about his thoughts on changes that might make it into an AD&D revision seem to be incorporated into Joseph's ADD. The game is a beautiful tribute to Gary's AD&D dreams and legacy. Now, we all know that Gary changed over the years in his opinions of gaming, games and the industry as a whole. He became a bit bitter and cynical about some things. To be fair he was up against treachery and villainy time and again. I personally believe Gary's strength, his forte, his calling was the creation of games. He loved games and he was a creative and inspirational person. His business acumen, unfortunately, left something to be desired. And his good faith in others led him to ruin, which is a sad statement on the cold harsh reality of life. Many say the Lejendary Adventures was Gary's legacy, but truly he was forced into that game by circumstances. When he first had the option of creating a new game he did so with Dangerous Dimensions which was his attempt to return to AD&D. But his own company sued him for copyright infringement and stopped that project. It was only after the suit that he went in a different direction.

Joseph, with careful reverence attempts to take up the torch. And I for one think he has done an admirable job. So much so, that I am now raising ADD to the top of my list for consideration of my game of choice and for the potential publishing of my own material at some point in the future. I am now giving all the rulebooks a careful re-read and like what I am seeing even more than I did previously. The project makes Gary and the game come alive again. And in a small way you honestly feel that maybe Gary is still alive, in spirit at least. The "what if" scenario Joseph talks about in his forward seems more like reality than fancy. Perhaps this is Gary presenting us with his rewrite and revision of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons at long last. Yes, what Joseph has done here is inspired.

To give a detailed review would take pages of material, and I truly refer you to Joseph's books to see and experience for yourself. But a few highlights are:
  • The game is based on 1e mechanics and rules
  • Inclusion of almost all primary races and their subraces
  • Well written and revised classes of Bard, Barbarian, Cavalier and Acrobat
  • Addition of Jester, Savant, Mountebank,  and Mystic classes
  • The best skill system within a class based game I have read yet to date--directly connected to experience points *excellent work Joseph*
  • Nice section on PC background, social class, naming and the like
  • PCs start at max hp + Con bonus at first level
  • Well researched medieval based equipment lists including poisons and musical instruments
  • Good info on hirelings and henchman
  • One of the most complete and streamlined AD&D combat systems gathered in one place. I can't say enough about this. Here Joseph's expertise with AD&D shines. He knows AD&D combat and has incorporated the rules in a seamless, intuitive and unified system. Some might say he deviated from Gary here, as Gary himself admitted to not always using rules like weapon length and speed. But it seems that Joseph has internalized the motivation behind each of these rules and included them in a way that I have never before seen achieved. Truly Joseph has retaught me AD&D combat. And the amazing thing is that it works, beautifully.
  • Very useful chart for surprise, and brand new and innovative to hit tables. Everything is literally all in one place.
  • Missile misfire table--(very useful and more fair than my improvised way of doing this)
  • Excellent initiative rules
  • Simple, optional rules for critical hits and fumbles
  • Wonderfully in depth section on magic that includes all magical items and magical regions
  • Assassin is included optionally and psionics is excluded
The Gamemaster's Tool Kit, which I have yet to read completely includes game related information more applicable to GM control than PC knowledge. It looks excellent after first perusal and I will give more in depth information after I re-read the Players Manual and complete reading the GMTK. After just skimming it thus far I am very impressed with the detailed info on ships and aquatic travel. I am also dying to read the campaign creation section. In it Joseph includes information of the various ages of man and suggested reading lists for inspiration. "Living in a Mythos Haunted World" was music to my ears as Joseph included sample sanity check rules and hints on a haunted tone. Deities are covered in general principles which allows GMs to manufacture and create their own fantastic yet believable world mythos and religion. Joseph is not just a gamer and game designer his scholarship shines through as well. Something that was a signature of Gary's work in AD&D. Much of the information is rooted in history and mythology as much as fantasy literature. The tools here simply go on and on. This is truly a GMs tool kit. And I for one can't wait to start using some of his info. And I've been GMing for almost 30 years.

The Bestiary is a complete encyclopedia of most of the familiar fantasy nasties one might encounter venturing forth in a dangerous fantasy worlds. It is divided into Wilderness and Dungeon Monsters, Aquatic Monsters, Prehistoric Monsters and Extraplanar Monsters. There is also a nice appendix for modifying existing and creating new creatures for your adventures. Another nod to the concept of mythos haunted, where beasts and nasties are never quite what you expect. The only thing really missing from the bestiary are pictures. Now granted unless someone steps up to offer art for free, Joseph is likely to be limited to public domain stuff. Which thus far has worked great for the Players Manual and maintained a nice archaic feel to his works. And truthfully I think can work great for the Bestiary as well. Various Medieval and Renaissance Bestiaries included old drawings of nasty beasts of yore. All of this artwork would be public domain as well. I might start submitting options to the forum myself.

All in all I am very pleased with this game. It does something for me that no other game has yet done. It roots me in the game I love AD&D 1e and takes me to another level both imaginatively and in my GameMastering skill. I have been sort of following the ADD forums and you can expect to see more of me there as I work my way through the ADD books and begin to incorporate them into my play. And as I said before, I like Adventures Dark & Deep so much I may be trying to contact Joseph soon and ask him about writing adventures under the OGL compatible with the game. It pushes my plans back, of course, as I will wait until playtests are over and the official release is made. Which will give me time to test drive some of these new rules and get a feel for them. Something I am increasingly excited to do.

Do yourself a favor if you haven't already done so and check it out yourself: