Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Some Pendragon Questions

My Swords & Wizardry game has been on hiatus now for something like two months. I just wasn't able to keep mapping at the rate my players were exploring my megadungeon. Gary was right- map three whole levels before you let your players in.

I'm giving Swords & Wizardry a break for a while. I'll always love it; it's the easiest system to hack and home-brew that I've yet seen, but there are other games to play too. I'll surely return to Swords & Wizardry again.

What our Skype gaming group will turn to next is in question. I sent everyone an email today asking what they wanted to do for the next few months and suggesting Traveller, Tunnels & Trolls, Risus and, above all, Pendragon.

Playing a Pendragon game is my first choice of the four; some of the very first books that got me into fantasy were Ladybird childrens' adaptations of Arthurian legend. I've also got The Great Pendragon Campaign and The Grey Knight, so I won't be lacking for adventures and prep can be a lot less than it would be if I were mapping out a megadungeon.

I've got some questions for those who are knowledgable about Pendragon, though:

1) I own the first edition of Pendragon; it was surprisingly low-priced on Amazon when I bought it. If you were me, would you look into any other editions of Pendragon, or one of the supplements? How difficult do you think it will be to run stuff from the GPC, which is (at least my copy is) written for fifth edition?

2) The first edition has about four pages on running female characters; is that, in your opinion, enough? Do you have any particular advice for refereeing a game with a mix of PC genders?

3) Pendragon has a system of personality traits. It seems like it would be easy for a beginner like me to use this in ways that force PCs to do what the dice say instead of what players want them to do, or else ignore the traits system all-together. The former seems to me like it would be anathema to the Old School, which is confusing to me, since Pendragon is certainly an Old School game, while the latter would be leaving out a huge part of Pendragon. How do you handle traits? How do you know when to let a player decide what a PC does and when to have the player roll? Does this really conflict with the OSR vision of player-controlled PCs, of "role-playing over roll-playing," to borrow that controversial phrase?

4) Another grognardling-who-is-still-learning-the-Old-Ways-and-isn't-sure-how-Pendragon-fits-with-the-gaming-philosophy-he-learned-which-was-about-Dungeons-&-Dragons question: Would sand-boxing be feasible with Pendragon, do you think? I mean, technically, yeah, you can sandbox with any game system, but would sandboxing Pendragon work against the feel that Pendragon is going for?

5) Do you have any other advice for running Pendragon? Is there anything I should know or try or avoid? (I'm familiar with, and have poked around on, Greg Stafford's Pendragon Page and I've been following Sir Larkins' Solo GPC reports for a good while now.)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Should Players Pay for D&D?

I realized today as I was walking the neighbor's dog that I have an expectation that players don't pay for the game they're playing, but the referee covers all the costs of the rules, setting, adventures, etc. I'm wondering how common that is.

When I was a player, I played in a 3.5 campaign and didn't spend a cent. I didn't even buy my own dice; I borrowed them from the DM or another player- I can't remember which. This worked out great for me, especially since 3.5 is NOT the game for me and I'd regret any money I'd spent on it.

When I started refereeing, I carried that same assumption into my games. I bought a big plastic container of polyhedral educational dice that I bring out whenever I play face to face with people who don't own dice. I buy (or download- I've downloaded a lot of free stuff, thanks to the OSR) the rules and sourcebooks and grimoires that I use and don't expect my players to pay for any of it.

From one perspective (the one that I agree with), this makes a lot of sense. The referee paying for his own stuff means that he has total creative control over what he uses. Players don't have to pay for things they don't particularly want. I'm glad that I didn't have to pay to play in a 3.5 world and I'm pretty sure that my former DM, who plays in my Swords & Wizardry world, is glad that he doesn't have to pay to play in it. We both have played in each other's worlds because we are friends with each other and would rather be roleplaying than not roleplaying, but I think we're both happy putting our own money towards investing in our own games and settings.

From another perspective (that I can understand, even if I don't agree with it), this hardly seems fair. What about the players who never referee? They get a free ride; the referee both shells out all the money for the rules and prep and does the hours of prep, while the players just show up. That hardly seems fair.

(My counter-argument would be that if the referees don't mind, and they usually don't, fairness really isn't a problem. Besides, the players hopefully will pick up the tab for snacks or meals during the game, and they are [hopefully] providing pleasure to the referee by playing in his setting. But I'm sure there are counter-counter arguments against this as well.)

Another perspective is that, especially since AD&D, players need to, or at least should, have enough mastery of the game that it's really a good idea for them to own their own copies of at least part of the rules. There are, in a sense, two different libraries that players and referees can purchase, together investing in the game. This, I think, is more and more true with newer games, as opposed to the games I play (ACKS is the prime exception that jumps to mind here).

So what about in your gaming groups? Does the referee buy everything? Do the players ever chip in? Do you figure out some arrangement that you feel is fair, or is fairness really even a priority that you particularly worry about?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Happy Easter!

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Charting Alignment

So, here's how I think I'll chart alignment.

First, I need a scale. I was originally thinking of using a scale of 1-100, but that seems too small for me. I don't want just a few actions to rapidly shift alignment; I want a character's alignment to really, really be a product of habitual action. A scale from 1-300 is, I think, about the right size; without testing, I won't know for sure.

Next, I need to decide which ranges are Chaotic, which are Neutral and which are Lawful. I think the 1-50 range will be Chaotic and the 251-300 range will be Lawful, with 51-250 being Neutral.

Then I need a list of activities that move a character along this scale. These should be relatively big things; pickpocketing, for example, doesn't significantly support the cause of Chaos or the downfall of Law. In fact, I'm leaving theft completely off this list since that's such a common activity in D&D in the first place. The actions on this list should actively and significantly build up or tear down the health and order of society and the universe at large. Here's the list I have so far; other item suggestions are welcome.

Lawful Acts:

Healing: +1
Freeing the enslaved: +4 per slave freed
Defending or rescuing the helpless: +5 per victim rescued
Bringing the guilty to justice: +10 per HD
Banishing Cthuloid beings: +15 per HD
Moderation: +1 per 100 Gold Pieces given to worthy causes or the less fortunate
Joining and taking the vows of a Lawful order: +50

Chaotic Acts:

Necromancy: -10 per HD
Slaving: -2 per slave bought, sold or owned
Slaughtering innocents: -10 per HD
Sparing the guilty: -1 per offense overlooked
Consorting with Cthuloid beings: -10 per HD
Excess: -15 per ostentatious purchase or night of debauchery
Betraying or falling from a Lawful order: -30

You'll notice that Chaotic acts will bring someone towards Chaos more easily than Lawful acts will bring someone close to Law. This is for a few reasons. One is that it is easier to destroy than to build. The other is that Law is a lofty ideal that is difficult to attain and maintain, while Chaos is insidious, tempting, easier and, being the corruption of the ideal, multitudinous in its paths.

Some things I like about this:

This gives a more objective criteria for allowing or barring existing characters from joining Lawful orders: If the +50 from joining an order won't get a candidate into the Lawful range on the alignment scale, they aren't accepted. By a similar token, fallen Paladins (or whatever other Lawful orders boot their members when they mess up) may only undertake a quest to redeem themselves if the -30 from breaking a rule of their order and being expelled doesn't take them outside of the Lawful range; otherwise they won't be allowed to re-join, ever (or, if you want to be nice, until they get into Lawful range again).

This also allows for Paladins and other Lawful types to engage in limited Chaotic activity, so long as they are balancing it out with Lawful acts. This way, they don't have to be super-careful about their actions. A very Lawful Paladin could indulge in a night out on the town with his friends and still be a Paladin. With this system, Paladins don't have to be as strict and grumpy about every little act.

A quirk I purposely built in: buying a slave and setting him free results in a net gain of 2 alignment points. Rescuing a slave and killing the 3HD slaver nets 34 alignment points.

I'm currently planning on all classes starting out at 150 unless their class is inherently Chaotic or Lawful. If a class is Chaotic, the character starts at 50; if the class is Lawful, the character starts at 251.

I realize this system is still rough, dirty and untried; I have no idea what the kinks are that will need to be worked out, but I do like this system and plan to try it out. If you have comments, critiques or suggestions, they are very much appreciated: what to you think of this system?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

More Thoughts on Alignment and Setting

Alignment as I described it in my last post is a single axis: Law-Chaos. Good and Evil are part of this axis, instead of a separate axis; the New School conception of alignment as personality traits is not applicable. Staid traditionalist characters and free-spirited characters (the New School interpretations of Lawful and Chaotic) may support either Law or Chaos.

Most individuals, however, no matter what their personality type, will fall into the category of Neutral, neither particularly helping nor harming the cause of either Law or Chaos; in fact, most everyone is ignorant of the struggle, not taking it seriously on the few occasions when they do hear about it.

In fact, until they begin to establish themselves and discover the reality of both the forces of Law and Chaos, the PCs won't usually know about it. That's what sets Paladins, Rangers and the more devout Clerics apart from your average Fighters, Thieves, Magic-Users, most Clerics and all the other classes: they're true believers from the beginning in a grand cosmic struggle, instead of stumbling upon it in the course of amassing their personal fortune. It's why Paladins and Rangers exist, and why Clerics are sent out to fight Chaos instead of blessing crops and healing the sick on a full-time basis.

So, how to deal with alignment when the PCs don't even know about or believe in it? Well, I could just let the players decide their PCs' alignments, but that, I think, risks making this more about what color jerseys the PCs are wearing instead of which side they're actually scoring for. It also bares for my players a part of the setting that I really don't want to just tell them about. I want them to discover it along with their PCs.

It's true; I've begun keeping secrets from my players. They don't read my blog and they have no idea that Dragons run much of the world. They're just starting to get an inkling of the Cthuloid horrors continued adventuring will bring them in contact with. I think I may have mentioned the possibility of Mindflayers and they've fought a Shroom, like, once. They have no idea that Necromancy exists in my setting at all. They certainly don't realize that Carcosan rituals exist and are utilized by evil sorcerers, nor do they know why intelligent monsters have tried to kill them twice (after rolls on the Puppet-Master Machination Tables), although they are getting curious about that.

To be clear, when there have been questions about these things, I haven't refused to answer. Instead, I told my player that there were good, non-arbitrary reasons for what was happening; cause-and-effect was occurring. I told him that I thought it would be more fun for him to figure out what was going on through the course of play, but that I'd be willing to explain it to him if he preferred that. He opted to try to figure it out, at least for now.

My gut tells me to do the same thing with alignment. Tell most players not to worry about it. Slip the players of Paladins, Rangers and Clerics of certain gods secret handouts about their characters' understandings of Law and Chaos. Then come up with a scale for measuring alignment and a list of Lawful and Chaotic actions: actions which materially benefit Law or Chaos. Different classes may start out on different points along the scale (Paladins, etc., start out high on the Lawful scale, while most other classes start out near halfway or so. Thieves start closer to Chaos but still inside Neutral territory.) and I adjust their scores as they perform action on the lists in the course of their normal adventuring career. This idea, by the way, is stolen almost whole-cloth from the Judges Guild Ready Ref Sheets; the differences are that the Ready Ref sheets try to work with a double-axis alignment system, that there is no list of Lawful or Chaotic acts and that you're supposed to roll for your alignment.

Next time I'll try to flesh this out mechanically. In the meantime, how much about your settings do you keep away from your players, waiting to reveal through play? Is most everything pretty straightforward or are there definite twists that make your players sit up and take notice?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Making Alignment Mean Something

Alignment is a part of the game that has NEVER been a real issue in my games. I've run games with new players where we didn't even mention alignment during character generation. Alignment has only been mentioned when I'm trying to explain the difference between the Old School and New School understandings of the Law-Chaos axis (I attempted to create a way to use both with my Civilized-Barbaric axis, not understanding that Old School alignment is more about allegiance than personality) or when players are describing their characters.

I don't know the last time alignment was even mentioned in my games, though; these conversations all happened months ago, at the latest. I'm not even sure that the latest round of generated characters (to replace the fallen) have an alignment; they very well may, but I've had no reason to ask. Honestly, I was about to just throw alignment out the window until recently; I just didn't know what to do with it.

I think the reason that I didn't know what to do with alignment is that I didn't really have anything in my setting that the players could have allegiance to. My settings, up 'til now, have consisted almost entirely of wilderness; the one time the players ventured into a city, they promptly got themselves arrested and sent out into the wilderness again. Magic was value-neutral and I'd done away with Clerics. What Law was there to swear fealty to?

Even in the wilderness, I had just plunked down a bunch of dungeons without any real organizing principle. There were no real puppet-masters or dark lords gathering their power. The worst that was out there was a large goblin warren, or perhaps a cult or a crazy wizard. What real Chaos was there?

My thinking on this started to change with Carcosa and Pellantarum, however.

What if there were things that were out there that really were working to destroy, or at least subvert and rule tyrannically, the civilized world? What if Dragons controlled politics for their own ends, using both civilized and uncivilized peoples as unknowing pawns in their Byzantine games of chess? What if Cthuloid entities were constantly attempting to break into this reality and tear it apart? What if mushroom-men and mindflayers were also attempting world domination, by means and to ends so alien as to be inscrutable to the civilized? What if the undead were not the random products of poor burials or cursed ground, but the tools of dark, evil and very intentional necromancy?

Well, that would be real Chaos.

And what if there were genuine organizing principles in the world? What if magic, or at least certain schools of magic, were a rough analog to science and the progress, order and dominion over the world that it gives to civilization? What if the gods create and bless order and love and protect the civilized? What if Clerics, Paladins and Rangers weren't being overzealous after all, and in fact were the ones with the true understanding of the workings of the world and what is at stake?

Well, that would be real Law.

And what if this struggle between Law and Chaos were a hidden struggle, one of which the common man remained ignorant and which the educated dismissed as over-simplification or the crazy black-and-white ravings of fundamentalist bumpkins? What if accidentally becoming a pawn of a Dragon was only too easy, or if some problems just seemed so much easier to solve with the summoning of a Cthuloid being? What if the mushroom-men didn't seem all that bad, and besides, they offered fungus products at a considerable discount? What if the mindflayers paid good money for goblins you were just going to slaughter anyway? What if eternal unlife was a true possibility, albeit at terrible cost?

Well, then we'd have a genuine campaign setting concept, one where it starts to make sense why a Lawful sword or a Chaotic throne won't work for those who are aligned in opposite ways, or even those who aren't aligned, one where even alignment tongues begin to make sense (almost- they still need some tweaking, I think). In short, it's a campaign setting where alignment is no longer a question of abstract philosophy; alignment is now about, "the forces of Chaos pose a constant existential threat to Law, civilization and all humans and demi-humans- what, if anything, are you going to do about it?"

Stay tuned for more thoughts on this in the near future; in the meantime, how do you handle alignment? Are you satisfied with the way alignment works in your games, or does it get in the way- or do you wish it could be something more?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Key-Eater Box

The box is square-cut and plain; the only way to know it is Dwarf-make is the hinges. From the outside, it seems to be completely made of a rough off-white stone. The keyhole is merely a small hole.

The hole will expand to accept any key… but any key besides the correct key will be promptly eaten, the keyhole transforming into a mouth and pulling the key into itself. Visible chewing action and the sound of shearing metal indicate the fate of the key. When finished with the key, the box will give some exclamation of appreciation such as, "That one was tasty!" "There's nothing like a bronze-platinum alloy to hit the spot!" or just a simple belch.

What could be so precious as to be placed in a box that difficult to open… and where could the correct key be?!

Monday, April 2, 2012

I'm Back

Not a lot to say, but I'm back. Have a magic sword:
His father had given him that sword on the eve of his departure from Enlad. He had received it solemnly and had worn it, as if it were a duty to wear it, even aboard ship. He was proud of the weight of it at his hip, the weight of its great age on his spirit. For it was the sword of Serriadh who was the son of Morred and Elfarron; there was none older in the world except the sword of Erreth-Akbe, which was set atop the Tower of the Kings in Havnor. The sword of Serriadh had never been laid away or hoarded up, but worn; yet was unworn by the centuries, unweakened, because it had been forged with a great power of enchantment. Its history said that it never had been drawn, nor ever could be drawn, except in the service of life. For no purpose of blood-lust or revenge or greed, in no war for gain, would it let itself be wielded.
-Ursula K. LeGuin, The Farthest Shore
During my hiatus I've been reading some of the Earthsea books. I wonder why no one ever seems to talk about them in the OSR.