Tuesday, December 29, 2015

I will release a dungeon crawl early next year ...

My last post this year is ... an announcement and a teaser! I wrote fun-house dungeon crawler over Christmas and because I don't like to be set on anything but what happens at the table, I randomized the whole thing using the 2d10 idea you might (or might not) know from here, even included a Drop Die Table for good measure, ending up with one sweet roll for 6 results (from room size to contents, with random encounters, doors, features and former purpose). Here is a teaser of the structure:

Open in new tab for more detail ... Inkscape helped me do it!
I don't know if this will amount to a megadungeon, but there are potentially over 320 rooms in this thing (that's the average).

I won't give you the whole thing, though, only the random tools to build it and the backstory to make it work. It will be system agnostic and (most likely) not more than 10 pages. It is written, it is tested, I just need to clean it's nose and put it out there. Which should be one of the first things I post in the new year.

This will be free and weird.

In a way it's a summary of what I started to do this year and intent to finish next year. Remains to wish you all a nice and smooth transition into the coming year. I hope 2016 will be as awesome as 2015 turned out to be so far and wish you all the best!

Jens



Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Happy (Lovecraftian) Christmas to you all

It is the season to wish you all a good time and some merry gaming (if you can get it during those stressful times). I'm gonna kill some players test The Kraken and the Mines of the Screaming Stones (always good to have a catchy title, right?),something I desperately threw together yesterday to get some gaming going. I'll go for weird and tentacles :)

But I promised some Lovecraftian cheer, so have a nice carpe diem poem from one of HP's stories I thought rather fitting (from The Tomb):
Come hither, my lads, with your tankards of ale,
And drink to the present before it shall fail;
Pile each on your platter a mountain of beef,
For 'tis eating and drinking that bring us relief:
So fill up your glass,
For life will soon pass;
When you're dead ye'll ne'er drink to your king or your lass! 
Anacreon had a red nose, so they say;
But what's a red nose if ye're happy and gay?
Gad split me! I'd rather be red whilst I'm here,
Than white as a lily and dead half a year!
So Betty, my miss,
Come give me a kiss;
In hell there's no innkeeper's daughter like this! 
Young Harry, propp'd up just as straight as he's able,
Will soon lose his wig and slip under the table,
But fill up your goblets and pass 'em around
Better under the table than under the ground!
So revel and chaff
As ye thirstily quaff:
Under six feet of dirt 'tis less easy to laugh! 
The fiend strike me blue! l'm scarce able to walk,
And damn me if I can stand upright or talk!
Here, landlord, bid Betty to summon a chair;
l'll try home for a while, for my wife is not there!
So lend me a hand;
I'm not able to stand,
But I'm gay whilst I linger on top of the land!
[source]
Stay sane over the holidays, friends and neighbors. We read each other on the other side :)

Friday, December 18, 2015

HackMaster! - A Love Letter (for 4e, my only true love)

I owe this one, as I announced I'd write it (really sorry about the delay here, +Charles Akins) and I want it out there, at best still with 2015 on the name tag. I also want to write this bad, as I really, really love HackMaster (4e, the one and only). And I want to spread this love like ... well, I won't go into detail HOW MUCH I want to spread it ... Okay, that derailed fast. Let's talk games and dice!

Humor and AD&D (or: Who cares about 3e?)

HackMaster 4e and D&D 3e were published around the same time. Mainly because the D&D 3e wanted to get as much distance between itself and AD&D as possible, so giving the AD&D rules to a third party publisher who already was making fun of AD&D for years must have seemed like a good move to the Wizards near that Coast (whatever). Little did they know ...

But from the beginning. When AD&D had been at the peak of it's existence, already on it's way into decadent decline, the small publisher Kenzer & Co. started publishing* the infamous and genius Knights of the Dinner Table comics (that title alone is priceless ...):

A classic KotDT strip [I dare you, read the whole story here]
The Knights played a game called HackMaster, which had been nothing but a thinly veiled, and very satirical nod towards AD&D in all its voluptuous baroqueness and its players in all their weird and manic glory. Everybody knew one or more of the protagonists from his own gaming circles. I had two of them as players. I swear. It was (and still is) great fun to read those comics.

Anyway, imagine said publisher now getting a card blanche to cannibalize the complete and significantly large canon of the now left for dead AD&D 2e for that HackMaster game they had been writing about for years already. Incredible, you say? Unheard of, I'd answer! They did it, of course**.

So 2001, one year after D&D 3e had hit the shelves, HackMaster 4e made its first entrance into the real world: the first genuine retro-clone of a D&D game***. Curtain, applause:

I know, it has seen some use, but isn't it gorgeous? [pic by me]

Now, 14 years later and 7 years after the Coastwizards took their licence back, the game is almost lost in obscurity. But it made waves back then. Lots of waves: a complete revision of AD&D 1st and 2nd editions, mixing Oriental Adventures, Unearthed Arcana and Skills & Powers into one coherent system and ending up having over 40 supplements and modules, among them 8 Monster Manuals, a Spelljammer variant (aka Hackjammer) and rewrites of classic adventure modules like The Temple of Elemental Evil (aka The Temple of Existential Evil) or Ravenloft (aka Robinloft). All compatible with AD&D, of course. That's like AD&D 2.5 right there. And they had so much fun doing it, too. So. Much. Fun.

Feast your eyes, my friends! [pic by me]
It had been fantastic for those late to the party, like me. I never had that big an interest into AD&D and when I started having one, 3e had pushed it all into the dark corners of the local game stores. But HackMaster 4e was a high concentration dose of AD&D awesomeness and for once I had been at the right place at the right time.

Well, by now you already got an idea why all that could be considered as funny. I most certainly found it hilarious and it was one of the main reasons for me to get, read and play as much of that game as possible. Anyway, there is a reason being cautious to state it actually is funny, as so many people really didn't get it.

I can remember talking and reading about that game as it was still a somewhat new kid on the block. One of the most common misconceptions about HackMaster 4e had been (and maybe always will be) that it is making fun of AD&D. Mostly without reading it or just reading parts of it. And let me tell you, that's just stupid. Not only untrue, but plain stupid, because (and let me be very clear here):
You won't find a more affectionate treatment of the game and what it meant to play it than HackMaster 4e.
I mean, if you read it and don't like it because of the humor, more power to you. It's all a matter of taste, of course. The game might be brilliant under the Monty Python routine, but who cares, right? Well, the game had been a success despite the naysayers and party poopers and it really is brilliant under that Monty Python routine. That Robinloft module pictured above? A cranked up version of the original. And that means: all the content of the original with new maps, new illustrations and better writing. This is not a joke, but seriously hours of game play, just as the original.

By the way, if you were wondering how HackMaster is already in its fourth edition, it needs to be said that it really isn't. But one can see this as a nod to AD&D as the source, the fictional history HM has from the comics featuring it and the (at this point already) shamefully obvious trend to have a new edition on a regular basis for no good reason. Because that is how they roll. And really, who needs a 3rd edition when you can have the fourth, more advanced edition right away?! Windows 10, anyone?

AD&D on Steroids (The Rules)

If you think the origin story of this game is awesome and praiseworthy on its own (like I do), you just let me tell about the system a bit and blow you away for good. This is, in my humble opinion, AD&D at its best. I know, I know, many loathed the shitload of options available for AD&D, like the Unearthed Arcana, for instance. But I doubt there are many out there who took the time to find out what would happen if ALL THOSE OPTIONS actually made it into the game. And it's magnificent to behold.
Man? Woman? AD&D 2.5?! [source]
But before I dive into this like a duck into a big pile of gp, let me rephrase this for more impact: nothing in HackMaster 4e is per se new, 99 % of the rules they used already existed for AD&D****. It's just the first time anybody went as far as putting all the pieces together! I believe an AD&D aficionado could spent months just finding out what they did and where they took it from. It could be a series of posts spanning over years if you include the modules they took and how they changed them and if they did so for the better. It's that huge.

So many words and still nothing about the rules. Let's change that. We skip character generation for now and start with the game itself. Well, with the highlights, that is, like, what is the "hack" in HackMaster. It doesn't disappoint. Characters and monsters all get a 20 hit points kicker to begin with, so there is a lot of meat to hack (only very small creatures get just 10 hp more ...). One would think that it'll result in level 1 characters lasting way too long and that is true, so there are several rules in place to make it interesting and potentially deadly fast:

  • Dice can and will explode. You rolled a maximum for damage? You just earned a re-roll of the same die -1. Did it again? Same re-roll. Crossbows are even more brutal, allowing a re-roll not only with the highest, but the second highest result, too. A heavy crossbow, for example, does 3d4 damage against large creatures. That's just brutal.
  • Trauma Damage (Threshold of Pain check) is another fine rule (and somewhat connected to the exploding dice mechanic and only possible because of the kicker). If you get as much damage as half your max hp in one round, chances are you will end up being confused by the pain, fall into shock or unconscious and might finally even die because of it. A lot of "ifs", so a character's fate isn't directly sealed, but it adds some very interesting dynamics to fights, as one would imagine.
  • Fatigue is another fun aspect of the game. Combatants will have less fatigue than hp and if they are gone it's not a very good idea to keep fighting, indifferent to the amount of hp a character might have left at that point.
  • Morale Checks are still in place, so if three goblins are down in the first round, screaming and holding their entrails, the other 20 might (and probably should) reconsider their course of action ...
  • Critical hits and critical fumbles are not only very detailed (15 pages of charts and text in the GMG) and gory, but also potentially very final.
  • The honor system adds a good deal to combat, as it not only allows a character to burn honor for dice he can use in a fight, but also gives the option to avoid death entirely for one time for 90 % of the character's honor. This will a huge impact on how the character will be treated by non player characters, for xp and several other unpleasant side effects, but he will be alive. Regaining honor is hard and you'll need a certain amount to make it happen to begin with, but people did use it in my games. It has merit.

Excessive fighting will also reduce resources, of course. Weapons become dull or break, armor will get reduced to shreds and so on and so forth. It's all fine tuned and it works like a machine. A fricking huge monster truck of a machine compared to D&D, but that shouldn't come as a surprise (that's AD&D for you, baby) and it certainly is loads of fun to HACK! in HackMaster.

It doesn't stop there, of course. Spells will not only feature all the spells you'd know from your AD&D splat books, they also added all the spells you'd know from the comics (Sidewinder-Fireballs!) and some that are probably new (I'm not sure, they still might be somewhere in AD&D), like the Seventh Level spell Anger Deity, where the caster insults a gawd, his dog and his mother to get an immediate reaction out of him (a caster might have reasons to cast such a spell, I really believe he does) or the First Level spell Phantasmal Fireball, dealing 1d6 damage per caster level if those affected by the spell fail the save and really believe they burn to death just now (loved that spell as a player, allowed it as a DM, but stopped having enemies appear in large groupings because of it ...).

There is so much to love right there and that's maybe 2 % of what HackMaster 4e did with AD&D and added for the fun of it. The Player's Handbook alone runs precisely 400 pages with double column texts in font size 9 (or 8, not sure, but it's very small) for the rules, comes 150 charts and tables and only a few illustrations, as you'd expect. "350.000 words of wisdom", as they put it.

There is an appendix about how to prime and treat your dice, with cleansing rules like the "fame-rub" if lucky dice turn bad (including pictures), another appendix about the HackMaster Association (with tournaments, listed Dungeon Masters and all that jazz) and coupons for the players to earn in the game. To name but a few things. And then there is ...

... the Character Generation!

I'll really stop after this, but HackMaster excels here beyond awesome. It takes time to create a character, but it's a genuine mini-game itself, with family drama and early character death (if done right), so I want to give you all a closer look into that whole gig.

Take a close look (open in new tab for details) at the introduction of all the races you can play in the game (HM PHB, p. 26 - 27):

That's HackMaster in a nutshell, really. Glorious! [pic by me]
So much to see here: Drow, Grel, Half-Ogres, Pixie Fairies, Gnomelings and Gnome Titans, Kung Fu moves, dwarven woman with a beard, a chain mail bikini ... It's all very educational and really a fun primer.

Take your time. I'll wait here.

13 playable races, 17 classes, among them Knight Errants, Berserkers, Battle Mages, Blood Mages and Assassins, with even more options in the official Class guides, like The Griftmaster's Guide to Life's Wildest Dreams (The fast Track to Riches and Infamy):

Who wouldn't like to play a thief after
looking at that cover? [pic by me]
Upbringing, social status, siblings, career, it's all there and a point buy system to boot and make it all so much more flexible, with Quirks and Flaws for the taking to get even more points to buy skills, raise ability scores to meet class criteria or Talents to loose them again just as fast. We had a short sighted (and color blind, I think) Knight Errant in our group, that needed the group to shout directions when he charged something, we had the meanest halfling thief in the history of our games, scars and attitude all inclusive and a Nose Ring of Viscid Globs to make him even more dangerous ...

Characters never turned out to be boring. Never. And skills are worth another sentence or two, because there are not only lots of them, they also can be useful and/or funny as hell. Digging hasty graves, vandalism, sneaking around, basic and advanced looting, all with little rules and benefits to sweeten the deal. Or Groin Punches, Round House Groin Kicks, Eye Gauges and Wuss Slaps as combat procedures (for obvious reasons).

Had a player once in a con game that went all in that performed the Manu Weasel Dance (aka "showing yer ass dance") in front of a live audience to insult some samurai and gain some more bonuses (here is the whole story). Or the players dismissed to bury a henchman in a shallow grave for wild dogs to feast on and the poor soul came back to haunt them. So many possibilities, so many good times.

All good things come to an end

I could go on and on. We had such a good time with HackMaster, it's almost uncanny for such a brutally complex game. And missed out on so much more, in fact. Magic items like The Feet of Vecna or the Chain-Mail Bikini of Eye Gouging among the pearls one could discover. Or we never finished The Temple of Existential Evil campaign (but we had an epic show down in the famous Moat-house during a con game). And I still miss some books for my collection, mainly modules like Little Keep on the Borderlands. Sometimes I want to take it all out of the book shelf and start a new campaign with it ...

That's a campaign waiting to happen ... [pic by me]

... but it can be very demanding, to be honest. Our main reason to play something else in the end, was that things got really complicated and some players wanted to take it easy for once. So we did that and never came back. It can be a lot of work and it took me ages to understand the honor system, for instance. And sometimes it's just a bit too much over the top, even for my tastes:

Funny? Yes. Lots of information? Of course.
But also a pain in the ass to use ... [pic by me]
I regret it sometimes. HackMaster had a huge and lasting influence on how I game. 50 % on the optional rules here on this blog had been attempts to transfer some of the HackMaster aesthetics over to the D&D Rules Cyclopedia. It's a great game, with so much to discover and a good read above it all. And it was close to complete before they pulled the plug on it. There had been talk about a HackRight supplement right at the end and I'd loved to see that happen. But it was not to be.

Anyway, there still is a lot of game to have, if you can get it (which is seriously difficult nowadays). If you like AD&D (or liked in back in the day) and liked what you've seen here or the Knights of the Dinner Table comics, than you will love HackMaster 4e like I do. It's also as Old School as one can get. So old school, actually, that it pre-dates the OSR :)

I hope you had as much fun reading this as I had writing it. I know it is a lot of text, but I already got the feeling that I didn't do the game any justice. There is so much more ... but I'll stop here anyway and end the post with my favorite illustration in the HackMaster GameMaster's Guide:

HM GMG, p. 323 [pic by me]
Final note: this story isn't over yet. Some day I will DM this game again ...

_________________________________________

Also on the internet: this post is part of a series of love letters across the blog-o-sphere that had been started by Charles Akins over at Dyvers and already ended some time ago. I wrote another piece back then about the Rules Cyclopedia and several other, far more talented bloggers than me, wrote about the rpgs they love and why. +Marty Walser, for instance, not only has a great post in that series about the Paranoia RPG over at the RagingOwlbear blog, but also a (as far as I'm aware) complete run down of all the other entries. Check it out, if you haven't already. It's some good stuff! 

* Okay, the publication history is a bit more complex than that and Kenzer & Co. entered for publishing with the 4th issue in 1996. But who cares, really?

** Again, it hadn't been that easy. Maybe it started that way, but it got more and more complicated for Kenzer & Co. to keep HackMaster out there. Maybe they had been to successful in keeping a game alive that D&D 3e couldn't replace. Anyway, it ended in tears, as it does so often with those things. But that's not what this post is about, so ...

*** And that's totally true!

**** A rough estimation on my side. Don't hold it against me. As far as I know, they took it all and added almost nothing.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs Combat Example

This one is for all those wondering how combat is different in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs and in many ways a follow-up to this post from November with some conversion rules. It's also result of ongoing exchange between people gearing up to play this game and me trying to explain it. I'm ever grateful to the amount of patience those people are able to summon ... So this is a detailed example how combat in Lost Songs is less about rolling a die and see if something is hit but instead more about how complex combats really should (and can) be. It helps to be familiar with the basic rules of the game (the post linked above has rules converting D&D to Lost Songs, so if you've read that and use the picture below as orientation, you should be fine). Or just read this short summary up front:
Combat Dice are d6, rolled at the beginning of a round and used as described below. Combatants usually have Base Attack and Defense values that are added to the dice used for the main actions (attack, soak/damage, defend). 1s are discarded, 6s generate a new die for that round, doubles double the value of the dice involved, triples triple it. NPC combatants get a static die for familiar environment they can use for everything but doubles. Up to two dice can be delayed into the next round. The rest is about ...

... two hunters and an angry boar!

Snorrison and Ragnar hunt a boar and the beast decides to fight back. Snorri and Ragnar both have two Combat Dice each, the boar has three. Ragnar had damaged the boar with an arrow in the second round, taking the first round for aim. First round Ragnar rolls 2 and 3. He puts them in Delay (Attack). S. does nothing and the boar is unaware. Second round R. rolls a 2 and a 5, the 2 and the 3 from the first round come from the delay, so R. gets a shot of Base Attack (his is 10) + 16 (double 2 + 5 and 3) minus a tenth of the distance (30 m = 3), leaving him with an attack of 23. Using a bow, the damage is everything that is above the boar's Base Defense (which is 17 for the tough beast), so the boar gets 6 damage from the bow, which is enough to piss him off (he got a maximum of 28 Health). The environmental static for the boar is a 2.

So the boar charges and the guys get ready for close combat. Third round the results are S. with 1 and 3, R. with a result of 2 and 4 and the boar with a freakin' 1, 1 and 3 (I'm rolling this as I write it, by the way). Not much is happening this round after all the 1s are took out of play. The boar moves (3 on a Drop Die Action), S. delays the 3 to attack and R. changes Weapons and readies himself for an attack (2 on the Drop Die Action “Do”, 4 on Delay (Attack)). After that it's initiative again.
Visualization!

S. comes up with 1 and 2, there is also a 3 coming from Delay (Attack). R. is a little more lucky, he rolls a 3 and a 6. The 6 generates a new die and he adds a 2 to his initiative and gets a 4 from his Delay (Attack). The boar rolls a double 2 and a 1 (sigh).

Initiative is now in order: S. (a 2) – the boar (a 4) – R. (11)

Starting with the slowest, S. has to declare first. He had an attack prepared, so he needs to declare damage, too. His decisions are made: the 3 on Attack and the 2 on Damage, which leaves him with an attack of 13 (his Base Attack is 10) and that's a miss (since the boar's Base Defense is 17 and a successful attack needs more than that).

The boar is next and decides to delay his dice to the next round, squeaking and scratching angrily …

R. is the last to declare. He sees S. struggling with his attack and the boar powering up for next round. His dice are 2, double 3 and 6. He decides to support S.'s attack and attacks on his own (gives S. his 2 as a Drop Die Action (Coop), puts a 3 and the 6 in attack, a 3 on damage).

Resolving this round will show a successful attack from R. (10 (Base Attack) + 6 (one of the double threes) + 6 > 17), doing 6 damage (the second 3). The boar is doing nothing but taking damage this round. And thanks to R.'s support S. manages to hit true, too (10 + 8 (now a double 2) > 17), doing 3 damage. So the boar is down to 13 Health. This could still go terribly wrong. Next round.

S. has a double 3. A good start, but he also takes a Rage Die and gets another 5. R. has a 5 and a 6, adds another 5 with the new die (this guy is on fire!) and the boar has a 1, a 2 and a 3, with a double 2 coming in from delay and the environment corresponding with another 2. Still not much.
What a magnificent beast! [source]
Initiative this round is: the boar with 5 – S. with 11 – R. with 16

The beast is hurt and angry. Delay was at least one die in attack, so it'll have a 2 in attack and another 2 with the 3 in damage. The environmental static (not counting for doubles or triples) will be on Defense to prepare a soak with the third 2 (part of a triple, all counting 6 each now). It's attacking S., who has light armor (+3 to Base Defense) and a Base Defense of 8 (total Defense of 11).

S. is next and sees with dread the beast is going for him with a 15 (boar has a Base Attack of 9 and adds a 6 for the triple 2) and decides to do a 5 on Defend to avoid harm (total defense of 16 is > 15). It leaves him with a double 3 that wouldn't be enough to harm the beast, so he decides to regain the Rage Die and support R. (one 3 on the Drop Die Action Regain, the other on Coop).

R. sees that the boar is attacking S., but S. will be able to handle it and also positions the beast in a way that really supports an attack, so that's what he'll be doing (the 6 and the 3 to Attack = 19 > 17) and the double 5 on Damage (20!).

Resolving the round from fastest to slowest now will have R. dealing 20 damage, but the boar will be able to soak 6 of that, using the forests undergrowth as cover (the environmental static), leaving 14 damage (which leaves the boar at -1). Even if this would take the boar out (a Stomach Save will determine that), all attacks and damage resolutions are at the same time. So the boar will get his chance, attacks and S. defends against it. The Stomach Save (9 plus monster HD, in this case 12) comes up with 31 (rolled a 19 …) an that means the beast is still very much alive and angry. The next round should be the last one, though. Let's see.

S. starts with a 6, a 1 and adding a 4. Not bad, still, he adds another Rage Die, which turns out to be a 1 (so: nothing). R. is having a 5 and a 2, goes for the Rage Die and gets a 2. Boars are stubborn and this one won't go down or flee. Instead he comes up with 2, 3 and 5.

So initiatives are: R. with a 9 – the boar and S: tie with a 10 each (in this case it's 1d20 each, higher is faster, the boar looses)

R. declares first. Double 2 on attack (would hit) and the 5 on damage is what he decides. The boar again has the environment on his side (static 2), so he defends with that (total defense now 19) and also attacks S. again, the 3 on Attack and the 2 and 5 on Damage. S. sees that R.'s attack will be useless because the boar is hiding in the undergrowth again to avoid the attack. The beast is also going for him for 7 damage, so he should do something against that, too. He decides to Defend with the 6 and gives the 4 to R. to support that attack.

Those 5 Damage could only hit home true because R. and S. worked together and that's what killed the boar in the end (he didn't make his second, more difficult Stomach Save and after that he's dead meat). Both had gained Rage Dice in the end and the last thing after the fight is that they need to roll those and subtract them from Endurance. Both loose 4 Endurance because of the fight but are otherwise unharmed.
And that's how combat works

Some luck, some tactics and lots of teamwork! And it is about decisions. Even with keeping those numbers, different decision could lead to a very different outcome. Add more combatants and it results in an even more complex (but satisfying, in my opinion) narrative, with everyone bringing a different style to the table. It's a system a player can get better at, but that is also very forgiving because it enforces teamwork and experimentation. It evolves not only with the character but also with the player.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

XP for Treasure (sneaking up on Level Advancement in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs)

Level Advancement for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is a monster to write. Who would have thought (my guess? everyone knew, nobody told me). Anyway. I could go for big-ass monster post with thousand different ideas and directions (as I do by default more often than not, I'm afraid) or sneak up on that bastard to get double damage on the final delivery ... Yeah, let's try that last one and start with something related and harmless like "xp for treasure". It's also something that could easily be swapped for D&D (and friends), so that's good. Right?

XP for treasure doesn't work

For me at least. The very idea that gaining wealth is somehow connected to getting more experienced in life somehow sits wrong with me. I know, I know, it's about what you had to do to get that treasure. I get that. Same difference. For me it's more about how to spend it and that's how I did it in my D&D games. Characters got xp for carousing. And if that meant economies breaking down and people getting fat and decadent wherever characters decided to leave thousands and thousands of gold coins, so be it. That's part of the fun.

Well, it doesn't work that way for Lost Songs. Mostly because it's a somewhat historical setting and you can't always expect to find huge amounts of gold and get the opportunity to spend it all without travelling thousands of kilometers to the next metropolis (like Rome or Constantinople) beforehand. No, it really doesn't work that way. Sure, they party and all that, but it's a community thing.

Characters also got obligations to their tribe. Imagine, your parents and other families just like them, settled where they are right now just a few years ago. They sure could use all the valuables they can get their hands on. And there are gods to honor, don't forget that. Never forget that, actually. They could really get pissed. And finally there are those that helped your tribe getting where they are to begin with: the leaders and warriors (and the gods, of course, just to be sure ...).

This was not about spending or giving, this was about balance. You honor your guests to be honored when you are a guest. You honor your gods and leaders and families to get honored by them in return. So you don't bought that sword you got, you either received it as a gift or as battle trophy. It's a very different kind of thinking, but I believe a game like Lost Songs will benefit from such little details a great deal (same should be true for most fantasy games, actually).

Honoring your host for fun and profit 

Presents can be anything from pelts to war trophies from Monsters, simply gold and jewelry (but, you know, that stuff is not just laying around, it all got a history and what not), fancy weaponry, even hostages or exotic animals! A Good Will Save will determine how well those presents are received. It's just one Save, the group needs to decide who has to do that role, but the effect will be on all characters. So if the Save fails, the whole group looses some Wyrd. The gift is still accepted for it's value, but it will affect the course of their stay. A table about it might look like this (early test material):

Open in new tab for a closer look ...
The worth players invest in their tribe and the honor the tribe feels for receiving it will influence everything else that happens between quests. Players will at least get what they invested in Gold as xp and will be able to advance, but if the reception is poor, it might lead to ill will that will further damage the groups ability scores one way or another.

The idea here is to allow the blooming of a narrative for their stay at home, without it taking too much time. They arrive and honor the host (Good Will Save), Carousing (random table to decide if oracle dice get involved and/or opportunities arise) and advancement takes place.

After that the characters are back on the road, fully equipped for their new quest by their tribe ...

A final word on "oracle dice" and D&D-ifying

This is mentioned in passing on the document and right now it's nothing more than a loose concept. But I found it needs a random dynamic for the DM to use actively in the game (most of it is dealt with by active/passive player rolls). Oracle dice will be a random tool for the DM to see how the machinations of the world gear towards (or against) the characters. So with Tasks and Saves influencing characters on the player-side (changing Qualities and so on), there'll be a third roll doing very much the same on the DM-side of things. It'll even be possible to directly attack/threaten Qualities beyond what Saves already do ... But that's a post on it own.

If you use this system with D&D (and friends) you basically use the same procedures: one player offers the gift (roll appropriate Ability Score, like Wisdom or Charisma), keep everything regarding xp and change the effects to penalties or boni for reaction rolls. I'd use -4 after a critical fail, -2 with a normal fail, nothing for a success and a +2 for a critical success. Please let me know if you try this at home ...

The following weekend I'll post some more about Level Advancement and how to make a random character in Lost Songs. Also need to write a post about getting those xp :)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Nerd Pride and Pop Culture going Full Circle

Every now and then I get the urge to write something, well, critical. No worries, I won't get political. There is enough of that going around unfiltered as it is. No. What I aim to write here is about our hobby and others like it. How it was a stigma once, how that somehow changed and how I suddenly stopped being a nerd because I'm not socially awkward enough. I've been pondering about this one for a long time now and think I should give it a shot and be done with it. This is also a very personal and very long post (sorry).

Remember, remember ...

The early days of our hobby are, incidentally, also the early days of pop culture as we know it today. People tend to think about this as progress, but it really isn't that easy. Because the funny thing about popular culture is that it's always about what's popular at a certain point in time. Things that had been popular back then in the 70s made life pretty hard for those liking stuff that's now quite popular and accepted. Something changed and it had a somewhat positive effect on those who got stigmatized before. But ask yourself, is it really progress or is it "just" change? Because if it changes again, it might as well change back, you know ...

So lets say it's a struggle, like with languages, for example. People trying to conserve the "old ways", people trying to change THE WORLD completely and those that really don't care what happens outside their preferences (just like the classic Alignment system, isn't it?), all constantly finding compromises that also result in minor changes of what is perceived as popular culture.

Okay, so things are in motion and will always be. That's not a groundbreaking discovery, right? We should just lean back and enjoy our 15 minutes of fame. Right? Yeah.

But first remember those early days of being a role playing gamer. Being laughed at in school, people saying (either in the open or behind your back) that you are strange and socially unacceptable because you like talking about the fictional exploits of your Barbarian and not about sports. The days of the Satanic Panic, that most certainly didn't effect all of us, but most definitely had an effect on many.
People had been very serious about this one ... [source]
Most people aren't even reflected enough to really know what irks them and are just randomly mean because of a subconscious feeling that something is wrong with you. You know the kind, they just make bad jokes in public about you being ugly and are happy that enough others are laughing. Sad fucks.

I experienced some of that in the 90s, like my parents thinking I was in cult or a potential player getting told by his parents that playing those games is evil and forbidden by god. And I got the strange looks at school, got put into the role of the outsider. I was just lucky enough that punk was already popular (!) enough among pupils and I got a crowd to hang out with soon enough. Solidarity among subcultures, late to the party and all that. Others had it worse and I knew some of those getting bullied, heard about more.

At some point I had to take a position and I embraced my interests instead of conformity. I also had a brown belt in Judo, so that helped a lot (those few occasions I got bullied, well, lets say it didn't happen often). In many ways I was lucky like that and I am aware of it. But still, getting stigmatized is a very individual experience. It hurts and there is damage done to you.

People will keep telling you that those problems are minor compared to [insert other stigmatized groups for comparison], so get a grip, grow up, have some balls ... you know the shit people say when they are not able to relate or sympathize.

Now, why am I going there, you might ask yourself at this point. Well, it is part off the healing process to accept that you were hurt. That damage done for being stigmatized and excluded is real and it is personal. Talking it away as "bullshit" just buries it deep and will have a huge impact on a subconscious level, with colorful varieties of pain and compensation for your friends and neighbors to behold and enjoy. Knowing that means changing it.

Another huge effect of this is what one might call a herd instinct. Others like you are out there and, damaged and awkward as they might be, they become the most beautiful people of the world to you. Those first weekends on rpg conventions had been like wonderful holidays among friends for me and I'm very fond of those memories.

Of course you'd encounter the same tendencies completely normal for every social group. You got the snobs, the cool kids, the popular ones and that could get tiresome fast. But somehow I'd never be alone. Even when excluded or looked down upon, others would have my back. And not only friends, but total strangers, too. That's very important.

Would I have called myself a nerd back then? Maybe as a weak attempt to appear like I'm embracing the social position others would have me take as something great. You know the feeling, I'm sure of it. What it really is, though, is something others made you feel, something others did to you to have someone below them. Someone to feel superior over. The very words "nerd" and "geek" had been invented as labels to make it so much easier to exclude and insult.

... and now look around.

The nerds and geeks arrived in popular culture now. If you tell nowadays that you are playing role playing games, people will take an interest because they saw those funny guys in Big Bang ... whatsitsnameagain? ... play that. Right? And people always liked board games, so that's not that different. Right? All of a sudden you are the expert, not the pariah. At least among the "uninitiated".

Yet another related phenomenon is people mimicking nerds are all over the place now. It's chic to act as if you are strange because you have been excluded from what is socially acceptable for far too long or with far too much force. In other words, what had been a stigma with all the brutal consequences that tend to come with that, is now a badge of honor. You don't even have to experience the one to be the other. 

Let me be clear here: I'm not saying that you have to eat shit before you could "claim to be a nerd", because that would be utter bullshit on all accounts. You can not claim to be a nerd, for one, because it's something others did to you and awkward behavior was the result of that treatment not something you chose (or because of something you chose). Now it's a party gimmick and that comes with a very different set of problems, but I'm getting ahead of myself here ...

Because the original problem being gone doesn't mean it had never been there to begin with. On the contrary, actually. It makes the damage done by it so much harder to grasp and healing far more difficult. In a worst case scenario it even adds insult to injury, as they say. Because all of a sudden I'm not a nerd anymore. It's funny, the "popular kids" are the nu nerds now and there is an elitism coming along with it I've seen labeled as Nerd Pride.

It's debatable, now, if such a thing really exists or if it's really a new phenomenon. But if I tell among (what I used to think of as) like-minded folks that I'm gaming for 20 years now, even blog about it, I get more often than not attacked for it as if I threatened someone else's territory. So something did change.

Or stayed the same, really, as we are back in the social circle again. Because the things I like and know about are popular now. That, of course, makes it relevant for mating, so it stands to reason that we (the former excluded), too, have to punch our chests and throw shit at each other now to make our mark and impress potential mates ... Just like the primates we all are. It's so cute, I could puke.

Pop Culture going Full Circle

I've seen a meme a few months ago that really brought that idea home for me. Add the Star Trek, Twin Peaks, Ghostbusters, Ninja Turtles and Tremors reboots and you are good to go (but there wouldn't be much of Williams left to look at ...):

[source]
See what I mean? A year ago I had the pleasure of seeing the complete x-files again, seasons 1 to 9, plus all the movies. That's 20 years old tv now and other than a few technological gimmicks, nothing has changed. Gene manipulation, factory farming, artificial intelligence, government corruption and conspiracy, it's all right there in the first season. Fashion didn't change, music didn't change, opinions didn't change. It's all still the same. Or more of the same, even.

You might think now that I lost track of the topic and went into a completely different direction right now, but trust me, we'll get there again. With all the stuff we like being mainstream now, we are targeted for our money with "geeky" and "nerdy" articles. Like, all the time. Star Wars had been popular, but now MORE people will like it, so here is some NEW Star Wars. Have the newest edition of D&D, because D&D is now cool again. Or here, the newest anime, come on now, you love this!, it's only 30 bucks! Or need I write the word "kickstarter"? Would I dare to? It just goes on and on.

Sometimes I think we went from being shunned to being milked for liking what we like. Not sure that's a big step forward, to be honest. People will fight for the right to take your money, though, and they will get quite creative to manipulate you into thinking that the next new shit is superior to what has been. Let me tell you, it is not.

There are other, weirder effects to this whole affair. I know people that would argue about Harry Potter up to a point were arguments change to insults, especially when I tell them it's one of the great stories about unjustified geek empowerment. The whole story of Rowling being a poor unemployed teacher, writing the first book in a cafe because it had been warmer than her apartment and coming from a village that just looked like something described in the books? Facilitated by her publisher to sell more books. The idea about an imprisoned boy, mistreated for being different, fleeing into a magical world? That's Rudyard Kipling's early biography right there*. And the boy with the owl learning to be a wizard? Well, that's The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman, glasses included.

Harry really is just the British school-boy variant ... [source]
But other than not being very original, it's also quite questionable, as far as content goes. H. P. inherited his powers, for instance. Him being special has nothing to do with anything he learned or did. He's just a special snow flake for no particular reason. But it entitles him to be right ALL THE TIME. There is also some inherent racism in the notion that [wizards] are a superior race [Ɯbermensch?] to normal humans. This being set up as muggles (or whatever) being mostly stupid and ignorant works well with the myth that those labeled as nerds had been on the right track all along. There is just so much wrong with it ...

Or take the Big Bang Theory. Highly questionable, in my opinion. Those guys are not really nerds, for instance, they are vehicles for commerce. Comics, t-shirts, tv-shows, nobody seems to mind the shameless product placement in that show. They are also successful and while it was funny to see Steve Urkel try and fail in all things (and with women), those guys are a little awkward about this stuff, but not more than others might be (or not much more, at least). They are presentable. They are the assimilated nerd, as popular culture and the market would like to have it. Something that is funny, but with merit. Harmless, no need to bully anyone.

Steve Urkle now and then ...
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Haters gonna hate and all that, but google "criticism about TBBT" and you'll find some interesting perspectives (how sexist it is, how there are no black people in the first five seasons, how it really is not about nerds ... take your pick). That and Harry Potter are just two examples. There sure is more where that came from.

Ever asked yourself why people are so eager to re-do all those shows and movies and ideas ad absurdum, most of the time not even getting better at it, too? There had been reasons for this stuff being popular to begin with and mostly it had NOTHING to do with mainstream or popular culture. It's like now that they can use this stuff to reach more people, they also use it to lull all into shopping frenzies and make us forget that we do this all the time, all over again. An infinite loop of bread and games with a good dash of Gleichschaltung to make the transition into idiocracy smooth and painless ...

It was acceptable to bully those strange folks among us, but it's far more profitable now to have them all within the big social circle, making money and spending it. Them being all the same is also easier to control than having subcultures all over the place. Right? People could get strange ideas if left to their own devices. Next they are going to tell us there is no gender difference. You know, because there is a whole market waiting for men starting to wear make up. Oh, wait ...

Everything changes, nothing changes.

Society constantly changes towards compromise, I think that much is established. The main questions are to what end those changes happen, what the consequences are and where we position ourselves towards those changes.

Liking what I like and playing the games I play is no more connected with a feeling of solidarity among like-minded people, it more often than not becomes a fight for popularity. The shit they make fun of in High School comedies. And that shit gets old fast. Actually, if I never had started blogging, meeting this great community online, I might have dropped gaming entirely by now.

As it is I'm (mostly) suspicious and cynic towards the commercialization of my interests. Nowadays it reached a  point where only spending the coin will make you important in the eyes of others. That's not true for all people or all the times, but true often enough. We are reduced to monkeys for a buck and a thrill and I get the feeling that some like it that way. Or at least don't like questioning it.

And asked what I am, if not a nerd, I'd say I'm non-conform, as in I am as an individual opposed to conformity. Put outside the main social circle to begin with, I decide to stay there. I go into a German RPG Shop and they don't know the OSR. I see TV Shows in English, often before there are any German synchronizations and I only know a handful of people I could talk face to face about it. I write about games (write one myself, even) in a language that's not my own. That's nothing special, it's just the consequence of my preferences and it leads where I am comfortable right now: outside the mainstream. And let me tell you, there's still a lot to discover and love in the fringes.

One might say the view is better on the outside, too. But I think I don't do it for the view.  No, it's only healthy to keep the mind busy like that on a regular basis, to see that although things did change, people will always try to make themselves superior to others, so someone always has to be at the shitty end of the stick. But it only affects you if you are part of the game, if you participate. And that stupid game might as well change in another direction yet again (I already see some of that happening) and ... well, you get my drift.

There is one final thing I'd like to share about getting bullied: getting victimized by others is never to be trifled with, but the blame-game also never helped anyone really and has the contrary effect of keeping you in the position others chose for you: that of a victim. The first important step to overcome that shit is not looking at what has been done to you, but finding out how it changed you. The second would be to learn to confront people about it in the open as soon as it happens. Right then and there. In the face. Step in for others, too, if you can. It'll mean the world.

I also don't have all the answers. Just more questions.

But I'd like to close on a more friendly note. The friends I made and the DIY-spirit in this community helped a lot in keeping me sane. Honestly, thanks for that, guys. There is a level of enthusiasm beyond wearing an idea like someone else's skin and that's contributing to the things you love for the things themselves. I see that daily in my stream and it's inspiring. One could say that I think the way I do now because I am into role playing games and DIY. I hope I'll never be done with this and I know I've still a long way ahead to get somewhere with it. But that's okay. It's the change I chose.


* I remember an English tutor telling us Kipling's foster parents went as far as putting him in a small room below the stairs as punishment, but have yet to find a source to confirm it.