Friday, January 31, 2014

Alignment is about Extremes

I'll try and keep this one short (ha!). Alignment was always something very much neglected in our group. It was never really relevant for any decisions in the game and players mostly chose chaotic, because they thought they could do what ever they wanted if they chose that. I believe that's a missed opportunity and it's something I've never blogged about so far (at least not extensively ...). Here are my thoughts. I hope it's not too rambling
There is an idea in language theory that assumes two major forces at work for every change that a language goes through: those that try to conserve it and those that actively seek to change it. A third group accepts every change as a natural occurrence. The actual changes are the result of this dynamic and one could go as far as stating that they are necessary to facilitate those changes. 
With those three you see the full spectrum of the three-folded alignment. Chaos seeks change, law protects the status quo and neutrality sees change for what it is.

This rather light interpretations have some strong implications for what alignment could really mean in the game. But let's first try this idea with some concepts we have about alignment.

If you'd actually use alignment languages ...

Take alignment languages for instance. The idea of alignment languages was always an odd bird. Most don't like it and won't use it.

Seeing it like I described above doesn't mean that there are any additional living languages at work here, but that the opinions connected with the alignment are in direct conflict when used in communication. Every possible issue could be argued from an alignment point of view, resulting in imminent disagreement as soon as entities with different alignments talk about it.

An example might be in order.

The good citizens of the city state Thralksis have always tolerated humanoids living in their city. But those humanoids didn't have any rights. Lets say the city quite recently came under new management and has now a very powerful and progressive (which would mean chaotic) leading figure with some new ideas. One of them would grant humanoids living in the city full citizenship. You'll generally have three possible opinions. Those that will cling to "what has always been", those that welcome the change and those that say a change like this needs to be considered carefully, but is not without merit.

Which could translate into something like:

Chaotic parties will go for a complete new interpretation of that law with huge implications, like, for instance, allowing humanoids seats in the city council or leading positions in the military, etc..

Lawful parties will try to protect their idea of what the original law means, with the new law mirroring that. They'll most likely propose something like humanoids have to live in the city for at least three generation to vote (if at all) or maybe that those humanoids need to be married to a citizen. Stuff like that.

Neutral parties will go the middle road, allowing votes, but not full citizenship.

Now, depending on the ratio of alignments present in Thralksis, changes will happen slow or fast. In any case, the following will produce a new law and with that some change. Maybe not what the chaotic citizens had in mind, but more than what the lawful ones tried to do.

Extremists and Revolutionaries?

To summarize

Chaos is actively seeking change.

Neutrality is going with the flow.

Law is actively containing the status quo.

Reality is the result of the struggle between those forces.

This will, interestingly enough, lead to the conclusion that if change happens to fast (that is, "chaos" manages somehow to get through with it's ideas), those still hanging on the old but obsolete ideas will be regarded as extremists, while those actively seeking change in a strictly lawful environment will be considered revolutionaries. Add good and evil to the mix and the 9-folded-alignment is explained.

So far I'm quite happy how all this comes together.

It's true enough in history, but does it work in D&D?

The way I see it, yes. Well, partly. Why are those lizardfolks in the swamps chaotic? Change would mean a better living for them. There is even some precedence in D&D where monster variants that are remnants of lost civilizations are considered to be lawful instead of chaotic (although I can't for the life of me remember where I did read that ...). Animals are neutral most of the time, which also fits the bill.

It could give a new spin to immortals or gods. The chaotic ones are those eager to get more powerful, neutral entities have their niche and are content with it and the lawful ones are the most powerful, constantly defending their status.

So, following this line of thought, one could say that alignment is more like a condition. It might even change, on occasion.

But here is the tricky part. Of course, described like this the three alignments also read like an adventurers CV. The beginning adventurer wants to challenge the world and get rich (chaos). With enough money and experience, he'll settle down and take care of his own land (neutrality) until he is powerful enough to protect not only his realm, but will have the obligation to protect a lot more than that, maybe even spreading the culture by occupying other countries (lawful).

Problem is, a character gets only one alignment. here are the huge implications I was talking about earlier. Changing this according to ideas worded above would mean slaughtering one of the holy cows of D&D. Alignments would never be the same. At least in my game.

The next problem is how it could be done.

Two different proposals are in order ...

1. Plain and simple: change it. Beginning characters are always chaotic, will become neutral with name level and lawful when achieving level 18. Elves are always chaotic, dwarves and halflings always neutral and become lawful when reaching name level. Alignments might decline back to a lower status if circumstances indicate it (lawful king Gregnarz looses his kingdom but manages to survive and now leads the resistance as Gregnarz the Chaotic, etc.).

Monster alignments stay as written, but might be subject to change by the above mentioned reasons (cultivate some goblins and they will become neutral and maybe with time even lawful, defending the Shire and all that jazz).

With gods alignment also shows a hierarchy, with chaotic being the lowest and lawful being the highest (this pretty much explains what could motivate a god deep down ...).

A cleric won't loose his powers if his alignment changes (I believe it's much more plausible that churches have the same internal dynamic as described for politics above).

2. I always wanted to steal that idea in Runequest where they give characters a cultural background (2e, I believe). This is my chance. In this version characters are free to choose an alignment (or determine it randomly), but to explain the attitudes associated with the different alignments, different alignments also mean a different cultural background. Like this:

Chaotic - Barbaric (as in striving for a "better" place)

Neutral - Nomadic (as in going with the flow)

Lawful - Civilized (as in preserving and spreading a culture)

"Barbaric" doesn't only mean Conan and his friends, it could just mean a bad social background or fugitives. With "Nomadic" I had the American Indians in mind, but it could just as well work with immigrants that try to integrate. Nothing else changes.

Bonus (1.+2.): Number 2 might work well with number 1 as a random result during character generation, with a high emphasis on chaotic as a result. Like this:

Random Alignment Table (1d12):

1-9   Chaotic (Barbaric)

10-11 Neutral (Nomadic)

12   Lawful (Civilized)

Those are my thoughts so far. I wanted to close with a funny picture illustrating the alignments somehow, but that turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. Most of the google results were not thought through, the rest were not that funny and all of them go with the 9-folded version. Anyway, in the end I decided to go with this one:

Still: Best. Show. Ever! [source]

Monday, January 27, 2014


I have been trying to write this down for some time now. Waiting doesn't help. It just comes down to a slow building rage instead of uncontrolled ranting. So I decided to get it out of my system for good. Not even a fucking safeword could have helped with this one ...

Entering a world of pain

Story time!* When we arrived at the convention (yes, the one I was talking about), we wanted to do one thing: play. It didn't matter that much what we were to play, as long as we weren't ending up with Das Schwarze Auge (The Black Eye) or Shadowrun. Needless to say, those were the go-to systems for the majority of the games offered. Anyway, Cthulhu was a distant third in what was offered and a supported game was about to start soon. I like Cthulhu, but never got to play a lot of it, so that's where we went.

Two guys were already sitting at the assigned table: a small guy and a big guy. I somehow assumed Big Guy was to be the DM. He wasn't. Small Guy was and happened to be one of the worst DMs I've ever had the pleasure to encounter. For the few hours that we were stranded at his table he did behave as stoned by his power as you might expect from a spoiled and very small dog that knows he has backup.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, the set up. Somewhere in New England people drove with a bus through a forest and went missing on the way. Our pregens were a taxi driver (Big Guy), a Doctor (a good friend of mine that had decided to join me at the convention, let's call him Mr. B.), a jazz musician (some other guy that joined the game late) and a p. i. (lucky me). We all had lost people on route and took that bus to find out what happened to them, so we incidentally were all in the same bus. There were no other passengers, the only NPC was the bus driver.

Long story (somewhat) short: we drove into a mysterious fog and the bus driver stopped at a fork in the road he had never seen before. He turned the bus to drive back just to arrive at the same fork again. Nice players that we are, we started experimenting with the situation. We altered the scene (leaving cigarette butts, kicking a road sign down, stuff like that ...), turned around, arrived again at the same fork and found it untouched. We explored the surroundings and had to use ropes connected to the bus, because the strange fog kept making us dizzy. Nothing worked. It was frustrating.

I think it was the 10th time we had ended up at that fork when Mr. B. talked about climbing up a tree. He didn't have the skill, though and he kept looking at me, pregnant with meaning. Well, he had seen that my character had freaking 65 (!) % at climbing (for the uninitiated: the base value for the unlearned skill is 40%). I guess I had it coming.

For the use of the skill climbing, the rulebook assumes a flat surface. Furthermore (again, quoting from the rules) is a character with a 50% skill or more able to make a living with that skill. So my character was almost a professional climber in that regard. Trained on flat surfaces. Not trees. Trees are fuckin' easy ... Anyway.

Of course I had to roll for climbing the tree.

Of course I failed the roll (and 3 others that might have saved me ...). Broke a leg while doing so, too.

The best of it? It was a dead end. The DM knew it was a dead end (or had decided so before I had declared my intention to climb a tree). There was no drama in it, no real value for the game. And he did realize the truth of that as he saw me failing big time. Right there is your proof, if you needed any. I'm pretty sure he had to fudge the results of the damage roll, too. It's hard to bullshit a bullshitter. I saw what he did, hiding behind his screen.

So that was that, my character was crippled and, because the doc had some morphine to share, rather stoned. On we went between identical forks. But to mix things up we encounter a bus stop in the middle of nowhere with a guy standing there waiting for the bus. The bus driver didn't know that stop, but wanted to let the guy in nonetheless. We saw that plot point and intervened. Had to outright force the DM/bus driver to not open the door. I was ready to shoot someone, but it didn't come to that. Needless to say that we did encounter that bus stop again some time later. As if we were to change our mind about it ...

More strangeness was about to happen. Still between forks, and yet for the first time, we find an abandoned car in the woods near the road. There are signs of a fight and a blood trail. Sanity loss was unavoidable. We were about to ignore that noise and thought about driving some more around, when our bus driver got killed. Nothing to do about it but listening to Small guy describing it. Saw what did it, too (a small frog, obviously). But we couldn't catch it (although from the positioning of the characters as I remember it, it should have been possible to do something).

In the end we were left with no choice but following that blood trail. We took all the gasoline we could get and did just that. We did it quite cautious, securing our way back to the bus and all that. At the end of the path given, we found a house surrounded by thousands of those frogs. Some gasoline later we had a fine 2 by 2 meter burned path through that. You wouldn't believe how difficult it got to go those two meters. Lost one player while doing so. All the good ideas and preparation aside, the DM wanted to see someone dead. And made it happen.

It was nearing the end. Not much to do but exploring that house a bit. Some candles, a bed, a chest that made some scratching noise, a pedestal with an open book on it and a cellar door. We ignored the chest after checking for sentient life by knocking at it and asking if somebody was in there (with an option to burn it later ...).

Next was the book. We even got a handout. I looked at it and the flavour text in connection with the symbols on it (variations of F and T) let me to believe this was showing the pattern one had to use the forks with (you know, left, left, right, left, right, something like that) to get out of this mess. I said so to the group and the DM dismissed it officially (that is, stating in answer to a direct question from another player what I was talking about), that I was just talking crazy. Well, it turned out later that it had been the way out all along. But at that time it was to late to do anything about it.

We soldiered on.

To the cellar door we went. I positioned myself guarding the door (I was no use for anything else, after all) and Mr. Jazz opened the door to get swarmed by hundreds of rats. Again with the sanity loss. In the cellar we see a pile of corpses and we decide there is nothing to be done here but torching the place and leave. Some gasoline later we had a nice fire in the cellar, going for the slow burn to have enough time to carry my sorry ass out of there. The DM decision was to let the fire spread very fast. Contrary to what we intended to do. Anyway, away we went.

Again with the frogs. We used the bed and blankets. One more dead player and as soon as we are out there, we realize the forest around us is burning, too. So Mr. Jazz had the (rather brilliant) idea that the fire in the cellar and the fire in the woods are connected to the book. He goes back, takes the book from the pedestal it was lying on and ... dies. There was, of course, a death trap beneath it.

I was the last man standing. Admittedly only on one leg, but there I was. I knew I had to die, too. So my character sat down, lid a cigarette and did what he was expected to do ...

The DMs final words where some praise. We did solve the mystery alright, but we had to die nonetheless. All the groups he did this with before had died, too, so there is no shame in it. That's what Cthulhu is supposed to be like, you know.

This is, of course, bullshit.

Never bother with the story behind this. It's negligible. But this had been an official adventure, aimed to introduce new players to the game. I don't know what they were thinking. If there were to be an official entry in a dictionary what railroad means (there isn't, by the way), it would show a summary of this adventure. It's an utter fail and the people who wrote it should give the money back they got for doing it.

But that Dungeon Master was even worse. At times I felt like Walter in The Big Lebowski ...

You know what I mean? This was a supported game. As official as it gets. This guy fed us his bullshit and even went as far as boasting with how deadly his games are. It makes me angry and that really doesn't happen often. A bad adventure does not necessarily ruin a game, but a bad Dungeon Master will do it all the time.

The game can't do nothing about it

What can be done about stuff like this? Nothing, I guess. But sometimes I wonder. A referee in a soccer game will be trained and if he's no good, he won't be in official games (I know that's making it a bit easy ...). And our hobby is so big, it should be possible to avoid stuff like this. Maybe it needs a turing test for DMs. I mean (and i just can't get over it), the guy was representing and if I were to believe his antisocial behaviour was a direct result of how the game is to be played, I'd never touch it again ...

But I don't want to be one of those angry people, talking about elites all the time. Live and let live, I say. Cthulhu is a fine game. The atmosphere was right and the rules, well, the rules leave room for interpretation.

So the two things I could take with me from that abomination of a game were that skill checks should only be used if somehow relevant to the game and loss of sanity should not be a punishment, but the price you pay for willingly facing the dark side.

This hobby of ours leaves room for a lot of bad behaviour and as long as those that publish the games we play try to earn an earnest buck with it, they won't write in their books that it is possible to play this games wrong or that you more than likely will be bad at it, at least in the beginning. They won't tell you that you have to invest into it to get the full benefit of it.

If you take it serious, you will work on your skills, be it as a DM or a player. But the work is yours to do and the freedom to do so by yourself always means you might as well ignore it and do as you please. I'm trying hard here to believe that there is nothing wrong with that and those things sort themselves out easy enough.

I'm glad I could get this poison out of my system. Sorry to bother you all with this.

*Based on events that happened to yours truly. I will be unfair in this and I believe it is well deserved. But see for yourselves ...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The D&D 40th Anniversary Blog Hop Challenge

I joined that. Stelios V. Perdios over at D20 Dark Ages is hosting and taking it serious. No crap Questions like with the one last year (which was not hosted by him, but still fun!) and nicely organized. I'm very much looking forward to this!

I hope to get some of my mojo back while reminiscing about the olden days and read some entertaining answers by the other (so far) 19 blogs that did join also. 

Check out those questions:

It lives here.
If you're not already on board with this I challenge thee to consider. All you need to do so is found here. The blog hop begins at the 1st of Februrary, enlisting is closed in 16 days (2/7/2014) from now.

Now I have to find out how to implement that permanent link-thingy and where I should put it ...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Character Box, not a Character Sheet, I say!

Character sheets are not an ideal solution to represent everything about a character. It has been said on several occasions and in various rpg-related media that a sheet of paper is not versatile enough to help simulating everything the game needs.

Alright, I'm exaggerating a bit.

But think about it. What does a sheet of paper do for you? It holds all the information. Right. But what about, say, a character using a torch. He is using his resources, blocking one of his hands while doing so. And it's something a player is bound to forget, if it's written on a piece of paper or not.

Well, how about giving that player a tea light and as long as it's burning, he will have light and his hand will be blocked. Live at the table, so to say.

But wait a minute.

Our hobby is, after all, as much about the haptic experience as it is about anything else. That's why we use miniatures, props and maps and all that stuff. So what if players also were to use something like this:

This could be a Character Box ... [source]
A box of predetermined volume (by the DM, of course) that holds all items the character owns and is about. The dice*, a small character sheet (those numbers need to be somewhere), his gold, his weapons, all that stuff, visualized with whatever the DM sees fit. Let's see.

Player buys 10 torches so he gets 10 tea lights. All his character is about and everything he owns is in a small box like the one pictured above. If he's looking for something, he needs to find it in there. If it isn't there, he doesn't have it. If he isn't able to close the lid, he is over-encumbered.

Use tea lights as torches. It's standing by the player that holds it
and gives lights as long as it burns ... [source]
For gold and other treasure you could use glass beads with different colours for different types of treasure (a yellow glass bead could stand for 10 gp, for example).

Sort them by colour and give them as treasure [source]
What else ... For every other item I'd go with labeled wooden toy bricks. Size should determine how big the wooden piece needs to be. This doesn't mean it should be an accurate science. No, I believe if players and DM are able to agree on this, it'll be as accurate as it needs to be.

Some wooden toy bricks would totally suffice.
Just write the name of the item on one of them
and you're good to go ... [source]
Could this work? Did anybody already do something like this?

Nothing of this is very expensive or hard to get. It leaves enough individual space for the players to make their charater-box something very special. Having several boxes for pack animals or henchman would be no big deal either (would give wsearching for items an interesting spin and if one of them falls down a cliff, the box disappears easily enough, too).

A wizard could even have a small booklet with all his spells. Stolen items could reappear and be recognized. Paying for stuff would also be more of an at-the-table experience and not just number crunching. Looting could be more fun ... It goes on and on, I guess.

But I never saw this done anywhere. So what do you think? Is this something that could work for D&D? Has it been done already?

*Which indicates a specific set of dice per character. Would that be asking too much of the players? I like the idea mainly because it would further individualize the character.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Träume sind endlich!"

Saw this written on a bus window on my way to work. It roughly translates into "Dreams are limited!". Under it was the drawing of a sad looking girl.

My first impulse was to think how sad a proposition this is. Almost depressing.

But then I realized how wrong I would be to see it that way. Sure, the person that wrote the statement wasn't having a good time. But in sharing her thoughts, she reminds every one of those reading it of an important fact: dreams are fragile. If they are not nourished, they will fade away and leave only regret.

So I share this for all the enthusiasts out there. Keep doing what you're doing. Nourish those dreams and keep them alive.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Finlandia by Jean Sibelius

Nice tunes and beautiful scenery to start the week with some inspiration ...

Finlandia by the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. I just love the music and what this video shows of Finland. Thought I'd share it, too.

Did you ever read Jack Vance?

Jack Vance was a name I exclusively connected to D&D, not from something I've read and deduced by myself, but by reading about it (and also only second hand information, at that - I didn't own the AD&D DMG until recently ...). I'm talking Appendix N here, of course. Always wanted to read the adventures of Cugel and the Dying Earth setting. Never got around to actually order the books and do the deed, though. As those things sometimes do, an opportunity arose by coincidence just a few days ago. Over the holidays I had to kill some time at my parents house and did something I have done for years on a regular basis when I was younger and still living at their place: I searched the book shelves for loot.

We're talking several book shelf with hundreds of books here. But I must have had every one of them in my hand at one time or another. There shouldn't have been any surprises. Now look what I discovered in one of them:

Can you guess the title only by looking at the Cover?*
Yeah, I know. Right?

So I grabbed it, of course.

Now, what was Gary talking about?

 I was really curious and it didn't take long for me to give it a peek. Now I'm nearly finished and I wanted to share a few thoughts about it. First of all, yes, I can see it. This is D&D. Cugel, the main character, is talked into stealing artifacts from a wizard. He gets caught and is left with either a horrific fate or taking a dangerous mission from the wizard. He chooses the mission. As a little safety precaution he gets a small but thorny parasite attached to his liver that uses his thorns every time Cugel isn't into the mission or gets second thoughts about it. He's also equipped with an artifact that is able to turn everything organic into food (although it will taste dull) and detects poison. After that he is put in a cage and the wizard summons a demon to fly Cugel to the area where the strange items he's to collect (the eponymous Eyes of the Overworld) are rumoured to be found.

On his travels he encounters, to name but a few, ghosts, marauding humanoids, crazy villagers, pilgrims, tricky rat people, some curses and lots and lots of stories about his surroundings. As a reader you get the feeling that if he had travelled but 50 kilometers parallel to his route, it would have been a totally different adventure.

And by the way, Cugel the Clever (as he likes to call himself**) is not a hero. I'd go as far as saying he doesn't even deserve to be described as an antihero just because the "hero"-part is still too dominant in it. This guy is as amoral and cynic as they get. Such a mean, lying, cheating, back stabbing and murderous SOB, he really challenged my view on the topic.

In other words, he's your typical rpg adventurer.

A D&D blue print is what it is ...

It's really all there:  strange wizards, magic items and the attitude to kill the monsters and loot the booty, plus many, many random encounters to keep it interesting. I think it's most fascinating that the Dying Earth setting was labeled as science fiction, but D&D chose to be fantasy. Sure, there are the Tolkien parts that deliver all the necessary fantasy trappings, but one has to admire the choice to go there. Other than in science fiction, it grounds D&D in a somewhat more defined space and still leaves enough room for the weird. On the other hand, although I see how this book was in 1966 considered to be more science fiction than fantasy, reading it nowadays makes it very much sound like fantasy.

I think that this change of perception deserves some more thought ...

Anyway. More about the setting. It had to seem perfect to Gygax and friends. The world is dying and humanity lives in the shattered remains of its past. History is lost in legends and people only know about their immediate surroundings. The rest is rumours, stories and ruins. I've read on several occasions that D&D is supposed to be playing in a post-apocalyptic setting. Now I can see why. It's a weird place of endless opportunity and adventure. And very, very dangerous. Does it really need those new nice and shiny settings AD&D and later editions are so famous for? I believe not. What it needs is more weirdness.

Not high literature, but ...

Highly entertaining is what it is. If you've played D&D for some time, you will see what inspiration Vance was to those who developed the game. I think Vance would have made a mean player and D&D is so much richer because of his ideas and characters.

So if you're a bit like me and always thought it's a good idea to read one of those books from Appendix N, but you never did it, I highly recommend giving The Eyes of the Overworld a chance. It's the good stuff.

 *It's an old (1976) German translation of The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance (a potted version, unfortunately).
**It also was the author's choice for the books title. The publisher thought otherwise, obviously.

Monday, January 6, 2014

In a Slump

A belated happy new year to everyone!

I know i have been neglecting this blog for some time now. At first I thought one of the main reasons was the disaster of a convention I was on (and work ...). I tried to prepare something and failed (some people would say I tried too hard). Tried to improvise and almost no one showed up because so many other things went wrong it was almost cruel (for one thing, my game was to start late at night, but to add failure to bad luck,  they forgot to register I was even there ...).

Another thing was something I overheard while standing near the hangout that announced my game. There were 3 gamers that looked at it and started to be funny about it, too. Something like "Rules Cyclopedia with some AD&D and Hackmaster in it? The guy got to be wrong in the head!". Their dismissive attitude was discouraging. And it raised some questions.

For one, I started to ask myself how compatible the OSR really is. Turns out, as far as I could glean, the idea of keeping old games alive and attempting to customize them seems not to be very appealing to the general audience. Not only because of those three stooges talking about it, but also because of the general vibe at the convention. It's always the shiny new and/or the hyped games that get the attention.

This shouldn't be surprising, at least that's what I tried to tell myself. After all that's the society we have to live in. Idealism only seems to work if it's marketable. Just like everything else.

In the end I had two people at my table (which was, rather fitting to the day I was having, isolated from the others and between the toilets ...). One of them was a buddy of mine that had decided to join me at this convention, the other was a girl that'd rather play something than going to sleep somewhere. I believe we had some fun. After all the game had lasted for nearly four hours and was only ended because we were all to tired to continue. I even was able to test some of the new house rules I had cooked on this here blog.

Nonetheless, it had left a bad taste in the mouth.

It really made me think about quitting gaming and I really wasn't in the mood to read or write about the hobby.

But every story, indifferent to how poorly executed, deserves a happy end. It took a few weeks, but I started to miss blogging. Trying to gather the motivation to do so or coming up with something worth writing about turned out to be difficult, though.

But last weekend the veil seemed to lift and the ideas came back and without every thought process ending in what I perceived as a fail.

In the end it was about time and distance.

The next weeks will tell if I'm able to make a happy ending and successfully revive the blog with some new ideas.

Until then I wish all of you a good start into the new year, with some good writing and reading along the way and a lot of gaming!