Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cthulhu and Me

As many may have picked up if you're a habitual blog reader (ha! As if!), I have a somewhat complicated relationship with the writings of H. P. Lovecraft and the so-called Cthulhu Mythos as a whole. On the one hand, the idea of horrible, alien monstrosities, lurking just below the surface, an entire "secret history" that invalidates everything we think we know about science, philosophy and more, are all right up my alley. On the other hand... Cthulhu himself is kinda limp, if you think about it. I mean, he just sleeps all the time, lurking at the bottom of the sea. Apparently, if he rises, rather than it being the apocalyptic end times, all you have to do is thump him on the head with a boat. Many of the rest of the ideas in Lovecraft's corpus, as well as that of his imitators, is similarly just silly rather than scary. Non-Euclidean geometry? Huh? The Hounds of Tindalos live in the angles of time rather than the curves? Wha...? Even the Elder Things, in "At the Mountains of Madness" are surprisingly humanized and robbed of any "tooth" when it comes to being frightening. And all of this, of course, says nothing whatsoever about Lovecraft's writing craft, which often rendered his works anticlimactic and faintly humorous despite his intentions.

All that said, I'm a huge fan of the conceit of a roleplaying game utilizing elements of the Cthulhu mythos, either in full (such as, of course, Call of Cthulhu (CoC) which is a game I've had tons of fun with over the years) or in watered down, borrowed state (such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), which borrows quite a bit more from Lovecraftiana than a lot of people probably realize.) But I don't think many gamers really want their Lovecraftiana to be scary. Frankly, I don't think even gamers of Call of Cthulhu really want it to be scary very often, and here's why.

My experiences with the CoC game fall into one of three types:

1) One-shots, which are largely played for laughs and novelty value. These also often seem to be convention games. The death and insanity quotient is often overplayed, which makes it more silly and amusing when someone crashes and burns, rather than horrible. And if it turns out to be underplayed instead, then often the GM will compensate by making things happen arbitrarily near the end, because characters dying and going insane is what's expected. These types of games can be (and often are) quite fun, but very rarely are they even attempting to be horrifying, and even less rarely do they succeed.

2) One-shots or campaigns, either one, in which it's more like a guided tour of Lovecraftiana than anything horrifying. The Disneyfication of Lovecraft, if you will. You might go on a tour of Arkham, or other Lovecraftian locations, and you hit your quota of Deep Ones, Mi-Go, Elder Things, and other eldritch horrors, but because you're expected to, and that's the point of playing the game. More serious fans of the source material literature are probably more prone to this than others, where seeing stuff that's familiar from the source material is the whole point. It becomes comforting rather than horrifying when you see a Deep One or a Mi-Go. It's more like an esoteric in-joke or wink and nudge: fan service, if you will, rather than something that's actually terrifying.

3) The long term campaign where the Gamemaster and the players, mostly, come to the table with their expectations of horror, and willingness to play along engaged. Ironically, these kinds of game rarely have a high death or insanity count. They tend to become more about creeping, lurking dread with infrequent spikes of more immediate terror. And this is where Cthulhu can be its most fun.

Now, in part because of #2, I know of some folks who say that #3 can't really be accomplished with the established Cthulhu Mythos. You really need to come up with your own take on it. Your own creatures, your own horrible books, people, and places.

Which is, arguably, the whole point anyway. If you read a fair bit of Mythos stuff, you'll see that a lot of oblique references to entities and texts, which creates the fiction of a coherent and consistant background Mythos behind all of this... but that's largely a fiction created for just that reason. What you'll also notice is that most stories' "star" monster is a unique creature, and only rarely do they make frequent reappearances. Lovecraft himself was enthusiastic about the ability of his "Yog-Sothothery", as he termed it, to sweep up the ideas of various writers in his little circle who worked in the same ouvre and aesthetic, and have a place for them. It's not only entirely within the original spirit of the Lovecraftian aesthetic to create your own horrors, it actually probably should be expected.

Plus, because you're treading unfamiliar ground (although hopefully in a familiar, almost deja vu like sense) you actually have the capacity to bring some notion of horror to your game as you do so. Some more modern writers, who were clearly heavily influenced by Lovecraft and his aesthetic have done just that. China Mieville's slake-moths, from Perdido Street Station are very effective as a Lovecraftian horror, for example.

In any case, I'm going to think about some possible creatures of my own that I could use or create (or borrow or adapt, if need be) that I think would fit into a Lovecraftian ouvre, but which aren't, on the face of it, overtly Lovecraftian themselves. And when I do, I'll post 'em here.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Anti-d20 #3: Character skills

After traits are assigned, which are inate abilities and capabilities, we move on to skills, which are learned abilities and capabilities. In many cases, if you don't have the appropriate skill, a GM can allow you to make an appropriate trait check with a penalty to attempt to use the skill anyway, but that's the GM's call as to whether or not that makes sense in the specific given situation where he's calling for the check.

Each skill is meant to be fairly broad, so that rather than having a very long skill list, a shorter skill list covers more eventualities. However, given that this system is, by design, a rules-light system, that means that there will be a fair bit of GM interpretation as to what skills will actually allow you to do on some of the less obvious cases; it's not my intention to proscriptively spell out uses for skills, only to describe them briefly.

The skills available are, then:

Climb: Self explanatory, really, right? Without taking the skill, you could attempt this with a Strength check with a -2 to your roll.

Drive (when applicable): Mostly refers to settings in which self-powered land vehicles (i.e., cars and whatnot) are available, but could also be used to refer to driving a coach, carriage, or wagon, if needed.

Fight: The ability to skillfully engage in melee combat, either with or without weapons. For characters who don't take this skill, you can still attempt to fight using Agility with a -2 to your roll.

Heal: The ability to do both immediate first aid, as well as long-term care, assuming appropriate supplies are on hand. This can save the life of a character with an improvised field dressing, or even with long term care, possibly remove major diseases, injuries or insanity. The GM is the final arbiter on whether or not something can be healed in the first place.

Knowledge Specialty: While the Knowledge trait can be used as a general check to find out if a character knows something, characters with more specific knowledge, such as Knowledge (Occult) or Knowledge (Engineering) can determine things that are beyond the Pale for general Knowledge rolls and make knowledge rolls that other characters cannot. Before spending points on this skill, I recommend talking with your GM to make sure that it will actually come up in game. You can take this skill multiple times, with different specialties each time. If your specialties are in turn fairly broad, the GM might give you a penalty to certain rolls, although you'll be able to roll in more situations. Again, talk with your GM to make sure you understand the implications of the tradeoff.

Persuasion: The ability to lie, bluff, persuade, convince, and even "pick up" characters romantically are all covered by this ability. Many of these applications can be done with a charisma check, but certain of them (especially bluffing) will receive a penalty without using the specific skill.

Piloting (if applicable:) Mostly used for operating flying vehicles like airplanes, helicopters, spaceships, blimps, or whatever. Can also be used for boats, if wanted. Make sure that your setting has a use for this skill before you take it. Most fantasy settings, for example, would not.

Repair (if applicable): The ability to fix gadgets, machines, and other complex devices. Only applicable in settings where machines are common.

Riding: The ability to mount and handle a riding animal. Even unskilled riders can usually make an attempt with an agility check (or a charisma check if the animal needs to be convinced to let you--or both, depending on the circumstances) but this is a relatively specialized skill, so you'll be looking at anywhere from a -2 to a -4 penalty on those rolls.

Shooting: The ability to handle any weapon that shoots a beam or projectile. While this is more important in modern, semi-modern or futuristic settings than in others, where powerful firearms are more commonplace, it also is the skill used for things as simple as a slingshot or bow and arrow too. Agility checks at a -2 (or more, depending on the complexity of the weapon being used) can substitute.

Survival: The ability to take care of your needs while away from civilization. Want to catch animals and fish? Find edible plants? Follow the trail of a wanted man? Start a fire with just a rock and a stick? All applications of the Survival skill. Some of these applications (but not all) can be attempted with a Perception trait check at a -2 (or more.)

Swim: It's amazing to me that there are people in this world who aren't nearly as comfortable swimming as they are walking or running, but apparently its true. Is your character capable of crossing the river? Keeping himself afloat if cast overboard into the ocean? Even untrained swimmers can attempt to doggy-paddle with a Strength check, but you'll be doing it at a -2 penalty at best.

Throw: Used for anything that you toss. Atlatls, slings, darts, Molotov cocktails, grenades, or water balloons and snowballs; they all apply. Agility checks can sub at a -2 (or more, for more complicated types of weapons or manuevers.)

While this list isn't meant to be exhaustive, between it and the traits, your GM shouldn't have any trouble figuring out something to have you roll for any action you tell him you want to attempt. And that's the whole purpose; to give a quick and dirty tool that GMs can use to keep the game rolling quickly and without fuss, and without the need to resort to looking something up, or wrangling about what rules mean. This isn't meant to be a comprehensive system as is; it needs GM adjudication to work.


You assign your ranks in skills by assigning the following ranks to whichever skills best fit your character. For non-modern settings, you can assign a d12, d10, d8, d8, d6 and d6 to whichever of the ten skills you wish. If you're adding back in Drive, Pilot and Repair, add an additional d8 and d6 to that list. Anything else that you don't possess, you can either sub a trait check with the appropriate penalty, or use a d4, whichever is better (subject to GM approval.)

If that doesn't seem like a lot; don't worry---there will also be forthcoming rules on advancing your character. These initial chargen rules gives us the equivalent of neophyte, "low level" characters, so they're not meant to be extremely capable across a wide spectrum of situations. Rather, they can have a few things that they are good at, and a few others that they are decently capable at, and they can start there.

Coming next: the types of die rolls you make in Anti-d20, or "Running the game" followed shortly by Advancing your character. After that, we'll have a look at a few slightly more specialized rules for specific campaigns, and then move on from there.

George Sellios

I want to get back to tinkering with Anti-d20, specifically the skill system which is the "other half" of character generation, and therefore a major topic that's hung on a cliffhanger long enough now.

But before I do, a quick note about model railroading again. I mentioned John Allen as a major figure in the hobby world, a household name amongst folks who are into model railroads and understand the wider world of the hobby. He's not exactly singular, because even in his time, some other model railroaders were making big names for themselves by appearing frequently in the "hallowed" pages of Model Railroader and they were putting out books and otherwise being frequently cited and quoted as the inventors of different techniques: L-girder benchwork, zip texturing, hardshell scenery, etc. Granted, none of them measured up to John in terms of fame or frequency of citation, but guys like Linn Westcott, Bill McLanahan, Malcolm Furlow, Jim Farley, and even younger guys like John Olson started popping up more and more frequently.

I'm not sure if the "era of giants"; the era in which a handful of names could almost develop a cult of personality around their efforts, still exists, but here's a counter example that maybe it does: George Sellios. George is an avid model railroader, and in fact has integrated his livelihood and his hobby into one and the same endeavor. George is the owner of Fine Scale Miniatures, a business that sells high quality kits in HO scale to model railroaders via the internet. And he showcases his kits originals on his large and, by now quite famous, Franklin & South Manchester Railroad, set in the Depression Era Eastern Seaboard. The F&SMRR has developed a bit of a cult following lately, especially amongst those who dabble in urban scenery, as it pretty much sets the bar for that kind of endeavor. While it certainly is reminiscent in many ways of John Allen's own city of "Port" (something that Sellios himself is quick to admit--at least according to his Wikipedia entry. As an aside, I haven't found any other model railroaders other than John Allen who have their own Wikipedia entry.) the F&SM has developed a cult following all its own as a haven for highly detailed vignettes or scenes all over the place, superb structure modelling, strict adherence to a specific theme, and just plain general awesomeness.

While I've always been more a fan of mountain, desert, and other scenes of western railroading, the 1930s is definitely the time period I find the most intriguing, and the idea of coming to roost in a major metropolitan end to the mainline is an attractive one (again, John Allen himself did as much too) so I see the respect that Sellios' work has received as certainly justified. Check out the link below for some pictures. The photography itself isn't that amazing, but the source material is good enough to overcome that limitation. These are fun pictures, and a great example of why I think model railroading is such a cool hobby in the first place.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Faction Guide

I finally finished Paizo's Faction Guide. For anyone who pays attention (i.e., nobody), you may have noticed that that's been on my "what I'm reading" list up there for about two months. Given that this is a 64 page RPG book, which means a few pages of OGL that I don't read, a fair bit of art that replaces text on some pages, and statblocks that I can just skim rather than read in detail, that's an almost embarrassingly long time to be reading a book that I really should have read in about an hour or so, you'd think.

Mostly, it took me so long because I didn't like it, and of all the Paizo products I've picked up, this is the first one that surprised me by 1) not being at all what I thought it would be when I bought it, and 2) something that I can rarely (if ever) see myself using. Now, the first problem is largely my fault, not Paizo's. If I expect something, and it turns out to be something else, then I have to examine why I expected that. Did Paizo mislead me, or pull a bait and switch? In this case, the answer clearly is no... I just saw the title and expected something else.

Let me switch gears for a moment and make a little philosophical aside. From people who have played 3e, 3.5 or even Pathfinder and no longer do because they didn't like it, I commonly hear a complaint that it's too complex. There are too many rules, and they stifle the creative side of the game. Personally, I think this complaint is complete hogwash, or at least I don't understand it in the least. Does anyone remember the d20 motto back in 2000-2001 or so? I do. "Tools, not rules." That's right. Tools. Not rules. If a rule is too stifling for your taste... ignore it. Here's a few examples.

Many people have complained that coming up with NPC statblocks was too time consuming and tedious. I agree. Why are you doing it, then? I've long been playing with "Schrödinger's statblock"... i.e., it doesn't exist until the moment you need it. "What? You're trying to hit him? His AC is... 19!" Made it up on the spot. He attacks with a +5, and does 1d8+4 damage. Sounds reasonable for a low to mid-level foe that isn't a major villain but just a throwaway action scene? Well, then, if it's reasonable, then that's what it is.
Calculating skill DC's is another one. What a waste of time. I know that the "default" DC is 15. For a low level character with any kind of bonus to the task at all (ability bonus, a rank or two of skill points) that's a reasonable DC that he can expect to hit at least half the time. A DC of 20 is harder. A character better be reasonably good at that activity to expect a success. A DC of 25 is harder still and a DC of 30 is something that only a real expert should even bother with. Why do I need to calculate anything? Pick a DC that sounds reasonable based on that scale, flavor slightly to taste if needed by stepping it up or down a few points, and keep the game moving.

I've never understood the psychological imperative to use rules that you don't like, when you already know darn well that you would like the game better if you handwaved away the detail and just used the skill system structure, or whatever. So when people say that 3e and it's derivatives have too many rules, I say, They're tools, not rules. If they don't apply to the job you're doing, don't use them. Just like you wouldn't use a circular saw to put a nail into a 2x4, you shouldn't use complex statblocks if all it does is give you a headache and there's no real reason to have them. On the other hand, if you want a recurring villain who's tactically interesting to fight... well, aren't you glad that they give you the option to create more complex statblocks? It's silly to resent the presence of something you don't need. If you don't need it, don't use it. And remember that it's almost always better to have something and not need it then it is to need something and not have it.

The only (minor) exception to this is that it does bug me that D&D uses three books to give you the "core" rules. Clearly it doesn't need to; d20 Modern, d20 Star Wars, d20 Wheel of Time, d20 Call of Cthulhu, True20, and other d20 derivatives use the exact same rules sytem (or close derivatives thereof) and manage to fit the entire game in one book. That D&D uses three is a case of rules bloat. While it doesn't bother me that those rules exist, I'd much rather have been able to be more discretionary about which ones I spent actual money on. Give me the core rules in one book and let me decide which supplements I'm interested in. I'd have passed on big lists of spells, magic items and the properties of doors and walls, but probably bought everything you could give me on big lists of monsters.

But that's not really a problem with the system itself and how it's written, that's a problem with how its bundled and marketed.

So, saying that, I'm going to complain about Faction Guide being, essentially, a big, needlessly complex set of rules for something that doesn't need to have any rules. Certainly not rules this "heavy." I don't exactly resent the fact that they exist, because if someone else out there finds this stuff useful, well, hey, more power to them. I do, however, resent that I bought it, because it's of absolutely no use to me.

During the 3.5 era of the game, Wizards of the Coast came up with a template for organizational descriptions. It had all kinds of common headings, and then gave you a bunch of material under that heading. What the organization is all about. Where it's located. What it's goals are. How it's organized. Who some important members are that the players might interact with or hear about. How the organization can fit into your campaign and what you can do with it.

There were a lot of these organizations that appeared in the "back" chapters of the books in the Complete series, but there were others that popped up here and there too. The Black Cult of Amn, from Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss is one that stuck with me as particularly interesting, for example. Each organization got several pages of treatment, and enough detail to enable any GM to easily plop that organization down in his or her campaign if it looked interesting.

So, while I didn't necessarily expect Paizo to follow that template exactly, I guess when I saw the title Faction Guide, I certainly expected something along that same style. Paizo have also over the years been well-known for having a lot of good setting material, and making that an important part of their books. So, while like I said, Paizo didn't exactly bait and switch me, I think my expectations of a book that detailed these factions and organizations from an in-game point of view, mostly, wasn't unreasonable.

What I got instead, was only a few paragraphs about each organization, and often quite a bit less than we got even in the main setting book, to say nothing of the more focused setting books on different regions. The Pathfinder Society even got it's own 64 page book (although that's an exception, certainly.) Rather, more than 50% of the text of the book was used to develop a system whereby you could earn points with organizations, and then cash them in for favors.

Now, as little interest as I had in this conceptually, it could have been salvaged if a lot of really interesting ideas were put out there, but for the most part, these favors that you can "buy" are pretty banal. An expert can make a skill check for you. You can get low and mid-level spells cast for you. You can get mundane equipment, or the loan of minor magic items. Stuff like that. Do I really need a system for this?

Again... trying not to resent the fact that the system actually exists, because some people, especially in the organized play Pathfinder Society, probably do find this useful. But for me? Meh.

That said, I did actually read the system and most of the benefits for most of the organizations, before I was just too bored beyond words to continue and started skimming. You get the points by doing things that further the goals of the organization. And then you spend them. As with hit points, you have a maximum number of points, and then you have a current level of points that is probably below your maximum. You can also buy access to a higher maximum, and you can also burn points off your maximum total for really big favors.

The system seems to be reasonably solid, and would work very well if for some reason you needed to systematize this, but I haven't (and won't) actually playtest it.

Meanwhile, the book that actually gives us some real meaty detail on these organizations remains elusive. I'll keep my eyes open for that going forward, and sadly, have learned to be a bit more discriminating in what Paizo material I pick up rather than buying stuff site unseen just because the title sounds good.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

John Allen and model railroading

John Allen is a key figure in the history of the development of model railroading. Starting the the 1940s, Allen's work started appearing in hobby magazines, and it really revolutionized the hobby. Allen was a skilled photographer, and his ability to take pictures of models with realistic details and lighting that--for the first time ever--was practically indistinguishable from non-model, real trains was electifying. Allen also pioneered a number of other things that are now considered quite standard in model railroading; the use of miniature figures on layouts, forced perspective, the use of mirrors, and most notably the superdetailing and weathering of structures to give them a realistic, lived in appearance instead of looking like shiny new models. He also was one of the first to have scenery go below the benchwork; the big canyon on his famous Gorre & Daphetid (pronounced Gory and Defeated) railroad had mountain peaks that went nearly the ceiling and cliffs that fell literally all the way to the floor.

In fact, he was so prolific and well-known that later in his life, some hobbyists actually started complaining about seeing his stuff so often in the pages of Model Railroader magazine and elsewhere, but really... he was the one that blazed the trail for high quality photos of model railroads, and he remained on the cutting edge of the hobby until his untimely death in 1973 of heart failure (he was diagnosed with a weak heart early in life, and in every picture of him I've ever seen, he appeared plenty pudgy---back then the relationship between a healthier, slimmer lifestyle and heart healthiness wasn't really something that people thought much of.)

His railroad, which was (and probably remains to this day) the most well-known and respected model railroad ever built, sadly was destroyed in a housefire less than two weeks after his death, but his legacy remains with us today. Check out, for example, this link, which attempts to document online what we can of the railroad.

Before the age of the internet, though, Allen's longtime friend and former Model Railroader editor Linn Westcott gathered everything he could on the railroad and wrote the (at the time) phenomenally thick (and expensive) paperback Model Railroading with John Allen which is chock full of color photos, mostly taken by Allen himself, as well as an in depth description of the railroad, John himself, the operation of the G&D, and John's own lead-up to the G&D super project via his earlier incarnations of the railroad. In a twist of irony, Westcott himself passed away after preparing the manuscript but before it went to print.

In my teenage years, when the model railroading bug first bit me, I bought a copy of this book (which is now out of print and sells at a significant premium online) even though it was more than twice as expensive as any other book by Kalmbach on model railroading (ah, the irony. Prices of all the other books have caught up to it such that the price I paid for my John Allen book would be middle of the pack now. Keep in mind, there has been at least one paper pricing crisis that really hurt all publishing industries, and caused massive increases in book prices since then.) Although the binding on my copy isn't the best anymore, otherwise the book is in great shape, and it's tons of fun to browse through it to see what all the fuss about John Allen was about during the 50s, 60s and into the 70s. He was one, talented guy.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Model railroading

While looking on my bookshelf for some gaming books, my eyes were drawn to my old model railroading books, of which I only have a few. Model railroading is the great big ole hobby that I never had. Because it's one that takes a reasonably big commitment in terms of money, time and space, it's never really been a feasible hobby for me, so for the better part of 25 years, I've been at most an "armchair model railroader" who occasionally buys, reads and reviews books on the subject, and who mocked up some small scenic trials and weathered some rolling stock as a teenager.

Now, with my own house with several rooms, some of which will be vacated (probably sooner than I realize) as the kids start growing up, it occurred to me that it might be feasible in at least a few years after all that I could have a model railroad. Probably the modest 4x8 tabletop kind, maybe with an extension or so, but still... for me, that would be quite an accomplishment.

Why do I like model railroading? This sample picture that I found on the internet yesterday should highlight the allure. At its best, it's creating your own little world that, at least with good photography, is difficult to distinguish from the real world. The attention to detail, the little vignettes, the museum quality modeling... it's just a fascinating thing to me. Ironically, you'll notice that I don't actually mention trains in there as among the main attractions of the hobby. While I like trains well enough, trains are the excuse to engage in model railroading, at least to me, not the reason to do so.

Anyway, I don't intend to spend a lot of time talking about this hobby that I recently kinda rediscovered by reviewing some of my old books (most of which I bought at the same hobby stores where I'd buy my D&D stuff as a kid, by the way) but I do want to do a very smallish series of posts---two or three---where I talk about a subject or two related to model railroading. This won't interrupt my other series, it just gives me a chance to ramble on about another topic that I've always been interested in.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Anti-d20 #2: Character traits

I decided to split character generation up into two parts in order to keep either blog post from being overwhelmingly large. Although character generation should, like everything else in Anti-d20, be pretty quick, easy, simplified, and utilize scaling dice to to differentiate odds of success for any given task, at the same time, it needs to be robust enough to actually define the character with some detail. My experience is that many players (myself included) frequently don't have a highly detailed, fleshed-out idea of the character in their heads when they start playing, so they use character generation (chargen) and things that happen in play to gradually develop the characters over time. A system that gives you enough mechanics to "sink your teeth into" can give you a headstart on defining the character in your mind before you have to actually start playing him.

In a move borrowed more or less wholesale from The Window (although Savage Worlds is also essentially the same here too), I've split character generation into Traits and Skills. Given the nickname of my system as Anti-d20, ironically, you'll see that the six traits I've used are very similar to the ability scores of the d20 system (although for that matter, very few roleplaying systems of any stripe venture too far from these basic traits too.) The Window originally came with five of these that I'm using unchanged. I added a sixth, Charisma, because I think it's important to recognize that mechanically instead of just saying, "roleplay it out" in order to account for differences in the player and the characters inate abilities there.

In addition to the six basic traits, there are also two additional optional traits. These could be very important for certain games… or they could be completely irrelevant. Because of their ties to specific genres or modes of play instead of the universality of the basic six traits, they've been relegated to the optional status, but I recommend them both.


This score tells you how strong your character is. This comes up when a character attempts to do something that is primarily driven solely by strength, and not skill (the relevant skill check should be made if applicable… this is for checks which are specifically strength related, or which seem to not have a skill against which there is an obvious correllation.) Actions like picking up heavy weights, breaking down doors, holding someone so they can't move, etc. are examples of things that should call for a Strength check.


This score tells you how coordinated your character is. Many items that require agility also have specific skills that should be used instead (throw, or shoot, for example) but there are also many actions that one could undertake that do not. Attempting to keep your balance on the tilting deck of a ship in a storm, feats of hand/eye coordination, picking a pocket, or other feats of general athleticism may all require Agility checks. In d20 terms, this replaces some skills (because my skill list here isn't as long) as well as the Reflex save, if that helps put some context behind when this should be used.


A character's basic constitution, heartiness, and healthiness. This will be used frequently in many physically dangerous situations; health checks are used whenever your character is injured, poisoned, encounters a disease, or even fatigue. In many ways, Health is a combination of hit points and the Fortitude save. Or, if you're familiar with True20, it's both the Fortitude and the Damage save rolled into one. Kinda. Albeit subject to a lot more GM interpretation, so as to avoid save or die effects except when you want them.

The effects of a failed Health roll are highly situational dependant, and require GM interpretation. If an opponent shoots you in the head with a 9mm at point blank range, not only with the target you need to roll be incredibly high, but even the effects of a successful roll aren't going to be good (maybe the character is in a coma for three months and then wakes up with amnesia, for example… a failed one is obviously instant death.) On the other hand, if an enemy spy is trying to get you drunk and you're playing along, the target number will be more modest, and a failed roll just means that you take a penalty on your Perception, Charisma and skill checks for a few hours.


Used any time the player wants to determine if the character would know something that is in question. This can be formal education, hard knocks experience, ability to draw disparate clues that the character may have heard somewhere years ago together, or anything else. Basically it's "Make a check to get a clue when the player seems stumped" combined with some in-game roleplaying where it's unclear if a character would know something more esoteric or not.


The ability to notice stuff. This one can save your life, of course. What you can see, what you can smell, what you can hear… very important in most settings.


Neither Savage Worlds nor The Window use a Charisma score (although d20 does.) Although it's often good (and fun) to roleplay out social situations, that can lead to the situation in which players who are charismatic end up always having charismatic characters and those who are not, can't. This attempts to bridge that gap somewhat. It's also a shorthand for when you don't want to roleplay out an interaction, because you'd rather speed the pace up and move on to something else. Anything from negotiating passage with a caravan, attempting to bluff a beat cop, to crusing the bar scene to pick up one night stands all fall under the aegis of the Charisma check.


This is the first of the alternate traits. This is basically the "get out of jail free card." You're unlikely to ever roll this on your own initiative (unless the GM decides to do more with this, see below), but a GM might call for a luck roll if you just blew a major, important roll and he wants to give you chance to mitigate the failure. Note that this doesn't undo the failure… it just mitigates the effects of it somewhat. This is more of a GM safety net than anything, but including a luck trait certainly goes a long way towards making the game less punishing if you're in an environment where checks are being made frequently. If that's the case, odds are you'll eventually fail some, and if they're really important ones (i.e, a health check to avoid drowning, an agility check to avoid being swept off the hull of the spaceship into the void, etc.) then having a second chance with the Luck trait can make a major difference in PC survivability.

An alternative way to use the Luck trait is to make a Luck check after a failed check of another type and add the Luck roll total to the other failed check. Personally, I'm indifferent to re-rolling versus rolling Luck as if it were an "Action Point", but check with your GM on how he wants to handle. In any case, you can't abuse the Luck trait and use it to add (or reroll) any failed check on a whim. Luck checks should only be used when your GM tells you to make a luck check (or if he agrees to allow you to if you ask him) if you are using your luck too often the GM can (and should) permanently reduce the value of your luck trait after a while to represent you using up your luck.

As an even further last ditch maneuver, GMs might allow you to even mitigate a failed Luck roll in life or death situations by permantly reducing your Luck score one dice band (i.e., from a d8 to a d6, for instance) to convert the failed Luck roll into an instant success. This is optional however, and it cannot be assumed that a GM is using this rule even if he is using the already optional Luck rules. Be sure and check with your GM and find out how he's running it!)


Made famous by the popular Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, some kind of sanity-type mechanic has been a staple of any horror themed game that's come out ever since, and they've even been integrated into other genres that have some horror influence, including darker sword & sorcery settings like Freeport. This optional trait is therefore going to be highly genre dependant… although as it turns out, for most games I'd run, it'll definitely work.

As with health rolls, sanity rolls are highly situation dependant, and require GM adjudication. Seeing a mangled carcass at a crime scene is disturbing, but probably won't be a major risk (at least not for a player character), while seeing your wife die traumatically while a demon claws its way out of her innards on its way to try and steal your soul will almost certainly require a much higher target and have much more punishing consequences for a failed roll.

While I was tempted to include a quick and dirty chart of sanity effects, I'll defer for the time being (although in actual play, I'll probably borrow one from my Cthulhu books, or my Freeport books, or some other such book that already has some in print… here's a link to one such system that's online, although I'll probably want one that's more streamlined). Anything from catatonia to fleeing in uncontrollable panic, to having your score permanently reduced (as from a d10 to a d8, for example) are appropriate.

Assigning values to traits

Now that you know what the six basic and two optional traits are, how do you assign values to them? In The Window, it's assumed that characters are "so mature" that they can assign whatever they want to those values to flesh out their characters and that will work out well. While that approach does seem to coincide with my own stated "authorial paradigm", in practice, I prefer (both as a player and as a GM) to have a little more direction than that, just so I can feel confident that we're all on the same page.

Given that, I've devised three "tiers" of trait assignment. The first tier is "realistic" and it features characters that are not particularly extraordinary. "Heroic" features characters that are larger than life, and more competent than everyday, regular Joes. This is probably where most roleplaying games fall in terms of character competency, roughly speaking. The third tier is "pulpish" and features out and out superheroes. John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, Conan, Doc Savage, James Bond… these characters are beyond even mere heroes, they're legends.

As an aside, my games will be assuming the heroic tier almost exclusively.

For "realistic" games, you have the following six stats to assign to your six basic traits: d10, 3d8s, and 2d6s. If you use one of the optional traits, add an additional d6 to the mix, and if you use both optional traits, add an exta d8 as well.

For "heroic" games, you will use d12, d10, 3d8 and d6. Again, use an extra d6 for an optional trait and also an extra d8 if you use both optional traits.

For "pulpish" games, you will use 2d12, 2d10, and 2d8 with an extra d8 and d10 respectively if you use the optional traits.

Keep in mind that these are starting numbers only. Assuming your character survives multiple sessions of play, you will start having opportunities to improve your traits as the game goes on.

Next up -- Skills!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Prince of Wolves

Dave Gross's Prince of Wolves is the follow-up to some shorter fiction that debuted in other Pathfinder venues, and is also the first novel of the Pathfinder Tales fiction line of Golarion-set fiction. The main characters of Varian Jeggare, half-elven Pathfinder venture-captain and scion of a noble house from Cheliax, with a heritage that predates the rise of the diabolical House of Thrune, and his tiefling (technically hellspawn, since tiefling is a trademarked word by Wizards of the Coast) bodyguard Radovan were described in the serialized novella Hell's Pawns as "Half elf Holmes with tiefling Watson". That novella was bridged by the serialized web fiction The Lost Pathfinder, which sets the stage for this novel. Which James Sutter, fiction editor for Paizo, described as "Indiana Jones meets Brotherhood of the Wolf in Transylvania." Which is a fair enough quick n dirty description.

One of Gross's obvious talents is his ability to tell the story in two very distinct voices. Jeggare himself is a noble scion, and an educated man, and his voice clearly reflects that, while Radovan's voice is reminiscent of a fantasy hard-boiled private eye, as if his point of view segments were written by Raymond Chandler. Both are fun voices to read, and Gross switches between them about every chapter. Both characters are also interesting, and reasonably well developed; Jeggare being arrogant and very concerned with the social niceties (and the lack thereof most places that he goes) yet also a driven and occasionally depressed man given to drink. Radovan being a blue-collar former thief, with sharp wits and a weakness for women.

Other than that, the plot is very much as described: a great deal of Brotherhood of the Wolf, a long section that is strongly reminiscent of Jonathan Harker's stay in Castle Dracula, and a sequence near the end that is strongly reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

I did think that the plot kinda ran thin towards the end. The "big reveal" and climax were a little underwhelming. But I had enough fun getting there that I didn't mind too much. Perhaps even more interesting was the strong feel in the novel that it was a "prologue". The relationship between Radovan and Jeggare was often strained in this book, and at the end they reached an accomodation of sorts; the kind that could sustain a long-running series of "The Adventures of Jeggare and Radovan" or some-such.

If that ever did happen, I'd be on board to read them.

Although I hesitate slightly to do so, I do feel like I have to mention the price. This book is roughly 350 pages or so of novel in mass market paperback size, and it costs $9.99. In contrast, the similarly sized mass market paperback version of Fellowship of the Ring lists for $7.99 and when I pulled up Paul S. Kemp's Forgotten Realms fiction, the first one I glanced at lists for $6.99... again at about the same pagecount. The latest Dresden Files to get a mass market paperback release is also $6.99.

Granted, pagecount isn't necessarily the same as wordcount, and I don't know how any of those four books stack up against each other there, but it is worth pointing out that this book is a bit more expensive than competitive offerings. I think it's worth it, because it's pretty good, certainly way better than most D&D or other licensed fiction, and comparable to the better pulp classics, though. But Paizo seems to be running a thin line on the price point; if this book (and subsequent offerings in the Pathfinder Tales series of novelizations set in Golarion) wasn't better than most D&D fiction that I've read over the years, I wouldn't pay that premium to buy it.

I'd still see if I could score a copy from the library, though.

Now that I finished this book (quite quickly, too... I never even added it to my list of "Books I own but haven't read yet" list) I'll probably not replace it until I can finish the Forgotten Realms short story anthology that I've been tinkering with for weeks. After that, I'll turn to something else that's hopefully light and quick to read. Maybe the second anthology of Hawk & Fisher short novels or something.

As another aside, unrelated to the rest of this post, I added the end titles of High Road to China to my "Listening to..." box there to the side. See it? Right there to the side. Below the "What I'm Reading" boxes.

This was a great kinda sorta Raiders rip-off from the mid-80s, starring Tom Selleck in one of his more under-rated roles (a role that is similar to Indiana Jones in some ways, highlighting how interesting it might have been if he had taken that role as Spielberg and Lucas had initially wanted. As a bit of Hollywood trivia, Selleck agonized over the choice of Magnum PI vs. Indiana Jones, and took Magnum PI due to his sense of integrity--he had signed that contract first. Ironically, the start of Magnum PI was delayed six months due to a writer's strike, and he'd have been able to do Indiana Jones after all if he'd known that would happen.) Anyway, I remember always thinking that the soundtrack was really good, and something reminded me of it recently and it turns out buying used copies of the soundtrack CD via Amazon isn't hard or expensive at all. I still really like the soundtrack now that I've got the whole thing. It's a bit repetitive, but the main theme is beautiful enough that I don't really mind too much.

Sadly, the movie itself remains unavailable, unless you have a multiregion DVD player and score a copy from Australia or something. It never got a North American release, which is shameful.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Anti-d20 #1: Introduction

Welcome to the Anti-d20 Roleplaying game system! While posted on a blog for the time being, this will, when it's complete, be collated and gathered together into a pdf document, probably with pretty spartan layout and formating, and posted somewhere for anyone to grab if they so choose.

The impetus to develop Anti-d20 can ultimately be tied to my own dissatisfaction with the roleplaying games available to me. Now, don't get me wrong; I've played many games, and enjoyed most of them, but all of them had something that frustrated me; something that just wasn't quite right. Sometimes it was the environment that I played the game in (playing via Pbp introduces a number of challenges that face to face tabletop gaming doesn't have, for instance) but in most cases, it was simply my tastes that were a poor fit for some element of the game in question.

What is a roleplaying game anyway? No game system, it seems, can resist the call to answer that question in the introductory session, and it seems Anti-d20 will crumble before that peer pressure as well. The answer, of course, depends on whom you ask and what they want out of the game. At its heart, a roleplaying game is a game in which the players (or at least most of them) take on a role; a character other than themselves, and tell stories about this character and his adventures. For some people, roleplaying games are akin to method acting; getting into character is what roleplaying is all about. For others, it's about exploration of believable, simulated fictional environment. In addition to roleplaying, roleplaying games are also games and what many people enjoy is tactical manuevering. Few indeed are the RPGs that don't have conflict of some kind (usually violent combat) as an important component of the experience. Some gamers want to be mentally challenged, and solve mysteries and puzzles. Others find that activity frustrating and boring, and want to show up, relax, kick some butt and take some names. Most gamers like all of these things to some extent, so a good roleplaying game has to scratch all of those itches to have the maximum potential appeal to the most players.

For me, though, I've also approached roleplaying games with an authorial perspective. So to me, the most important thing that a roleplaying game is is a collaborative storytelling process. I want engaging characters and engaging plots. I want to create my very own pulp action or horror serial or novel right there at the table. Not literally, of course (I don't novelize the adventures of my characters, for one thing.) Nobody is the author in this process. Everyone contributes. Each player brings their own character (the Player Character, or PC) and they decide what that character will do, not an omnipotent author. One player, in lieu of that, becomes the Gamemaster, or GM, and provides everything else: the environment in which they adventure, the adversaries, allies and bystanders that they encounter, and all that that entails.

The paradigm by which I cobbled together Anti-d20 was one, therefore, where I wanted a very quick and easy system, very fast and easy to understand, without a lot of rules and without a lot of complications, that I could use in multiple environments to facilitate the kinds of games that I most enjoy. While I, and most gamers, mostly play in a face to face environment, with the GM and the other players all sitting within easy conversational distance from each other and rolling real dice, I also want a system that doesn't bog down and become cumbersome or difficult to use in other environments. With the spread of the Internet in the last couple of decades, play-by-post, play-by-e-mail, play-by-Skype, and other forms of gaming have become more common, and I've even dabbled in them with some success myself. One thing that I noticed is that such venues are extremely hard on games that require a lot of complexity or a lot of tactics. Since neither aspect of gaming is particular important to me personally, I thought I'd tweak some stuff up myself to make a game that not only gives me what I want in a traditional environment, but is also optimized for use in some of these newer, non-traditional environments.

And… credit where credit is due. I'm not really a game designer at all, even in an amateur sense. It's not my strong suit, and I don't care for game design overly much, honestly. So I'm not really doing anything new here. Rather, I'm taking some tried and true games that I know of that are already similar to what I'm looking for in some ways, kitbashing the best elements of each together, and then smoothing over the corners a bit to optimize the rules for my own personal goals. Therefore, the authors of The Window and Savage Worlds get a major shout-out, because Anti-d20 will bear some obvious similarities to both (as well as equally obvious differences from each.)

The core conceits of Anti-d20 are 1) to create a consistent, easy to use, easy to remember, and easy to adjudicate mechanic that can be applied to practically every situation that might come up in the game, 2) create an extremely rules light yet robust system framework that "disappears" in game, and 3) provide just enough detail that players can feel like the mechanics of the game and their character concepts work well together and support each other, and give them at least a little something mechanical to "bite onto" in terms of getting a handle on their characters. After all, many times players still don't "know" their characters very well yet when a game starts, and they develop over time and with play and practice. Having a few cues from the get-go can greatly speed up and facilitate that process.

In roleplaying games, we use dice. Dice are great, because they provide randomness. We're not actually authors (even if, like me, you approach it from an authorial standpoint) and the fact that success or failure often depends on the random nature of dice tosses creates the tension and friction that make roleplaying games so much fun. Anti-d20 uses all of the dice in a typical RPG dice pack set except (appropriately enough) the d20.

The core mechanic of the game is to roll dice and meet or beat a target number. This target defaults to 4 for basic tasks. Anything less than 4 probably isn't worth calling for a roll, because it's insuficiently challenging to create any sense of tension, and it bogs down the game with tediousness. Which die you roll to beat that target depends on your ability to meet that specific challenge. Dice with more sides are better, because they have access to higher numbers, and have a lower probability of rolling numbers below the target. A four-sided die (d4), therefore, represents a completely unskilled die roll. A check for someone who has no aptitude for the task he's attempting. But he can attempt it anyway. And if it's not particularly difficult (i.e., his target is 4), he might even succeed if he manages to roll a four (he's got a 25% chance of that happeneing.) If he's got some basic skill and can roll a six-sided die (d6) then his range of possible outcomes increases, and his chance of hitting at least a four jumps from 25% to 50%. If the character is incredibly apt for that particular task and can roll a twelve-sided die (d12), then his chance of successfully completing that task increase to 75%.

And that, right there, folks, is the core of the system. For my next post on this topic, I'll get into the specific rules of how this core concept is implemented. While my goal is to be rules light, it's not rules free by any means, and it'll take me several posts to put this system completely together. And when that happens, I'll start happily playtesting it and using it. Feel free, if you like, to do so too.

Upcoming topics (or chapters, if you will--since eventually this will be collated into an actual document) include.

• Character creation
-- Traits
-- Skills
-- Description
-- Races (if applicable)
-- The Group
-- Advancement

• Task and conflict resolution
-- Target rolls
-- Opposed rolls
-- Health rolls
-- Other rolls (magic, sanity, luck, armor, etc.)
-- On the consequences of failure

After that, I may expand it even more with settings, examples, adventures, adversaries, or who knows what, but at that point, the rules, at least, will be done and the game will be complete enough to be useable.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


So, as I said in my last post, I've been reading the Savage Worlds rulebook. I finished through character creation last night, so about page... 50 or so? Out of 160. Many of the subsequent "rules" are actually things like campaign examples and stuff, so I've done more than half of the meat of the system already.

In many ways, Savage Worlds reminds me sharply of The Window. I've always been fascinated with The Window... years ago because it mirrored my own pretentious and arrogant viewpoint. Today, looking back at the portions of it that reflect that attitude makes me cringe, but from a design philosophy standpoint, I still think it's a sound structure. In The Window, you use different die types to indicate how good you are at something, and the point is to roll below a target number (the default which is 6, although obviously circumstances could cause that to be a different number.) So if you had a d4 Strength, your strength would be phenomenal, nearly superhuman, while a d6 would be guys who compete in Worlds Strongest Man competitions, and d20 or d30 (the highest die available) would be way below average.

Savage Worlds reverses this; instead of rolling under a target number, you want to roll over it, so a d4 is basically "untrained, and I suck" while a d12 is "phenomenally good". The d20 and d30 aren't really used, and the default target number is 4.

I like this more open-ended system, because it allows for supernaturally phenomenally good stats. If a really strong human has a Strength of d12, then an ogre might have a strength of d20, a giant of d30 and a dragon, titan or god of d100. For example.

Savage Worlds also has hindrances and edges, which in d20 terms is kinda like feats and anti-feats. While I like the concept, I dislike canned lists, and the implicit assumption that "if you don't have the feat/edge, you can't do this" mentality. While not a bad mechanic, I think I'd rather do away with it in my ideal system--edges could be reworked as stunts, tricks or even skills if a player really wants to capture that on the character sheet. Hindrances, on the other hand, could just be freeform character quirks described on the characters description section or something.

Where both Savage Worlds and The Window are common, again, is in traits and skills. Savage Worlds gives a nicely robust skill and trait system, although I don't know how much I like the correllations between some abilities and skills. The Window, on the other hand, has prescribed traits, but skills are completely freeform and you're supposed to make up your own. Savage Worlds gives you points to spend; The Window assumes that everyone's going to somehow come up with a good character by "working together" or something. I've always been disatisfied with this aspect of The Window, both from a GM and a player perspective, because I think having some direction is helpful on both sides of the table. When I ran a modified Window game for my kids, I came up with my own list of skills, and told the kids which dies they could use. They assigned them to taste, but we didn't end up with something strange or unbalanced. Savage Worlds definitely has the advantage there.

I haven't read combat and task resolution in Savage Worlds yet (and I don't remember it well from The Window) but I'm vaguely familiar with it, and its concepts of bennies, playing cards, wild dice, and a simple condition track. The Window's task and conflict resolution is basically just opposed rolls to be followed up by roleplaying. The Window's system seems too Spartan for my tastes, while Savage Worlds seems too wrapped up in weird novelty mechanics that are somewhat distracting. I'll need to read both again before I can judge which I like better.

If you can't tell, though, the similarities between the two systems have excited me about "kitbashing" the two systems together into my "ultimate rules light" approach. This doesn't mean that I'm abandoning d20, because I still enjoy playing it, but I've struggled with it in a few key areas in particular: 1) teaching it to new players (particularly younger players.) This doesn't reflect on them so much as on me; I don't have the patience to teach them about the game when I would rather just jump in and get playing, and 2) playing the game in unusual formats, i.e. in play by posts and whatnot.

I'd still enjoy it in more "regular" arenas as well, and I don't think it would ever become my go-to system for everything. It could, however, be a go-to system for a lot of different scenarios. So, while I don't see myself as a game designer at all, I'm actually kinda excited to kitbash these two systems together. I'll be posting the results here on my blog as I do it, in sections. So... stay tuned!

I called this post Anti-d20 as a bit of a joke; I don't think that the d20 would actually be used much in this system (if at all) whereas almost all of the other dice would. Plus, it's got a nice symmetry to d20 being my other system of choice.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Savage Worlds

I'm not normally a systems guy; that is, I don't like trying out new RPG systems for their own sake. Rather, I'd like to find the ideal system for the types of games I like to run, and stick with it. I've, naturally, struggled to do so, and I've been playing around with modified d20 games (d20 Modern and heavily houseruled D&D 3.5 edition being the systems I've used for just about ten years now.)

But a few friends of mine, who are familiar with my gaming style and what I want from the game, have been angling to get me to take a serious look at Savage Worlds for some time now, and I've been convinced.

Not saying that I'm migrating my entire gaming endeavors over or anything... but I am taking a serious look. And I expect to like what I see. I'll let you know once I've had a good chance to have a go at it.

I'm a quitty quitter

I'm not going to read Valentine Rising right now after all. I hadn't picked it up in almost three weeks (due to my vacation, which was not one of those relaxing sit on a beach reading type vacations) and my bookmark fell out leaving me completely confused as to where I had been. Plus, it had already been renewed once at the library, and I don't like to renew things more than once except in really unusual circumstances. So I'll just try again later on that one.

Instead, I picked up Dave Gross's Prince of Wolves which is the first of the Pathfinder fiction novels from Paizo. Dave Gross wrote a novella (I'm guessing, I didn't get the wordcount or anything) in six parts in a recent adventure path, then wrote another smaller bridge piece on the Paizo website for these two characters that star in the novel. I was quite impressed with Gross's style and craft. He's a good writer with two distinct character voices that are both excellently done. I've said many times before that I'm wary of game fiction, but at the same time, I've really got my hopes up that this is going to be much better than most of the competition in the field.

Speaking of Pathfinder fiction, I'm almost certainly not going to do the Pathfinder short story competition after all either. I was actually really excited to do so, but the timing was terrible. I had thought that a massive two week vacation right smack dab in the middle of the four week window that we had to work on it wouldn't throw me off, but I failed to account for how busy I was getting ready to go on vacation, how busy I actually was while on vacation, and how busy I've been since getting home trying to catch up on everything I missed. Technically I'm not giving up... I'd still like to do something, but I've realized that realistically I probably won't have any shot at all at hitting the deadline. It's only a week away, and I'm still struggling to get a plot outline together that really "snaps."

I'll probably still write something anyway, once I can get time to get a good plot together (because I think for this kind of fiction, a good plot it essential--I'm already quite happy with the characters that the scenario) but it'll probably be later, and I'll probably just post it online somewhere.