Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Labors for the Dead (or how to make a character death a thing)

Basis for this train of thought is that a character death will in most cases bring the game to a halt. In extreme cases it might even threaten the continuation of a quest, as the characters carrying a quest might not have made it. The others (including the players now having new characters) might not care and the group dynamics change in any case. So what can we do to have the dead characters echo into the game after their demise?

The Graveyard

This is something I do in my games. When a character dies, I ask players to write a short obituary about that dead character. The name, accomplishments and something about the way he died. Players being players, this is usually a quite funny affair. It's then printed and put into a folder we call the graveyard. this is nothing special and I know other DMs doing the same. And it does the trick.

But is it enough? Well, no, I don't think so. It's a good think to be able to go back to the graveyard every now and then. People will have a laugh and if you are lucky, they'll reminisce about the campaign. It builds a bit of consistency. And yet it will have no impact on the in-game narrative or the stories a dead character left untold. It's a good start, but I think it needs more.

The Welfare of the Dead

And here is the thing: what happens when a character is killed? Depending on circumstances not that much, in my experience. I had other characters swear revenge, characters got proper burials (if possible), but most of the time you'll need a new character fast and at best in a way that allows the player without a character to rejoin the game the very session his old character died in.

This is a necessity, of course. the game needs to take the back seat for a moment and re-calibration is done. New characters need an entry point and a back story while time is of the essence, bringing it's very own set of limitations. Even if done right, it also needs time for adjustment. The new character needs to find a new place within the group and the story they share. Same goes very much for the player.

And the dead? Forgotten, a shallow grave later. The show must go on and all that.

At least he got a stone, right? [source]
I'd make a strong case here to keep them relevant for some time, though, and there are games out there (some D&D variants, too) that support some sort of consequences if the dead are neglected. HackMaster 4e, for instance, has rules that might bring a character back from the dead to haunt the characters if there wasn't a proper burial (even coming with the skill "Dig shallow grave"!). And it has merit.

D&D is really a very good example here, actually, as the dead really don't rest easy in a D&D world. I think it's not only very likely, it's outright impossible to avoid getting haunted by lost characters at some point during a campaign. The opposition might use it against a group, the gods might allow (or even enforce) a powerful soul to return from the dead and avenge some felt wrong doing (even if it isn't done on purpose, the danger should be real).

Furthermore, taking care of the dead by giving them a proper farewell to avoid dire consequences seems only logical. Especially since it is something we know examples of from many, many cultures (Halloween, having fireworks on new years eve, having mourning periods or ritualized mourning to begin with, the Aborigines believe to stop using a dead person's name ...  and so on and so forth).

But why so serious?

One could argue now that something like that barely has a place in a role playing game. Maybe in passing (wordplay! sorry ...), but it's a way to serious topic for the more lighthearted variants of the elf games we normally like to play. I'm aware of that. There is another dimension to this, though. I just had the situation where one character died and another one at least lost his body, which leaves one character to keep the group going. But the quest is derailed, as time was a factor and two thirds of the group changed the dynamics significantly.

That's exactly the point where this whole aspect gets relevant. If I manage to keep the dead having an echo into the ongoing narrative, I should be able to safe the ongoing quest over this hiccup. At least that's my thinking. It's about consistency. Or better yet, it's about allowing in-game consistency so that necessary off-game adjustments, like making new characters and getting them into the game, don't threaten what's already established.

It all makes sense now ... [source]
To be clear here, players (and characters) should always be free to decide the course of action, I'm a firm believer of that. But momentum is a very important tool and I think it's a mistake to dismiss everything that happened in a campaign just because that momentum got lost. So a DM needs tools to compensate complications like this. And if character death is the problem, it should be part of the solution, too.

Labors for the Dead

In the end it's about the tools we use to keep the game flowing. Punishing players/characters for something they didn't do isn't really a proper response, though (most of the time, anyway). It's rather the other end of a spectrum where benefits should be the driving force and consequences the result of not even trying. In a way just like combat, you hit stuff and stuff might hit back and in the end it's not (that) important how much damage you got, but only that the opponent got more of the same.

Here is the idea, then. after a character's death and as the process to get a new character into the game, the group as a whole has to formulate a number of labors they have to fulfill to honor them properly. A simple burial is the ritual necessary to allow the formulation of the labors, going the extra mile with, let's say, a burial mount or burning a ship with the corpse on it, should be considered a labor. The effort makes the labor, the ritual makes it possible.

As a guideline I'd say a dead character is done justice if at least a number of labors as high as the character's level* are fulfilled (so: level 3 character = 3 labors). The upper limit of labors is given by the highest level character that's still alive (highest level character is 5, so that's the maximum of labors a group could do), anything beyond that will give no further benefit and might even be considered as improper.

The labors a group decides on, are noted and give an xp award when fulfilled within a 2 seasons (basically a year). Effort is more important here than success and players should be encouraged to seek divine council to find out where they are**. The labors themselves could be as profane as telling a character's family about his fate, writing and performing a poem, song or play about a character or swearing and enforcing revenge or as elaborate as giving a feast to honor the character, building him a monument or taking care of his or her children, for instance.

I'm sure that every character played for any amount of time in a campaign, will bring enough baggage to allow some very individual labors, especially if the player of the deceased has a say in the matter ("My character always wanted ... , so maybe you guys could ... ?"). Those personalized obligations should help bridging that gap a death left in the game.

It's the thought that counts ... [source]
While fulfilling the labors will give the group xp awards (similar to quest xp), trying and failing should have no big consequences other than not getting those xp (in most cases). Neglecting those obligations or not even burying the character, should have consequences, though. In that case the DM writes a number of labors down (number as established above) and how not fulfilling them would affect the group within the next 2 seasons (still basically a year).

All is fair game in that case: ghost appearances, angry family members, villains using the corpse for a variety of bad things, from bragging with pieces of it, to bringing them back as evil agents. A DM will have it easy to find enough nice opportunities to make this as individual and dramatic as needed, but should start early to make that impact felt. The corpse could be missing the next morning, for instance, or wild animals had a go at it ... Bad things foreshadowing worse.

Labors as tool in open world games

So while writing this, I realized I want this to go further in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. Sometimes we don't the the forest for all the trees. I already have another character with an obligation to come and help an NPC later in the year and that is a labor. Especially in open world games it's kind of important to allow formulating quest in a more individualized manor and labors could be a way to make that happen.

Brienne of Tarth: finishing her labors one at a time [source]
Question is how much of that is enforced by a DM (oath binding, geas, visions and so forth) and how much player creativity. Need to think about that one more. It could be supported by some sort of skill advancement system or something like that ...

Anyway, that's it for now. I hope this gave you guys a  new idea or two. I will test this in our next game and maybe I should come back to it at some point. Comments, opinions and ideas about this are, as always, welcome. And if ou get to use it, please feel free to tell me about it somewhere down the road.

* It's a bit more difficult for games that don't use classes, of course. Maybe the number of hours a character was used in a game could be a guideline here or his accomplishments. A DM might have to decide individually here, depending on the game.

** Kriemhild in the Nibelungenlied had to wait 13 years before an opportunity arose to take revenge, but she kept grieving the whole time, went to church and made contacts, so although she took way longer than a year, it's a great example how effort is more important than success .. until it leads to success :) And this is very important for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs for obvious reasons.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Mines under Karrakas (WIP)

This is a test.

Again I was reckless and announced to produce something in January. It's April now and at least I'm able to show you all something to play with. It's not finished or anything, but the concept is completely there and you could already use it for your own games. But the main reason to post it, is to get some reactions and opinions out of you. First the picture, then explanations:

Open in new tab for more detail!
I tested this on Christmas and was really happy with the result. There is one more crucial part to this has to do with rolling 2d10 once and it looks like this:

DIY drop die table. Red is the leading die here. Each square is 10 x 10 ft,
the low tip (blue circles) of the die determines the square, the upper tip
(red circles) determines where the the doors are (leading die first).
Yes, this is a die drop table. This is all you need for a complete room description with encounter and whatnot. Let me illustrate. 2d10 can be read as several different results: d10 minus d10, d100, d20, d10 plus d10 and so on. Each number is somewhat different, with a different range and a different possibility. They are somewhat connected, of course, which is most obvious with the extremes. But if nothing else, that's a chance to make this work even better.

But how does it work? All right. You might have guessed by now that you take that one result. Red is the Leading Die with a 6 and green is the Secondary Die with a 7. Position on the drop die chart give size and form of the room (50 x 30 ft) and where the doors are (not yet how many doors are actually there, just where they would be for now). The rest is what's in it, just go through the tables and checking the different results:
  1. 2d10 (13): This has been a public area before (so there might be signs or maps on the walls and all that)
  2. LD10 (6): There are 2 doors here and [2x SD10] (14) one is locked, the other hacked down.
  3. LD10 - SD10 (-1): The room is moist.
  4. d100 (67): There are some rotten tentacles on the floor.
  5. d20 (17): There are some Humanoids doing research in the room (could have something to do with those tentacles ...).

And that's it, all in one roll. There is a lot more to do to make this complete. There will be a random method to generate different excavation periods and how they are connected, a surface map with very dangerous ruins, some wizards from different universities doing research, a proper cut out for the drop die thingie and the screaming stones themselves, doing all kind of weird stuff when brought together. Some of it useful, some of it funny and some of it very dangerous (RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!).

It will take some time, though. Anyway, what you have here is in itself complete and for you to check out and play around with. You could stock a complete dungeon with this, especially when you skip the drop die element and take a random map by, say, Dyson, for instance. Use Random Encounter Rolls from any book you have available (Rules Cyclopedia would be my choice) and off you go. As for the Procedural Dungeon The Mines of the Screaming Stones:

I'll get there, eventually ...

All right, that's it from me for today. Please let me know what you think. I'm always happy to get feedback on those things

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Thoughts on stories in open worlds (+ Morrowind: done)

Not that long ago, I talked about that RPG Bucket List of mine. Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was on that list and I finished the main quest last week (yay!). But that's barely worth a post, I thought, so I'm going to talk a bit about open world concepts and how much story they allow. So: what happens when the toys in your sandbox have reached their usability?

The stories we tell ...

Here we are. Morrowind, main quest, way to powerful character due to excessive exploring ... my verdict: the ride was great, the end turned out to be entertaining but underwhelming nonetheless and I was left with nothing worth doing afterwards, open world or not. At least it felt that way and it was the end of the campaign for me.

Morrowind is beautiful ... [source]
There is, of course, an obvious connection to good old analogue role playing, because there seems to be an upper limit for the durability of a campaign and it is connected to the stories we tell. This is generally true and goes for open world as much as it does for more story-focused campaigns.

The problem is older than the hobby, actually, as storytellers of all sort usually get to a point where they need to ask themselves: should I go on  and if so, how should I do it. Especially with the public need for "sequels", which is a relatively old phenomenon (the bible, if you will, or medieval romances, for example), but new in it's massive scale nowadays. Dozens of media to consume, thousands and thousands of stories ... You know what I mean.

With this long history of writing sequels, it seems only logical that we have some ideas by now how to do it right. And there is evidence that there are people out there able to achieve seemingly endless streams of sequels with no end in sight. But it fails nearly as often.

The stories we know ...

Let's leave the classic story arc, like in the Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars trilogy or the Game of Thrones series (just popular examples) use it, aside for now. They obviously work within limits and usually end in a way that would allow for spin-offs, but not necessarily for sequels. I think Star Wars is a very good example here, negative with the questionable attempt to expand the story by going backwards (chronologically speaking) and positive with several successful spin-offs (books, tv shows, comics and the new trilogy).

Anyway, let's leave it aside. Much more interesting are long ongoing stories within a more open context - like we have them (mostly) in role playing games - and our perception of them. Because there is something like an entry point, isn't there? Our understanding of stories develops individually over time and the more we have seen or read or heard, the more selective we get with the stories we find interesting. Or the more we tend to expect from a story.

I had a discussion with a good friend once about the movie Avatar. He found the story boring beyond believe while I had felt quite entertained and didn't mind that much about the story. The cause behind those opposite reactions had been the same: a simple story-structure. While I found other aspects of the movie interesting enough to get some entertainment out of it (that movie looked fabulous!), my friend got bored because of the simplicity and lost interest fast.

So many great ideas in Avatar! [source]
But there are those who experienced that relatively simple story as something new. They understood something they didn't before seeing the movie and took it with them. Different points of entry, different expectations. And if you add those loving the movie for it's message, you have the full spectrum of reviews about Avatar. Again, it's about where we are with that personal level of experience we have with stories and how far back that entry point is, that shapes how we perceive or choose stories in general.

The stories we get ...

I am meandering, but that's sort of the point. Sort of. By now we have established the need to expand on a story (or world) and different levels of experience with stories in general. We also have a constant in campaigns that will have an influence on the sort of stories we can tell: the characters. Knowing those three basic conditions, we get an idea what kind of stories we need to tell and tv shows are good examples how to do it (or not).

The first game I read that actually went and told me how to structure a story, was Vampire: the Masquerade (first German edition, which had been based on the original second edition) and it left an immense impression on me. I believe they'd been the first to make the whole idea popular to sensitize a DM about the stories he tells (they sure hadn't been the first to do it, though). In essence the storytelling approach taught me to understand how stories work and how I could use it in a campaign.

And yet, it wasn't that easy. This is where we return to the question how we learn about stories. The problem is (if we are as bold as calling it a "problem"), we mainly learn it from a consumer's point of view, not from a producer's and it most certainly reaches different areas in our brain (looking at something for entertainment or looking at something to find an understanding). Although both could be done and are useful in and of themselves.

As a matter of fact, seeing something for entertainment gives you ideas about what you like, reflecting about it gives you ideas about what you could use and analyzing it helps you realizing the structure behind the thing, which leads, in the end, to reproducing it with ease. No time wasted whatsoever.
Always explore different worlds and stories! [source and a great gallery here]

What we get is how we form our knowledge and understanding of stories. And negative experiences are as useful as positive ones. Twin Peaks is one of my favorite examples in that regard. The studio had forced Lynch to solve the murder mystery that hold the story together, early in the second season and effectively killed the show. People lost interest. End of story.

Or was it? It's only because of the massive cult following the show had managed to gather over the years, that they are actually making a reboot right now, with the original cast and all that. It's not really a spin-off or a sequel, in this case, as the original show never got finished in a satisfying manner and I believe it's a special case where we could talk about calling it a continuation of sorts (or seeking closure ... it's going to be interesting).

Every story like that can give us something. Morrowind and Twin Peaks are very similar in that regard: interesting worlds/characters/adventures or not, once the main plot got solved, there is a good chance that people will lose interest in a story. So it might be good to avoid such a thing.

The stories we need ...

I think we are done for now collecting the pieces and ready to talk results. The stories we need in role playing games to keep us engaged, should never have a too satisfying result, unless you want your campaign to end. What does that mean? It means the guy never gets the girl until the very last episode. Might come close, might happen and fail immediately, but never (ever!) before the end ...

... unless you want that change in pace. Then it's totally legit. That's the old schtick with playing D&D in more or less three stages: adventuring, domain game and epic level game. Every stage changes the perspective significantly and seeing the range in power levels in a game like D&D, it might really be the right thing to do. Of how many games have you heard by now that only played the first few levels and stopped because they couldn't (or didn't want to) make that next step.

Story-oriented games have a huge advantage here to open world concepts in that it is possible to plan a campaign more or less completely, which, on the other hand, brings the disadvantage of inflexibility (to a degree, of course, but if you play, say, the Temple of Elemental Evil, then that's what's going to happen ...).

Open world concepts, well, they offer opportunities and enough moving parts to keep it interesting and let the stories evolve from that. There is the disadvantage that the players take too much on and get disoriented, but the main advantage is the freedom to chose your own path.

Between those two extremes, any form of mixture is possible, of course. But all those variants hold the same basic truths. Here's my advice:

  • Start simple (at best with something the complete group can agree upon) and build on your own story structure.
  • Don't assume any level of experience with stories beyond consuming them or to any amount.
  • Allow closure, but make it challenging to make the achievement feel meaningful.
  • Always end a story with a "but" and never without having some sort of foreshadowing for it.
  • Additionally the end of a story can have consequences in the future, but give it time to mature or the players won't feel the end of a story as an achievement.
  • Allow and plan for loose ends, parallel stories and opportunities. It'll allow a world to come alive. If the game reaches a dead end, you did something wrong.
  • Read stories, read about stories, see them, listen to them, write them, if you can. Find out how others perceive them. Make it a constant routine of consuming, reflecting and using. At some point patterns will emerge and you'll start seeing where to put that perfect cliffhanger or twist or change of pace.

The stories open worlds tell ...

... are all about the beauty of randomness. I think my first light bulb moment about open world concepts and sandboxing was about how random encounters don't mean that the encounter pops up in front of the group. It might be in the distance or in the past leaving traces or in the future, bringing rumors or some other sort of resonance with it's surroundings. It means a huge narrative flexibility for the DM.

Monster Reaction rolls had brought the second realization by doing the exact opposite. It forces randomness against my own preconceptions of how an encounter had to react by simply allowing (within limits) the complete scope of reactions, from positive to hostile, instead of me as the DM deciding it. Having to go with the flow here brings a certain freedom to that pressure and brings a felt realism to the game I can only appreciate.

It was after those realizations that I started exploring how to randomize everything I do as a DM in the game and simple rolls as how the weather was and changed over the course of a session or who is encountered and why, on the backdrop of a hugely randomized and evolving setting (where I can sneak in some of my own random ideas), led to some very satisfying gaming moments. Ann my players seem to dig it, too.*

Open Worlds, wild and untamed. [source]
And Morrowind? That game illustrates very well how a character/player as the focal point in an open world game automatically forms a narrative by interacting with that world and how stories emerge from that. Because that's the thing (and my final point here): players instinctively produce a narrative by interpreting their characters interactions among each other, actively seek closure (force it, even) and that will produce stories even in a completely random environment. It's a DMs tact and experience in handling those stories and expectations that can make a game great for all involved.

The stories you tell ...

And that's my piece. I think it's the first time that I try a complete explanation how I handle things as a DM and why. I know it's not the only way and some of the alternatives are in the post, too. But there are always different interpretations and procedures possible and I'd really like to hear about your opinions and experiences here.

So what are the stories you tell and why? Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts.

* Which is to some extent limited by the necessity that it's important to have players who actually want you as a DM and give you the freedom to play it that way ...

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Principles of Magic II: Procedural Synchronicity (outlines)

Terribly busy right now, but there should always be time to write a post ... All right, there's no denying that Magic in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is going to be a tough nut to crack and the way this is shaping up, it'll be quite the challenge for any DM trying his hand on it, starting with me right now. But that's okay, as I'm up for a challenge like that and I don't know how many people are actually going to play the game as written (or at all, for that matter) when it's done. So I'm setting the bar has high as I dare for now and see where this ends up if not in tears ... this is also a very esoteric post.

If you've read Part 1 of the Principles and my last post regarding Divine Magic, you are in the loop (but I will keep it low with the off hand references ...).

What I'd not like to see at the table

Let's start this one slow. The question I keep asking myself, is, what kind of magic I'd like to see in Lost Songs. Vancian Magic (as in D&D) has it's place and reason, but I even stopped using it in my D&D games, so that's not the way to go. Mana Pool based magic, like Arduin had introduced it, is still one of my all time favorites, but if I'm to use something like that in LSotN, I'd put it somewhere out of the direct influence of the player. Why? Because I think a pseudo historical game can do without this kind of number crunching on such a superficial level ...

Okay, I need to say some more words about this one. Resource management is all fine and dandy, but there is a point where it directly impacts the game at the table and that is when people start talking numbers not as a way to describe a status, but as a means to an end. As part of an calculation, if you will. Something like: "I have 3 hp left and I think I'll be able to handle another hit, those goblins only doing 1d6-2 points of damage ...".

I know it's very much part of the culture and I wouldn't wanna miss it in my D&D games, as I think it's also part of the charm of that specific game (as most of the other words, terms and phrases we love to use in D&D). But I have another idea of how Lost Songs should be communicated at the table, so to say. Just like I described it for holy men/women in that post about divine magic: the players, while describing what they do in the game, should enrich the narrative and support the themes of the setting (here mostly the Dark Ages angle), the system should reflect this.

Talking numbers like described above, doesn't do that.

What I'd like to see

Leading with what doesn't work, I'd like to close with an example of what I actually want in the game. I'd like magic users to be able to see the magic surrounding them manifesting in little things, giving them the chance to influence it to some extent (level of power, obviously). Using those manifestations to their advantages and beyond what other mortals are able to see, will cost energy and may drive a sorcerer crazy. And that's the price for that kind of power.

So what I want in my game are mysterious and powerful wielders of magic with a very weird connection to the world surrounding them, getting worse the deeper they go into the rabbit hole. I want them half crazy, with strange tattoos and fetishes and rites, seeing more than others but are always in danger of getting lost.

I also want the dark witches and wizards from the fairy tales, sitting in their dark towers, the land surrounding them drained of all life. Or the white warlocks and witches, living in harmony with the world or working on that harmony. I want demon pacts and craziness from outer space, but seen through the eyes of someone living 1500 years before today. And old magic from the time of the Roman Empire or even earlier. It's all there in the mix.

The greatest wizard of them all: Odin [source]
But magic in Lost Songs is subtle. A curse, a chicken bone with strange scribbles on it or a fire that moves unnaturally, stuff like that. And it's very commonplace, in a way, as those "barbarians" really had a thing for individual trinkets and symbols like that, differing from tribe to tribe. Or that one guy living as a scholar in a Roman city but really dabbles in summoning demons ...

People wouldn't really have an understanding of what was happening and maybe wouldn't even recognize anything out of the ordinary. Not because of stupidity but because it would be commonplace as any other strange thing that might occur. In a way a group of spiky blue demons might be exactly that or just some foreign tribes men. There is no difference. Same goes for magic.

That's why I love the Dark Ages, stuff like that is very much possible and to some degree people are free to formulate/generate their own tribe with their own rituals and customs and magic (or understanding of it). There is a lot of freedom in that.

Procedural Synchronicity (or how it works)

So on the system side on things, it's actually quite easy. Characters have a Wits attribute somewhere between 14 and 18 in the beginning (compare to D&D). If a character decides to go the arcane path, he also gets Aether Points, which very much work like Endurance as they fill the gap between a task result and the difficulty for the task (in this case casting magic). Those points may be gathered in harmony with the surroundings (gathered by meditation) or forced from them (by "sucking" it out of something living, which might leave scars and death as a result).

Every one of the 5 elements (fire/earth/air/aether/water) has an expression with numbers between 1 (bad/easy) to 20 (powerful/difficult). Attempting to cast something will involve one or all of those elements and every element used will add it's number to the difficulty (base difficulty is 20). And that's basically it: players rolls 1d20 + Wits vs. a difficulty. If the result is below the difficulty, Aether Points are reduced. If there are not enough Aether Points, Wits is reduced. And if you loose too much Wits, you'll damage that ability permanently, which reflects the ever growing madness in you ...

Anyway, I got a system. It's not that different to the rest of the game, so I know it works. Actual magic is getting somewhat problematic, though, as I still don't know what should or could be cast. Sort of (see above). This is where synchronicity comes into play. According to Wikipedia Carl Jung coined the word "synchronicity" to describe "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." In other words, when events that coincide and seem meaningful but are without any causal connection.
This is gameable! [source]

Or at least seem* unconnected and that's where it all comes together: the "magical connection" normal people don't see and those dabbling in the arcane arts are somehow tuned into, is the very same thing that causes synchronicity. Learning to understand (or abuse) it makes a powerful sorcerer. What we have here is a narrative device for the DM to puzzle the players and give his world some depth.

To compare it with D&D (since most of you reading this should be familiar with it): instead of giving the player a list of spells, it's the DM that gets parts of those spells and describes them to the players as they manifest in their surroundings. And that's what the players are going to use (if they are clever).

Back to the 5 elements ...

So let's talk numbers. The numbers are mainly on the DM's side. First we need a general overview of what's going on. Some of you might remember this (updated version, though):

Those are all the elements, how they interact, what dice are used to measure their strength, what they could mean and how all the rest is connected to it (center/10/exchange). 10 (the center) can describe a character's level (0-10), a group's level or an area code.

But we need a little bit more than that to make it, so I made a sheet for the DM to keep track of those numbers:

A DM rolls all the dice once in the beginning of a campaign and keeps track of all the changes and events that occur. Additional information here is the area code, the number of meddlers in that area (cause), the season (they knew only two back then) and an idea what high or low numbers could mean.

With the beginning set of numbers you have a general idea what's going on. If those numbers interact somehow, you know even more. Doubles, triples, quadruples, any kind of numbers play is game here and they get stronger, even interact with each other, when they are connected. Maximum numbers are also powerful and if they get in harmony with the area code they are in order ...

But the only important thing to remember for now is that 1s are bad, any combination of 1s is even worse and if you got five 1s in a row, you got a cataclysm at your hands. It's where monkeys start throwing shit. Big time. To make that happen, we need those numbers to change.

And back to synchronicity again

Every time a character rolls dice to cast some magic and the result doesn't meet the difficulty, he uses his reserves. If they are not enough to gather the energy needed for a spell, the environment is triggered and a re-roll is in order for those elements used for the spell. If one of them is a 1, the new number goes into the next tier and so on until either the 1s are resolved (that's something holy men and women could do) or all 4 tiers are filled with 1s (which results in a very specific cataclysm regarding that element only).

To simulate any number of casters in the area, you basically determine a number by rolling 1d3-1 for wilderness and 1d4-1 for populated areas, 1d6-1 for cities (and so on). Then the DM checks every day with a d8 versus the number. If the result is the "cause" number or less, it's the number of spells cast on that day. If it's above, nothing is cast that day (unless the character does it).

To simulate if anything changes, the DM rolls the 5 dice again and sees if anything triggers with the original numbers. If somehow the same numbers come up, it means that the triggering element changes (basically a conflict between oracle dice). In the long run, characters will feel when other casters in the area are at work, but will also be recognized if they are careless!
Little example: Say our oracle dice are for now (1(Tier: 4)/5/2/11/4). The 1 in fire is already bad and gives destructive forces an edge. The first fire tier being 4 makes it correspond with water, which might get problematic as soon as water as an element is used. I had such a case in our last game. A npc was in a coma and one player wanted him to snap out of it (with a ritual in this case, but that's just an aside). He needed to use 2 elements to make it work (we'd decided on water and air). The ritual worked and the npc came back to consciousness, but fire had it's way and he woke up with a white strand of hair between all the black hair on his head. And that's an event right there.
Still, that's not it. With the numbers and an idea how they might work, we get also an idea how they could manifest. Air and water could be clouds in the sky forming patterns. Everything destroyed could be related to fire, lots of nature could be earth and water and so on. Is an element weak or in harmony? What could a 1 mean? A drought for water, maybe already into several tiers of 1s? How would it manifest in other cases? The beauty of it is that you are free as a DM to decide what flies and what not. To some extent and always according to where the characters are right now.

Stable elements would mean re-occurring themes. Say Aether, Air, Earth and Water are somehow connected and Aether is maxed out (12). This could mean that some very intelligent birds (knowledge, nature, air) do some shenanigans on a regular basis for the characters to observe. If something changes, the pattern changes. Say that 12 ens up changing to a one, following the narrative that could end with the bird falling prey to some cat ...

So it's mainly another narrative tool at the DMs disposal. Dreams are another good way to tell characters about changes or other casters in the area. By deciding with the flow of the narrative, making fixed points as you come across them, you use some very easy tool and end up with a very complex pattern for the players to chew on.

What's left?

A lot, actually. But I was aiming for showing the machinations at work in Lost Songs first and foremost. And it's already long again. As I wrote in the beginning, it's a bit demanding towards the DM. For the player, not so much. Actually he describes what he's doing and rolls a d20. The rest is consequences. As it should be, in my opinion.

The rest is still pretty vague. How will players gather spells? I'm still advocating individual spell lists here and players should be encouraged to ritualize and re-cast spells with lower difficulties (for instance). But it needs testing. What I could see so far, is, that playing with the numbers can be fun and even if I just go with instinct and random decisions, I still end up with something usable.

Needless to say that all of this supports true sandbox play.

I will play a bit with this. Don't expect any definite results soon, but online play-testing will happen as soon as I'm sure I can make all of that happen for random strangers on the internet ;-) Maybe around June ...

Enough for now. If you have any questions or suggestions or comments other than how long that post turned out to be and without going beyond "vague", no less, you are more than welcome to share your thoughts. Thanks for reading. I hope Lost Songs still keeps a few of you interested! I promise this is getting somewhere.

And for all those making it down here, a nice and weird pic from the public domain:

Maids on unicorns! Goblins riding turtles! Has a goatman, too! What's not to like?!
*If you've checked the Wikipedia article linked above, you know by now some of the criticism aims directly at the fact that calling something synchronicity because the connection isn't seen, doesn't mean that there can't be any. I've read about attempts to connect the whole idea  with quantum physics and Daoism, so it's not that big a leap to call it "magic", actually. Same difference.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Divine Magic in LSotN (a design post, no less ...)

Sometimes it goes like this: you are writing a game and you stop seeing the forest because of all the trees around you. One wrong assumption or an idea you like way to much for your own good and you are lost. But play-testing goes on and at some points you need results so ... you should be honest about things and drain the brain pool at the table. Did that, worked wonders. So here's a post about agile game creation  :)

Let's start at the beginning, shall we?

Or holy women or clerics ... Problem was, diversity in faiths aside you'll have traditionally to decide between two possible ways to handle stuff in your games: (1) you get all codified on players and give them specific spells and dogmas and stuff they can form as they need it for their individual faith or (2) you get all free-form on them and allow to create it all alongside to character development.

(Early) D&D would be a good example for (1). All clerics know "Heal" (for instance) and get it at the same level, the rules about alignment and weaponry apply to all clerics the same way and only the fluffy parts are up for debate (basically religious customs and a god's portfolio). Later editions muddied the waters a bit by adding options, but the principle stayed the same: the function is at the core and stays static, freedom is only where the role doesn't interfere with said function (options are the wiggle room here).

(2) is a little harder to find, but if you take a look at Vampire: The Dark Ages, Castle Falkenstein or Basic RolePlaying, you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about here (Talislanta 4th Edition, FATE and GURPS 4th also seem to fulfill those criteria, but I don't know them that much). Basically you communicate with your god(s) through rituals and bargain (of sorts) for the results.

The main difference between the two is function versus narrative, I think. While a cleric in D&D-like games always fills a specific niche and may interpret this to some extend, he won't be bound that way in free-form games, but needs to find out what works and what not without any structure to speak of (so to say). Both have benefits and drawbacks and it highly depends on what game you want to play when deciding what fits best.

Quo Vadis, LSotN?

In this case, what do I want in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs? It's difficult. I have at least to some degree an aspiration towards historical accuracy for that game. But for on: the game playing in what is generally known (and for good reason) as the Dark Ages leaves lots and lots of freedom. No records, lots of bias in any written documentation one could find and very sporadic findings make it impossible to get a full picture of what was going on back then.

We know some of the results (Christianity winning in the long run and many, many little tribes vanishing in the process) and the rest is free for the taking. You want a tribe ruled by women? Did exist somewhere in Switzerland, could have existed in many other places. You want obscure cults worshiping tentacled monstrosities? Not that I know about any that could have existed back then, but go for it. They could be lost without a trace by today!

Basically there are two big playing fields. The first (and maybe easiest) is the rise of Christianity. There had been different groups and all that and it really doesn't have to be as it is understood and practiced nowadays (in fact, it shouldn't!), but the basics are given easy enough and the role such a character fulfills is pretty clear, too (as in, very much at odds with everyone else but the remaining Romans at the moment).

Paganism is the second area and while we are aware of the basic pantheon (Odin, Thor, Hel, Loki and all the rest), we also know that there had been huge variations as far as names and stories are concerned. And it had a huge variety of local petty gods in all shapes and colors and fairies and monsters ... basically a carte blanche for everyone playing a holy man for one of the tribes. 

Pagans running strong in Germany: traditional Krampus Run in Salzburg [source]
There is one constant, though. A constant so strong, that we still have it (to some extent) in our daily lives: the rituals and festivals those old Germanic tribes celebrated are relevant to this day, although under Christian disguise. Take Easter, for instance. It has been celebrated for thousands of years as the first time in a year that the day is longer than the night. Eggs and bunnies had been symbols of fertility and nature coming back to live and so on ...

So while we have some basic understanding what Christians believed in around 1500 years ago, how those believes had been expressed might have been entirely different to what we practice today. And while we have no idea what the Germanic tribes worshiped exactly from tribe to tribe, we have a fair understanding of how they lived through the year and the rites and festivals they had.

It's fascinating, isn't it? The synthesis out of those different believe systems would form our cultural and religious understanding today (more or less). I believe it shows the way how a game system should approach the whole thing and help easing a player into a very different time and age. So far the theory.
You know it ... [source and from Dogma, of course]
Divine Magic in LSotN ...

I want all of that, obviously. But it got really complicated and I didn't see any way out of it until we set down and talked about it. That's why you play-test, folks. I ended up cooking the complicated part down to some DM duty (more on that in a following post about magic) and a very free-form variant for holy men in Lost Songs.

Basically it's about starting a dialogue with the gods. For that a player needs to know what he can do, how he can do it and why he should do it to begin with. Let's start with the "why". Holy men and women had always been the mouthpieces of the gods. They interpreted the will of the gods and asked for support when necessary. To simulate this in the game and allow for some creative leeway for all the various Christian and Pagan religions, I ended up formulating three major rules:

  • Those following the Way of the Wyrd can't use prayers and rituals for themselves.
  • The gods decide how their help manifests (the player has a say when he has a full success, see below).
  • Characters need to have full Endurance before starting a prayer or ritual.

A side effect of that last rule is that characters in general are able to recover their complete Endurance once per level per day if they take a rest of at least half an hour. this will have three important effects in the game: (1) characters will think about what they want from an altruistic perspective and formulate their prayers that way, (2) the gods deciding how their help manifests allows for some very flexible customization and (3) introduces the idea into the game that a character attempting a ritual or prayer needs to be rested, giving the whole concept some gravitas.

This is one example how a system can inform the narrative on a very basic level. By talking about what's necessary, players will describe some plausible character behavior, even for the more creative variants possible in the game.

Now for the "what". There are 4 different types of rituals:

  1. Prayer/Chant (request to one god, praising the gods for their support)
  2. Ritual Dance (ritual play to praise the gods on specific occasions)
  3. Ritual Sacrifice (usually asking for a bigger favor, sacrifice depends on magnitude)
  4. Ritual Bout (most excessive variant for some really big favor, but very expensive)

It's the mostly same for every religion, so it'll fit nicely with everything the players could throw a DM's way. You want a war song to give your buddies a bonus during battles? That's Prayer/Chant right there. A Ritual Dance through the night to heal a badly wounded friend is possible or go one higher with a sacrifice (if you have the resources). And the bout is when you want to go all-in, like the night before the group tackles that dragon ...

Picture of a Teutonic Ritual Sacrifice [source]
In general a player should be able to use this in any way he deems fit and if done right and successfully, the gods will listen and interfere. And that leads to the "how".

Basically the player decides what his character wishes to happen and how he will communicate it to the gods. The DM tells him a difficulty to roll over. Next the player rolls 1d20 and adds the ability Wyrd to the result. It's an open roll, so Endurance (the games currency for that kind of thing) can be used to bridge a gap between the result of the roll and the difficulty.

A natural 1 on the d20 will insult the gods and they won't listen when you are lacking the Endurance to reach the difficulty. If you made it, but used Endurance to achieve it, the gods will help but the DM decides how and if you made the roll without needing any Endurance or a natural 20, the player decides how his request is answered (DM still having the final say, of course).

And that's it. The more difficult/expensive the ritual, the lower the difficulty, so sometimes a prayer just won't do or sacrificing the virgin would be overkill. The oracle dice (linked above) help formulating that difficulty and might change towards chaos or harmony because of what is done, but that's totally at the DMs discretion (and will be discussed in the next post about magic).

On higher levels the Way of the Wyrd will allow for wonders to happen. At that stage the gods really start taking an interest into a character and act on his behalf almost without him requesting it. This is also where those characters start doing incredible things and enough material for yet another post.

It's a kind of magic

If a character wants to do anything else, like shape-shifting into a werewolf or setting his enemies on fire, he needs to learn magic instead. But Lost Songs is quite flexible like that and if a player wants to, he'll be able to do both and some more. Magic is a very different animal, where the caster draws energy from his surroundings, either by forcing it or by collecting it as it comes to him and both ways could lead to madness ...

But that's something discussed in the next post where I resume talking about the principles of magic as I already did in February and linked above with the word "complicated" :) There has been some progress, too, lately and the system starts coming together quite nicely (for what I try to do, anyway). It's some bookkeeping for the DM, but players will be very free with what they do.

I'll close this with a teaser of a work sheet for the DM:
This is where the magic happens ...
Thanks for reading all that! Comments, thoughts and ideas are , as always, very welcome. This is still  grounded deep in D&D :)