Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Branches of the Geek Tree

There's a lively discussion going on over at Monsters and Manuals, prompted by Noisms' question about why we fantasy gamers care so much for historical research, when such research has yielded very little evidence of dragons, orcs, or hippogriffs.

My take on it is that it's in the genetic code of our hobby.

Remember that before there was D&D there was Chainmail, and Chainmail was a wargame. The wargaming hobby is steeped in the tradition of historical research and analysis. Every game designer looks at what came before and tweaks it. What if we changed the focus from battalions to companies? What if we changed the combat dynamic?  What if we consider the logistical challenges of this campaign? All of this requires research to fill in the blanks that the game designer wants to fill.

Good wargames have serious research behind them. Some are so good, they get used as reference materials. Some grognards even advocate the use of wargames to more thoroughly study and understand historical realities. The Holy Grail of wargame research is discovering that there was an apple orchard outside of Leningrad that forced a Panzer division to approach from a different direction.

Chainmail developed as a way to simulate medieval war, bringing combat stats to individual soldiers. Gygax then took the next step and said, what if these guys went and fought a dragon?

And Gary saw that he had made fantasy role playing, and it was good.

RPGs took off on a totally new trajectory, but D&D maintained that deep tradition of mathematical combat dynamics, infinite outcome tables, and room for innovation. That innovation requires research. The research could be for atmospherics, such as determining the size of an average medieval village. It can be material, such as evaluating the benefits of spears versus other weapons. Or it can be theoretical, such as imagining the macroeconomic impact of hippogriffs on the shepherds and the wool industry.

Even if we fantasy gamers look to different sources, this spirit of inquiry and invention runs strong. The same sorts of folks that like to ponder these questions are drawn to these different branches of gaming for this very reason - it's just that some of us like to fight Napoleon and some like to fight orcs.  In the end, we're all branches of the geek tree.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Non-Post: H/T Land of Nod

Matt over at Land of Nod has assembled great matrix for running bar fight scenes. I'm hereby stealing it. It's a great idea, and the mark of that is that it has my mind generating all kinds of fun spins and modifications.

After all, the first rule of game design is: Plagiarize.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bestiary: Slive

Without a doubt, my favorite contemporary fantasy author is Jim Butcher. And if you've read his Codex Alera series, you're familiar with slives. For those who haven't read the books: Slives are nasty, poisonous lizards - and while the hero of the books, Tavi, only encounters them rarely (once, as I recall), they do serve as the standard insult of the series. Any detestable person is referred to as a slive, rather than a snake, jerk, a-hole, dingleberry, or douche-canoe.

What I like about slives, with regard to my Kimatarthi campaign, is that they are fantastic creatures, but not overtly magical. So I thought I'd give them some D6 stats and steal them for the game. I don't think Jim would mind, since I know he's an avid gamer himself, but I hope his publisher isn't a douche-canoe, and just sees it as free publicity. So what do we know about slives from the books?
  • They have long, supple bodies covered in dark scales, and are nearly as long as an adolescent boy is tall. 
  • They have fangs coated in "a thick yellow liquid" that is a slow-acting, sleep-inducing poison.
  • Slives live in groups, and any creature bitten by one is likely to be devoured alive by a swarm. 
  • Slives are not quick, but apparently they are determined hunters. A person may outrun one, but she had best keep running for a few days, just to make sure the slive has given up the chase.
  • They can be found both in the wilderness and in urban areas, making dens in dead logs and garbage heaps.

I think the following stats would work.


Agility 1D: dodge 2D, fighting 2D
Coordination: 1D
Physique 6D: running 7D, stamina 8D
Intellect: 1D
Acumen 3D: search 4D, tracking 7D
Charisma 1D: intimidation 5D, mettle 3D

Strength Damage: 2D
Move: 7
Hit Points: 7

Natural abilities: cold-blooded (lethargic Aspect, or +7 to all actions until warmed up); bite +1D; venom (injected on successful bite, roll stamina to determine number of rounds before losing consciousness).

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Real Life Awesome: Polar Expedition

A while back, I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by a man with an awesome name, Thorleif Thorleifsson. Thorleifsson is a Norwegian sailor, captain, and explorer, who along with Børge Ousland made an amazing trip around the North Pole. Part of what made it remarkable is that the entire expedition was completed in a single season. The Arctic Ocean only thaws enough for ships to travel its waters for a few weeks each year. That the thaw lasted long enough for Thorleifsson and Ousland to do the whole trip in one go is a scary sign of the changing climate. Anyhow...

This is the route they took, sailing out of Norway (top right) and heading east (counterclockwise on this map).

Some of the challenges they faced in real life offer great fodder for plot hooks and/or complications for adventures. These aren't necessarily unique, but it's cool to see these dynamics in action in real life.

Local Bureaucracy - Local bureaucrats exist even north of the Arctic Circle. The difficulty dealing with Russian customs in the east of the country required that they travel on a West-East route. In a game, local authorities can be used to deliver all manner of plot hooks: delays, extortions, pleads for assistance, obstacles to be avoided, etc.

Weight Restrictions - Backpackers will be familiar with the kind of economizing they had to do to maintain speed. Severe restrictions on weight meant that even small gifts (vodka, books) they were given along the way had to be tossed overboard. The trick is to be consistent. You can't one day out of the blue make everyone tally up their encumbrance... unless they had to head out on a small boat or cross a little bridge or squeeze through the needle's eye.

Workin' for the Man - One of the expedition sponsors wanted to tag along for a while. Not only was he not an experienced sailor, they had to budget for his weight, the weight of his food and water, etc. But sometimes pandering to your patron requires sacrifices. Imagine if a local spoiled prince wanted to accompany a party on a dungeon crawl.

Water - Water, water all around and not a drop to drink... I don't imagine that most players are looking to play a logistics game on game night, but periodically challenging the PCs with scarce resources can lead to interesting decisions. As with weight restrictions, the key is coming up with a particular circumstance in which the scarcity of food and/or water is an issue.

Time Constraints - Thorleifsson had to race against time to make sure that the sea did freeze up again. They had a window of about three weeks during which the entire sea is navigable, then it begins to refreeze. This hearkens back to an age-old trope, but it's a good one at any level. Rescuing the princess before her wedding to a horrible suitor, outrunning a bolder, or climbing the mountain before the baddies - they're all good, race against the clock plots.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Land's End

Land’s End is just that – the end of the world. North, south, east, or west – whichever direction you travel, sooner or later you will reach Land’s End. Not many people in Kimartarthi have seen it, as there are few places near civilization where it is visible. And it’s not a destination, since, well, it’s the end of the world and there ain't much there.

Those who have seen it, though, say it is a strange and marvelous thing. The land simply ends and drops off into a sea of mist that stretches out beyond the horizon. There are strange tales about Land's End, too. Some tell stories of men who have strayed too close to the mist only to be seized by wraiths, pulled their deaths, and never heard of again. 

What terrible fate beyond the grave could await the poor soul who perishes beyond the borders of the world? Only those risking a TPK may ever find out!