Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sufficiently Advanced...

Arthur C. Clarke penned what are called the three laws of prediction. While they are not somthing that is stated over and over in stories but rather over and over in conference rooms at science fiction/fantasy conventions you had to expect him to get his own three laws after Azimov came up with the three laws of robotics. While Azimov assured the fame of all three of his laws by making the second two dependant on the first Clarke's third law of prediction is a lot more famous than than the first or second:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This phrase has been a keystone in one of the major arches of the architechture of speculative fiction. In a way it is what anchors the science fiction to the fantasy. (Secret: Its all fantasy. Even Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum just make stuff up.) I have said that Swords and Sorcery is not a genre. In my mind its more of a color. I think saying you like Swords and Sorcery is a lot like saying you like red cars. Its just the color of the car and each car is vastly different than the next. But Clarke's quote has inspired things like Dying Earth literature, aspects of Sword and Planet, He-Man and lots of other fantasy paint jobs.

But I got to thinking about this statement. The first thing that occurs to me is that it is only really true in effect, not origin. That is to say a wizard with a lightening bolt spell and a guy with a lightening bolt gun have the same effect, but one guy is pointing and mumbling while the other is pointing and grunting. But even beyond that, we see that Clarke, for all his insight has not really looked at magic. Magic ignores rational cause and effect. Science, when you understand the natural principles it is based on does not. Anyone taking a look at the works of H.P. Lovecraft runs up against this whole debate. Is the spell that opens a gate to for the extradimensional horror just really alien technology or magic? Both?

Technology that appears to be magic is still just technology. Take for instance the D&D spell timestop. How are scientists spending billions of dollars to create a device to hold time static in a field indistinguishable from the witch doctor that waves a stick says some weird words and gets the same result for much cheeper?

Larry Nivin (and Mecedes Lacky) have tried to be cool and have come back with "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." But that is just it, big magic does not necessarily require big work and power, whereas big technology does require a bigness that magic just does not require.

Lets take the atom bomb as an example. Numerous scientists and millions of dollars of research went into developing the ability to blow up an entire city in one shot. Even now the bombs are expensive and labor intensive to produce and (hope not) deliver with accuracy. Yet they still require a team of people. Whereas with magic Waldorf can take out entire planets and campaign settings with a ceremony. What separates them is cause and effect. Technology has logical cause and effect based on the natural principles of the universe it occupies. Magic ignores this. Magic in its purest form is super-natural.

Clarke's law holds so long as your story is based on two things: The first is that there is no such thing as the supernatural. All the mumbo jumbo and abracadabra is simply the ability to tap into somthing that science does not understand yet. The second is that those who experience the effect interpret the event based on their experience and knowledge. The second is immutable. It is how humans operate. But the first is an assumption. What if magic operated outside of the physical world in all aspects- what if waving a rubber ball and a feather in the air while speaking latin backwards really did summon a Ferrari? There is no physical reason a Ferrari should appear. Its not even a quirk of the universe, it is beyond what is supposed to happen.

Also, the drawbacks to magic are ussually very personal. Rangeing from colds, to being swollowed by extradimensional horrors, technology is far more expensive, but much much safer. Technology allows you to settle vasts swaths of untamed land. When magic is really magic of the supernatural kind it is too fickle. Fickle magic can't hold back the monsters enough. I think this concept can be used to explain the whole points of light campaign setting. No magic is different from technology even if it is similar somtimes in effect.

Additional: The Great Hong Ooi has a great (probably more correct) corolary:
Any sufficiently widespread magic is indistinguishable from technology

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Be My Frankenstien!

Over at Jeff's Gameblog there is a discussion about how D&D has always been a sort of frankenstein of games. I was discussing this with my friend Sam, talking about using board games and such to illustrate aspects of the game world. Like using Catan elements to set up a region and play out how the region works. Or use Carcassonne to come up with a map of a city and it's outlying settlements.

I was quite taken with Jeff's idea (though I don't think he is conscious of it) that you can have completely different rules for players and DMs. Or even different types of characters that have different types of rules as Rob Conly points out in the comments.

Awesome! BYOR Roleplaying! (Bring Your Own Rules)

This begs further investigaiton. :)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dirk's Background

So game night is next weekend, and I needed to come up with a background for my character in a setting that is the pacific northwest but the "european" peoples have just discovered the west coast. From my DMs description, I envisioned somthing like Vikings and Conquistadors showing up in the Pacific Northwest to discover a place where the "Aztecs" had once made it all the way up past Vancouver, but then their civ fell back for some reason. In any case I have added the Mad Overlord and The Norskans. I hope he rolls with it.

If Dirk had gone to high school he would have been voted most likely to run into a burning building on the off chance that he could help someone, get rich, or get a woman.

And so we begin:

Throughout his life he has been a risk taker and thrill seeker so long as there was a chance for gain. That’s why travel to the new world never really appealed to him much, at first. The journey was too much risk for too little reward. The Norskans (Viking types from the lands north of Empire of the Mad Overlord) had been in and out of that land for centuries. It never seemed to come to any good. He heard about expeditions, but all the reports said one of three things: They never came back, only a few made it back, and everyone came back. While mad, the Overlord hedged his bets, and like Dirk wasn’t going to touch that place with a ten foot pole.

Then one day, Dirk heard about Ulric’s expedition. The Norskan had cut a deal. He called to Odin asking why their efforts in the new land had been for naught. The rune-casters of Odin read that the continent had been given to the Raven King Hugin and that all access to the continent was under his rule. Ulric then sought out Munin, the Raven Queen the consort of Hugin. He appealed to her with a great sacrifice. Then he set out to strike a deal with “The People Between the Forest and the Sea.” Traders and merchants were able to settle on what had once been called “The Bleak Shore.”

Dirk still thought that the risk was too high, besides, he had a good gig working in the Overlord’s ranks. But one day, he encountered a traveler, who showed him a coin from further south on the far continent.

“Gold,” said the traveler, “Cities of it, if you have the guts.” But that wasn’t all. There were other rumors. Magic. The likes of which rivaled even the greatest works of the Mad Overlord’s lands. “Magic and gold you say?” “More than you can dream! Seems the lands of the Raven King, and the People in between Forest and Sea have a lot to offer.”

This set dirk thinking. The risk barely even scratched the surface of the reward now. And Ulric’s expedition had been what 10 years ago? He began to make plans without even realizing it. After a winter, Dirk decided that it was too good. But where there was magic and gold there was sure to be death, and where there’s death there’s the thrill of adventure. This meant he needed some magic of his own. That’s when they brought in the girl. Seems she was a gypsy kid that had taken out an inquisitor that had killed her mother for unauthorized consort with a devil. The circumstances were strange said the reports. Had she not killed the inquisitor she would have been sent to “the school” to hone her talents. Getting the drop on an imperial inquisitor was no small feat.

The very night they brought her in Dirk sprung her from her cell and before the alarm was raised, they were on a ship headed out of the harbor. They would probably need some more backup. It seemed that having a god on your side was a requirement for survival in a place like the new world. Dirk started to look for an opportunity...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Lost Genre Part I: Never Was

Swords and Sorcery. There has been some speculation as of late as to why this genre has almost disappeared from the fantasy landscape. Erik Mona editor of Paizo's fine Planet Stories line, Howard Andrew Jones, one of the editors of Black Gate and the folks over at The Cimmerian are all wondering why this has not been a viable genre. Among the speculation is what killed it, how things changed, etc. etc.

I propose this: There never was a Swords and Sorcery genre. Swords and Sorcery is a commercial phrase. It is made up to help us find stuff in the store and keep us buying more of what we like. If anything the quesiton we should be asking is "What happened to the Sub-Genre?"

We think of the golden age of the pulps as the 30's and 40's when that really was the beginning of the end of their time. Its like someone calling the days of Rome under Constantine a golden age and ignoring the days under Agustus. Pulp went back to the 1830's with the Penny Dreadfuls. Thats a whole 80 years before Howard wore the jeweled crown of Aquilonia on his troubled brow.

And looking at those stories we see that they were filled with swords and sorcerers just as much as any Howard or Leiber tale. Robin Hood as we know him largely came out of the same publishing tradition as Conan. And while Sherlock Holmes did have respectable dig on Baker Street and in a major publication, he was still serialised, a distant relative to Hood and the Cimmerian.

The genre I believe is not Swords and Sorcery, but the long tradition of Adventure Fiction of which Swords and Sorcery was a part of. And here were enter the debate of where genre starts and ends. Largely genre is driven by marketing. We see this with music all the time. Is it Techno, Trance, Ambient, Techstep, Hardcore, Jungle, Tribal, Breaks or whatever? Sword and Planet, Sword and Sorcery, Lost World, Weird Fiction, and a lot of Detective Stories all fall into this heading simply because if you change the tropes you don't really change the story.

I think that we would see more success in Swords and Sorcery if we focused not on Swords and Sorcery as a genre but as part of the larger and ailing Adventure Tales genre.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hydra House Rules: Morphology Independant Critical Chart

Hit location charts, critical hit location charts and in particular critical charts with hit locaitons have always been tricky things in gaming largely because they tend to revolve around humanoid morphology. Jeff Reints talks about (well, posts really) the legendary Ardruin critical chart here. And most everyone that has been around the gaming block has encountered an incarnation of the rolemaster crit chart at some point.(Latest one here.)

The consistant problem with these was simply that they would specify locations that only humanoids had. What happens when you crit on a dragon, or a displacer beast, or heck, even a beholder. Do you ignore foot? Is there a chance you can hit a wing?

In my games I created a hit locaiton chart based on the "trap mishaps" sidebar in the 3.5 DMG. This was still humanoid centric but I had created it more as a way to give my player's characters more well, character. Eye patches and peg legs and such. Strangely, no one got hurt after I started using it. But as I put more thought into it, it occured to me that a location chart, especially a critical one, should not operate on form, but on function.

Almost every creature that you can crit has appendages of some kind, and favored appendages. And when they don't, one is as good as the other. All organisms share certain features: The aforementioned appendages, sense organs, a nervous system of some sort, and a area of mass larger than the appendages ussually refered to as a body.

Appendages seem to come in 3 varieties: Locomotive, Manipulative, and Favored Manipulative. Few have more than 2 senses, and when they do you just work through them at random.

So here we have the Steamtunnel Press Non-Mophology based hit location table, aka The Function Based Crit Table:

  1. Limb, Appendage, Psudopod or Tentacle (Locomotive)

  2. Limb, Appendage, Psudopod or Tentacle (Manipulative)

  3. End of Limb, Appendage, Psudopod or Tentacle (Locomotive)

  4. End of Limb, Appendage, Psudopod or Tentacle (Manipulative)

  5. Limb, Appendage, Psudopod or Tentacle (Manipulative)(Favored)

  6. End of Limb, Appendage, Psudopod or Tentacle (Manipulative)(Favored)

  7. Body

  8. Sense Organ/Sensor (Type 1)

  9. Sense Organ/Sensor (Type 2)

  10. Nerve/Control/Processing Center

The cool thing about this is that it works on Giant Ants, Mind Flayers, Dragons, Beholders, Cthulhu, and Robots. Even GIANT ROBOT ANTS CONTROLLED BY BEHOLDERS. Imaginative groups can even use this chart to cut off Mind Flayer tentacles in a fight (Tentacle, Manipulative). Appendage (Locomotive) against a dragon? Depending on your DM, you may have just taken out its wing. End of Limb (Manipulative) (Favored) against Luke Skywalker? You just cut off his hand!

Another feature of it being 1-10 is that you can combine it with the to hit roll. Just use the second digit of your hit result to determine where you zinged that Shuggoth.

Since it is easier to hit the larger parts of a being, I am thinking of taking inspiration from the Battletech hit location chart and making it 2d6 with the smaller parts on the edges and the bigger parts in the center. But then that messes up the whole second digit built into the attack roll thing.

This is definately going into Codex, but I am going to put it here for community use. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Final Design Goal

In previous posts I have talked about the design goals for Codex. These aren't mechanical goals, but rather goals about what kind of game I want Codex to be. Largely a lot of these have to do with marketing and the desire to take an option rich game camping- and for it to operate easily in a sandbox setting.

But I think there is another goal I have not covered:
  • The game should make use of other great supplements.

There is a precedent for this, and sadly it has sort of started to die off. OD&D made use of Wilderness Survival to deal with overland travel. This is largely because OD&D was sort of a game cobbled together from other games. In our modern times we really don't see this- game designers don't say "Hey this is a great system for modeling ________, let's just use that!"

I was thinking about economics in Codex and what they should be like, and after some thought and development on RPG economic theory, I realised that I should just use Expeditous Retreat Press' A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe for population modeling and economics.

Because a silver piece could be a days wage in your campaign whereas in mine 30 silver might be a year's income. How much land does the City State of the Invincible Overlord need? This book helps answer all those questions. So rather than trying to create a system that emulates economics badly, why not just say in the book "Check out AMMS:WE by XRP and base your prices and treasure off of that."

Granted this was a supplement for roleplaying, but still, I think it would be awesome if we all started to shill for one another. So from here on out, AMMS:WE is part of Codex.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Whats with this retro gaming thing anyways?

Retro gaming... it happens. One of the things that is an inspiriton to anyone who wants to play an older game or create a game based on older elements, or create a game that is pretty much like an older game except you use positive AC, or you use modern elements with a classic facade, or you use... well you get the idea, is the retro video game movement.

Using text characters as your graphics was cutting edge in 1980. But with today's rendering capabilies and GPUs and bazzillions of colors who would go back to games like Rogue?

Well plenty of people apparently. Check out ADOM. Its a "Roguelike" still being made (started in 1992) and has quite a following.

As computers go, you don't get more retro than this. And if text adventures like Zork are the OD&D/Holmes or Cook/Moldvay, the Roguelikes would definately be the 1e AD&D/BECMI of computer gaming. Ultima 4-5 are the 2e, but in a good way, with Ultima 6 and 7 definately come in as 3.0 and 3.5 respectively and respecfully: even black Isle picked up their form factor. But Ultima 4 and 5 are video games that just say "RETRO" to me. And even now we are starting to see the Ultima-likes in things like the Nazghul toolset and the game Haxima.

So it is in the spirit of these games that I am creating Codex. Codex is shaping up to tip its hat to the roguelikes and ultimalikes as well as Judges Guild, OD&D, Holmes, C/M, BECMI (without the CMI) and even certain mechanical aspects of 1-4e. Think of Codex as a modern game created with retro sensibilities and front end, kind of like using tools that were designed for an Apple2 on a modern high end gaming PC that is equivalent to about 1000 Apple2s.

By the way- has anyone seen any Wizardrylikes?