Last week I posted a map and some basic information about the setting for the terrible fantasy novel I'm writing for National Novel Writing Month, The Quest For the Lord of the Dragonsword Throne. Since one of the characters is a wizardess, I've had to come up with some basic information about how magic works in the world. Most of the information so far has been from the perspective of an Omarian wizard, so some of what we know may be based as much on cultural norms as on the universal laws of magic in the world. I also haven't established how closely other places follow the Omarian standard, though there is at least a suggestion that the Seven Kingdoms view magic similarly, and the Callipygians (barbarians) probably engage in more primitive rituals since they're "suspicious of civilized magic, with its relative lack of violence and spectacle and body fluids compared to what passed for sorcery among the savages."
Wizardry in Omaria is controlled by the Wizards' Guild ("witch" is a derogatory term applied to non-guild wizards). Magic is known as the "The Black Arts" and spells are divided into four spheres, each associated with a color. Red magic is the magic of the body and covers things like strength spells and battle magic (though not healing). Blue magic is the magic of the soul and includes things like emotional manipulation and mind control. Gold magic is the magic of the intellect and is used for spells that improve perception and understanding--divination spells, spells to read languages or see things that are hidden, that kind of thing. Green magic is the magic of nature and covers druid-type stuff from controlling the weather to making crops grow better. Wizards who specialize in a particular color of magic may be invited to join one of the four Orders, which are sub-groups of the guild, kind of like Hogwart's houses for grown-ups (though wizards join (or choose not to join) the Orders voluntarily--there's no Sorting Hat or anything).
A fifth type of magic, white magic, is the magic that is channeled by servants of the gods. It's not considered true magic by the wizards and at one point Cassie says that most people who claim to be white magicians are really just charlatans who rely on suggestion and parlor tricks.
In QAGS terms, "Wizard" is the Job and the different colors of magic are Skills. Wizards can cast magic from any of the four colors and can take Skills for more than one color if they want. Wizards have spell points equal to their Wizard Job Number plus the number of Skill Bonuses they have in magic-related skills. Wizards with Brain and/or Nerve Numbers over 13 get an additional spell point for a 14, 2 points for 15, and 3 for 16. So a Wizard with a Job Number of 12, Brain 14, and Nerve 15 and a "Blue Magic" Skill at +2 would have 17 spell points.
Wizards can cast rituals, make potions, enchant items, and do all the usual stuff, and these use the Magic Rules! system with a spell point cost equal to the DN of the ritual. The only things that work differently are Hexes, which are the kind of spells we've seen Cassie using so far. A Hex is basically a quick, temporary magical effect. It might help to think of it like an interrupt or instant card in Magic: The Gathering (if I'm remembering the terminology right--I haven't played in years). They look a lot like a spell in Harry Potter--the wizard points his staff, says something in a weird language (the magic words for the spells in the novel are their own dumb joke, but I'll let you work that out for yourself if you're so inclined), and something happens. When a wizard casts a Hex, the Success Degree determines the maximum effect a spell can have, but the wizard has to spend a spell point for each point of actual effect. For example, a wizard who gets a Success Degree of 10 on an attack spell but only spends 5 spell points causes 5 points of damage. What a point's worth of spell effect means depends on the context. If the wizard is trying to do something like open a lock with magic, he'd need an effect greater than the DN a thief would need to pick the lock without magic. For spells that cause or reduce damage from a single attack, effect points translate directly to HP. If the caster wants to give someone a bonus for multiple rounds, each point is a +1 bonus for 1 round, so if you want to give someone +2 for the next 5 rounds, you need to spend 10 spell points. When there's no existing game number to translate the effect to, the GM can always just treat every three points of spell effect as a Yum Yum when deciding how well a hex works.
White magic (which we haven't seen in action yet in the novel) is a whole other ballgame. To use white magic, a character needs an appropriate Gimmick along the lines of "Servant of [God's Name Here]." They don't have spell points and basically cast spells by asking whichever god they follow to help them out. Since the gods are fickle bastards, it's basically a crap shoot. The servant rolls Gimmick and the GM rolls d20. If the GM rolls higher (the god can't fail his roll, so even 20s are considered a success), the god isn't listening and nothing happens. If the player wins the roll, the magic happens with an effect equal to the difference. The GM can give bonuses or even allow an automatic success (player still rolls, but the god voluntarily rolls a zero, which they can do despite there being no zero on a d20 because they're gods) if she thinks the god actually cares about whatever the player is trying to do (usually because it's something the god needs the player to do).
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As I told you last week, I decided to write an awful fantasy novel for National Novel Writing Month. So far I've written right around the 1667 words per day needed to finish in 30 days and I feel good about finishing on time. My original plan was to build the world as I went, but I got to a point last week where I had to at least come up with some basics, so now I've got a spiral notebook and a map, so shit just got serious. Since lots of gaming blogs describe crappy fantasy worlds, I'm going to do that here this week.
For the map, I decided to use Campaign Cartographer, which I've had for a while now but never actually used before. I remembered why when I opened it and tried making the map. The program has weird controls that are really counter-intuitive and hard to figure out. After spending about an hour with the help file and lots of false starts, I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of it. The map is below, but it's not very detailed because I'm not doing any more world building than I have to, so things don't get added to the map until they show up in the text.
Most of the established detail about the world deals with Omaria, where the story is set. Most of the other kingdoms are just a name at this point, but here are the brief descriptions of the points of interest I know something about:
Ravenshire: Is where our story begins, and is a mid-sized town. It's the base of operations for Gwar Dragonsword and Lug Ramsbane and the home of The Fisted Faun inn, best known for the spiced pork made by its proprietor, Olard Chubwit. The Captain of the Guard in Ravenshire is Heafstagg Swinekill.
The Foreboding Forest: This is where Maltar Dio, the Green Wizard, lives. It's also where Dave's wandering around lost and stupid.
King's Rest: This is the capital where Cas'andra Bloodstone grew up and studied at the Academy of Black Arts. It's also where Dezep Tor, as a member of the Night Guard, is based.
Harm's Way: Is a tiny village at the edge of the forest. It's main claim to fame is the monastery of the Purple Sages (worshipers of Parfrey the Lorekeeper) located there. It's the home of Elrith Starbreeze and the current destination of the main party.
Wintershire: Is the city where the Winter Palace (which is lovely in the fall) is located. The party will be going there after Harm's Way.
Umbra: This is the land where the fnorcs live. It's all evil and shit. The warlords there take the title "Grim."
Bittertea: Dezep Tor claims to be originally from there, and 25 years ago it was brutally attacked to Grim Kargoth.
The Dragon Lands: This was the T'barri Empire until it was destroyed in the wars started by The Bastard King (right before the dragons went away). With the Empire destroyed, the T'barri became wanderers. The buried city is where ArchGrim Slaine Doomfists' fnorcs have set up a camp and seem to be looking for something, possibly one of the Dragonswords.
Callipygia: This is where the barbarians live, and where Lug hails from. They worship Mighty Thule, who rules in Vanhallen.
Here's the basic history (copied from my notes):
- Four Kingdoms (Omaria, Syadasti, Malclypsia, Zarathud) form alliance with dragons, forge Dragon Swords
- King Aslan Dragonsword I (formerly Prince Valentine or Omaria): Unites Kingdoms under Dragonsword Throne
- 500 Years of Peace
- King Zodak Dragonsword (The Bastard King) usurps throne through treachery, wages war on everybody
- Four kingdoms splinter, dragons leave, T'barri empire destroyed
- Age of Disorder
We also know that there were five dragon clans and that wizards divide themselves into four Orders (Gold, Green, Blue, and Red).
And in case you're wondering: Yes, most of the character names are from the Qerth Random Name Generator. Some of you might also notice a recurring theme with some of the place names, particularly the kingdoms.
This week's post isn't specifically about gaming, but since terrible fantasy and gaming kind of go hand in hand, I figure it's not completely off-topic.
As some of you may know, I wrote an M-Force novel for National Novel Writing Month a few years ago. The first draft isn't anywhere near publishable, but it helped me work out some things I needed to work out for M-Force 2E. There's probably enough story there to turn what I've got into something worth publishing, though, so last November I decided to start revising it. November came and went and all I did was convert the file to an format that was easier to work with. By this point, I've accepted that I'm probably not going to do anything with the M-Force novel until the new edition of the game is finished and I have no choice, which freed me up to start a new NaNoWriMo novel over the weekend.
My first thought was to do a Hobomancer novel, since we have plans of doing more Hobomancer fiction to go along with Suicide's Run and I want to write some of it, but ultimately I decided that if I write a full Hobomancer I don't want to rush through the first draft in a month. I also considered writing novels around one of the three game setting concepts I've been thinking about in hopes that they'd help me pin some ideas down like the M-Force novel did, but decided against those because I have at least two big games (Cinemechanix and M-Force 2E) to finish before I can even start seriously working on the other ideas. That left two non-game novel ideas: A pulpy science fiction story about the adventures of space heroine Ray Gun Thompson (a character based entirely on my misreading of someone's name on Facebook) and an intentionally terrible fantasy novel. Since sci-fi (at least of the spaceship and ray gun variety) isn't really my natural element and pulp works better in short story form, I decided to go with the terrible fantasy novel. I'm calling it "Quest for the Lord of the Dragonsword Throne of Magic" and you can read the chapters as I finish them here.
I thought about just writing a Qerth novel, but decided I didn't want to be tied down to a standard D&D world (even a satirical one), since some of the tried and true cliches (like dragons returning) don't work there. The plan is to include as many cliches, as many terrible metaphors, and as many phrases that sound like they say something but are actually meaningless when you parse them using literal definitions, and as many alternative ways of saying "said" (preferably with the words used incorrectly, or at least incongruently) as humanly possible. So far, I'm particularly proud of "faintly reeked" and "the road snaked like a serpentine serpent," and "he interrobanged." At first I was planning to write a full story with a beginning, middle, and end, but I'm beginning to think it would be more in keeping with the genre to have the book end without the characters being anywhere close to a resolution of the plot. Not sure which way I'll go yet.
As for cliches, just in the first four chapters we've got:
- A completely meaningless prologue.
- A character dying almost immediately upon being introduced.
- A kindly old wizard.
- A moody protagonist with a tortured soul.
- A barbarian who's suspicious of magic.
- A bookish, socially awkward wizardess.
- An obvious traitor.
- On-the-nose character names.
- Gratuitous apostrophes.
- Meaningless setting details repeated over and over in order to make the world seem interesting.
- A group of adventurers meeting in a bar.
- A man from our world transported into the fantasy world of the novel.
- And probably some other stuff.
- A bar fight!
- A revelation regarding the rather expansive use of the term "orphan."
- Color-coded magic.
- "Strong female characters"
- Dragons returning after generations.
If you can handle the pain, give it a read. I'll try to get something more obviously gaming-related next week, but the posts this month will probably be a little on the short side. I've been staying a little ahead of the required word count to hit 50,000 words by November 30 so far, but if the first time is any indication that won't last long.
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Today in shameless self-promotion, I’ve just released my latest non-gaming book through Brainfart Press. It’s called Dispatches From The MGT: Curious Signs from the American Workplace and you can get your copy from CreateSpace or Amazon. My previous Brainfart books, Obscure Early Bluesmen (Who Never Existed) (Kindle edition also available) and The Callipygian Grimoire: A Discordian Activity & Spell Book, are also still available through both sites.
A couple weeks ago I talked about Cinemechanix, the new game system I’ve been working on that developed out of what was originally going to be QAGS 3rd Edition. Since work on the project, like love, will come in spurts (and since it’s sometimes hard to think of things to write about in a gaming blog when you’re not gaming regularly), I’m going to post updates and “designer’s notes” types of things here than rather starting a separate blog with sporadic updates. That being the case, it seems like a good idea to start by talking about my design goals for Cinemechanix. Since these goals are based on my idea of what makes gaming fun, some of this will sound familiar to regular readers.
The System Should Support Collaborative Storytelling
This seems like a straightforward goal, but let’s unpack it just the same. First off, Cinemechanix is a storytelling game, not a strategy game, so players should be rewarded for contributing to the story, not for finding ways to exploit the rules. The best way to do this is to keep the rules simple. Complex rules, whether intentionally or not, often become gatekeeping mechanisms when they make new players (or players with lives) feel like they’re at a disadvantage because they haven’t had time to read (or money to buy) all the supplements in order to use obscure rules to optimize their characters. As someone who has a financial as well as personal interest in making gaming inviting for new players, I want as few gatekeepers as possible.
The disadvantage created by too much rules complexity also hampers a new or casual player’s ability to effectively collaborate, since according to Celine’s Second Law true communication can only occur between equals. It’s always going to take new players a while to learn all the rules, but the rules shouldn’t be so complex that players who haven’t mastered them feel like second-class citizens. Celine’s Second Law also comes into play in relation to the power dynamic between the players and the GM. It’s not the GM’s game, it’s everybody’s game. The players should feel like they’re active co-authors of the story, not editors who are punching up the GM’s half-assed characterization. If you’re worried that giving players more control over the direction of the story will lead to a game where players always “win” an empty victory, there are two things you should know: (1) you don’t understand how stories work; (2) you are not the target audience for this game.
While there are some mechanics (like the Cinemechanix version of Yum Yums, called Acclaim) that help encourage a more egalitarian relationship between the players and GM, it’s more a matter of encouraging a game “culture” that allows for more player involvement in the initial campaign design as well as ongoing world creation.
The System Should Be Cinematic
The fact that the game is called “Cinemechanix” probably clued you into this. The name comes from a multi-part series of articles about cinematic role-playing that Deep Space Rescue author Jason Whisman wrote for one of the early incarnations of The Death Cookie. We also used the name for QAGS Cops & Robbers, which we subtitled “A Cinemechanix Guide for QAGS.” Since the system is geared toward “cinematic” gaming and since I make a lot of comparisons between RPGs and movies/television in the rules, the name seemed like a natural fit. Don’t worry, I checked with Jason and he said I could use it.
I’m not using the term “cinematic” here in quite the same context that most gamers use it. In gamer-speak, “cinematic” usually means “there are rules for doing action-movie style fights and stunts.” Typically, these rules are just as complicated, simulationist, time-consuming, and generally destructive to any sense of narrative flow as the "non-cinematic" rules found in first and second generation RPGs. I’m using the word “cinematic” to suggest that playing the game should feel like you’re watching a great movie or television show, not like you’re doing math. Or, as we put it in QAGS, the game should model fiction, not reality.
A big part of meeting the goal of making the game system cinematic is recognizing the sorts of rules that don’t do anything to enhance storytelling (and often get in the way of it) and are mostly included in games because of inertia and tradition. QAGS has already done a lot of the heavy lifting here, but even it has a few of these. A good example is the Damage Bonus rule for weapons. In a simulationist game that attempts to model reality, it makes sense. In fiction, combat prowess is a function of the character, not the props he’s carrying. If Buster Bluth tries to shoot Machete with his machine gun and all Machete has is a fluffy pink bunny, Buster’s going to end up unconscious on the ground with a fluffy pink bunny shoved up his ass nine times out of ten.
The myth of game balance and the idea of the character sheet as an inventory are bigger picture concepts that also need to go, but they're so ingrained in role-playing culture that they sometimes try to slip into the rules even when you’re actively trying to keep them out. Both have their place in more strategy-oriented games where the goal is to “out-play” the other players through use of the game rules, but are completely unnecessary in a cooperative social game unless the players lack emotional maturity and/or basic human decency. If that’s the case, there’s no rule that’s going to help.
The Game Should Be Adaptable
Players should be able to use the system to play any kind of story they want to play. For games about action movie cops or Old West gunfighters or vikings, you can probably just take the core rules and run with them. The need for special rules usually arises when you throw something weird like magic or super-powers or futuristic technology into the mix. I’m using “adaptable” here to differentiate the game from “generic” or “universal” systems. The generic approach says, for example, “Here are the rules for psychic powers. Any character with psychic powers in any setting uses these rules.” The problem of course, is that psychic powers may work very differently or have a different flavor from one ficton (or even one character) to the next. The “one rule to rule them all” approach more often than not results in a mechanic that kind of works in a lot of situations but doesn’t work especially well in any of them.
The “adaptable” approach says “Here is a toolbox of rules concepts. Use them in whatever way works best for your game.” The Hulk’s “Super Strength” ability might not use the same rules as Superman’s (or even Thor’s), and a magic system that works perfectly for Hogwart's isn't going to work very well for Sunnydale High. Adaptability requires mechanics that are simple and versatile enough that adapting them to a particular use is mainly a matter of either defining how the general rules work in specific situations or creating new rules that work alongside the existing rules without changing them. An example of the former would be deciding what kind of roll players make when they want to hack into a computer system and how high they need to roll to achieve common results. An example of the latter would be adding a spell point system that governs how much magic players can use during a particular span of game time. The core rulebook should also provide a lot of examples (very clearly presented as examples, not universal rules) to give players ideas of how to adapt the rules to different settings and situations.
Outside of the rules, one of the things I’m trying to do to encourage the idea of adaptability is to put a lot of emphasis on “designing” your game. This doesn’t mean drawing a map and writing up pages and pages of minutia, it means getting together with the group and deciding what kind of world you want to play in and what kinds of stories you want to tell. Part of the process is deciding what setting elements, story concepts, or character abilities require additional or more detailed rules to achieve the desired flavor and level of detail. A Star Wars game will probably need rules for spaceship combat. A Firefly game won’t.
That’s the big picture of what I want to accomplish with Cinemechanix: an adaptable, cinematic system for collaborative storytelling. I’ll go into more detail about how I’m trying to do it in future posts. The playtest draft is close to being presentable enough to show to people other than Hex staff, personal friends, and Patreon followers, but it’s not quite there yet. Right now I’m focusing on helping with the editing of And One For All (Ian’s Three Musketeers sourcebook) so the text will be ready for layout as soon as the art (by Robert Kemp, who did the cover and interior art for Aces & Apes) is finished.
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All Games Considered spent most of a recent show reviewing a whole bunch of Hex products. If you're on the fence or want to know more about a particular QAGS book, there's a good chance they mention it in the podcast.
In other news, I sent in an entry to the Playing D&D with Porn Stars Thought Eater Tournament, but couldn't tell you because all entries were anonymous until the voting was done. My entry and the one it was up against tied, so I get to move on to round 2. I'm not sure of the timeline, but the submission deadline is Sunday so presumably Zak will start posting entries sometime next week. As with the last round, I can't tell you which one's mine until the voting is done.
My topic for the first round was: "Monster and Encounter Design (How to make it memorable? Is 'memorable' even the aim? How to make them good? etc)”
Here's what I wrote:
“Memorable” isn’t something the GM can create, it’s something that happens in play. A throwaway scene that the GM just pulled out of nowhere to fill time can be the most memorable scene of a campaign, while an elaborately plotted scene can be forgotten by the next week. It’s all a matter of what the players grab onto during the scene, what they do with it, and sometimes what they roll. That being the case, I’m going to ditch the idea of trying to make an encounter memorable in favor of some nebulous definition of “good” that includes elements with a high potential for memorability (which, at least according to the Google Docs spellchecker, seems to be an actual word).
For me, the thing that always makes a encounter seem “good” is context, which needs to work on a couple of different levels. On the meta level, it needs to feel like the encounter does something to move the story along, whether it’s giving the party information, moving them one step closer to the goal, or just helping the story flow by providing some tension when things get boring or a break in the action when things get too tense. If you’re watching a movie or TV show, you can often tell if a scene was just added to stretch out the run time, show off a special effect, or get Christopher Walken’s name on the poster, and noticing it makes the movie less enjoyable. With encounters that aren’t plot points, the biggest challenge is knowing when to include them and when to throw them out or hand wave them. If the party has already beaten the level boss, making them wade through a bunch of low-level cannon fodder that can’t hurt them and don’t add anything new to the story just makes it feel like you’re delaying their victory party unless you’ve specifically set up a “it’s getting back out that’s the hard part” situation. If the last hour of the game is spent in a series of boring fights with small bands of half-starved kobolds, the players are more likely to forget the really cool battle with the minotaur by the time the session’s over.
The other level is the setting level: the encounter seems to feel like it belongs there. Things that are part of the story will already have reasons for being there, but even incidental or unplanned encounters (like surprise ninja attacks to get a group that’s dithering to start moving again or wandering monsters) need to feel like they make sense. If an encounter doesn’t seem plausible, it’s going to feel like a plot point, so you need to be prepared for when the players realize that there traditionally aren’t any ninjas in Rivendell and start trying to figure out where the guys in black pajamas came from. Even if the players take a “eh, ninjas, what can you do?” attitude and don’t pursue the anomaly, it doesn’t hurt to throw in something later that helps explain where it came from. The more encounters interconnect with one another and the setting, the more alive the setting will feel.
My personal solution for making sure that encounters feel like they have context is not to think in terms of encounters. The typical gaming definition of “encounter”--when the players arrive at location X, event Y will happen--is static, which makes the world seem less like a living setting and more like a diorama that only comes to life when the players are there to see it. Instead, I try to think in terms of motivations and conflicts. Instead of sitting around waiting for the PCs to break into their house and kill them, the non-PC actors go about their lives (often clashing with one another) and react accordingly when the PCs inevitably mess up their plans. Even if you’re running a dungeon crawl where the “there are orcs in this room” model works a little better, it still helps to understand what life in the dungeon is like when there are no adventurers breaking up the place. If nothing else, it’ll help you spot design flaws that might kill the players’ suspension of disbelief, like the fact that the Displacer Beast in room 7 probably would have either starved to death or set off the spike trap at the end of the only hallway to room 7 long before the party ever got there.
Context is also important in monster design in that the kind of monster you choose or create needs to fit the role you want the monster to play in the story. I usually break monsters down into a few broad categories: Cannon Fodder are nuisance monsters that are mostly used for pacing; Mystery monsters are puzzles to be solved and can usually be killed fairly easily once you figure out how to kill them; Brutes are big and tough and scary but ultimately just meat that can be hacked apart; Tricksters screw with the character’s minds; Predators create tension by playing cat and mouse with the heroes; and Forces of Nature are things like giant monsters and zombie hordes that require a brilliant plan to defeat because taking them out by hitting them with pointy sticks is statistically improbable. Once you know why the monster’s there, it’s just a matter of adding bells and whistles and assorted pointy bits to make it seem cool.
Ultimately, the key to creating good scenes is asking “why is this here?” or “why is this happening?” and then answering your own question. The more these answers interconnect with one another, the story, and the setting, the more alive the world will seem. The more alive the world seems, the more the players will have to latch onto in order to create memorable scenes. A series of disconnected encounters with no context or narrative flow are likely to blend into one another, just like a series of random workdays when nothing interesting happens.