Monday, January 26, 2015

Archery in fantasy stories

Archers are very common in fantasy stories; iconic characters like Legolas are archers, and they are based on quasi-historical figures like Robin Hood or William Tell.  And, of course, archers are important in actual Medieval military history, which informs so much of the fantasy genre in general.

However, I think we don't really understand archery anymore, because it's an obsolete skill.  For those of you who wish to re-emphasize archery, and maybe learn a thing or two about how it most likely actually worked in the Middle Ages, check out this video.

Yes; I realize that posting this, while cool and somewhat on-topic, is really punting.  Are you ever going to talk about DARK•HERITAGE again, some may wonder.  As it happens, I'm slowly getting to work on putting together the wiki page that will replace my older wiki pages, now on Google!  As I've said before, and maybe one or two of you may have noticed, I'm taking the opportunity presented by my forced migration to re-organize and revisit the setting; possibly even retconning it to some (relatively minor) extent.

I'm also feeling serious about getting to the bottom of producing some digital maps, something else I've wished to do but been too intimidated to actually do, for some time.  So yeah; I hope and expect to see some new and hopefully interesting DARK•HERITAGE content once again become the focus of the blog for much of 2015.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Ron Edwards on the state of fantasy and gaming in the "early years"

The third (of three) discussion points in that refer to Ron Edwards' "Naked Went the Gamer" essay, which treats--in a way--gamer culture and fantasy/sci-fi fandom culture in the 1970s and 80s and early part of D&D's life cycle, basically.  If you read that, you'll notice that I largely disagree with his essay, even while I concede that he has a point.

I just read another new interview with Ron Edwards, which I liked better, and which I found easier to agree with.  It's an interesting read for anyone who is a fan of D&D; especially older D&D.  I found his almost off-the-cuff references to the vector of folks who came into gaming as fans of fantasy fiction first to be interesting.  He may have thought that was rare back in the day (and maybe it was) but just a few years later, it was much more common.

Anyway, the new interview is here:

Monday, January 12, 2015

Shadow Swords in the Land of Three Empires

The Shadow Sword is a new class to DARK•HERITAGE m20.  Rather than add it to the document, it's going to be only semi-official here on the blog.  My intention for this class isn't really that it be "core" but that it be an extremely rare ability that few have.

Shimut the Flesheater, a member of the loosely defined "Heresiarchy of the Twelve" is said to be the sorcerer who invented the concept of the Shadow Sword.  As with literary character Beorn the skin-changer from The Hobbit, Shadow Swords are "under no enchantment but [their] own."  Able to access a small amount of magic--or The Shadow, as it is sometimes colloquially called--Shadow Swords can do basically one thing.  Other than that, their abilities are exceptional, but not supernatural.

Shadow Swords are more common among the Northlander race, although even there it is rare.  Very few others have learned to harness the Shadow in the manner in which Shadow Swords do.  Northlander Shadow Swords usually belong to one of the many strange Death Cults from the Cannibal Island and elsewhere which produce mystical assassins, of which the Shadow Sword is the most prominent variety

Some hamazin kemling revanchist cells among the Cherskii Mafia have also learned the procedure from some unknown vector, and as the Cherskii Mafia has lost its original focus, the knowledge has slowly seeped out to a few others.  Mostly still limited to assassins and other purveyors of "black ops", most people in the Land of Three Empires still have no idea what a Shadow Sword is or what he can do, and those who know the skills of a Shadow Sword are very discrete, handing down their knowledge rarely and carefully to hand-picked apprentices only.

The most iconic ability of Shadow Swords is the ability to manifest a weapon of pure Shadow at will.  Despite the name I've used to represent the class, this weapon can actually be any weapon that the character desires (although curved sabers seem to be among the most popular).  This includes missile weapons, even--although not any complicated mechanical weapon, such as a firearm.  Any melee weapon, any thrown weapon, and any missile weapon other than firearms can be manifested as desired by the character, summoned at a moment's notice, and then "banished" again back into the Shadow as desired.

This weapon is usually a cool, matte black in appearance, and often seems to seep or exude darkness almost like smoke.  Nobody but the Shadow Sword himself can use this weapon (i.e., he can't hand it to anyone else, and nobody else can pick it up if it's thrown, for instance--usually if it's thrown, the Shadow Sword would immediately disperse it and resummon it back into his hand again as soon as it has done its damage.)

Because a Shadow Sword is always armed, even if he appears not to be, those with this ability have naturally gravitated towards "black ops" type professions and assassination, to which this ability is remarkably well suited, but this is a trend not an obligation to those who belong to this class, naturally.

Shadow Blade: Gains combat bonus advantages to attack and damage, but only when using a
shadow sword; a blade of pure shadow substance that can be summoned at a moment's notice. Also, any unarmored character with this ability can add ½ his character level (rounded down) to AC, and can, instead of attacking, deflect missed missile attacks, including bullets, back at anyone shooting at him (rolls as if making a missile attack himself, can only apply to missed shots; hits still do damage as normal to the Shadow Sword character and cannot be deflected.) If the character doesn't move or take any other action, he can use his shadow blade to “fight defensively") by adding +4 to his AC against missile attacks. Missed attacks when “fighting defensively” can be deflected.

Shadow Swords also can cloak themselves in Shadow, which makes them difficult to spot.  They gain a class bonus of +3 to Subterfuge.  (I know, I know; Subterfuge is also used for a number of other actions besides literally sneaking around, including bluffing, creating a forgery or disguise, lying, etc.  That's OK.)

Some designers' notes, briefly: The class started off being, basically, a Jedi from my Star Wars game.  I decided to ditch the Force powers in favor of making him sneakier (as well as looking less obviously like a Jedi), so it ends up feeling, in many respects, more like a hybrid of the Assassin prestige class and the the Soulknife, rendered in the much more simplistic m20 ruleset.  I long ago had the concept of an Advanced Class version of the Soulknife as part of my d20 Modern version of the setting, although it was an esoteric option that wasn't always easy to find.  As I said earlier, I've often been back and forth on the fence about whether or not I think it fits my conception of the setting.  Currently, I'm leaning much more towards making the setting a kind of swashbuckling noir setting rather than the somewhat darker version of the setting which is more Lovecraftian horror in sword & sorcery drag.  The class fits better in the former tone than in the latter, and I think my drift in that direction has been a long time coming and is probably permanent, so it fits as I see the setting now, and probably will do so for good.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Pillars of Creation

Like many others, I of course really loved the Pillars of Creation image from Hubble; a close-up of some dark nebula structures within the Eagle Nebula.  As a kind of anniversary present or something, NASA took a new, high-res, and unobstructed picture of the structure, which I now present for your somewhat random off-topic viewing pleasure.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

A few Star Wars gaming thoughts...

...that didn't quite make it into the post below.

First, if I do end up making the Jedi (with some judicious name and label changes) a class that's available in DARK•HERITAGE as a kind of Soulknife, then it raises another question.  Why not just add the a la carte class options of Star Wars into DARK•HERITAGE all the way?  That's not actually a bad idea, and I've done a fair bit of cross-pollination between the two already, but in general, I probably won't go much further than I already have for one main reason: Star Wars is very expansive.  It envisions an entire galaxy, in an optimistic space opera paradigm, of life forms and possibilities.  You can never hope to represent all of the options available to potential player characters in such a paradigm, so an a la carte build-it-yourself approach to class and race is a suitable alternative to tedious exhaustiveness.  On the other hand, DARK•HERITAGE is a geographically constrained area on one fantasy world.  I could possibly open up the classes a bit, but the races are pretty fixed as they are.

Second, I realize, on thinking about it, that there are at least three characters that probably aren't very well represented by the rules for m20 Star Wars.  Yoda and Palpatine seem to be force-using prodigies that can't possibly be constrained by the hit point damage (representing fatigue) that other Knights are subject to.  And Mother Talzin seems to be some kind of witch or sorceress that uses rules that are completely absent from my ruleset.  I actually think this is OK.  For one thing, I don't think that it is necessary for NPCs to follow the same rules as PCs, and all three of these characters are definitely NPC type characters that shouldn't ever be represented by a PC.  If I were to try and build them as characters, I'd probably give Yoda and Palpatine some kind of unique "damage reduction when using Force powers" ability that reduced or even eliminated their fatigue from using the force.  Mother Talzin would probably have to cast actual spells, as per my other m20 ruleset.  This is OK, because she is represented less as a Force-using type of person and more as a magical witch of some kind.  This isn't ever really explained, but there it is.  She also seems to be unique, or at least her order is unique.  Of course, in my version of the setting, a slightly modified Nightbrother and Nightsister cult still exists, and if anything, is stronger than it was during the Clone Wars, but that's OK.  Mother Talzin is still more of a mentor/patron type NPC, or perhaps an adversary, but not a PC.  Honestly, I probably wouldn't worry too much about how to represent her with rules, and consider her an extra-legal plot device more than anything else.

I know, I know.  Some gamers get really bent out of shape about the "unfairness" of NPCs having abilities that PCs can't.  I'm not one of those, though--my theory of gaming doesn't even necessarily say that NPCs need to have any stats at all, and they can do whatever I need them do.

Third, I read the Darth Maul--Son of Dathomir comic book, which would have been a story arc of the Clone Wars if it hadn't been cancelled for business reasons which us fans of the show gnash our teeth at somewhat.  Interestingly, it posits at the end (MINOR SPOILER ALERT!) that Darth Maul was essentially removed as a threat to either the Jedi or the Sith when Mother Talzin was (apparently) killed (again) and his Shadow Collective was broken apart.  Of course, he wasn't killed, he was just... somewhat neutralized as a power.  Of course, in Season Five, he built up that power from scratch over the course of just a few episodes, so there's no reason to think that he couldn't do it again, but clearly the implication is that 1) Maul survived the Clone Wars, and 2) Maul ceased to be a mover and shaker in the galaxy following the Clone Wars.  And, as it happens, Maul was using the Darksaber instead of his classic red double-bladed lightsaber.

This maps astoundingly well to my own assumption that 1) sometime after Jedi, the Nightbrother and Nightsister cults underwent a bit of a Renaissance with 2) a much stronger position of the Nightbrothers within the cult (as opposed to the more submissive role that they played on Dathomir during the Clone Wars) who traditionally 3) use Darksabers rather than regular lightsabers.  In fact, I can now go on and say that it is in harmony with canon to suggest that Darth Maul himself went on to rebuild this cult following the events of Son of Dathomir, possibly with the help of surviving Nightsisters somewhere, or the ghost of Mother Talzin herself, even, and that it would turn out looking exactly as I have them look.  It's almost eerie sometimes how much the developing new canon, and stuff that Dave Filoni says, etc. matches my own particular take on Star Wars, which deviates (on purpose!) substantially from the EU style canon.  Which, of course, is now no longer considered canonical anyway.

Star Wars gaming

Last night I watched a bit more Clone Wars Season 1.  I saw the episodes "Jedi Crash" and "Keepers of the Peace" which have the insanely stupid and annoying Lurman people.  This was interesting to watch again, after a year or two, because in the meantime I've discovered--or rather, more properly digested--the r/K theory of evolutionary psychology as applied to political and social issues, and it's easy now to see the Lurman as a fictional representation of bizarre yet somewhat commonplace r-selected delusions.  In any case, the ideological bent of the Lurman was somewhat deflated by the end of the second episode, so that was at least a satisfying conclusion when it's shown to be insufficient to deal with the real world, even if all things considered, the characters feel like they wish that it wasn't.  But that's neither here nor there: I should finish the third disk of season 1 tonight, I hope, and will be on towards finishing the season and moving into season 2.  Like I said earlier, while there are good (and mediocre) episodes in every season, I do strongly believe that in general the quality across the board improves as the show progresses, so I'll be anxious to move forward.

Another thing I noticed was how "cool" the Jedi were in that episode.  There's a lot of inconsistency in terms of how combat capable they are; three Jedi and two clones successfully take on a virtual army of droids in "Keepers of the Peace" whereas in Attack of the Clones itself a similar sized force of droids and Geonoshians kill and essentially defeat dozens of Jedi, and the survivors only have their bacon pulled out of the fire at the last minute by the arrival of the clone army.  If the Jedi are so cool in "Keepers of the Peace" why are they (relatively) so vulnerable in Attack of the Clones?  The real answer, I suspect, is that the two are simply inconsistent, and they strike a different tone and reflect the priorities of different writers and directors, etc.

For my money, I prefer a paradigm more like the scene mentioned above from the movies themselves.  Jedi are pretty cool; but they're not that cool.  Battle droids can certainly still threaten them in numbers, and other more capable soldiers--such as hot-shot mercenaries or Mandaloreans, can do so even more easily.  The rules for my m20 Star Wars should reflect that, I think--as do most of the other Star Wars rulesets.  This is based more around keeping the various classes balanced with each other, which is a game design goal that doesn't necessarily line up with a comparable in-fiction setting design goal, but for what it's worth, it does better reflect the fiction of the movies most of the time, at least.  With the exception that cool personalized antagonists seem to always go down like chumps in the movies, due to really bad writing (Boba Fett, the Emperor himself, Jango Fett, Darth Maul, General Grievous, etc.)

Speaking of my m20 ruleset, I'm going to make a few adjustments, thus moving the revision to 1.1.1 (from 1.1.)  Mostly, it occurred to me that with my new a la carte classes, which moved the doc from 1.0 to 1.1, I didn't think of going and correcting some references to the old classes in the equipment section, specifically with regards to armor.  Rather than simply edit the references a bit, though, I gave some thought to whether or not I even wanted armor to restrict class abilities so punitively, and decided that I don't.  But I do want there to be some incentive to not necessarily just always go for the heaviest armor you can afford, since that's not really in the swashbuckling vein of Star Wars to have everyone wearing heavy armor all the time.  What I've come up with somewhat based on Kirin Robinson's Old School Hack, actually, which awards Action points (or whatever exactly he calls them; there's a lot of labels out there for the same concept and I often forget which each particular game uses) and awards more in particular for using less armor.  This of course reminded me that while my m20 DARK•HERITAGE ruleset uses them, my m20 Star Wars does not.  It was always my intention to incorporate them, but I never got around to it, I think.  I'd give everyone two Action points per session (that don't carry over from session to session, to encourage you to use them and be more swashbucklery.)  They can be used to add a 1d10 to any d20 roll; an attack, a save, a check, etc.  It can also be used as a "healing surge"--i.e., you burn the action point and get an immediate 1d6 hit points healed back.  If a character is using heavy armor, he gets no additional action points per session beyond these two, but if he uses medium armor, he gets one additional action point.  If he uses light armor, he gets two additional action points, and if he uses no armor at all, he gets three additional action points.  GMs are, of course, encouraged to make sure that players don't abuse this by trying to put on armor right before a fight after already cashing in action points, or any nonsense like that.  I tend to think of Star Wars characters as having a signature set of gear rather with other stuff only picked up as occasions require rather than the D&D paradigm of carrying a caddie with a golf bag full of weapons that can be customized to whatever enemy you're fighting.

I'll also add a bit of minor text about cybernetic enhancements a la Darth Vader or General Grievous, but mostly I think I'll just treat it as if it were armor.  General Grievous would, then, have class features of Combat Bonus (not Lightsaber Training, since he can't use his lightsabers to deflect blaster shots, and has no force ability) and maybe sneak attack, since he's a coward who fights without honor, for the most part, as well as heavy armor to represent his cyborg body.  Jack him up to fairly high level--7 or 8, at least, and you've got a decent representation of him as depicted in the Clone Wars, who would be a major threat to most Jedi and certainly to most other characters and any mooks.

All of that will get us to 1.1.1--this is mostly fixing a few cascading effects of the change made in 1.1, plus a few other things that I thought of.  Not significant enough, in my opinion, to justify a change to 1.2.

The final thought I had was actually orthogonal to Star Wars, and might be relevant to my DARK•HERITAGE ruleset; or would be, anyway, if I used d20 still to represent it.  I use magic rules that are designed to make magic less ubiquitous than in D&D, but it's not really my intention to make it punitive per se, just rarer and as having less of an impact on the game itself.  I've often given some thought to making the concept of the soulknife integral to the setting, although again, they'd be extremely rare in actuality.  However... the rules for the soulknife really kind of suck.

But if you think a little bit outside of the box, it may occur to you to use the d20 Jedi Guardian from one of the d20 editions of Star Wars--probably not the SAGA edition, because it changed the rules more, but the Revised one (or the original) would work quite well.  It is balanced, theoretically, to work with the D&D classes (or at least, the Soldier Star Wars class is identical to the Fighter D&D class, so assuming that the Jedi Guardian is balanced for the game that it's in, it should also be balanced for D&D.)  If you assume that the lightsaber is, instead of being a piece of equipment but rather a class feature like the soulknife's namesake class feature, then you're all set to go.  You also need to remove the class Defense bonus (since D&D doesn't have anything comparable, although you could make a case that you'd be better off adding that feature to your other D&D classes instead) and do just a minor bit of work to harmonize the skill list, and you're all set.

Like the soulknife, the Jedi Guardian is basically a swashbuckling, lightly armored fighting class (although a much better one than the soulknife, actually) with a minor (relative to a wizard or sorcerer) ability to use some unusual magic that feels different than that of the standard D&D spellcasters.

Of course, if I want to adapt this archetype into my m20 ruleset, I'd have to do it a little bit differently, but it helps that I already have a Jedi archetype via my m20 Star Wars rules that I could add in with basically no effort at all.  And I really like the idea as an unusual class choice in a D&D game, especially since I like to focus on the non-standard when I'm in D&D anyway.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Clone Wars Lost Missions

The following is cut and pasted from a portion of a review on Amazon for the Lost Missions DVD (or Blu-ray, to be specific.)  I don't have that; I watched them on Netflix streaming, where they were labeled as Season 6.  I want to get my hands on the DVDs or Blu-rays though, to see the featurettes and other supplementary material, which have in general been excellent for this series.
I have something of a love/hate relationship with "The Lost Missions."  The Cartoon Network Clone Wars was a landmark series. It's billed as a "bridge series" between Episodes 2 & 3, but over the course of five seasons, its tentpole arcs thematically eclipsed the prequels to the point where "The Clone Wars" now qualifies as a covert remake rather than a midquel. The redesign of Anakin and the introduction of Ahsoka which drastically altered the core character dynamics (and vastly for the better) only reinforces this. Watching this series reduces "Revenge of the Sith" to a mere expository piece about Hayden Christensen doing a very poor imitation of "Anakin" taking his lava bath and getting his new wardrobe. Everything else about Episode 3 feels like a rehash now.
Because of that, I actually feel "The Wrong Jedi" was the perfect ending for the series and so I had some strong misgivings about the announced Bonus Content (aka "The Lost Missions") as I felt it was tacking on an unnecessary appendage to a story that already had a clear through-line that came to an amazingly emotional close.
Anyway, I don't mind seeing "The Lost Missions" as kind of a spin-off, if you will, and I'm also aware of the fact that the Season 5 finale wasn't meant to happen at that point in the show; the original intention, prior to the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm, was that the Clone Wars would continue into a season 6 or even 7 before coming to a finale.  "The Wrong Jedi" and the arc to which it belongs, was pulled ahead, so to speak, to end the fifth season so that the show itself could end thematically well.  In that sense, the complaint of the reviewer is a little misplaced; these episodes (and the rest of the Clone Wars Legacy project, for that matter) should properly be viewed as episodes that precede the finale of Season Five, if you will, which otherwise wouldn't have happened as early as it did.

Other than that, I completely agree with him that the Clone Wars should really (if one wants to remain a fan of the franchise) be viewed as the rehabilitating "true story" of the era, and the prequels themselves be seen as just a bit of live-action exposition that bookend the series, to some degree.

I've been re-watching the series again; starting with the pilot movie.  So far I'm almost three-fourths of the way through the first season, so I have a ways to go, needless to say.  Although to be fair, it's not as much material as it might otherwise seem.  Each episode is 22 minutes sharp (plus about 30 seconds of credits) so that it can fit in it's original TV half hour time slot and allow time for commercials.  Most of the seasons (exception is 5, which was two episodes short compared to the others) pack on to four discs, that have five or six episodes each.  That means that each disk of each series is approximately equivalent to a full-length movie.  Or, in other words, each season is approximately four movies, and the entire run is equivalent, counting the pilot movie, to twenty one movies.  Not an insignificant amount of content, but not overwhelming either.

The series continues to improve as the seasons progress; both in storytelling complexity and sophistication, as well as in technical elements (animation and special effects, etc.) so it's always a little hard to start at the beginning and work my way up sometimes.  I'm reminded, however, that even in the beginning, it was a solid piece of work.

Anyways, here's a playlist on Youtube for the Son of Dathomir; a comic book converted to a video of sorts.  It's a good way to get the story, I suppose.  I would greatly have preferred to see it as an arc of actual episodes, but what can you do; that'll never happen now, with all of the principles who worked on The Clone Wars diverted to Star Wars: Rebels instead.  And here's another playlist of the Crystal Crisis on Utapau story arc, which was a little further along.  The voice acting and pre-viz animation was all complete, so really all we end up missing is the final animation.  Between those two playlists, each of which represents a story arc that we didn't get, and the upcoming "Dark Disciple" novel, we're about as up to date on the seasons that might have been as we're likely to get.

The only sad thing is the unfortunate, listless, whimper-like way in which this all happened.  The creator managed to salvage that by coming up with a good series finale nonetheless, but there was obviously more story to be told; and frankly, not just a few open questions that were never answered.