Friday, February 28, 2014

H. P. Lovecraft's "Most Important" stories

So, I've been reading "The Complete" works of H. P. Lovecraft (although it doesn't include the ghost-writtern or collaborative works).  The stories in this collection are arranged chronologically, which is a little bit unfortunate... I've been reading some of his least polished works first, including several that I've never read before (like "The Transition of Juan Romero" or "Old Bugs."  I wasn't missing much with most of these.)

This leads me to wonder which stories I would recommend as the "most important" ones to read.  I'm thinking that there are plenty that Lovecraft initiates would never really have to read  But some are the really iconic ones--the ones that have led to long-lived and lasting influence, either because they've contributed something that has since been utilized by the "Yog-Sothothery" circle, or have been important in gaming since.  I'm going to try to limit this to the "Top Ten" stories, but it may end up being "To Ten (Or So)" if I feel I need to add one or two more to get the list "complete".  Given in no particular order, because they really all should be read by anyone who cares to learn anything about Lovecraft's work.  Many of them are novellas, but none of them are particularly long.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that all of his novellas make the list, as well as several of his short stories.
  1. The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath was, curiously, my gateway into Lovecraft.  I used to have an old "adult" coloring book complete with essays that identified important writers of fantasy, and this was the one that was referred to.  I still prefer it to many of his stories, although from a Lovecraft fans' perspective, it's an odd one.  Taking place entirely in the DreamLands, it reads in many ways more like an odd Sword & Sorcery story than a Lovecraftian horror story.  In spite of that, it's one of the main sources of many creatures of the mythos--the nightgaunts, the moon-beasts, the Plateau of Leng and Kadath, the Gugs, the ghouls, Nyarlathotep and Azathoth, etc.  In many ways, it's a trojan horse—it seems like sword & sorcery, but it's actually one of the better horror stories in the corpus.  I do, however, admit that the long, rambling, unbroken-by-chapters text can be a bit difficult to read at one go...
  2. The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is one of the first Lovecraft novellas I read way back in high school in the late 80s.  It feels, in many ways, more like a traditional horror story, albeit a pretty good one.  I don't know that it necessarily brings a lot of anything new or unique to the Mythos to the table, but since it's one of his better stories, and one of only five novellas that Lovecraft wrote, I think it deserves to be on the list.
  3. At the Mountains of Madness is, on the other hand, one of the most iconic of Lovecraft's stories, and the capstone of his phase of writing that really drifts into science fiction horror.  It's a flawed masterpiece, no doubt.  After a very strong beginning, it wanders into an extended flashback that largely dilutes the ambiance of horror that it delivered in the first half of the story.  And at the very end, it comes to a confusing and anti-climactic finish.  But wow, the story that you can see Lovecraft reaching for here; the one that he almost but doesn't quite manage to tell, but which you can glimpse regardless, it's not hard to see why this story is fondly well-regarded.  It's one of the most important to read to understand the whole ouvre of Lovecraft and his fellows.
  4. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is a truly effective horror story, as well as one of the most crucial in terms of icons that are remembered today—Innsmouth itself, the Deep Ones, the Esoteric Order of Dagon, etc.  It's also the starting point for the wildly successful Delta Green setting for the Call of Cthulhu RPG.  You can't say you understand what a CoC game, or Lovecraft's writing is about, really, if you haven't read this, I think.
  5. The Shadow Out of Time, along with Mountains, best encapsulates the science fiction horror that later seemed to take over a fair bit of Lovecraft's writing.  However, this is one that I haven't read in so long, that I don't remember a lot of details about it!  Luckily, it's on my to-read list in two formats—electronic and in print—so I can get back up to speed.
  6. The Mound is a ghost-written novella, but it's one of his most important, and equal in quality (and similar in theme) to Mountains or Shadow Out of Time--although rather than being weird aliens that it describes, it talks about serpent men who live under the earth and worship the snake-god Yig—an element that has taken on a bit of a life of its own outside of Lovecraft's writing per se (Yig is important in the Green Ronin setting of Freeport, for instance, and it may have been, along with DreamQuest the source of the Underdark.)
  7. "The Doom That Came to Sarnath" is an interesting story, more along the lines of DreamQuest, that is a history essay, of sorts, of the Sword & Sorcery setting that Lovecraft loosely developed.  Many may quibble with its inclusion here, but especially for gamers who come out of a D&D milieu, I think these two are important gateways into more "complete" Lovecraftiana.  It also contains an iconic Lovecraftian element; the said "Doom" which harks back to many of the same themes that infuse his other work, including Innsmouth, "Dagon" and others.
  8. "The Call of Cthulhu" is often considered the most iconic of Lovecraft's stories, the one that most fully explored his themes (or at least the themes he explored at a certain phase of his writing; as I said earlier, Mountains of Madness and Shadow Out of Time evolved him into slightly different themes...)  Plus, the RPG is named after this one.  If, for some reason, you can only read one Lovecraft story, it should be this one.  The structure of the story, too, encapsulates the best of Lovecraft's work, and features most of his recurrant themes—distrust of foreigners, fear of the sea, etc.  It's really got it all.
  9. "The Colour Out of Space" is an unusual and creepy story from his more "science fictional" phase--an alien presence of some kind that kills a farmstead and destroys the area around it, but which is never fully understood or even adequately described.
  10. "The Dunwich Horror" is the iconic story for a Call of Cthulhu adventure, given that it has a cadre of "informed" academics that heads out into the hills of Arkham County to confront a supernatural menace and stop it with a magic spell that they've learned.  This is less in the science fiction horror department, and more in the "weird supernatural" horror, with witchcraft, and more, featuring as important focii in the story.
  11. "The Whisperer in Darkness" is the source of the mi-go, which are an iconic Lovecraftian element, and vastly important to the Delta Green setting.  This is also just a pretty good story, and the subject of an independent movie.
  12. "The Dreams in the Witch-House" is a great example of how even the more traditional witchcraft/ghost story has weird, science fictionish elements in it.  Also, c'mon—Brown Jenkin has got to be an iconic Lovecraft character!
Anything I'm missing?  I'm sure at least a couple of these would be controversial picks—I admit that I picked some of them just because I like them, rather than because they're objectively important.  But mostly the ones that I like are also the ones that are important.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

New publishing

I've been really excited about the new publishing model that seems to be generating a lot of steam these days.  Here's an article on Publisher's Weekly about it (although you probably can't read it, because it's subscriber's content only.  I couldn't.)  http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/61116-hugh-howey-and-the-indie-author-revolt.html

I did, however, find an excerpt from it that was available, shown below:  "For decades, aspiring authors were taught to bow before the altar of Big Publishing. Writers were taught that publishers alone possessed the wisdom to determine if a writer deserved passage through the pearly gates of author heaven. Writers were taught that publishers had an inalienable right to this power, and that this power was for the common good of readers. They were taught rejection made them stronger. They were taught that without a publisher’s blessing, they were a failed writer.

And it was true. Without a publisher, the writer was doomed to failure, because without a publisher the writer couldn’t reach readers. Six years ago publishers controlled the three essential legs of the professional publishing stool: the printing press, the access to retail distribution, and the knowledge of professional publishing best practices. It was a print-centric world where e-books were but an inconsequential glimmer in the eyes of a few delusional hippies, me included. A writer could self-publish in print, but without retail distribution these writers were destined to fill their garages with unsold printed books, all the while lining the pockets of vanity presses who exploited their dreams of authorship....

Today, the myth of traditional publishing is unraveling. The stigma of traditional publishing is on the rise.

The author community is growing increasingly disenchanted by Big Publishing’s hard line on 25% net e-book royalties, high e-book prices, slow payouts, and insistence on DRM copy protection. The recent news of major publishers touting record e-book-powered earnings only adds insult to authors’ perceived injury.

Authors are also disappointed by Big Publishing’s misguided foray into vanity publishing with Pearson/Penguin’s 2012 acquisition of Author Solutions, a company known for selling over-priced publishing packages to unsuspecting writers. Multiple publishers have formed sock puppet imprints powered by ASI: Simon & Schuster’s Archway, Penguin Random House’s Partridge Publishing in India, HarperCollins’ Westbow, Hay House’s Balboa Press, Writer’s Digests’ Abbott Press, and Harlequin’s Dellarte Press. These deals with the devil confirmed the worst fears held by indie authors who already questioned if publishers viewed writers as partners or as chattel.
"

This, along with a number of other articles and posts and discussions with authors about the state of the publishing industry, speak to a very changed (and still evolving) environment that benefits both authors and readers at the expense of the middle-man.  For example, here's another fascinating post by Michael Sullivan, an author I've read a little bit of and reviewed here before: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/2014/02/19/wrights-writing-corner-guest-post-from-best-selling-author-michael-j-sullivan/

Here's an entire series of posts on the subject: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?page_id=860

Of course, my excitement for this new movement has been tempered by the fact that my forays into ebooks has not gone well.  Of course, I've been really cheap and only picked up (so far) Kindle books that were free, and that probably skews my experience downward.  I've read some great ebooks... but they were public doman, and I already in fact own print copies of many of them.  And then I've read--or tried to read--a number of ebooks that were the free first offerings in series with pay for sequels.  Until now, my experience there had been fairly dismal.

I freely admit that my selection process was informed more by abject cheapness than by any kind of rational process that I'd have used for books that I was buying normally, but still.  It was a sad prognosis of the state of the self-published and electronically published world that hinted that finding good material was going to be more difficult than I'd hoped, which of course, strongly argues against the movement in the first place.

I was able to break this sad streak with Jonathan Moeller's Demonsouled, a first book in a sword & sorcery series that I not only happily read from beginning to end, but enjoyed quite a bit, and will probably go on to pick up the pay-for sequels to it.  Probably (although in the meantime, I still have a lot of material to wade through.)  The book is free, and I read it on my phone's Kindle app, often while sitting around waiting so I got it in fits and spurts at times when I otherwise wouldn't have been able to read at all.

Now that I've finished it, I'm reading The Complete Works of H. P. Lovecraft, another free ebook that I picked up on Cthulhuchick's website, and then sent to my Kindle.  The title is somewhat misleading, as it doesn't actually include any of his collaborations or ghost-written stories.  Keen-eyed observers may note that on my to-read page, I show a variety of Lovecraft collections.  This suggests that I haven't read Lovecraft, which given the focus of this blog would seem very odd.  Of course, I have read an enormous quantity of Lovecraft.  I added those books because I picked them up on Amazon and hadn't ever read those copies before.  Also, because although I've read many Lovecraft stories, including many that I've read many times, I've never read all of them, and a casual glance at the table of contents of each of the volumes all show at least one story that I've never read.  So I added them.  And then I got this Kindle collection, which will make them somewhat obsolete, but still.  Included in my print copies is a volume of most of Lovecraft's collaborations and ghost-written stories, only a few of which I've read, as well as a good collection of Mythos stories by other early Mythos writers.

And actually, my "relationship" with Lovecraft is much more complicated and complex than merely saying that I'm a fan.  I've often claimed that he's my favorite terrible writer, and that I like many of his stories in spite of themselves, not because they're so good.  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? I suppose that's scary if I have to remember any parabolic or hyperbolic calculus, but otherwise, so what?  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. This "masterpiece" starts of great and atmospheric, and then completely falls apart under its own weight, so you almost have to read between the lines to actually get a good story out of it.  And all of this, of course, says very little about Lovecraft's writing craft, which often rendered his works anticlimactic and faintly humorous despite his intentions.  The finale of "Dagon" in particular comes to mind, although it's not a unique failure.

In fact, that is so often a failure of his monsters and horrors that it's almost a running joke.  They're just not really horrible.  You can't not eventually have a reveal of your monster--that's kind of the whole point from a reader's point of view of reading a monster/supernatural horror story.  And yet, Lovecraft either sidestepped it on occasion, or more likely, had disappointing and anti-climatic monsters that were limp and silly when actually revealed.  Acute angles that behaved as if they were obtuse angles just isn't a scary concept.  It's a silly one.  Plus, horror works because it stimulates the imagination (over-stimulates it, possibly) and it's a bit hard to actually imagine these weird angles in a building.

No doubt, he was on to something--and later writers and fans could sense it--but somehow he failed in his execution.  He grasped and something perpetually out of his reach.  But we, as readers, could sense in a way, what he was grasping at and applaud the effort--and want to see it somehow successfully reached by someone.  So we keep coming back for more.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Clone Wars "Season Six"

http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/The_Clone_Wars:_Season_Six

As the article shows, thirteen episodes of the written but never aired "season six" of The Clone Wars will debut on Netflix in about two weeks.  You may notice that most Clone Wars seasons are 22-24 episodes long, so this is not a complete season.  You'd probably be right.  Writing is the first step, obviously, and production and post-production comes later.  Meanwhile, while the producers were in the midst of making season six, business realities intruded, and Disney bought Star Wars and the rest of Lucasfilm.  This made the Cartoon Network contract unworkable (or at least undesirable) so the show was canceled earlier than it otherwise might have been.  We're lucky that they guys were able to finish up thirteen episodes, I think.

There's also apparently some lost Darth Maul espisodes that weren't as far along, and were therefore never animated and can't be seen, even though scripts exist.  These will be adapted to a comic book by Dark Horse in a few months (given that Disney also owns Marvel Comics, it's surprising that that contract still lingers, but no doubt it won't forever...)

As a lifetime fan of the franchise, even during it's low points, I'm excited to see this.  I've thoroughly enjoyed this show to date, and I'm excited to see the new Disney XD show Star Wars Rebels when it airs this fall.  And I'm excited to read the "Son of Dathomir" arc, even though I've otherwise kinda sorta given up on Star Wars comics (and in many ways, comics in general.)

Maybe this will be the impetus I need to finally officially playtest my Star Wars Microlite ruleset, while I'm at it...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

XP and levels... again

http://www.wizards.com/DnD/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4ll/20140217

I know, I know... D&D 5e is about being the "big tent" that brings all of the D&D players who were lost in the diaspora back home again.  But is that maybe a pipe dream?  Are the playstyle assumptions of the various "factions"--to say nothing of the mechanics preferences--simply too disparate to ever be able to be on the same page again?

Mearls' post mentions trying to design adventures with a pace and flow of leveling that matches a more "story first" paradigm of the game.  He mentions the XP model as being more appropriate for a wandering hexcrawl or other "sandbox" style game. (For now, I'll reserve judgement on those two proclamations.)  Essentially, he's saying that adventure writers are working in the "story first" paradigm, but hang on to the hex and dungeoncrawl paradigm of rewards.  Why they would do this is unclear--unwilling to buck tradition, maybe?  Hope that hexcrawlers or dungeoncrawlers will still see enough value in their Story First module to buy it anyway due to the rewards?  None of these motivations are clear.

But if--and I say this for the sake of argument, because I'm not at all certain that I believe in this if--XP rewards are best suited for a hexcrawl or dungeoncrawl, and story milestone leveling up is best suited for a Story First paradigm, then wouldn't it be better for module designers to just pick a playtsyle that they're trying to accomodate and go all out to be the best module to accomodate that playstyle that they can?  Trying to appeal to both playstyles seems like an exercise in pleasing no one very much.  Why even go through the motions of appealing to XP progression, if it's inherent in the design of the module that the PCs are X level when they start it, and level up at Y position in the module, and are therefore at level Z for the remainder of the module?  Just tell GMs that that is the assumption, and let them figure it out.  If Mearls' column linked above is correct, that's what many DM's are already doing anyway.

I think the problem here is the commercial imperative that 5e gather in as many players as possible, combined with the psychological imperative some people have that wants everyone to be on the same page.  That just simply is not a realistic goal.  One side effect--whether intentional or not is up for debate--of the OGL was that gaming became micro-sourceable, in order to reach increasingly smaller niches.  Actually, this was exactly what Ryan Dancey hoped it would do, but he thought it would do so under the rubric of d20 D&D, and I don't think he foresaw a Hasbro-compelled business desire to move to 4e, and then 5e in relatively quick order.  Nor did he foresee the use of the OGL to create completely different games, like OSRIC and the rest of the OSR, and more particularly, Pathfinder.  He certainly didn't foresee that Pathfinder would actually overtake D&D (as a brand name).  Micro-sourcing to niche preferences is all well and good when we're talking about modules, but the actual game itself?  Well, the OGL was supposed to drive sales of the PHB, right?

Then again, maybe he did.  There were also a lot of comments from guys like Peter Adkinson and Ryan Dancey and the like about "saving" D&D from the poor decisions of corporate suits who didn't understand the hobby at all, and making sure that it stayed saved in the future, by creating an evergreen version of the game that could never be revoked.  In that sense, Pathfinder is D&D; D&D as envisioned by the WotC team that saved it from the folly of TSR's mistakes, at least.  In that sense, maybe it's more D&D than D&D is.

Now, I don't really have a dog in that particular fight.  I don't really play Pathfinder, 4e, nor am I likely to play 5e. My group is quite happy continuing with 3.5, I think, and my own personal favorite is Microlite.  I'm academically curious about stuff that happens in the OSR and in the "official" D&D space, but it's not likely to impact me or my own personal gaming very much no matter what happens.

Monday, February 17, 2014

X is for Rua de Xavier

The Liure river runs right through Porto Liure.  Although it is not truly navigable beyond the city, small ferries, gondolas, and other small watercraft ply the river, as well as the many canals that spring off from the river and penetrate deeply into the city.  Because cool sea breezes blow in after dark, the river and the many canals are the source of frequent blankets of fog and mist that rise from the waters as the temperature changes.  This thick blanket of mist helps to cement and encourage the many legends and stories of hauntings and ghosts that have given Porto Liure it's nickname as Port of Ghosts, but the persistance of the rumors and legends and stories... as well as the disquieting frequency with which new stories seems to be added to the corpus suggests to many that they are not merely quaint urban myths, but indicative of a much more serious condition.

Many such stories originate on the infamous Rua de Xavier.  The Rua is, strictly speaking, a bridge rather than a street, but the name persists regardless.  The Rua is about a quarter mile long, and bridges the Academy to the Ciutat Veixa district to the north.  Built on a series of stone starlings, the Rua is fairly wide, and has developed almost into a mini-neighborhood in its own right.  Buildings--houses, business, and more line both sides of the bridge, and hang out over the river to a considerable degree.  Many of them also overhang the street, so walking along the Rua is often compared to walking through a dim, man-made tunnel.

One of the most infamous buildings on the Rua is the vacant Church of Starry Wisdom.  Once a business owned by a locksmith, later converted into a pub, and later again into a meeting place for said church, this building is now often claimed to be haunted.  Five years ago, a cult was rousted from the Church after allegations of kidnappings, sacrifices, and odd summonings of unearthly, unnatural creatures.  After a closed trial, there was a very public execution of twenty-one individuals associated with the church.  Rumors hint at ten times that many members who slunk away quietly to disappear into the city.

Since that time, the ghosts of the executed members of the Church of Starry Wisdom are among the least of the stories that still remain.  Strange and furtive individuals are still said to lurk about the church at night.  Disquieting behavior from rats in the area is often reported, including a persistant rumor of a rat that has the face of a noted assistant of the executed "high priest" of the cult.  This fellow was know as Brown Jaume, and a large rat with Brown Jaume's face has been reported by no less than five people who live in the area nearby.  There are rumors that something that was summoned remains in the area. Perhaps trapped in the building of the church itself (hopefully) but perhaps not.  Residents nearby close and lock their doors on moonless nights, especially if the mists are up.

Strange sounds, often disembodied, are heard in the area.  Chittering sounds, or the chanting of many voices (although no source for the chanting can ever be found).  Sounds of uncertain provenance are frequent in Porto Liure in general, and this is to be expected for a city that is frequently blanketed in thick mists, but the frequency of which they are reported in the Rua de Xavier is higher than anywhere else in the city.

Gradually, many people who live or work on the Rua itself have been selling out, often at a loss, and moving to other neighborhoods.  Sometimes this means new neighbors—an always troubling prospect in a city like Porto Liure, but sometimes it simply means that buildings go vacant for months at a time as new owners attempt to figure out what to do with real estate that hangs over a bridge.  It is estimated that over the last five years, almost ten percent of the former inhabitants have left, and of that ten percent, probably about half have been replaced.  Five percent of the buildings on the Rua are vacant... but troublingly, not necessarily abandoned or empty.  Because the Rua is a bridge that connects to neighborhoods, it did not have an assigned Watch, but the Watch has since added the bridge to the route of the patrols for Ciutat Veixa, and the Academy Guard also keeps a wary eye on the place.  This has improved the feeling of security for many in the area, but dark rumors persist.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

m20 stats, part 3

Yeah, yeah... I'm noting that my m20 stat generation methods are less interesting than my ramblings about design decisions and playstyle preferences in D&D.  But that's where my RPG head is for the moment.  I think I've narrowed in on how I want to do this, although I've thought of a few more radical options.  Here's some general principles:
  • Random generation feels more "natural" to me.  I like rolling up stats better than point buy for visceral reasons.  The problem, of course, is that random stats are... well, random.  It's nice to say that you want randomized stat generation, but it generally sucks if the dice treat you poorly.  Since stats are something that you live with the entire campaign, or at least until your character dies and needs to be replaced, it usually isn't very fun to have the character who rolled up really crappy stats, and while it can be an occasionally fun challenge to play Barney Fife as a D&D character, that's not really the reason most of us come to the hobby.
  • It's all well and good to tell someone to suck it up and live with what they rolled, but let's remember here: this is our hobby.  Within reason, we should be doing it to have fun.
  • I'm not as concerned about this, but it is a concern nonetheless--the guy who rolls really poorly and the guy who rolls really well in the same campaign can perform very differently in game.  This can lead to further imbalances of play.  The biggest single concern here is the player who doesn't get his moment to shine, and so never even really enjoys the campaign very much, but there are other issues as well--especially if the campaign is meant to be fairly difficult, and there are characters that can't pull their own weight.  Even if it's not meant to be difficult, the notion of why an adventuring party--a group of highly skilled and mutually compatible experts in their chosen fields--would lug along such obviously dead weight.
  • The easy solution to this is point buy, which is--let's face it--quite popular, even in D&D.  It's often the only way to create characters in many other games.  I like it as an option.  But it feels a little too sterile for my tastes.  I somehow want the best of both worlds; characters that have an almost guaranteed skew towards the higher end of average, but with stats that aren't completely bland.  I like some risk, or at least some variability.
There's several ways to do this, with varying efficacy.  d20, for instance, instead of having 3d6 in order, has 4d6, drop the lowest (so you have an effective 3d6, but skewed slightly higher than average) and arranged to taste.  Frankly, after all the years I've done that, even that seems like small potatoes towards skewing.

I have decided to go with the narrower "Moldvay range" of stat bonuses, -3 to +3 instead of the d20 range of -4 to +4.  Of course, that can change once racial bonuses are added, and after a few leveling ups have led to a stat increase or two, but for the initial step, the challenge is to turn a minimum of -3 in all three stats to something more usuable, up to +3, in at least some stats.  You need at least 18 points to get from an all minimum to an all maximum, and to get an average +0 in all stats, you need at least 9 points.  To get a higher than average, but not maximum, you need something there in the middle as a median.

A good way to get a skew into the top half is to only roll for the top half, and let the bottom half (or whatever number it is) be flat.  If, for example, I had players roll stats as 2d4 + 10, then your range of points to spend on bringing your three -3's up would be 12-18.  (This is a bit too good, by the way.  The average would be about 15.  I prefer one closer to 13 or so.) 

So, although it sounds a little weird, I'd like to go with stat generation of either 3d4 + 6 or 2d6 + 6.  The former gives a range of 9-18, with an average of about 13.5 with a bigger distribution around the average, and the latter gives a range of 8-18 with an average of 13 but a slightly more widely disbursed distribution (i.e., slightly more likely to be on the higher and lower end compared to the other method.)

The optional alternative would be point-buy with 13 points to spend.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

m20 Stats, part 2

Well, I've been noodling around more ideas in my head while I endured a long meeting.  I have a few options for converting stats in my m20 systems from 3-18 "traditional" stats to simply bonuses.  Let me noodle them around.  I don't have to decide which one I like best right now.  I might even include several of them as options.  I'll also talk about the implications of various of the options in front of me for the three m20 systems that I'm noodling with: the one that supports my homebrew setting, the one that supports Star Wars, and the one that supports Eberron Remixed.

Range:  The Moldvay paradigm gives a range of -3 to +3 for stats.  The d20 paradigm widens that; it's -4 to +4.  I'm actually going to assume for the sake of simplicity that you are using the d20 paradigm.  However, if you prefer to use the Moldvay paradigm, you could convert all of the d8s below to d6s and get the same (or at least similar) results within the range you selected.

Totally Random Option:  All stats start at a baseline of -4.  Roll 3d8.  This will give you a number between 3 and 24.  Spend these points to increase your stats at a one to one ratio.  You cannot increase any stat to a number higher than +4 (although racial modifiers might bring it up after stat generation.)  For the Moldvay range, you start at -3 and roll 3d6, which gives you between 3-18 points to spend.  The maximum in this paradigm is +3.

d20 Style Massaged Randomness: Roll 4d8 instead of 3d8.  Ignore the lowest die result.

Heroic Massaged Randomness:  Roll 2d8+8.  This will give you a range between 10-24.  The top end doesn't change, but the low end results are, needless to say, eliminated.  For further "heroism", you could even do more, such as 1d8+16.

Point-buy:  Point buy options are very popular in D&D today, and even moreso in other systems.  If the randomness of stat rolls isn't your thing, just pick a number between 3 and 24 (or 3 and 18, if using the Moldvay range) instead of rolling individually for each player.  I'd recommend a total of around 12-15 to make sure players have to make a few sacrifices and think about how to build their character.  Make sure all PCs get the same total.

Hit Points:  Since I was using the STR score as the baseline for starting level hit points, I won't be able to do that anymore.  Rather, I think I'll go with 10 + STR where the new STR score is equivalent to the old STR bonus.  (You also still add 1d6/level, including 1st level.) If you want to tweak survivability of starting characters, you can tweak the base number.  12 + STR, or 15 + STR will obviously give you more hit points to play around with.  If you wanted a more Old School vibe, you could simply use the 1d6 without any modification at all.  I prefer the 10+ model myself.

Races: Since racial stat bonuses were predicated on a model in which a +2 to the score equalled a +1 to the bonus, all racial bonuses should be halved (with ±1 still being a minimum/maximum) for the Eberron Remixed variety of the m20 rules.  This reduces some of the variability and potential gamesmanship in chargen of races that already gave a +1 or -1, but otherwise doesn't impact their viability or relative power level in any way.  For the other varieties, no change is necessary.

Sanity and Other Hazards:  Any hazard that directly attacked your stat score, such as a poison or sanity episode, needs to have its impact halved.  A Sanity check that does 1d4 points of damage to your MND score needs to be 1d2, for instance.  A poison that does 1d6 damage to your STR needs to be 1d3.

Leveling Up: Normally, getting a +1 to an ability score would not necessarily increase your ability modifier (happens a total of three times through your 10-level career.)  This was a legacy rule that I don't think is great.  Go ahead and still take the +1.  You'll be marginally better, since a +1 to your stat is now the same thing that a +2 used to be, but that's not a big deal.

m20/d20 and stats

Just noodling around a little bit.  I recently picked up the Moldvay book (on pdf) from http://www.dndclassics.com and have been rereading it (I also picked up the companion piece, the Cook Expert set, as well as "Keep on the Borderlands" and "The Isle of Dread"--the two companion modules that initially sold with the boxed sets.  I've been rereading them (although I admit that I haven't gotten very far.)

One thing that I had forgotten was the flatter bonus curve for ability scores.  Let me highlight--this little "chart" will have the ability score, the bonus in a Moldvay environment, and the bonus in a d20 environment.  m20, for what it's worth, tends to follow the d20, not the Moldvay, paradigm.
3
-3
-4
4
-2
-3
5
-2
-3
6
-1
-2
7
-1
-2
8
-1
-1
9
0
-1
10
0
0
11
0
0
12
0
+1
13
+1
+1
14
+1
+2
15
+1
+2
16
+2
+3
17
+2
+3
18
+3
+4
My goal in looking at this was actually to investigate the notion of doing away with the ability scores altogether and migrating to an ability bonus only as the ability score, i.e., your score would range from -4 to +4 (or maybe -3 to +3 if I used a Moldvay paradigm) instead of ranging from 3-18.  It looks like there are only three things that I'd need to address if so: 1) ability score generation, 2) attacks like poison, for instance, that do ability score damage, and 3) hit point generation at 1st level.  Of those, the third is really easy to come up with an alternative, but I'm struggling just a bit to find a solution to #s 1 and 2 that I like.

I also have to think about the range and distribution I prefer, since seeing the Moldvay range and distribution, and realizing that it makes a much better bell curve, has got me second-guessing what I've done with d20 and m20 for the last fourteen years.  And finally, I'll have to think about how racial stats interact with any choice I make. 

For those who care about the details of my m20 system (that is, just me) stay tuned here... as I noodle around these issues, there may be minor updates in the document.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Samyassa

One of the more curious powers that wanders, unknown to most, the wild places of the Land of Three Empires is Samyassa, the Fallen Angel.  It is unknown exactly what his story is, and he tells very little of it to the few he will speak with.  But what little lore that is said about him suggests that he was the leader of an entire host of Watchers, who lived in a City of Gold in heaven (see the Unmoving Watchers post on the A to Z tab.)

Supposedly, he lusted after mortal women many eons ago.  Descending from heaven with 200 of the Watchers, he spent his time in riotous living with them.  Seduced by their beauty, these Watchers taught the early humans the basics of civilization: weapon-making, building-making... and magic.  It was this last, in particular, that threatened the City of Gold and its angelic inhabitants, as well as all of the other civilizations of non-humans in the Near Realms.

War threatened the City of Gold, as other Near Realms found themselves suddenly potentially threatened by humanity, and angels were revealed to be the source of the threat.  Although Samyassa and his fallen Watchers were renegades, and not representative of the angels overall, the entire City of Gold was blamed for the affair, and the angels went to war against the sylphs and genies of the City of Silver.

As a result of this, Samyassa remains an exile, and there is, in fact, a death warrant on his head if he were to encounter any angel today.

However, that is not the only story of Samyassa and his origin.  Some scholars, in fact, dispute that the Cities of Gold, Silver and Brass are actual places at all.  According to these scholars, Samyassa is instead an exile from Kadath, the dark city that overlooks the sinister Plateau of Leng.  The Great Ones of Kadath are beings like Samyassa himself, sometimes called angels by the ignorant.  Designed to protect The Gate from encroachment of things from the Realms Beyond, Kadath is their stewardship and also their prison.

Samyassa's exile from Kadath, in this theory, is mysterious, although notions of temptation of human women remain strong as a character trait associated with Samyassa regardless of anyone's interpretation of him.  Some darkly whisper that Kefte Taraan, of the Heresiarchy of the Twelve, is the original woman who tempted him to abandon his duty, and that if it can be found at all, it is with her. (They fail to mention that finding Kefte Taraan is just as difficult a prospect as finding Samyassa, since the Heresiarchy are at least semi-legendary themselves.)

The scholar Bertran Montcado of the Universitat in Terassa favors this second interpretation, and even claims to have seen Samyassa--from a distance--while on an archeological dig in the Untash grasslands.  He has theorized that Kefte Taraan, despite her Hamazi-sounding name, might originally have been a princess of Kinzassál.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Cthulhu as a D&D demon-lord?

As part of my discussion on the iconic picture of the 3e iconic D&D party getting their tushes handed to them by Cthulhu (albeit a small-sized one) there was some discussion about whether or not Cthulhu is "deity level" in D&D, or what, exactly he is.  My own point of view is that assigning this kind of heirarchy is antithetical to Lovecraft's design (although it was done by Derleth, and followed by every RPG company that ever featured any kind of Lovecraftiana since.)  But if you have to do it, the only deities are really Yog-Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath, Azathoth and Nyarlathotep.  Guys like Cthulhu, Tsathoggua or Hastur are better represented as equivalent to the archfiends, if you will.  Demon-lords.

But let's look at his stats in the various D&D versions over the years.

Cthulhu infamously showed up in the first printing of 1980's Deities & Demigods, where he was inexplicably called a Greater God, on par with Azathoth.  This is clearly in contradiction to Lovecraft's own text, where he's often called the High Priest of R'lyeh.  Whatever.

In the d20 Call of Cthulhu book, he's a CR 34 monster, although it was an early 3e era book, and I'm not sure that I'd consider that CR to have been "trued up" very well.  However, for the sake of argument, let's say that it's more or less accurate.  If so, the Demonicon of Iggwilv gives demon lord stats of high twenties to low thirties--Demogorgon himself showed up as 33.

In Paizo's Bestiary 4, they included Pazuzu, a demon lord, and Cthulhu.  Both came in at CR 30.

I think these latter stats are about right, and the perspective of Cthulhu as a "peer", if you will, of guys like Dagon, Orcus, Demogorgon or Pale Night is about right.  Given the overtly Lovecraftian description of the obyriths anyway, this is a good fit.  There's actually a case to be made that Dagon and Cthulhu are the same, as it turns out.  Dagon, of course, has a former mythological life of his own as a Philistine god, as well as the "star" of two of Lovecraft's stories, his early effort "Dagon" and his masterpiece "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."  There is a great deal of overlap in terms of how Dagon and Cthulhu are presented in the Mythos, and there have been several postulates that "The Call of Cthulhu" was, in fact, a rewrite and reimagining of the earlier story "Dagon", and the two of them are in fact two names for the same being.

In the d20 Call of Cthulhu book, of course, Dagon and Cthulhu have separate write-ups.  But, by definition, all of mankind's attempts to characterize the Mythos are incorrect--the only reason we can't correct it is because we don't know where its incorrect.  As it happens, I think the conflation of Dagon and Cthulhu makes a great deal of sense.

And since Dagon of D&D is overtly the same as Dagon of Lovecraftiana (complete with the worship of kuo-toa "Deep Ones" in weird seaside towns, riffed almost word for word from "Shadow Over Innsmouth") that means that the CR 30 (or 32, or whatever it was exactly) Dagon from the Demonomicon of Iggwilv series of articles in Dragon Magazine can be stand-in stats if required.  And if you want a lower CR version, for whatever reason, there's one in the low 20s in Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss.

In the end, though, what does all this matter?  It doesn't, except as an interesting point of reference.  I can't imagine that I'd ever really have my characters "fight" Cthulhu or Dagon, or any other demon lord, archfiend or god.  That's simply not the kind of game that I'm likely to run.  If I use d20, then I also use E6, which means that even the low-CR version of a demon lord, at over CR 20, is way out of the league of the most powerful characters imaginable.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Tiers of play

http://www.wizards.com/dnd/Article.aspx?x=dnd/4wand/20140205

I've said many times that as the game advances through the levels, it literally changes genre before your eyes.  This, of course, wouldn't have been surprising at all if I'd remembered and connected the dots that it used to be much more explicit.  My first game of D&D was with OD&D, but I didn't really "get it" for some time.  It wasn't until sometime in the 1981-3 window that the Moldvay B/X sets of D&D were out that I really got into the game.

And within relatively short order, Moldvay was replaced with the Mentzer boxed sets (y'know, with the awesome Larry Elmore dragon art.)  This version of D&D is usually "acronymed" out as BECMI--Basic (levels 1-3), Expert (4-14), Companion (15-25), Master (26-36), and Immortals (transcended levels altogether and advanced by divine rank.)  And each of the boxed sets indicated by a letter in the acronym represented a specific tier, if you will, of gameplay.

And although my memory of those boxed sets is pretty hazy (besides, by then most of my friends had made the switch to AD&D anyway, and I don't recall that I ever exactly saw all of the BECMI run or read through them myself) it seems that each tier focused on a different type of adventure.  BECMI moved you from some apprentice dungeongcrawling, to wilderness exploration, to kingdom building, to plane-hopping, to mingling with the gods.  Later editions collapsed the tiers somewhat, and also erased their distinctiveness as exppressed through modules.  Basically, they were all stuck in the Basic mode, even if you were actually fighting Orcus in the dungeon instead of orcs.

These are, as I've said, fundamentally different play paradigms, different genres; almost entirely different games.  But that was also kind of explicit, given that they came in separate boxed sets that you had to buy separately.

Although my own interest is specifically rooted in the basic and expert tiers (hence my preference, if I were to ever revisit an older edition of D&D, for the B/X version) I don't begrudge the other tiers their existance, and I can imagine wanting to play in any of them from time to time.

But the tiers got kind of muddled during the d20 days, and while 4e had tiers, they seemed kind of arbitrary, and there wasn't anything specific about belonging to one tier vs. the other.  This isn't necessarily a horrible thing (I'd hate to think that wilderness exploration could only be done during the Expert tier, for example) I also think that focusing on tiers, instead of having the entire panoply of D&D spread out in one volume that's trying to do it all at once, isn't necessarily a bad idea.

I wonder, though, if keeping the tiers more sharply defined, and more "separate" feeling, that there can again be a sense that levels aren't a drain on the system; a sacred cow that is dubious in today's world, where level-less systems are otherwise more or less the norm.

Otherwise, the concept of Bounded Accuracy, which I described earlier (and which is also the subject of a developer post) keeps the tiers from being as noticable, because it makes the power curve of D&D significantly flatter.  I'm not sure which is "better" except from the standpoint that I recognize my own tastes aren't necessarily exclusive to the market, and even if they were, even I don't want to feel like the first two tiers are my only options all of the time.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

5e "Hat Trick"

Another D&D related topic.  Actually, this is from a guy who's excited about 5e.  Or D&D Next, or whatever they're officially trying to call it.

He says that what it does is a "hat trick"--three things it delivers that speak to those especially who are fatigued with 3e, Pathfinder and 4e grind.  The three things are,

  1. Speed of play
  2. Bounded accuracy
  3. Theater of the Mind
Nos. 1 and 3 I parsed easily enough.  I had to ask what #2 was.  Speed of play; well, clearly.  3e and even moreso 4e got bogged down in really grindy, slow, combat.  Sometimes it was because the rules were too cumbersome and had to be referenced a lot (especially with regards to some of the details of 3e), sometimes it was just because the tactical game was designed specifically to be that way (more a 4e problem.)  5e then, supposedly is much faster to play.  Is it faster than pre-5e?  How does it compare to the B/X pairing?  How does it compare to Microlite20?  Well, Speed of Play doesn't have to approach an absolute to be good--some depth is good, after all.  But keep in mind that this guy admits that he's only familiar with iterations of D&D.  He's never played any other game.  But nobody argued with him here either.  Certainly, speed of play is something that I want from my systems these days.  Grindy higher level 3e combat has soured me quite a bit on detailed rule systems.

Theater of the mind is a fancy term, but all it really refers to (at least his usage of it) is the ability to play the game without needing battlemats, miniatures, and other physical representations because of tactical positioning.  In this regard, the guy who made this claim got some more flack from folks with more depth to their roleplaying experience.  Sure, 5e may have more theater of the mind friendliness than 4e or even 3e, but not as much as earlier editions of D&D, and certainly not as much as other games like, say, Feng Shui.

I also highly desire mechanics that don't hinder theater of the mind style play.  But I admit that I'm a little bit suspicious of mechanics that specifically enable and encourage it.  I'd rather just have mechanics that easily allow it. 

Bounded Accuracy is a notion--a paradigm on how to flatten the power curve of heroes.  Allow them to level without allowing that to break the verisimilitude of the game, or otherwise cause all of the problems that levels can bring.  Considering that I just posted about levels a few days ago, I thought this was kind of interesting.

Anyway, here's the link to the design diary that specifically points out Wizards of the Coast's philosophy of bounded accuracy.

All in all, this "hat trick" is encouraging to me.  It indicates that I'd probably like 5e.

Doesn't, though, at all make any promises about my ability to prefer it to what I already have.  Going back to my idea of the Great Schism; I think one after-affect is a diaspora of D&D players.  Getting us all back under the big tent again is probably impossible.  I'm happy with what I have, and I don't feel any need to go look for something else just because it's "official."  I am, however, encouraged by what I see so far.  It looks like a good direction for D&D to me.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Cthulhu in popular culture

One of the most curious bits of random Yog-Sothothery was in the d20 Call of Cthulhu book.  In the appendixes, Monte Cook (or whichever of the writers wrote this section, but I'm pretty confident in that call that it was him) talks about doing the obvious--importing Cthulhu and other Mythos monsters directly into D&D, because after all, any iteration of the d20 system back then was still sufficiently similar to any other iteration that it was really easy to do so.  There was a bit of Wayne Reynolds artwork of the early 3e iconics getting trounced by a little Cthulhu cub or something.  This bit of art has become quite popular amongst gamers, and I've seen it reposted numerous times over the years since.

However, I think a lot of gamers just really don't understand Lovecraft, to be honest with you.  In the most recent posting of it, someone posted that picture and the question: have you ever had a team of high level characters fight Cthulhu, and if so, what was the experience like?  One guy responded immediately that if the players won, then something was certainly wrong the system used to run that combat.  And then a moderator on the site, one who's usually fairly intelligent, and who usually posts from a position of knowing what he's talking about, added to that that maybe there's nothing wrong with the system, but it clearly didn't match Lovecraft's writing.

Wait, what?  Says who?  Are you suggesting that high level D&D characters aren't likely to have access to junky old boats?  Because as I recall, what would have been the equivalent of a low-level Expert class NPC bumped Cthulhu on the head with a boat, and sent him packing.  High level D&D characters shouldn't have found that any kind of challenge whatsoever.

This was not unique to Lovecraft's writing.  A posse of federal agents put a decisive end to the lair of the Deep Ones in Shadow Over Innsmouth.  A handful of old professers with access to a banishment ritual of some kind put a decisive end to the monstrous "half-brother" of Wilbur Whateley in The Dunwich Horror.  Randolph Carter flouted the designs of no less a villainous team-up than Nyarlathotep and Azathoth simply by waking up in The DreamQuest of Unknown Kadath (although, sure, I'll concede that he didn't kill them in mortal combat, exactly.)

Who says that defeat of the Cosmic Horror is not in line with Lovecraft's writings?  This leads to some of the same inane problems that Cthulhu games inevitably have--unskilled or inexperienced Keepers (or whatever they call Cthulhu GMs) think that if they're not chewing through characters 2-3 or more per session, then they're somehow doing it wrong.  This means that, in my experience, Cthulhu is often viewed as a campy one-shot or convention type game, completely unsuitable for campaign style play.  What a sad state of affairs!  Cthulhu can and should provide some of the best campaigns you can get.  But not if the GM and players don't really "get it."  And part of "getting it" is 1) actually understanding Lovecraft's writings, and not going on a half-baked, second hand interpretation of them, and 2) recognizing the nature of Yog-Sothothery and what it is supposed to be.  Heck, Lovecraft himself expected that his Yog-Sothothery circle would do different things with the themes and memes of the Mythos.  Robert E. Howard wrote all kinds of Mythos stories in which the Mythos was rather heroically handed its rear end by a two-fisted, gung-ho type guy (like Solomon Kane, for instance.)  And Lovecraft thoroughly approved.

The idea that Lovecraft wrote only about shy, retiring characters who were doomed to failure is not supported by "the primary sources."  It's really an artifact of what's come after--long after, in many cases--Lovecraft himself had died.