Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mount and Blade

Like Dwarf Fortress, Mount and Blade is a computer game which involves complexity that is tedious to deal with in a pen & paper game. Specifically, it deals with the command of a hundred or more troops, equipped with a variety of horses, arms and armor. The gameplay is almost pure action as you control one individual who gets into the thick of battle while issuing commands. There are numeric attributes, skills and proficiencies which have some influence, but the player's action skills are more important. The most distinguishing feature of the game is its mounted combat - it is the closest to real and visceral jousting, horse archery, ride-by sword slashes, etc. that you can get from a computer game.

I bring up this game on my blog mainly because of the feel that it evokes. Nothing will ever compare to our imagination, not even big-budget movies, but the game does a good job of making you feel the tactical realities of the day. You can lead heavy horse charges through seemingly-invincible shield walls and see the enemy be sent into total disarray. You can expertly shoot a light lancer who is pursuing you, and see his limp body take five seconds to fall off his horse. You can plunge your pike into the heart of an oncoming knight's steed and see him tossed face-first into muddy dirt. You can ride circles around slow heavy infantry and pick them off one-by-one with your bow. You can send such a great quantity of missiles against your foes such that their shields shatter and fall, and their blood covers the ground, as they scatter and flee before they even make it to melee range.

In particular, I enjoy battles between two groups of heavy knights. It almost feels like an air battle, depending on the terrain - I have to work together with my underlings to cut off the paths of my enemies and deliver decisive blows. If I choose to use a bow, I must be able to thwart my enemies' attempts to shake me off as I shoot them in the back. If I bear a lance, then I must figure out the exact timing for when I make a sharp turn and try to skewer the horses of my foes. If I end up dismounted, then I have to find some trees and slash everyone who passes by, eventually grabbing and jumping onto the next unoccupied horse.

Best of all, the game is extremely open-ended and has no story to restrict you. Instead, you make the choices of who you hire, when and where you lay siege, which kings you curry favor with, whether you aid or raid a village, and the greatness of the battles you take part in. The only real limit is how many troops on a battlefield your computer can handle at a time.

I have not even gotten to the fan-created content, of which there is a great abundance. You can get a better idea of what a massive Jedi-versus-Sith lightsaber battle might be like through the Star Wars mod, see a panoply of war banners arrayed under your command, defeat cavalry charges with massed musket fire, set up your seneschals at every village in the world, found holy knightly orders, and much more.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Jack Vance - Vancian Magic and IOUN Stones

The magic in D&D has been called "Vancian." What does that mean? Let's find out!

First and foremost, Jack Vance never quite followed the conventions of whichever genre he was writing in. I haven't read every single thing ever written by him (unfortunately, but I shall rectify this deficiency within a year) - but from what I have read, he never wrote anything that could be classified as "Swords & Sorcery." Jack Vance used wordplay, capricious and cruel personalities, surreal dialogue, exaggerated acts based on real events, and a number of other elements far more than he used the trappings of genres. It's almost as if it doesn't matter whether he is writing science-fiction or fantasy, as Vancian writing is like a genre unto itself. Both magic and technology alike were never the "purposes" of these stories, so much as convenient devices to move stories in certain directions and to cause certain interactions between characters.

"Vancian" magic itself is supposed to have been primarily inspired by the Dying Earth stories. In particular, The Excellent Prismatic Spray is taken directly from these stories - a spell that instantly obliterates foes with a spray of lights and sparks. Since you are all quite familiar with D&D's magic, I will focus on the portrayal of magic within the Dying Earth stories.

1. Magic was indeed memorized - but from whole books, if not multiple books per spell. The process of memorizing a spell was described as being "forced upon the mind." There was no explicit rule that a magic-user had to be well-rested before memorizing his spells, nor that they limited by day. Rather, the main limitation was the ability of the spellcaster to keep the spells memorized without error.

2. Magic was not structured in numbered levels. Indeed, there is very little indication that any particular spell could be twice as difficult to memorize as any other, for any reason other than sheer length. The vast majority of competent magicians possessed librams of The Excellent Prismatic Spray within their libraries, meaning that the equivalent of a "1st-Level Magic User" could instantly kill any one creature if given the opportunity. Suffice to say, Jack Vance did not feel that "balance" was necessary when it came to pitting ordinary men against magicians - vanity, greed, trickery and craftiness were the great equalizers between these two categories of men.

3. Magic could be practiced by anyone who was able to memorize it. Of course, if the spells were not memorized or performed correctly, they could fizzle or backfire. Even one of the lowliest of folk is able to attempt to memorize and cast a spell, and comes very close to executing it perfectly. It is for this reason that deadly man-eating creatures have not yet eaten the whole of humankind, for they greatly fear magic.

4. Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law was definitely involved with magic in the Dying Earth stories. Some magical creations are clearly the products of genetic engineering, some magical devices are actually flying cars, etc. Nevertheless, these things are indistinguishable from spells, demons, magical creatures, summoned helpers, etc. and all fall under the broad umbrella of "magic." The Excellent Prismatic Spray was just as mysterious to the common man as a flying car, even though the true workings of the former were never hinted at.

5. Magic was never as important as the people who used it. If one magician desired the secret knowledge of another, it was usually in order to satisfy some sort of vanity. For example, one magician desires to have the perfect genetically-engineered woman as his bride, and bears the malice he does towards another magician because of jealousy. A powerful magician spends more time arguing with his summoned servants than he does actually employing his powers.

6. Magic was based on an existing belief system, contrary to claims that "Vancian" magic was chosen for having no such roots. This existing belief system is named "I get what I want, when I want it." You may be intimately familiar with this belief system - it is the driving force behind the use of all magic in the Dying Earth stories.

7. All of the great inventors of spells were long since gone. By the time of the Dying Earth stories, any academic efforts were mostly focused on preserving existing lore or discovering lost lore, and the vast majority of magicians certainly were not researching anything new. The distinguishing powers of many magicians were a result of lost knowledge they had rediscovered.

I should probably also explain IOUN stones. These stones came from the remains of dead stars, and their properties were mainly to absorb and store magical energy. They did spin around the user's head, but they did not have inherent powers independent of their stored magical energy. They were able to release their stored energies in a controlled manner, making them highly valued by the great archmagicians.

No game is obliged to possess true "Vancian" magic, true IOUN stones, true elves or dwarves, etc. However, there is a great asymmetry of what the majority of D&D DMs and players think "Vancian" magic is versus what it actually was. In comparison, more than a few D&D DMs and players have done their due diligence on the Lord of the Rings novels, the Conan stories, etc. I have written this blog post in the hope that you would consider advancing Jack Vance's books on your reading lists, in order to see a Gary Gygax influence that was rather different from the others. I personally have found myself becoming an even stronger fan of the Vancian genre than the Sword & Sorcery genre.

EDIT: Just discovered http://jrients.blogspot.com/2008/06/just-so-you-know-this-is-vancian-magic.html which contains some direct quotes from the Dying Earth stories

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dwarf Fortress

One of my players knows exactly what Dwarf Fortress ( http://www.bay12games.com/dwarves/ ) is, and my Sunday campaign is sometimes referred to as "C&C: The Dwarven Fortress." I ought to explain the way that Dwarf Fortress has influenced my GMing style, and perhaps you may find it useful as well.

First, since this is a blog, I can rant as long as I want. Consequently, I shall now present a relatively brief history of my interactions with city-building games. I started with the SimCity series, the Civilization series and Colonization. I later discovered a rather addictive game by the name of Transport Tycoon ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gyw79aawqxo ), which is not as well-known - it is a game about building roads, railroads, seaports and airports, and micromanaging the vehicles and services provided through them. One SimCity clone which I was particularly fond of was Mobility, a German game about optimizing commute times and traffic safety. Sadly, Mobility does not contain highways or larger-scale railroads, making it unsuitable for the exploration of common transportation problems within the United States. One of my friends later introduced me to a game by the name of Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rwiKTrs6uc ), a very complex game which unfortunately does have a "correct" way of being played. In recent years, I mainly played Emperor and SimCity 4. I especially preferred the latter for its combination of breadth and depth while still not having a "correct" way of building a city.

Finally, I kept on hearing about a rather addicting game by the name of Dwarf Fortress. This game is astounding in both its breadth and depth, while still having a focus that prevents your ambitions from going a bit too out of control. The only way to truly get a sense of its features is to attempt to play the game. Since our free time is limited and the game's interface has a rather steep learning curve, I will try to summarize the features which may be useful for running a pen & paper game:

1. The terrain is generated somewhat realistically, and includes varying rainfall, temperature, aquifers, topology, soil type, rock type, proximity to a source of magma, swampiness and all sorts of other details which would be too difficult to consider without computer assistance. At the same time, this game is not an academically-rigorous modelling tool and instead divides its worlds into a hierarchy of squares, making it very convenient for getting an overall world map, then a detailed map of a region, then a very detailed map for combat or town planning. One thing which you might like to do is create a world in the game, then take screenshots of a world, then draw over them in order to create a very realistic and believable world map for your own game, all with minimum effort when compared to rolling on tables and what not. For my Sunday game, I did not use this exact method, but I did find that more-realistic worldbuilding was far easier after having learned it from a game, as opposed to learning it from a series of textbooks and lectures. After three Earth Science courses, I still did not know as much as this game taught me within only five minutes.

2. The game gives you a very good sense of the requirements for certain types of technology. Rather than artificially-impose "tech levels" or "research," the player is responsible for driving societal development. Most players typically go through a hunting & gathering phase, a subsistence farming phase, and a prosperous trading phase in which they finally have a stable output of metal tools. There is nothing in the game that forces you to go through these phases - rather, it is simply a consequence of what can be accomplished with your current population and resources. The game could be seen as a sort of test of Jared Diamond's theory that the progress of civilization is determined by resources, animals, weather, etc. This aspect of the game influenced my GMing style by forcing me to consider, "Who, why and how?" to whatever that is present in the game. Who made all of those magic items out there? How did they get scattered throughout the world? Why is this city here, and not ten miles down the road? Why are the orcs raiding this village? After such questions are sufficiently answered, I find that there is suddenly far less preparatory work to be done, as it makes it easier to improvise reasonable and logical consequences for player and NPC actions.

3. The game works on what seems to be a scale of either 5 feet or 10 feet for each square of game area. Conveniently, this roughly corresponds to the typical scales involved in dungeoneering. Simply by playing the game, you create a future dungeon or site of ruins. Each room already has a logical purpose, treasures are already strongly suggested to be existing in certain rooms, traps may even be pre-placed depending on how you play the game, and in some cases, the cause of abandonment of the place is provided. The only thing left for the GM or module writer is to place monsters, determine random encounters, and roll up treasure where it makes sense. For my Sunday game, I did not use this exact process, but did design the dungeon according to how I might have designed a fortress myself, and made sure that certain types of rooms were not too far from each other, so that it would be feasible for creatures to have lived in the place.

There are countless other distinguishing features of Dwarf Fortress which simply cannot be sufficiently explained in any blog, or even within a short book. However, I do hope I have successfully elaborated on how the game can expedite the process of learning about subject matter which is normally only found through enduring that painful institution known as school.

Why the emphasis on realism? This is because I am a computer scientist, one of my friends is an aerospace engineer, one of my roommates was a mechanical and electrical engineer, my father is a computer hardware designer, my brothers are computer programmers, and countless other people I know in real life are schoolteachers and technical folks of various sorts. We like things to be as rational as possible before intruding on the domain of magic and fantasy. For us, player skill means applying our real-world knowledge. I simply cannot be satisfied with an old-school style dungeon, in which rooms and hallways are placed by a disciple of chaos or an adherent of discordianism.

When running games for people such as these, especially for a gamer such as myself, it is insufficient to simply describe a room filled with random contents. If I know what the purpose of that room is and what the technological determinants in the area were, I suddenly have less work in describing the room. Instead of having to pre-write everything that could possibly be in the room, and having to say, "This is exactly what you see, and there is nothing else in the room besides what I say, whatsoever," I can simply begin to describe it and my players are able to figure out the rest using their player skills. I can then move on to describing the more interesting elements of the room quickly.

This runs into the whole debate about what the "old-school style" of play is. Considering the educational background of myself and the majority of the people I know, it may sometimes be a good thing when you do use abstraction and rely on the book's rules, rather than rely on player skill. One example is the second-most popular tool of adventurers, second only to the ten-foot pole: the burning oil. I describe it as something with a wick that you light on fire with a torch, and which then shatters on impact and spills its readily-burning oil onto the target. One of my players started asking me if it had phosphorous so that it could burn spontaneously, and I also pondered if it was perhaps kerosene or gasoline. My player then responded that it could not be gasoline, much less kerosene, as those require certain conditions to be ignited. He also thought hard about what sort of oil would completely burn away within 1d4 rounds. We decided to just drop the issue and rely on what the rules said about burning oil, since our player skills were clearly getting in the way of fun.

How I got here so far

I was born in 1985. I've lived in California all my life, and have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for the majority of my life, excepting a four-year stint in Orange County. The way I got into roleplaying is rather funny and possibly backwards.

My eldest brother played an old computer game named The Bard's Tale, on the Apple IIGS - thus having far superior graphics and sounds to any game system previously existing until the Amiga and the Super Nintendo finally came out. The game was very obviously inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, although I didn't know what D&D was at the time. Eventually, I learned how to read and started playing the game as well. I also managed to beat the Legend of Zelda. I was so enamored by the game's display of possible weapons and items that I started drawing these things too. I would constantly draw up many such displays and "game" with my friends by presenting them with these drawings and telling them, "Let's pretend that this is what you have."

I got heavily into computer game and console "RPGs" and thought that these were actual roleplaying games, when they were really just all about combat. Going into my teen years, I ended up involved in a project called the "Final Fantasy RPG," an involvement that did not last long due to the fact that my brain had not fully formed and the fact that the premise of roleplaying as if you were in a video game is fundamentally wrong to begin with - but I didn't realize that either of these two factors were in effect at the time. My interests turned towards increasingly "deep" and "immersive" video games, and I also dabbled in more than a few hardcore simulators such as Dangerous Waters (a submarine sim), Mobility (a city-building game in which you can provide park & ride lots, set the speed limits on individuals streets and other gory details) and SimCity 4 (one of the few city-building games I have ever seen which knows the difference between daily commutes and shopping trips).

At the same time, I was also involved in a few transient games of AD&D 2e, the system which I was most familiar with and the one in which I could most-easily find good games of. I thought about houseruling it to have more intuitive THAC0 and Armor Class values, revamping the weapon and non-weapon proficiencies, and a number of other changes. I never had a chance to try out these house rules, as I mainly played it through computer games with my friends. I later got into Neverwinter Nights in my college years and played that one a few times with my friends as well - but we spent a lot more time on a certain RTS game by the name of Rise of Nations (which is far better than Starcraft in terms of interface, features, and concepts, but never caught on). As the 2e vs. 3e debate reached its final stages of initial flamewar and settled into entrenched positions, I found myself seeing merit in both camps. I liked the idea that players should have more choice and individualization with their characters, but I also liked the idea that D&D should not try to be like GURPS. I dabbled frequently in what some would call "Narrativist" systems like The Window, in which the emphasis was on description and imagination rather than combat. I also closely followed (and am still a fan of) BattleTech.

Near the end of my university years, I decided that I wanted to get serious about pen & paper roleplaying games. I decided to start with D&D 3e, as it seemed to work well enough for us within the confines of Neverwinter Nights and a lot of the complexity was hidden. I read the D&D 3.5 Player's Handbook while looking up various free resources and ultimately decided that I would not run 3e. My least-favorite parts of the system were, in no particular order: feats, the limited number of skill points relative to what a character should be able to accomplish, attacks of opportunity, figuring out the hardness and hit points of inanimate objects, the way that critical hits worked, the way that weapon proficiencies worked, a number of other things, and last but not least, the fact that I needed PCGen to manage a level-20 character in a reasonable amount of time.

So, I turned to AD&D 2e, the game which I really cut my teeth on and which my friends knew quite well. It seemed simple enough at first, but I thought about all the house rules I wanted to do for it. I had done a small amount of work on changing the THAC0 and Armor Class mechanics to be more like D&D 3e, when I read a post on a message board advertising Castles & Crusades. I bought the C&C Condensed PDF and liked what I saw. I ran a quick session lasting between 5 to 6 hours with my room-mates and friend, although this situation rapidly deteriorated due to the way my roomies and friend were playing. One of my roommates in particular wanted to conduct himself like an evil version of Minsc from Baldur's Gate. This was not conducive to a stable campaign.

I found out about the whole Old-School Revival movement from another guy online (who not too much older than myself!), and discovered the wide world of Basic Fantasy, Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, et. al. I also got to play Basic D&D according to the Rules Cyclopedia, which taught me quite a bit about what it takes to keep a character alive in a dungeon crawling game. With a few sessions of a bit of everything under my belt, especially Castles & Crusades, I performed a critical comparative analysis of these various rules-lite D&D children, and used the Rules Cyclopedia as the reference point.

My calculations came down to this:

  1. The Rules Cyclopedia seemed to be far more convenient to use than any of the direct clones. Why use a clone when I can just use the real thing? Strictly from a rules perspective, there was no point in allowing Labyrinth Lord or its kind to be considered seriously when there was Rules Cyclopedia instead. I am a computer programmer, and therefore, did not give the non-rules aspects of the retro-clones very much weight.
  2. Basic Fantasy RPG has the perfect philosophy, and I still recommend it to people to this day simply on the basis of its philosophy and approach to legal issues, but again, the way it mirrored the Free Software movement was insufficient to substantially differentiate it from the Rules Cyclopedia.
  3. Castles & Crusades brought something new to the table - the SIEGE system. I would discover how great the SIEGE mechanic was after making my final decision, but I did rather like the idea of a universal mechanic. After reading through the text of the full Player's Handbook as well as the text of the free module The Rising Knight, I almost immediately fell in love with the game. It seemed to me that the Troll Lords truly understood what it meant to just sit around a gaming table, throw down some dice and have fun, and to let each gaming group have their own governing philosophy.

I've been firmly in the C&C camp for about a year now and have never felt that I was "missing" anything from using any other system, from the perspective of the rules themselves. After reading some message board posts and blog comments from the most vocal people of each "movement," it is becoming increasingly clear to me that it is for the best that I was not alive in the "old-school" time period.