Thursday, January 28, 2010

Deities & Demigods: A Christian Perspective

Here is a scenario that seems to happen quite often: James over at Grognardia writes something that makes me reconsider some aspect of our hobby and look at it again from a different perspective. He's done it again with his retrospective on Deities & Demigods. I despise this book, because of the damage it did to the game — the systemization of a pagan world-view, the power creep, the awkward cosmology, the narrowing and solidification of the nine alignment system, etc. However, the one thing that bothered me most when I first picked up the DDG and what apparently still bothers James — the quantification of everything — is the one thing about the DDG that I now truly do appreciate.

Whether intended or not, giving stats to all these pagan gods as if they were monsters expresses a fundamental truth about the pagan world-view. These gods are quantifiable because they are part of creation. Ancient creation stories repeat over and over again how all the various bits and pieces of the world are made from some part of the gods themselves. Creation always happens from some kind of pre-existant matter — everything is quantifiable.

When St. Athanasius the Great expressed Christian dogma in On the Incarnation at the beginning of the fourth century:

(the universe) was not made from pre-existant matter, but out of nothing and out of non-existance absolute and utter God brought it into being through the Word

he expressed an idea utterly alien to his audience — the pagan Greek mind.

Thus, the DDG, in its own way, reinforces this reality. It leaves alone the Judeo-Christian mythos, passively acknowledging that God cannot be quantified, while correctly reducing the pagan gods to a series of entries in what amounts to an elaborate version of the Monster Manual.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lost Colonies Session 10

This session saw the party return to the site of their battle with the masked necromancer to find that the tower was now throbbing like a heart beat and that each beat revealed red, glowing runes that seemed to emanate from inside the rock itself. They followed these runes deep into the bowels of the tower where they found a machine powered by a river of blood and a water wheel made of some strange kind of black stone. Assuming that this machine was evil in intent and origin, they set about trying to sabotage it by jamming the golden mask of the necromancer into the gears of the machine, bringing it to a grinding halt and beginning a desperate battle as those who were using the machine began to investigate why it had stopped working.

It is at this point that I have to give a bunch of kudos to Matt Finch. I populated this dungeon with several of his creations from Monsters of Myth and the results have been spectacular. One design cue that I plan to steal whole-heartedly is giving seemingly innocuous creatures powers that change the way the battle field functions, and then adding a layer of strategy to the dungeon denizens who are able to take advantage of these changes.

For example, one of my new all-time favorite vermin looks for all intents and purposes to be a giant cockroach; however, it is really a denizen of the elemental plane of earth and has a defensive ability to turn rock to mud in a 50' radius. Here's the kicker: when the thing dies, all that mud immediately turns back to stone. Thus, the creatures can be abused by dungeon dwellers to set a battlefield trap for unwary adventurers — when the characters find themselves bogged down in mud, kill the bugs with some well-aimed missile fire and the characters are suddenly immobilized and target practice can ensue.

This scenario is what happened in the middle of the running battle after the sabotage, with the dwarf being the sole party member not stuck in the floor desperately trying to defend his comrades from goblins attacking from several flanks. Beautiful stuff — when the party pulled themselves out of the fire with some well timed spells and those trusty old iron spikes, they knew they earned victory. Or should I say survival? We had a very entertaining evening because Mr. Finch inspired me with an ingenious monster design.

The party did manage to capture a goblin and garner some information from him. He claimed that the machine opened a gate that would allow his people to wipe clean the surface world. When pressed, he bragged that machines like it dotted the landscape. All the characters were also haunted by a dream of a strange altar consisting of what could only be described as flailing tentacles barely conceivable by the human mind. The altar was situated on the top of a tower, surrounded by a blue fog. Far below, the outline of an alien city could barely be seen. In the dream, Arkmed the Dwarf and Dn. Goram were entranced an inhuman melody. When they awoke, they were compelled to do everything in their power to destroy the gate.

Our session ended with preparations to re-enter the bowels of the tower to do just that.

Monday, January 11, 2010

On d6 Weapon Damage

This morning I followed a link from James at Grognardia to this very reasoned argument for all weapons doing d6 damage. Even though I use d6 damage for all weapons in my own game, I find myself disagreeing with this argument for much the same reasons.

Combat in OD&D is abstract. Thus, we as players are free to interpret various elements of the combat system as we choose. In other words, whether or not we use d6 damage, variable dice damage, weapon vs. AC tables, critical hits, ablative shields, or any number of combat rules is all aesthetics.

In my own experience I love universal d6 weapon damage and I hate it. So far, my love has outweighed my loathing. Having d6 damage has given my players the freedom to use weapons that they wouldn't otherwise use. The main party fighter uses a spiked club, which he is very attached to. Once variable weapon damage is introduced (especially as written in AD&D) fighters almost always go for swords — why settle for club at d4 damage when the long sword does d8? In practice, the universal d6 damage has resulted in creative play — since everything does d6 damage, advantage in combat comes from tactical choices outside of weapon choice. As a gamer, I've really enjoyed this creativity — aesthetics.

At the same time, I have noticed that it has reduced the number of cool shaped dice in actual game play. Over the course of a night, my players will only use d6s and d20s. Since one of the reasons I started gaming all those years ago was the ability to use all these cool shaped dice, I miss them in game play — aesthetics.

My group uses a house rule where shields are ablative and can absorb a hit by being destroyed. I have really enjoyed this in game play — it adds a level of tactical choice that increases tension in combat at the same time that it increases survivability. It is powerful enough, however, that there is little incentive to use two-handed weapons. They get used, but only in very specific tactical situations like bracing for a charge. I am not happy with this, but not enough to scrap d6 damage — aesthetics.

All of this demonstrates, I hope, that d6 weapon damage and variable weapon damage are both perfectly legitimate choices in play. I actually like both of them, for different reasons. The wonder of old-school style of play is that it gives us the room and freedom to play with both. It all comes down to what we find most entertaining to play with — aesthetics.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Meditations on the Thief Class

As a Christmas present, I got a sampling of old-school modules written and published by various sources around the OSR. To one degree or another, all of them are excellent and one of my favorites (The People of the Pit) has already been integrated into my current campaign. When I was reading them, however, I noticed something that bothered me. The modules written for those rulesets that included the thief class — 1ed, OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord, for example — had some encounters that virtually required a thief to get past them unscathed. It made me remember why I dislike the class, but allowed me to view it from a new perspective.

When the thief class is introduced, player freedom is limited. The mechanical assumption is that the thief is the only class that can accomplish the tasks described under thief skills. Thus, traps suddenly require a thief to bypass. Players who choose to play a different class are no longer able to find or disarm traps.

Let me illustrate why I hate this using a different class — the cleric. In an encounter with the undead, clerics have at their disposal the ability to Turn. This ability, however, does not prevent any of the other classes from doing damage to the undead or otherwise participating in the encounter. If we were to apply the mechanical assumptions of the thief class to the cleric class, only clerics would be able to engage the undead and do any harm to them. All other classes would be completely ineffective against them. Encounters with the undead would suddenly be rendered completely unfun, which is how I feel about traps when thieves are allowed in the game.

Thus, thief skills, skill systems, or any mechanic that prevents anyone without access to a particular skill or mechanic from solving or otherwise defeating an encounter is not fun to play with. From a design perspective, every encounter in the game ought to be doable, solvable or able to be defeated by everybody — but some classes will be better equipped to deal with certain situations than others. Therein is the fun of the game — choosing a path (a class and its particular ability-set) and trying to overcome all of the various challenges adventures throw at us.

Where does this leave me in regards to the Thief? I still don't like the class, in large part due to where it takes the game mechanically. I am no longer going to say 'no,' however. As long as I don't get lazy designing traps — making sure I know how they work — then I can use the Thief skills as one might use a saving throw. I'll make the player describe to me how they might go about finding and removing a trap (or whatever other skills they might use) just as I would any other player in the same situation. When they fail to describe to me a legitimate way to succeed, the player of the Thief would then (and only then) get to roll against his skill. This way everybody can survive an encounter with a trap, Thieves are just better equipped to do so.