Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The information age: What happens next

Well it has been a very long time since I posted anything up here, but the other day, I realised what the future held for society and so I figured it might be a good idea to share that with others. It can be useful from time to time to stop and take stock of the rapid changes around us and see where we are heading; this post is that reflection.

Efforts are currently underway to digitise all books. They started years ago with Google and Microsoft but Microsoft pulled out of the endeavor citing costs. The idea is to create a digital archive of all books, works of art and so on so that future generations may enjoy them. A noble effort, to be sure.

There has recently been a change in the concept of ownership to licensing. Digital Rights Management has allowed middlemen who run store fronts to restrict the use of the goods that they sell, moving away from citizens owning the items they pay for and instead replacing it with a model where they are licensing it. This actually began much earlier, with software end user license agreements, but was originally unenforcable except through the law. Now, there is a direct mechanism in place that allows the very thing that transferred from the store to the citizen to disable itself if the company running the store orders it. An example of this is sort of arrangement occurs with the Apple iTunes store and with Sky and its HD boxes (if you cancel your account, they disable everything you recorded on the box so you can no longer watch it - thats because you never owned it only a right to watch it, as part of the subscription model).

Once all works have been digitised, which will take a long time yet, digitised versions and physical (real) versions will exist side by side for quite a while. Perhaps fifty years later, or maybe a hundred, the physical versions will be destroyed.

They'll be destroyed in two ways. The top down approach to their destruction will likely occur in secret, as big swatches of physical media are selected by those in power and incinerated, without anybody really noticing. There may be a few that voice complaints but it will be too late by then to recover them, but because electronic versions will exist, there will not be a strong argument to prevent this from happening.

The second way that physical media will be destroyed is via the bottom up approach, in other words, by the comman man. Books will become so cheap they will become worthless. People will no longer desire them a few generations after everything is digital and the publishers have figured out how to hook people into the new formats. Think about how the iPad today has convinced so many that it is a must buy with its flashy interface, the same goal being applied to electronic books. They'll eventually crack it and then the newer generations will only desire the newer electronic formats. Today, as I write this, selling videos is very much like this scenario that I am decribing. You can take video casettes to a second hand store and they'll give you a penny each. A penny! It's not worth the bother any more. So, instead of trying to sell them, people are simply thrown away into landfills. This is the second way that physical media will be destroyed; a natural process, if you will, caused by simple economics.

Once all physical works are destroyed and nobody owns hard copies of the words that are in these books, and merely rents them instead, the books themselves will be changed at the source to suit the needs of those in power. Being centralised, they will be able to be update them at will in order to censor, to subtly change meanings or even to insert new meanings. Who will know any different? Scientists will come out and talk about the fallibility of the human memory based on the latest research into psychology for anyone that swears that, for example, Darwin's origins of species did not say evolution through war is inevitable no matter what his eReader is telling him. The vast majority will believe the scientists especially when they rent their copy and their reader tells them it /does/ say that.

So, to summarise, once an entire civilisation's culture is digitised, it's hard copies will be destroyed and its culture edited at will by those in power. Perhaps its culture will even be deleted and replaced with something else; or simply deleted altogether by a hostile, foreign power as part of a future step by step genocidal process.

Welcome to what happens next, after the information age...

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Seven Leagues - First impressions

I fancied a change of game for our weekly sunday sessions and so parked our existing Labyrinth Lord campaign, with its array of tweaks, house rules and 8-th level characters and took a break for a few weeks. During this time, I looked at a number of different game systems and even started compiling my own house rules into a roleplaying game of my own.

I was wanting to do something a little less dark. I'd spent over sixty game sessions (a year and half) creating and running adventures that took my players into dank and dangerous ruins, sewers, pitch black caverns and so forth and it had reached the point where I wanted to do something quite different to that.

The idea of injecting colour into a dark and dreary scene was a strong motivation to do something different. Switching out the dungeon for a forest was one such idea and a lot of other ideas  began to flow out from that simple tweak. I began writing up custom classes based on mythical beasts, collating house rules and so forth, and that got me part way to making my own roleplaying game.

And then I came across Seven Leagues.

Seven Leagues is an intriguing roleplaying game based around the idea of shared story telling, something we are all actively engaged in, to various degrees, when we roleplay anyway. The setting was fairy tale which matched somewhat with where I was going in my own mind anyway, as I was wanting more enchantment and colour in the world I was taking my players to. As I read the rules, I became even more interested: How can players play anything they want and the game not be just not broken, but that's how its supposed to work? Some very unique and innovative mechanics support this.

I have yet to play a game, because, alas, the session I set aside for this was taken up by character creation. Imagine sitting down with a group of players who are very familiar with D&D, World of Warcraft, Whitewolf games etc and telling them... right, you can play anything you want... all you've got to do is to decide what! As a consequence, character creation took a long time and became a bit of a collaborative process, not just with me (as DM, or in the case of Seven Leagues, the Narrator) and the player in question but between the players themselves. It was very interesting.

We ended up with a party of a Scottish Dragon, an English Alchemachanic and a ghostly Necromancer. Quite a mix... and highly original!

I can't wait for the next session when I throw them into my story, set in a faerie land of dream!

Friday, 25 June 2010

I wish I may, I wish I might... Wizards and wishes

A quick post this one as I have something on my mind to put out there: do mages really need any spells other than Wish?

With wish, magic can do anything... and is... well magical again! Perhaps throw in minor wish for low level mages and restrict it to once per day per level (or once per week per level, or something of that ilk).

Perhaps this is all that's ever needed in a magic system....?

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Fantasy magazine about to disappear...

...it's looking for more lifeblood with some new subscribers or it may shut down for good. I stumbled across this story on Blackgate about Realms of Fantasy, a magazine for fantasy fiction, and feel it is a real shame if it comes to pass that it disappears.

I cannot recommend the magazine personally as I have not yet read it, but I've plumped down the money for a subscription because I did not even know that there were magazines offering new fantasy fiction still left.  Perhaps it's because I am in the UK, or maybe I'm just a bit out of touch with these things. Anyhow if you think about many of the famous authors in the past that helped define the genre, they were writing their stories for magazines (Howard's Conan, Burrough's John Carter of Mars).

If like me, you enjoy original fantasy fiction, why not give it a try. It'd be shame for these things to disappear, we may just miss them when they're gone...

The Black Gate story about Realms of Fantasy.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Myth vs the Machines

I had an idea at the weekend for a game where mankind is under attack by machines and its greatest heroes and mythical beasts assemble to fight them off.

I'd make this as a computer roleplaying game, throwing together a raytracer I have with a pixel graphic single screen battle engine for the fights and have it run through a web browser. It would be an old school type game at heart, but instead of utilising the familiar classes or their variants (e.g. fighter, mage, cleric, thief) you'd recruit from heroes of legend and mythical beasts.

Of course, I'd probably need testers for it.

The idea of android villians being melted by dragon fire and turned into scrap is strangely appealing to me ;-)

Sunday, 30 May 2010

If only floating disc scaled...

The description for the Floating Disc spell in Labyrinth Lord goes a little like this:

Floating Disc
Level: 1
The caster creates a slightly concave, circular plane of force
that follows him about and carries loads. The disk is 3 feet in
diameter and 1 inch deep at its center. It can hold 500
pounds. If used to transport a liquid, its capacity is 2 gallons.
The disk floats approximately 3 feet above the ground at all
times and remains level. It floats along horizontally within spell
range and will accompany the caster with an equal movement
rate. If not otherwise directed, it maintains a constant interval
of 6 feet between itself and the caster, and will follow the
caster without prompting to maintain a minimum of 6'

What a terrific spell. If only it scaled beyond its simple first level abilities, they'd perhaps be no need for the levitation spell and possibly the flight spell also. If somehow the distance to the caster could be variable, it could be used to do all sorts of things, such as to create a stepping stone across a chasm or a river. Perhaps it could be even be used, as is, to hold a door shut like the hold portal spell, as 500 pounds of force is quite a lot to bring to bear to shift the thing.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

An Overkill penalty for D&D

I recently read an excellent blog post about 'Overkill Penalties'. This is the idea of penalising min-max players to bring them in line with more casual players or players that want to concentrate more on the roleplaying of their characters instead of the roll-playing aspects. 

In D&D, the type of person who builds a character around a concept instead of mechanics, for example, choosing on purpose to use a spear despite its d6 damage over a long sword that does d8, is at a distinct disadvantage to the player who only ever picks a bastard sword because it deals 2d4 damage. The post I've linked to talks about doing penalising these min-maxers, who are less interested in the game setting and only in generating massive numbers, in a more modern game setting or a futuristic one, but this general idea easily apply to fantasy ones too.

Here's a quick idea for how to implement it in D&D; anyone that takes an enemy to -10hp from a positive number of hitpoints, in one hit, unleashes the spirit of the fallen humanoid as a spectre that remains on the mortal coil because of the nature of its violent death. Feel free to tweak the 'spectre threshold' based on the edition of D&D you are using and so on. Why a spectre? It's not massively overpowered but is a hugely dangerous creature with its draining powers. It could always be swapped out with a wraith - or wight - at lower levels.

So why bother doing this or even considering it at all? It's about putting the emphasis on using the least possible amount of force to get the job done. It would help not just with min-maxers (i.e. people who try to game the system for purely mechanical advantage, often at the expense of everyone else) but also with situations that really should be handled with more delicacy. The party mage might be a bit more careful throwing his fireballs around, for instance and the paladin may not simply smite every enemy and then rest after his smites have all run out. You might even find players switching to subdual damage when a foe is running low on hitpoints, letting the enemies merely slip into unconsciousness so the party can continue on their way instead of slaying them outright.

What are the downsides? Depending on your rule set, critical hits could accidentally unleash vengeful spirits. You could always rule that they do not, they are exceptions, or leave it on, as an unexpected and unintended possible consequence of driving your sword right into the heart of an opponent and ending his life in a split second.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The danger of death

As a DM to a regular Labyrinth Lord game, I often revise my encounter strategy for the adventures I create, continually trying to improve the experience. Both me and my players enjoy a bit of strategy in the battles and a bit of danger and excitement too.

I have discovered that short battles are generally better than long ones and often battles where the player is massively outnumbered by the enemy, or is able to gang up on just a few powerful enemies, work well. Surprise is a big element in battles going well so I often throw monsters in to the fights that have never been encountered before... and some of my players have been playing D&D for a very long time so it's always fun to throw something at them that makes everyone of them go 'what the hell is THAT?'

One of the things that has been going through my mind recently is the danger of death. I'm wondering, is there really any point in simulating battles that really have no chance of hurting the party? Might it be better to handle those fights with some simple narrative texts 'You quickly overcome the bodyguards, who prove no match for your skills, leaving you with the champion who slowly draws his glowing sword - and far from being cowed by your martial prowess - leaps right at you!' and simulate only the battles that might actually pose a real risk to the group as a whole?

Thursday, 20 May 2010

All poison should be lethal

The more I play D&D - and I play every week almost without fail - the more I experiment with bits and pieces of it. My combats are quite well known amongst my players for featuring bizarre creatures from all editions of D&D despite the ruleset I'm using being a mishmash of Labyrinth Lord and AD&D (essentially, I use Labyrinth Lord as the base and expand with 2nd and 3rd edition spells). I even throw in a few I have made up myself.

What happens is that various pictures of creatures emerge from different editions. In general, these are in line with what you might expect. Most creatures from basic D&D have far fewer hitpoints and limited damage ranges compared to creatures from 4th edition, which make for good boss creatures and leaders. However, despite the apparent deadliness of the monsters on paper, a lot of enemies I field at the players from later editions seem to have had the lethality drained out of them. By this, I am of course referring to poison.

When poison is save or die, there is real drama at the table. A character may have 50 hitpoints (quite a lot for Labyrinth Lord) and yet, here is a single damage point and the potential for instant death. And it all hangs on a die roll... That creates major panic. Its nullified somewhat by the party cleric keeping neutralise poison memorised and having a raise dead and a resurrect scroll... but everybody seems to understand that these resources are finite and the danger is there. It just doesn't have the same effect when the poison simply is inflicting hitpoint damage per round, and nor does it when I play a game like the Bard's Tale.

So, I may upgrade every single poision wielding enemy to the save or die type. My group has generally very nice poison saving throws on their characters, do have some antivenoms on them and there is the cleric too. I normally give an hour, when someone is infected by lethal poison and collapses into unconsciousness, before they will finally die of it. In that hour, panic rises...

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Wandering monsters

Recently I added a simple stop watch to my sunday Labyrinth Lord gaming sessions. I set the timer for 45 minutes and start it going at some point during the game. Whenever the alarm goes off - no matter where the heroes are or what they are doing, I roll for wandering monsters.

This has led to some interesting encounters as you can probably imagine. One time the heroes were battling carrion crawlers in an abandoned temple and suddenly a bunch of skeletons and ghouls joined the fight.

I like the unpredictability of approaches like this. Imagine if the heroes were in a tavern in town and the alarm goes off. I have to work that into the story some how. Did the skeletons suddenly break through from the cellar, or is the town itself under attack? It is good to stretch yourself as a DM a little with things like this I find.

I've been thinking about expanding this idea from just wandering monsters. Sometimes in game sessions there is a lot of fighting already. On the previous game session, for instance, we had a pitched battle against fifteen bugbears because the heroes did not want to pay an extortionate amount of gold to cross a bridge and the following combat was against four efreets. In that session, I did not want to lengthen the combat further with more monsters arriving. So sometimes there is a need to do something else with the wandering monster results.

I have a trap dice and I think I will start including that in my wandering monster rolls, essentially, having the party run into a trap. Traps are encounters too, especially if they may be detectable before hand from either a thief or a clue in a description and can be fun to disarm or work around... providing they are of course not deadly.

This got me thinking further. As one definition for the word encounter is a problem, I wonder what other types of problems could be thrown the heroes way on a wandering monster roll. Social problems, the ones that you must talk through, spring to mind, and would require considerable thought but could be fun. I wonder what other classes of problem would be fun to throw into the mix?

Monday, 25 January 2010

D&D, religion and the cleric

Some people wish to drop the cleric class from their games of Dungeons and Dragons. Some have already done this, folding the spell list into the magic user class whereas some have dropped it completely. Some people don't like the thief class either, because its inclusion in the system seemed to mean that other classes couldn't do stuff they could do before.

Dropping the cleric class is interesting, though. I considered it myself once, but only because the party of adventurers I take into my imaginary world of Summit on a sunday afternoon don't have one. We ended up solving that by keeping the class but turning one of the fighters into a 'blessed fighter' after he had a religious experience - he's now akin to a paladin.

One of the things that interests me about people wanting to drop the cleric class is their focus on the crunch i.e. the mechanics of the game. What I'm wanting to think about here, though, is the cleric's role in the world as a crusading man who channels the power of his god to further its purpose on the mortal plane. Viewed this way, the cleric's role becomes important within the game world, and he's not just reduced to a healer like so many computer roleplaying games do with him.

My big question though is this. If any of you have considered dropping the cleric from your games is it because you are atheist in world view? I suspect that atheists would dislike the cleric, and the game's focus on him and the DM building campaigns around him, despite the abundance of gods within the ancient world and medieval world that Dungeons and Dragons, and its inspirational fiction, is based around. In other words, if we didn't live in a mostly secular society, but lived in a parrallel universe with a theocracy running the show, might we feel differently about this and perhaps be thinking of dropping the magic user instead? In other words, does discussing dropping the cleric as a class reflect more on our own world views and less on the rules themselves?

Food for thought, if nothing else ;-)

Monday, 18 January 2010

Chasing the party into the jaws of crocodiles

The game sessions continue on at a weekly pace, every sunday. I'm having great fun designing adventures and encounters for my little party of hereoes to face. I often think of designing villians as being like setting up bowling pins to be knocked over. I enjoy the drama of pushing the heroes towards their limits and the panic setting in, followed by the relief of victory as the enemy falls and the danger passes.

Yesterday, for example, I had a blast with an encounter I had designed. A dozen orcs came streaming out of a cave at the adventuring party, screaming and shouting. Their heads were covered with lizard like helmets. To get to this point, the group had progressed down a path in a forest and gone under three archways that were each carved to resemble dragons and painted white. The heroes fully expected to face a dragon, especially when they saw that three of the green skinned creatures, who they only suspected might be orcs but were unsure, were trying to pull on the leash of something to drag it out of the cave.

So the party fled towards a river crossing, driven there by the orc attack ... and straight into their trap. Straight into the jaws of crocodiles! What they had seen as bits of floating wood and detritus on the river surface were dangerous predators.

The three orcs were pulling a wyven out of the cave and then let it off its leash and all hell broke loose!

The orc leader ended up panicking due to a magical screaming arrow that the heroes fired at one of his men, who fell forward instantly dead, and ordered a retreat. The wyvern had been loosed, however and continued on its flight to the group but got caught up in the crocodile attack. It slew all of the crocodiles and almost killed one of the heroes, who fell back into the river and decided not to come back up for air to hide from the beast. The wizard hid from it behind a tree, using his magical cloak to help camouflage him.

The beast flew back into the cave and the heroes emerged from their hiding places and moved swiftly on. Only three orcs had been slain and it was a terrific encounter, despite the heroes being eighth and seventh level!

Both the heroes lived to fight another day, however and continued on their way to further adventure deeper in the forest. We had other memorable enounters that night, but for me as the DM, that was my favourite one. The players have expressed an interest in returning to the cave at some point soon, too :-)

Friday, 8 January 2010

Using Wizards 4E Miniatures in Labyrinth Lord

Happy new year everyone!

I quite like Wizards of the Coast's miniature ranges. In fact, I have quite a few on display in my living room. The Gargantuan dragons are excellent, and I look forward to the day when I can put my group against them.

Not only have some rare monsters come out of the miniature lines but with each one you also get a nice little stat card for the critter, normally with stats on it for the D&D miniatures game and sometimes for the 4th Edition game itself. Now I don't play 4th edition, but I do like the stat cards. Why? Because you can use them as boss monsters and leaders.

I've devised a little system for converting the stats from the cards for the miniatures game, back into Labyrinth Lord. This has to be done because the base damage the creatures inflict is too high to be used as is (a minimum of 5 points is too high).

AC is the easiest one to convert. Simply take the value from 20, because the system begins at 10 and counts up. So AC 11 would become AC 9, AC 21 would become AC -1.

Next up is hitpoints. I don't know about you, but I'm happy keeping those the way they are. Nasty boss fights ensue!

The last one I convert is damage. I do this like so:

5 points = d4
10 points = d8
15 points = d12
20 points = 2d8
25 points = 2d10
30 points = 3d8
35 points = 3d10
40 points = 4d8
50 points = 2d20
100 points = 4d20

This is till very nasty, in terms of raw damage output, but not nearly as bad, especially as the average damage pulls it towards the middle of the range. For example, 4d20 will average 42, considerably less nasty than 100 points. Of course, I don't expect to wield a creature like this in an encounter until the party hit maximum level.

The to hit rolls are fairly easy for me, since I can translate them back to THAC0 by simply taking away from 20. In my group, it's even easier, as I get my players to roll defence rolls (sort of a reverse attack roll, a d20 minus their AC, a modified higher roll is better for them) and can use them as is with that system.

Also speed is nice and easy for me since we fight our battles on a hex system, built using the Heroscape tiles, so I can directly relate it to hexes per round.