Monday, July 29, 2013

Four New Spells: The Atrous Spike

Over the weekend, I learned the word atrous from playing Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes. It's not the main topic of this post, but I strongly recommend this game if you liked the classic Master of Magic. (I'd love to see a Myrror-like addition to Fallen Enchantress, though it has to be admitted that lands within the Empires' zones of control have something close to the look of Myrror.) This post is, in fact, about how atrous is a cool word for "jet-black." My mental image of these spells is, admittedly, inspired to some degree by Mass Effect, particularly this.

In between sinking vast amounts of time into the aforementioned video game, I've been vaguely pondering creating new spells for Aurikesh, to fit in with an idea I had a long time ago for replacing the traditional schools of magic. It's far from ready for primetime as a whole, but this is a little piece of the idea. I want to add more factors to the player's decision-making in learning, preparing, and casting spells. To be clear, I don't want the choices to become so difficult that the player agonizes over every action - I just want the choices to be interesting. Further, I've come to feel like D&D's classic spells are a bit lacking in nuance and flavor, so maybe this post will give other people ideas for their own home-brewed content.

Without further ado, the spells, with more commentary to follow.

Evocation of the Atrous Spike
First-level evocation (D&D), or First-level spell of Sechir

You cause a jet-black spike to erupt out of the earth, transfixing your enemy and exuding necrotic power.

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 50 ft
Duration: Concentration
Effect: A jet-black spike erupts out of the earth, to a height of five feet. It is sharp and slender; anyone standing in the place where it erupts (one 5' x 5' square) suffers 1d8+4 piercing damage and is restrained. On a successful Dexterity saving throw, the target suffers half damage and is not restrained. The target can break out of the restrained condition by waiting for the end of the spell's duration, or by tearing itself off of the atrous spike, taking an additional 2d8 piercing damage. Most incorporeal creatures take the initial damage as normal, but cannot be restrained and do not take damage from escaping.

The atrous spike's necrotic aura starts with no charges. It can only gain charges when a creature that is not dead (living, undead, and constructs all qualify) is restrained upon it; the spells that cause it to gain charges are specified as such in their own descriptions. Once the spike gains four or more charges, as a free action, the original caster can either inflict 4d8 necrotic damage on a target restrained upon the spike, or may drain 2d8+4 hit points from a restrained target, healing the caster for the same amount. This may occur more than once during the spike's duration.

At the end of the spell's duration, the atrous spike crumbles into small chunks of black stone.

Spike of Sorrow
First-level necromancy (D&D), or First-level spell of Sechir

You funnel power through an atrous spike, bringing despair to your enemies and enhancing the spike's necrotic aura.

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 50 ft
Duration: 1 minute
Target: An atrous spike that you created
Effect: Necrotic power flows from you into the atrous spike, enhancing its necrotic aura. All living creatures within 25 ft of the atrous spike must pass a Wisdom saving throw or be frightened for this spell's duration.

Additionally, this spell grants the atrous spike one charge, and any creature currently restrained upon the spike suffers 1d8 necrotic damage.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Races in Fantasy Gaming: Elves

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing 'twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

The Hosting of the Sidhe, by W.B. Yeats

A conversation in G+ a few days ago got me thinking about elves, particularly in gaming. Rather than continue to monopolize that thread with points about the Silmarillion, here's my second post about races in fantasy gaming (the first is here). Elves as a player race are one of the hallmarks of fantasy gaming, such that some settings have set themselves apart primarily through not having elves. I think it's fine and good for settings to break out of the mold, but let's look at elves in their own right, because they're sort of a big dividing point among gamers - either you hate elves and would never consider playing one, or you love them and want to play them all the time. (I personally occupy a middle ground, but I've known a lot of people of the extreme camps.)

To paraphrase the question that started the G+ conversation, what is it that is quintessentially elven? The words that come to mind for me, and I think for a lot of people, are "lithe, graceful, long-lived, aloof, nature-loving, magical," and so on. Some of these I'm fine with, and some I object to firmly. Description of body type drives me crazy - I really do think that there should be fat elves, broad-shouldered elves, gangly elves, and so on. This idea was cemented in my mind years ago at Shattered Isles. One of the guys on my team played an elf, and had a good laugh about the fact that the culture packet described elves as slender and graceful. Coming from a LARP context, it's nonsense to describe races around physique; I've seen games restrict races according to player builds, and I'm firmly convinced that those were terrible ideas. I'd like to see tabletop and video games similarly embrace all body types for all fantasy races. There are a lot of really good political reasons for this shift, but the reason I care is that it opens the field to nuanced characterization and choice.

Stereotypes play a useful role early on in a system or a setting - they give the players something simple to comprehend. Declaring that the stereotype is the reality, though, is reductive and lazy. Once players grasp that there are elves in this setting, they're ready to move on to more differentiation: elves that don't all look like Orlando Bloom, elves that aren't universally specialized in bows and blades, elves that have as much variation as humans. This is the problem with making "variation" the definitive human trait: the race with the most "variety" gets the blandest abilities (because they could be anything), while the rest of the races are pigeonholed into a narrow subset of classes by ability score modifiers or other stat-based influences. D&D Next includes basic, intermediate, and advanced levels of complexity in options - stereotypes are for beginning players. Intermediate and advanced players should be comfortable with breaking down the monolithic presentation.

The overly simplistic presentation of elven culture is just as problematic. 2e was possibly the worst about this, what with The Complete Book of Elves and Elves of Evermeet. These books were hyper-focused efforts to unpack more detail in elven culture, but the elves lack any real sense of internal conflict, only the continual threat of invasion and annihilation from without. Within their borders, they concern themselves with the kinds of things that don't involve conflict or challenge in any tangible way: strumming on stringed instruments, sitting beside fountains, and so on.

Among D&D settings, Eberron and Dark Sun get quite notable passes. Eberron probably does the best job of any TSR/WotC-published setting of presenting multiple elven cultures that are about something more than being tree-people. The elves feel like part of the world - even the Aerenal elves who are aloof and isolated are more engaged in the goings-on of Khorvaire than the elves of Evermeet. The Aerenal and Valenar elves are both focused in really interesting ways on concepts of legacy, lineage, and ancestor worship; I particularly like that they go about it in different ways from one another. Oh, and half-elves are their own, stable race (called the khoravar), rather than making a whole player race that is about not having a story of its own. Admittedly, this may not be for everyone. I don't know a lot about Dark Sun's elves, but I know they were pretty different from the norm - as you'd expect from Dark Sun.

This brings me to my central idea: the Silmarillion is the definitive culture packet for elves, while The Lord of the Rings gives some vague impressions of what elves look like to outsiders, but nothing more. The AinulindalĂ«, Valaquenta, and Quenta Silmarillion sections reveal a great deal about the conflicts that drive the elves; notably these are both conflicts with other elves and with the other forces of the world. It doesn't do a whole lot to explore day-to-day life, but the overwhelming pride and passion of the elves drives the story and continually reshapes the world. Unfortunately, most game settings parallel the Third Age of Middle-Earth more closely than the First Age, when the elves are withdrawing from the world and only a heroic few bother to do anything of any use. As a result, there are countless versions of elven cultures that are modeled on Legolas, and possibly Galadriel and Arwen. Tolkien understood and cared about the fact that the vitality and passion was almost faded from the elves; his countless imitators ape the outward signs of elvishness but don't have a real mastery of the themes that make these decisions compelling.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Downtime Actions in Tabletop Gaming

It's been a month and more since Mearls posted When Adventurers Aren't Adventuring, in which he explains that D&D Next will offer rules for things that happen while the heroes are at home or otherwise off-duty from heroics and/or treasure-hunting. I think it's fair to say that this has been one of the most frequent topics of this whole blog, from its inception. To summarize, downtime systems equate to attention spent on the broader setting, enhancing the game's sense of consistency and reality as the PCs engage in a wider variety of actions. The core actions of D&D's gameplay loop are destructive and (often) reactive; the kinds of things that work well for downtime action are constructive and proactive. This makes it easier than ever for the players' actions to drive the plot and feel like a living world.

These are, of course, all things that Mearls points out. Is there a counter-argument to be made? Well, I suppose you could want the action to be even more wall-to-wall, but I generally find that players are intrigued with opportunities to do unusual things. I had my PCs manage a settlement throughout a harsh winter, for example, finally facing an incursion of gnolls in the spring. Whenever someone suggests giving D&D a crafting system or discusses just how miserable the Craft rules of 3.x are, it's inevitable that someone will mention that heroes shouldn't have day jobs or worry about crafting a sword. At least as long as I've been playing (since '93), D&D has needed to support a variety of tones and styles, though (outside of Birthright) it hasn't ever handled domain-management or any other kind of downtime activity with particular skill.

As the LARP posts above indicate, downtime actions are a major consideration and a significant percentage of the workload of any event in an ongoing campaign, at least in Ro3 LARPs. Most tabletop games don't have several dozen players - though it's easy to imagine these rules bridging the gap between tabletop games and play-by-email games, since Birthright's domain-management rules have made it a popular choice for PBeMs. Back to the point I was trying to make, a DM doesn't have to write anywhere from one to five or more paragraphs on the spot, during play, in response to players taking downtime actions, and (I would strongly recommend) doesn't have to allow three or more actions per character in any one span of downtime. The workload can stay completely reasonable.

On the Other Hand

All of that great stuff about expanding and enriching the world - the real benefit of downtime actions, beyond simply varying the pace of the game - takes work. A game's content is something you want your players to latch onto at every possible moment. This means names, places, complications, costs - the actions need narration and thought, so that one action sets up the stakes and options for the next action. To put that another way, every tabletop game ever written has advised GMs (and often players as well) to narrate the effects of combat after the dice have been resolved. Downtime actions cannot match combat for visceral power; if the players and the DM don't seize the fiction and do something useful with it, it quickly passes into a bland passage of time.

Introduce new characters through downtime actions. Make them helpful, indifferent, or malicious, and use them in the narrative. This is tabletop gaming, where players will have a harder time remembering who's who than they do in live-action gaming, so DMs should be prepared to coach players on exactly who this guy is the first time he shows up in the action, even if he's been mentioned half-a-dozen times in downtime. Wherever it might be feasible, a brief encounter with an NPC is better than an action that doesn't include another NPC, but be careful that this doesn't consistently give one player a solo scene without giving other players roughly equal attention. Since many of the downtime actions Mearls lays out are characters pursuing solo goals, this would be like having social scenes where only one character is permitted to speak.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Divination in Gaming, Part Two: LARP Edition

About a week ago, I wrote a few words about the function of divination in tabletop gaming. As is common in this blog, I'm coming back to discuss how the same idea works in live-action gaming. Just like every other time I've posted about LARPing, I'm really talking about the games that are within my experience: Shattered Isles, King's Gate, Wildlands South, Eclipse, and Dust to Dust. I don't know the systems of other games well enough to comment on them in detail.

In my previous post, I touched on the difference between "sensing" spells and "pluck information from the aether" spells. That distinction is at the forefront of any discussion on divination in LARPs, even more so than in tabletop games, because the GM is not omnipresent. In a tabletop game, all information flows from the GM, and divination magic is an excuse to ask questions that the GM would otherwise be completely justified in not answering. In a LARP, there are plenty of cases where one character might use a sensing spell (something akin to D&D's detect magic or the like) on another character, without the presence of a marshal (the general LARP term for an impartial game master). This emphasizes the niche of effects that provide clues rather than answers, since the person playing that character may be a player or a short-term volunteer, and thus won't have broader Plot knowledge.

Ironically, because of emergent behaviors from players and NPCs, there are also a lot more cases where the marshal could not possibly give a correct answer. Documenting the relevant information for the marshal's sake is important in some cases, and impractical or unnecessary in others, but that's going to influence where it is or is not practical to build in sensing spells. Tracking spells (comparable to locate person or locate object) are mostly off-limits, simply because the marshal can't know. I recall a case in SI when a certain cursed item was supposed to be permanently traceable by the bad guys, but the item was a little smaller than a tennis ball and dark gray in color. When a player hurled it into the woods, nothing short of a full sweep of that area of the site would have had even a vague chance of recovering the item. Thinking of that situation has informed some later considerations of how Plot can manage information that the NPC antagonists should have; the important thing is to make sure that just tossing the bad thing into the woods (or the lake, or a trash can for that matter) is never, ever the best answer.

Investigation Spells

But I digress. Let me just say that many sensing spells are fine; DtD uses Sense Magic, Sense Health, Identify Magic Item, a few different illusion-sensing spells, and a few others. There is a Sense Truth effect listed in the rulebook, though it is not widely accessible. Together, Sense Magic and Sense Health cover the same ground that Magic Sense and Life Sense covered in SI and KG, though we reworked exactly which questions fall under each effect. Together, these effects represent a long list of questions and follow-ups to determine details about the state and nature of a person or thing.

There are no spells to detect secret doors, because such an effect would remove the whole game of carefully searching a module area for the secret door trigger(s). Some have proposed a spell that told the caster whether or not there was anything to look for in the first place, but thus far we've preferred to telegraph that information through story, tone, and other subtle cues (as well as occasional surprises).

There are really seriously no spells to detect evil, because Evil is not a tangible concept that goes on someone's character card. You can only detect things that can be defined. It was a bit different in Shattered Isles, where it was feasible for a spell to detect Tal Shar corruption within a target's spirit. On the other hand, keeping that Tal Shar corruption a secret was a big, important part of gameplay for corrupted characters, because the playerbase had what we can fairly call a hostile attitude toward Tal Shar corruption. Thus, spells to detect corruption were even less common than spells that hid corruption (among other things that they effectively concealed). DtD has a completely different approach to the concept of "corruption," and thus has no comparable effect. Everything worth saying about magical corruption was said with skill and grace in the Shattered Isles and King's Gate campaigns.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Divination in Gaming, Part One

Last week's Legends & Lore post touched briefly on divination magic, sparking an ongoing conversation in the D&D Next community about the application of divination magic in games. This is the kind of conversation that applies across gaming of every kind - tabletop, LARP, video games, occasionally even board games. What we're really talking about is a means of asking questions of the universe (rather than a person); effects are generally divided according to what kinds of questions you can ask, what it costs to ask the question, and how clear of an answer you get; more rarely there are distinctions of chance to succeed in asking and other kinds of limitations. The central question is the breadth of divination powers, and how the flow of both story and game intersect with those powers.

I'm going to address specific viewpoints raised in the thread I linked above. I want to be clear that I'm not trying to get the last word by moving the conversation to my own blog - I just have enough to say on this topic that I don't feel like a G+ comment is a very good place to make these points. In future posts, I want to broaden the conversation to LARPing and other forms of gaming, because I can't count the number of conversations I've had about player-directed divination in the particular context of LARPs.

D&D, editions other than 4e

D&D provides a useful set of terms to use in talking about every kind of divination, even though I have years of scathing criticism for its specific handling of the matter. Divination is one of the eight classic schools of arcane spells in D&D. Its efficacy in a game varies wildly according to the style of the game - a fact that renders a whole lot of conversations about divination completely invalid because the two sides come from unrelated assumptions. On the one hand (and my preference), there are games in which mystery, intrigue, and lore are central to gameplay and the players' goals. In these games, even the humble detect evil is far more information than the DM wants to hand out, because it so readily resolves questions. (The fact that someone might use detect evil to resolve questions of guilt and innocence is a whole different question - but I feel certain that if we had such powers in the real world, we'd use them in just that way.) Anything that amounts to detect lie is, if anything, even worse.

The other kind of game is, presumably, one in which mysteries aren't that big of a deal, and it doesn't matter if the PCs short-circuit them with a single spell. These two kinds of games have so little in common that one needs to be the system's default assumption, while the other is a rules module. Obviously, I'd like to see the style of gaming I identify with supported! I've heard a lot of arguments that all approaches to stories in games should account for divination in its full D&D implementation, though, and I just can't agree with that.

A good while back, Monte Cook, of Monte Cook fame, made a series of declarations about how to handle high-powered characters in adventures. (If you have a link to this post, I don't even know where to begin to look for it.) His advice was to avoid simply negating players' abilities - such as the dungeon that blocks all teleportation in or out, once your PCs have earned access to teleport spells and the like. He argued that simply negating their powers was dirty pool, and it was better to write the adventures in a way that accounted for their abilities and even required their use. This advice took root in the D&D gaming community, and it is often cited in conversations such as these. To quote another of the great philosophers of our time, though:
"Horse hockey!" - Col. Sherman Potter, M.A.S.H.