Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Civilization and the Center

Old School games necessarily tend to take place on the fringes of civilization. The center, the heart of any civilized territory, is a place that has no need for adventurers... right?

In order to address this question, we'll have to look at several subjects, starting with exactly what adventurers even are. Only once we understand what drives the need for adventurers in the generic (or this case, specific, 10th Age) fantasy setting will we be able to decide whether or not they have any business being in the so-called center or whether they should be purely relegated to the boundary lands and liminal outliers.

The Defining Attributes of Adventurers
Well, in a purely gamey sense, we can say that adventurers are anyone the players want to play, but that wouldn't be quite true, would it? If the players decide they want to play farmers with a realistic farming simulator it can be done (not with D&D, or at least not with any rules that I have on hand) and they would hardly be adventurers. So what separates adventurers out from the pack? I've talked about this a little before when I said that adventurers are rockstars. But what I really mean is that adventurers are outsiders. Of course, I've spoken of adventurers as insiders as well, but this seems to be a departure from the norm.

The defining attributes of an adventurer appear, then, to be:

Social Mobility and Swords for Hire. This two things together generally make adventurers a type or class of mercenary (and in my games they are treated as almost identical with mercenary companies and mercenary soldiers). Certainly, the second part of that equation may be dropped, but that severely limits the options for the PCs. If they aren't for hire, they are most likely working permanently for a single paymaster or patron, which means they do what he wants when he wants it. Nothing like receiving orders from an imaginary man all the time to make your players feel like they're in a straightjacket. Not that it can't be used to good effect, every once and a while. (See something like the military campaign proposed in the Fighter's Handbook, or a real military campaign in-setting where the PCs join up with some army).

What drives the need for adventurers?
In order for adventurers to serve, there must be a need for their services. In a standard fantasy world, this is most likely because there are: (1) no police forces, (2) no standing armies, and (3) no well-trained elite soldiers. Certainly you may have knights and leveemen and even, if your setting is semi-Roman or just historically inaccurate, something approaching a police force. But these things don't have anywhere near the level of institutional strength that they possess in the modern day. There will always be gaps.

This means the drive to hire adventurers comes from an inherent weakness in the pre-modern model of civilization. Someone must be on hand to troubleshoot the institutional flaws: these people are, in the fantasy setting, adventurers. They can serve as makeshift police much better than a squad of knights, fight like an expendable army, and eventually become an elite squad of murderers that can dismantle entire bandit encampments and goblin armies all on their own.

Does this need exist at the center?
Well, if your adventurers are insiders, this question is irrelevant. There are things to do other than fulfill the need for adventurers. You could be a lord, a priest, a politician, someone engaged in the tricky every day business of governing. But if your PCs are actual dyed in the wool adventurers, the answer is: Yes.

Even stable kingdoms are not monoliths. For example, someone always hates the king. There are always problems. There are bandits, outlaws, political rivals, street gangs, merchant compacts that must be investigated, foreign spies, enemy armies, and a general level of crime. No kingdom has complete control over all the territory in its borders, and it could always be more secure. Sure, those insecure places resemble the liminal outside adventurers normally inhabit, but they are deceptively close to society itself. The slums in a great capital. The forest nearby. The road between this barony and that one. All of these are "insider" places, places that are not part of the "center" but are directly adjacent to it.

And what about political intrigue? Ahh, this is the real meat and drink of the center. For all these nearby liminal places, the real damage is always done by intrigue in the heart of hearts. Nobles scheming against one another, houses locked in ancient and bitter rivalry, kings desirous of consolidating control over their independent lords. Lords who would be kings, or who would foment war.

Do adventurers belong in civilization? Well, the civilized folk may not think so, but it seems there is just as much work there as there is on the fringe. Adventurers don't need to be shunted off to some wild outside. Let them come in once and a while, and taste the danger of the city, the settled kingdom. In fact, some of the more memorable adventures are likely to happen there. While it's all very well to fight goblins and orcs, let us not forget: Man is a wolf to man.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Deincentivization of Combat

There's a reason why combat is so goddamn deadly in my games. Actually, there are many reasons. The first of these is that it makes the game more exciting. The second is that combat shouldn't be the default solution to every problem. The third is that combat should be interesting.

One by one...

I. Makes the game more exciting
The risk of death is one of the things that keeps people on their toes. It's the risk of death that makes the game interesting—increasing the chance that characters die increases the excitement of survival. Of course, this only works to a point, where diminishing returns kick in. I'll admit, I might have reached (or hell, even crossed) the line of diminishing returns already. But that's ok, because there are two other driving reasons to keep combat very deadly. And they are that...

II. Combat shouldn't be the default solution
It's not fun if there's an easy answer to every equation. You've got to think about things, you've got to make decisions that are more complex than "do I cast my spell now?" and "shall I swing my sword or defend until someone comes to my aid?" Of course, combat is always more complex than the (see section III) but if combat is complicated and yet not the obvious solution, then the added complexity of all the other possible solutions can only cause a systemic increase in the game overall. I like it when a withering buffet of options presents itself to the players. I know they don't always care for it, but the world (the real world now, not the world of the game) rarely presents itself as having a clear right answer to anything.

III. Combat should be interesting
The more deadly combat is, the more interesting it is. What? How is this not a reiteration of point I? Well, it's a sort of corollary. Because straight hacking and slashing is so deadly, it encourages non-standard answers. If standing up in a fight against an enemy remains utterly dangerous (very subject to the whims of random chance) then players will be encouraged to find alternate answers. In some cases (as point II attempts to illustrate) those alternate answers will be things like diplomacy, or collapsing a building. In other cases, those alternate answers will be tactics.

When combat isn't particularly dangerous, there's no incentive to use tactics. The more deadly combat becomes, the more tactics pay off. Minimization of the random factor of combat (that's the thing that causes one side to win or lose for no real reason, and since over their lifetimes PCs will engage in more combats than any NPCs, randomness is generally bad for PCs) relies on tactics and strategy. Hell, even tipping an otherwise unwinnable combat into the PCs direction requires this.

These are the three reasons that deadly combat continues to feature in my games. Deadlier than the combat most people play by, and certainly "unbalanced" according to the modern conception of roleplaying.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Cults and Churches and everything in-between

In between writing long briefs and reading vast treatises of law I've been delving into some classical history. Plutarch, Tacitus, and Suetonius were my most recent forays, and it occurs to me that there is an interest disparity between the way the pagan classical world worshipped and the way characters worship in D&D. I don't know if I've found a solution that will bring the 10th Age and the historical world in harmony yet (admittedly, some of the 10th Age religions do follow this standard, but it was more because I couldn't envision how a grand-scale church would function for that faith).

The idea runs thusly: every temple-site in the classical world appears to have been an independently operating cult. That is, a temple to Apollo at Athens and, say, the temple-complex at Delphi appear to be fully independent organizations without shared hierarchy or contact. Whichever iteration of a cult has the most sway at any given time determines which is seen as the "leading" version of the faith, and they are all acknowledged to worship the same deity, but in many cases the individual cults represent different incarnations or aspects of the deity. This can most clearly be seen in the many versions of Jupiter or Mars worshipped by the Romans—Jupiter Capitolinus, for example, put up against Jupiter Fulgore. In his guise as Capitolinus (and in his temple located on the Capitoline hill) Jupiter was the patron of statesmen. In his guys as Fulgore, he was the dangerous thunderer.

It seems to me that Birthright actually got this more correct than normal D&D did, what with the regional temple-organizations that are frequently at odds (The Northern Temple of Haelyn, the Imperial Heart of Haelyn, etc.) It's an interesting dynamic, one which shakes the veil of medievalism even further, as the medieval West was dominated by an integrated church. Though various loci were semi-independent and though the power in the early middle ages resided mostly in the local level (in the hands of bishops), it was nevertheless a different beast in its essential form from any of the many cults of the ancient world.

For now, I think, the temples of the 10th Age will grow slightly more fractured. I'm wondering if I should introduce oracular sights throughout the world as they were believed to be scattered through the ancient world—my own Sibyls, as it were. I'm still on the fence.

Monday, December 15, 2014

AD&D Ritual Magic

Vancian magic is alive and well in the 10th Age, don't get me wrong. Nor do I have anything against it in any way. I love it, so let us not paint me as one of those folks who can't stand it or comprehend it. I actually think its a very sensible way to deal with a powerful force in a high fantasy setting. The question arises, what happens when you want to take that fantasy down a notch to an extremely low fantasy setting? Well, certainly you have to do something about wizards.

So here we are again. Rituals, the common ground of all those who try to "solve" the Vance question without resorting to the Hasboro Sorcerer Solution (which takes high magic into extraordinarily high magic). So what's the proposal for working ritual magic?

All rituals can be learned by any class, but they take time to learn. They are generally a list of instructions, difficult to accomplish. They can also include "magical words" in other languages (generally the languages of demons or gods) as well.

Rituals require a long time to learn, making the primary resource used up learning them the very time of your life. A ritual will generally take 3-12 months to master, but with a successful "learn spell" check, it will take 1/3rd that amount of time. This allows characters with higher intelligence to learn spells quicker.

You must have someone to learn a ritual from, generally a creepy old poisoner, sorcerer, or priest. Rituals are highly specific and few people know more than a handful.

Learning from a grimoire, tome, or papyrus takes double the normal amount of time. It also penalizes your learn spell roll by 5%.

The Charlatan Sorcerer
Thief Kit
Bonus: Start play with 1d4 rituals known. Also receive an extra ancient language for free.
Penalty: Your first hit die is only a d4 (or just 4 hp if you start level 1 with max hp). Further hit dice are d6s. You only get +30% to distribute to your thieving skills at level one. You can put all 30% in one if you like.

Pendant of the Eye
Time to learn: 3 months
This ritual creates a charm which will provide the wearer with a +1 bonus to all saving throws. The pendant must be crafted from lapis lazuli and fashioned in the shape of a Khorassus Eye of the East. The charm must be whispered the secret words for three nights and sprinkled with the blood of the caster. The magician cannot go to sleep during this entire period, requiring a constitution check to stay up. At the end of this time, a learn spell check is made. If it is successful, the amulet is created but the caster is drained and must recuperate for a week. This roll is increased by 10% if the caster crafted the amulet himself.

Taking Signs
Time to learn: 12 months
These are a class of divining ritual. Most require taking auguries from the intestines of an animal, but other types include casting of bones, etc. Complete focus and ritual purity are both required, which takes several hours. At the end of this time, the casting will display either generally favorable or unfavorable omens. At the DM's discretion, more information may be obtained.

Warding the Cup
Time to learn: 3 months
This ritual is a simple one to perform and requires the magician to carve a secret sign known from ancient days in Cedarland onto a drinking vessel. After this is done, the magician at once loses a temporary d4 points of CON (returning at the rate of one per hour). The vessel will shatter if poison is ever placed within it.

Holding the Door
Time to learn: 3 months
Similar to warding the cup—the same types of activity (carving a secret sign) and penalty (loss of d4 CON) except the target must be a door of wood. Once that door is shut and barred, it will hold fast and no key will open it until the next sunrise.

Powder of Slumber
Time to learn: 6 months
This is actually a potent poison that can knock out a man-sized target when applied in the proper doses. It must be prepared from juice of the poppy and powdered hops. The correct preparation will create a powder which can be used to dose food or drink or a liquid which can be administered. In a half dosage, the target must make a save vs. death or fall asleep for 1d4+1 hours. In a regular dosage, the target must make a system shock check or die; if they succeed, they will be knocked out for 1d6+1 hours. In any dosage larger than this, the target must make a save vs. death or die.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Simple System for Servile Rumors

What? This is my simple and easy way to determine how the Ironbreakers (and any other party like it that has a home staffed with servants) hear rumors. Of course, there's always the normal rumor mill: going to a tavern and chatting with locals hardly ever fails. However, since the Ironbreakers have a staff now and a house, it is likely that they can get rumors from many places at once. Indeed, even the smallest household begins to resemble a ring of spies.

Determine City Sections and/or Jobs
In a huge city like Miles, servants are likely to go and visit the same sections over and over; there will be one in charge of purchasing all the wine, for example, and another in charge of going to the fishmarket each morning to see what the catch is.

The next step is to determine what kind of things gets talked about in each area and how likely it is that a servant will hear a juicy new bit of gossip there.

Flesh out News Type
Grainmarket -- 1 in 4 chance/week
The grainmarket receives shipments from Khewed and Colona, making it a hotbed of news from overseas. This includes updates from Ninfa, the East, Chimeron and High Aellon, as well as places in the south like Ralashar. It is the city's primary international marketplace.

Then I list 10 rumors current for the month, and viola! Any servants attending the grainmarket have a chance to hear one of them.

EDIT: This is, of course to be complimented with the Greyhawk Grognard's lovely Rumor Epidemiology chart.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Taking the Magic out of Birthright

I've been gone for a while. I don't know if I'll be back any time soon. Law school has encompassed my entire life, essentially swallowing everything that's not law up. I've had time to run games, but barely. Absolutely no time for posting blogs.

Birthright is already a low-magic setting, so what the hell could I be talking about? I'm discussing lifting the rules for realm governance up out of Birthright, stripping them of their magical-feudalism, and making them useable

Major Changes to the Bloodline Rules

Bloodline now represents legitimacy. Rather than the mysterious purity of a divine bloodline, this score is now known as Legitimacy. This represents the perceived right of the regent to his position. Legitimacy can be degraded by alienation of territories, major losses in war, etc.

Regency points now represent political capital. Instead of a magic bond to the land, RP is a mechanic to represent the accruing of legitimacy and the various little enterprises that give a lord favors to call in, authority to flex, and power to exercise.

Loss of Territory. Loss of territory in war directly affects legitimacy; a lord's legitimacy degrades by 1 point for every rank of the province lost.

War. Regency points are gained or lost in large battles. Massive defeats may affect a character's permanent legitimacy.

Proclaiming a Successor. When a lord proclaims an adult successor, he grants that successor 1/2 of all his banked regency points.

Passing the Torch. When a lord no longer wishes to rule and passes his power on to his chosen heir, he loses 2/3rds of his permanent Legitimacy, which is gained by his heir. This must be accompanied by a public ceremony of investiture.

Alienation from territories. Each month that a regent has none of his basic holdings (provinces or law for fighters, temples for priests, etc.) their Legitimacy score is degraded by 10%.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Training Day

I've been playing with training times a little in my games, always treading the line between forcing too much downtime between adventures and forcing too many potential adventures that are ticking away and getting worse (or better) on their own. The current state of affairs in the campaign is that characters require one night of rest in a town or other defended position (8 hours) in order to gain the benefits of levelling up (no resting and gaining hp in the dungeon).

Now we're here to talk of training and acquiring new WPs and NWPs. My rule in the past has been that 1 month of uninterrupted training time will grant any WP (3 months of attenuated "every night but also adventuring" time will grant it) while 3/6 months for NWPs is the norm. However, I'm thinking of approaching this from an entirely different stance.

The new rule, effective as of now (I'll let everyone know if the results are catastrophic) shall be based on hourly quotas.

Weapon Proficiencies: Must accumulate 6 months of general use OR 60 hours of training with some other character who knows how to use the weapon.

Non-weapon proficiencies: Must accumulate 120 hours of training with some other character who knows the skill sought or 240 hours of experimentation on the character's lonesome. Language skills can never be learned without a teacher.