Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Crunchy Corner: The Inheritance of the Meek

Don't pick fights with drunk old men nor PCs with low stats.
With a handful of exceptions, all experienced DnD players fear the dreaded Rolling of 3d6 Straight. Allow me to explain. When making a character, there's a lot of variation on how to roll up the primary stats. Most people favor options that A) Allow the player flexibility in what numbers they assign to what stat and B) ensure a middling-to-high average.

3d6 Straight gives no promises. 3d6 is the cool hand of the green-eyed Lady. Feel her breath on the nape of your neck as she guides your dice-hand. Was that the sound of high-impact resin clattering together, or a soft giggle at your expense? Ah, look there... three ones.Write it down. No, not there... start at the top, with Strength, and work down.

Personally, I find something a bit... thrilling... about the idea. But then, maybe I'm a little jaded. I've seen enough characters with 10 or higher in most stats, and it's been so long since I've been a player instead of a DM that, you know what, let Luck tell me what class I'm going to be. If my stats are low across the board, I'll have to be all the more clever for it.

And there is a part of me that sometimes... just sometimes... wants to inflict 3d6 on my players as well. I see it as the best cure for a poison MMORPGs have unleashed on gaming. "Oh, we already have a damage-dealer and a healer, Clarice. We don't have a heavy spell-caster, though. Why don't you be a wizard?" Ick. I'm certain there's a lot of entertainment to be had from a party of nothing BUT barbarians against an evil sorcerer, or mostly clerics thinking up a smart way to defeat a dragon. Situations that make one think about "defeat" and whether it can only be defined as "slay."

But in DnD, I will never do this, because I can understand why players - especially new ones - want a promise of non-miserable stats and a bit of choice in who they'll be. But musing on this made me think of something that could be incorporated into a new system: What if there was a score that was higher the lower one's stats were?

This score would have to be carefully weighted in usefulness - the setting I have in mind has a spirit world, so my version is mainly useful there. I wouldn't want to make it pointless to have high stats, just... let's say that if you role high on your main stats, great, you are good at those things and bad at this other thing. If you role low, too bad but at least you're good at this other thing.

I'm thinking it's a set number that you subtract each stat from. It's probably a body of spendable points. A lot of people will no doubt find this laughable and player-coddling - and I don't care. After all, part of the intention is to make players more comfortable with rolling their stats straight with no do-overs - nothing coddling there. I'm not removing negative consequences of bad rolls; a low strength means you are not strong. I'm just adding a new variable to ensure the character is useful and enjoyable to play no matter how Luck shapes them.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Play Report 6: Skeleton Attacks

 From Steph:

Spucky and Agartha follow the maps to the east, looking for the way out marked on the map. Suddenly, the distant thud of hooves is heard. Two skeletons on skeletal steeds thunder into view. One of the horses breaths a noxious gas at Agartha, causing her to be sick for a long time (the maximum possible rounds, in fact)... which is really bad, because Spucky's not much of a melee fighter, and while the skeletons aren't that accurate with their attacks, the horses are, and they're tough! Spucky gets kicked by a horse, and Agartha runs to give her a potion (splashing her with a little puke in the process). But the gnome is still being attacked. I decided to risk casting a healing spell, but got attack-of-opportunitied and Spucky wasn't any better off -- she did get the spell off, but after being attacked her HP wasn't any better. And Agartha was still going to be sick for a while. It was looking dire! I really thought we were going to die!

I decided the best chance was to try and fight defensively until Agartha got better, so Spucky took a few swings at the skeletons while attempting to dodge their attacks. Nobody hits anybody, but the rounds pass, until one of the horse belches out another poison cloud. Spucky has to move, and manages to get a short distance away from the horses, where she's able to cast Magic Stone while the skeletons focus on the poor heaving barbarian for a moment. Then -- amazingly enough, on the last couple of rounds before Agartha would have recovered and demolished them anyway -- Spucky gets off two Magic Stone hits in a row, killing both undead with a single bullet each. It was an amazing turnaround!

Without their riders, the horses become docile. Docile enough for us to get on their backs and ride! The tunnels fly by in a blur as the adventurers transport their still-unconscious captive. We round a curve and head north, hoping to reach the spot the map indicates is home to another Grim.. but before we get their, we run smack into Drusiphia, fleeing the other direction. She's being followed by Junior, and apparently hasn't copped to the fact that she controls him yet, because she's firing arrows at him. Before she can figure it out, Agartha grabs her, and Spucky grabs for her pouch, managing to recover the amulet and regain control of Junior. WHEW. Drusiphia is just about dead from exhaustion, and we tie her up with the whips and put her on a horse... good thing we've got the horses. And good thing the Grim is just ahead - although we don't know how the magic evil-destroying owl will react to our captives, we really need to rest and recover...

... Except the Grim, and the entire cavern its in, have been roasted to a crisp by something. The Grim's spirit arises and explains about a something called the Flame-Walker that's roaming around. Something we definitely don't want to run into! The party keeps heading north as fast as possible, hoping to make it to the exit, and we do. The door stands in front of us... sealed shut.

DM's Very Important Note: I didn't decide the door was sealed this way until they got to it. I was, in fact, stalling, because I had nothing particularly special planned for the end of this dungeon crawl, and no clue what was on the other side. I thought a stock moral dilemma would  buy me time... and it did. But it also causes an unintended and amazingly dramatic sequence to occur. When I confessed to Kitty that I made the door up last minute, she wanted to hit me.

Drusiphia helpfully explains that you have to sacrifice someone to make it open, and suggests the other captive,who she recognizes as someone called Trevor, and who she claims killed someone to gain entry in the first place. It may or may not be true, but should she really suggest killing someone at this point, after she tried to rob us? It sure wouldn't be Trevor who got stabbed! Of course, we wouldn't kill helpless prisoners anyway, and Spucky is just considering whether one of the skeleton horses would count when the tunnel to the west lights up. Junior moves into action, shielding the party - just as an enormous fireball crashes into him. A fireball big enough that the rest of us would have been vaporized on the spot if he hadn't been there. Then... the flame walker appears, a scythe-wielding skeleton with a core of fire. Spucky decides to stay back with the horses and let Junior handle it, but Agartha bravely steps forward to confront the creature.

Junior gives the flame walker a light pummeling, but the skeleton responds with a single deadly swing of its scythe -- a quadruple-damage critical hit which is enough to destroy even him. His noble sacrifice (okay, he's just a construct, but I'm anthropomorphizing, dammit) causes the door to swing open at the moment of his death, and the party escapes out the door, the horses crumbling into dust as it closes, trapping the flame walker in the caverns. We're out of the caves at last -- but where are we now?

DM: I'm endlessly in love with the effect of dice on a game. Seriously, almost nothing but a critical hit with a magic scythe COULD have killed Junior. And if that hadn't happened, the door would never have opened until one of the PCs died or killed someone.

Sure, Junior was a construct, so you might think he shouldn't count towards the door. My logic was that the door actually responds to the emotional connection to the sacrifice - the PCs certainly thought of Junior as part of the party at this point.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Ugly Brutal + Short

Detail from something I've been working on. This has bearing on my dungeon musings. Click to make big.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Just another Thursday Night on the blogs.

"There are sexist messages in RPG art and maybe we should think about that."

"No, that would just make the artists make shitty art."

The first is a no-brainer. The second, I don't agree with, but the guy saying it is smart and makes strong interesting arguments. Also, several of the comments are smart, specifically from Trollsmyth, TheCramp and Telecanter. Several others are mind-numbingly stupid.

Ah, the internet....

Thursday, December 30, 2010

People can build stupid shit without alien influence, thankyouverymuch.

Wrote this to my wife after some time spent researching tombs, and realized I might as well post it here. It's tangentially related to my recent dungeon thoughts.

It's a constant source of humor to me that, any time a fictional Egyptian-style pyramid appears, it is full of rooms and halls to the point of being almost hollow. This is because we think of them as buildings - as architecture.

They are not architecture - they are tombstones. Most of them were not even designed to be as big as they are. They were originally short narrow step pyramids like the older ones, maybe a bit bigger, and then they started falling down so stuff was piled onto them to shore them up. In the case of the Bent Pyramid, they screwed that up and halfway up it started to crush the tomb, so they changed the angle. The result was an empty pyramid - the pharaoh had another built. After all, would you want to be the one buried in the fucked up pyramid?

At that point, they had these big things sitting about as a result of having to essentially repair the old tombs, but no one wants to go in a smaller tomb than the other guy, so they started making them that way on purpose. They built their little chambers, then built a large pointless step pyramid on top, then another on that and another on than, then finally a smooth outer surface. Essentially mimicking a process that had been accidental - "Oh shit! Guyfacemcdudeatep's tomb is falling! Quick, make the slaves shove bricks against it!"

This is why people who think there is anything magic or supernatural or alien about Egyptian construction are wrong (or at the very least, wrong that they needed magic or aliens to do what they did).
This is about as complicated as it got. By the way, this one
fell in because it was too complicated.

Egypt was full of people, and people are the dumbest, smartest creatures on Earth. We don't need aliens to tell us how to make thousands of slaves work themselves to death over a few decades ensuring huge stones fit together perfectly. Give me unlimited manpower and years to achieve it, and I'll make you a space station. And they weren't that smart, were they? If you actually know anything about architectural history, you know it was a process of trial and error and building up of knowledge and skill over the course of a 2000-year civilization. We look at the Giza pyramids, with their stones so tight you can't slide an index card between, and forget the slabs over holes in the sand, the step pyramids, the collapsed failures, the screw-ups like the Bent Pyramid. We forget almost every single tomb we find was robbed within years of first being sealed up, because a granite slab is hard to get through but the sandstone it's fitted in is not. The workers (and even priests) that stuck the body in there just came back and tunneled around the door.

Furthermore, and more to the point of why people want to believe those massive, massive things have something in them besides a tunnel and a dead guy - the dead need not justify themselves to us. We can hold them accountable in our minds, pass judgment on what they did... but it means nothing to them. They had their reasons, and those reasons went with them.

The pyramids map the stars, sharpen razors, cure cancer, contain our genome, are spaceships, etc. etc. etc... they have to be SOMETHING, right? They're so... big and devoid of purpose and that can't be true. And it isn't, but the truth is that they are devoid of modern purpose. They make no sense today. But when they were built, for the people that built them, they were the most important things in the world. To them, it wasn't stupid to build the biggest structure in the world to house one tiny room with a single dead guy and his stuff in it. It wasn't a comedy of errors that they had to keep shoring them up and rebuilding them. It was all extremely meaningful.

We are the smartest, dumbest creatures in the world - we do remarkable things for nonsensical reasons. But they are reasons.

I imagine all this can be applied to dungeon design somehow. You figure it out.

Skadi must Eat of Every Meat

Like barbarians? More accurately, like loving mockeries of Howardian fantasy archetypes? Even more accurately, appreciate a good butt joke?

You'll like Skadi as much as I do then. It's the Thursday update on Dumm Comics (several of the others are great too, though).

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Dungeons: A Visual Essay

Sympathize with the dungeon, for you are to it as pathogenic microns are to you. You were both built for a purpose, and as you subvert its own with torch and 10-foot pole, something inside you beats its flagellum ceaselessly down your corridors. Your chambers are well stocked with white monsters and glandular death traps, but the DM of Evolution has printed out a whole stack of character sheets.
There are five stories of cathedral below the cooled lava surrounding this church in Mexico. Dungeons are undead structures - they had a purpose in life but it died with them. Only echoes of it remain, but they lumber on, taking on new purposes and new inhabitants. A dungeon is a corpse, and corpses teem with new life.
(Very Large Image Alert) In Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which I call the Platonic Idea Dungeon, that previous life is readily apparent. Dracula was obviously a living man in this castle, or some form of it, once. In undeath, he's taken his armies, his staff, his court and even his fallen foes with him.

Of course, SoTN was merely putting the Castlevania aesthetic on Metroid's structure. Super Metroid may be the better dungeon, depending on your taste. While I don't quite count it because it's still serving it's original purpose - it's a base for the Space Pirates and there they are, basing themselves in it - it's still a great design.