Thursday, June 16, 2016

Taking (the) God(s) Out

In less than 24 hours I will be in Toledo, Spain.

"Holy Toledo" is perhaps my favorite city in Europe...a beautiful town with thousands of years of culture and one that has the distinction of (historically) being home to three major religions...Christianity, Judaism, and Islam...all cooperating and getting along harmoniously. Toledo celebrates this piece of their history, a lovely example of true religious tolerance from a time on our planet when people were killing each other for "religious reasons" more often than now. And this in a town still renowned for its sword-making.

Not sure if it will be as fun with a five- and
two-year old in tow. We'll see.
I'm looking forward to being there again. There are few places where I've found a true and pleasant sense of "serenity." Mount Constitution on Orcas Island (in the San Juans). Assisi, famed home of St. Francis and St. Claire, in Italy. Flathead Lake in Montana. A couple others I'm probably forgetting. It's nice to feel serene and at peace. It's helps me to see the world with a larger perspective. Maybe it makes me feel closer to God.

I've never been an atheist. I did the agnostic bit in the early 90s, wondering why God (or whatever) would allow terrible things to happen, etc. and figuring humans must have just created these religion-thangs out of desperation. These days, though, my feelings are fairly concrete. I believe there is a God (call It what you will) and I believe God cares about us. As in, God gives a shit what's happening down here on Earth.

Not that we can divine God's will or plan (save for some of the larger strokes...loving each other, getting along, learning from our mistakes, making the world better, etc.)...but God's not some divine clockmaker that wound up the universe and "let 'er rip." No, there's an ongoing attention to what's going on here. God cares how this is all going to play out over time. And God's set the table for us in a particular way, specifically so that we can have the experiences that we do, make the choices that we will...for good or not.  The world we live in a place we've created collectively as a product of those choices. And while that may not be a particularly comforting fact, it means we have the power to shape it differently, should we so choose.

At least, that's what I believe. The particular "guidebook" (Bible, Torah, Quran) isn't nearly as important as what you choose to do with it. I don't see God favoring a particular institution any more than I see God favoring one football team over another.

Which brings me round to my latest thoughts on D&D...specifically, the absolute gall of the concept of "clerical magic."

[how's that for a 90 degree turn?]

Plenty of folks before me have decried the presence of clerics in D&D based on their lack of "fit" with either A) their lack of fit with the game's sword & sorcery roots, or B) their inappropriateness to the game's murderhobo premise, or C) some other conceptual gripe. But have we considered the base conceit of the class? That a being (or beings) of divine power rather whimsically bestow magical powers on these mortal followers?

From a theological point of view it's fairly ridiculous. Leave aside for the moment that, in measurement of power (if not, perhaps, overall effect) the non-divine magic of wizards is at least equal and probably greater in might to that of the cleric's patron...that discussion is simply an added cherry of incredulousness. Leaving that aside, consider the cosmological implications, compared to our own experienced reality. Here in the Real World, God (or Divinity or the Universe or Karma or whatever) works through Its creations...whether you're talking the actions of individuals and societies or the eruption of volcanoes and the glacial pace of evolution. There are no divinely bestowed "powers" (other than those we already possess) given to be activated on a whim. When we see something that we consider a miracle, it is something unexplainable in our usual terms, and it tends to be a scarce occurrence...not something that occurs on a daily, willed basis.

Why would God...or the gods...take such direct action? Or perhaps more interestingly, if they wanted to take direct action, why work through mortal mediums? The standard "fantasy answer" usually ranges from "the gods have chosen/vowed not to directly interfere in the affairs of mortals" to "mortal minds cannot comprehend the motives of deities." But if these are deities (and the game defines them as such), then aren't they the creators of the game "universe?" And wasn't it created to their liking in such a way that brooks no direct interference (for if they'd needed it different, they would have made it so)? Why now are they bunging the whole thing up? Is it all a game to the gods? Some sort of sick (or, worse, mediocre) joke?

If it really is the cosmology, I would expect nearly every individual of the game world to be following the clerical path...certainly more than other adventuring class. There is no real faith or belief in the unseen that is required: the proof of the gods and their miraculous gifts are readily available for all to see. Only the most deluded, hard-cased fool would walk a godless path in such a universe, and it would be a strange adventurer indeed who would shy away from such power.

Just think about having the power to heal yourself and your loved ones. How many of us have wished for such magical powers...so much more useful than the ability to throw a ball of fire. Forget raising the dead...let me just fix my sprained wrist or my chronic back ache. Let me just cure my wife's cancer. It's not like the requirements for the cleric class are so difficult to make. In B/X there are none (just give up using edged weapons? hell, that's easier than quitting nicotine). Even in AD&D the class is open to any human with a WIS of 9+...that's barely "average."

And just consider the "afterlife" implications. Really, how many humans are interested in ending up in Hell or the Abyss when they die? Given the evidence on display, you'd figure only the tragically insane would walk the path of the Evil High Priest...unless D&D's version of hell is somehow a lot nicer that the way it's portrayed in the movies. And if the good-aligned religions in such a universe are anything like the ones we have in real life, I would strongly suspect the institutional members to worry a LOT less about temporal power and political machinations, considering the true knowledge of Divine Law that they'd possess.

Okay fine...so what? Just where am I all going with this? A few years ago I wrote this post expressing the opinion that there should probably be more religion...or more religious consideration...in role-playing games given our basic human condition. I still think that. And I don't think gods-granted clerical spells are at all necessary for such considerations. You don't need magic for religion to have a profound impact on your fantasy world (see Game of Thrones).

However, I also wrote (a few days ago) that, for the most, I like the design of the cleric as a character concept. That is to say, I like the basic (game) mechanics of the character, even though I have some issues with how it scales over time (and what that does to your game). But what's been irking me lately is the "fluff" behind the class...this whole idea of them being granted these miraculous powers by their deities. It doesn't jibe with me. There are plenty of stories of saints and crusaders and agents of the gods who seemed to have certain "blessings" bestowed on them...things that would lead the faithful to believe even as their detractors scoffed. You don't see much of the concrete manifestation of magical powers attributed to God or the gods. Certainly not in such a systematic way as the D&D system.

Anyway, I have found two different ways to handle this in a way that's satisfactory to me. The first is the way I've approached the cleric class in that B/X supplement I was working on a couple months back (still need to finish those last few pages...). The gist is that all the clerics are worshippers of the same God (regardless of the name they use for it), and that alignment is simply a description of the character's personality, not some sort of "cosmic side-picking." In other words, there are no "evil high priests" (well, there are, but they aren't clerics per se...), and your cleric may be cowardly, or selfish, or a bullying tyrant, etc. Clerical magic is much closer to magic-user magic, being a product of specific ritual and prayer and is thus learned (not "bestowed"). Clerics are thus a bit more limited (compared to standard B/X) with regard to spell access...but at least they make a bit more sense (it's a tougher path). Oh, yeah...and no reversed spells.

It's still a fantasy class with fantastical powers, but it works with the premise of a world being assaulted by demonic forces of supernatural evil. And those dark forces offer their own temptations and lures of power (both temporal and otherwise) as they try to restructure the fabric of reality. That, I suppose, is reason enough for the gods to offer a little divine help to their mortal followers.

The other tact I'm taking is with the home-brew campaign I've started developing (see this post regarding the whys and wherefores). At the moment, I'm working out a re-skin of the cleric class that leaves the abilities while completely redefining it. Yes, they will still be "priestly" types. No, they will not be getting their spells from "higher (or lower) powers." More on that later, perhaps...I won't bore you anymore than I already have.

Right now, I have to get some sleep. Got a long flight in the morning.
: )

Friday, June 10, 2016

Do You Want To Die? (Clerics)

I could devote a whole week to talking about B/X clerics. Hell, I've done it before (I've somehow written a ton about the class over the years), and new ideas and thoughts just continue to bubble to the surface. If I was so inclined, I suppose the subjects I'd want to address would include:
  • An alternate interpretation of "clerics"
  • Forget clerical alignment
  • Losing reverse spells
  • Priests in Tekumel
  • Turning and the undead
  • Warrior-priests of Phum
Plus a couple others that I don't have "catchy titles" for.

One of the game projects I'm currently working on is a D&D-style heartbreaker that doesn't include clerics as a class (there's actually a LOT it doesn't include, but we're just talking about clerics at the moment). It still has priests, of course, though of the Lankhmar, "let's-fleece-the-public" variety, NOT the adventuring type.

The problem with this kind of approach is that it ix-nays all those happy little "Get Out O Jail Free" cards the cleric has up her sleeve: cure disease, neutralize poison, remove curse, raise dead, etc. Having access to the magical repertoire of a cleric in your campaign setting takes a lot of the sting out of the D&D game. It may be inconvenient to raise your dead buddy and remove his "Mummy Rot" (or whatever), but at least it's possible, given time and (presumably) a large enough sack of gold.

The problem is that having ready access to a cleric of high enough level (i.e. a PC) any "sting" can be removed altogether, making the game feel far too easy for the players. At the lower levels, it's a little irksome to have the party exit the dungeon four or five times in a session in order to re-memorize that single sleep spell. By the middle levels, they're still engaging in this practice...in order to have access to those beloved healing spells.

The AD&D DMG gives guidelines for the buying clerical magic: 100gp for a cure light wounds, 350gp for a cure serious wounds, 1000gp for a cure disease or neutralize poison, etc. But what is the real cost for a party of adventurers with a competent cleric? In B/X play, a cleric has access to all these spells (yes, up to 4th level spells) by 6th level. Practically speaking, it's only a couple days wait (and consumption of iron rations) to have your party fully healed. A 7th level cleric in B/X has access to ALL clerical spells, including raise dead...your party need never fear death again, so long as you keep your bishop well defended. And clerics reach that lofty level faster than any other class, save thieves, needing only 50,000xp to do so.

That's pretty lightweight to hold the power of life and death in your hands. Peanuts, really. AD&D more that quadruples this requirement (upping the level of experience needed as 9th for a whopping 225,000xp), and all later editions (other than BECMI) follow suit.

It's been a long time since I've had a player who made it to those heights of holy power in actual play. I've allowed pre-gen clerics of 7th level on a couple (that is, two) occasions in recent memory, but they were packing spells other than raise dead, and they were killed before they had a chance to repose themselves and use such necromancy. However, I can remember old AD&D campaigns that featured high level clerics (both PC and NPC), and the access to such powerful healing magic made it far more difficult for me (as a DM) to challenge the players. In true adversarial fashion, I struggled mightily to find canonical creatures and adventures that would circumvent the party's ability to recover from wounds and effects...to make the sting of those things have impact, to strike fear in the players' hearts.

D&D should not be a cakewalk, after all.

But it still needs to be fun, and removing clerics and their magic from the game has the potential to make it less fun. Frustrating even. If a blown saving throw means the end-of-the-road for a PC...because there's no counter...the game becomes one of paranoia and waiting for the axe to fall. Will this be the week my character gets bitten by a spider or giant rat, or is flattened by one swing of the cyclops's club? The week that I need to roll up a new character because I had a single instance of bad luck?

Over the years, I haven't voiced all that many complaints about the B/X cleric. Fact is, I find the class as written to be pretty darn good. I like the lack of a spell at 1st level...I like the (slight) delay of gratification as the character needs to "earn her spurs" (or whatever). She's still plenty competent with good armor, turning ability, and saving throws. I like how the cleric (in B/X) can receive bonuses to melee from a good strength, which allows her to be even more effective in melee.

I think the cleric's HPs in B/X are modeled perfectly (D6 every level to nine with +1 per level after). The class's XP rate of advancement is just fine up through 8th level, though I wish there was a slowed rate beginning at name level (similar to the B/X thief). And I like the concept of clerical magic being different from arcane (magic-user/elf) magic, even if there is little difference in the mechanics.

But there is room for balance at the top end of the scale. I'm just going to put this out there: I've spent an awful lot of time with Holmes Basic over the last year or so...reading it, dissecting it, digesting it. And I've done this because I am extremely enamored with a couple-few things, and two of those things are Holmes's presentation of the cleric and the fighter. Unlike the thief and magic-user, there are no issues of scale with these characters at the low levels, and I find the de-emphasis on mechanical advantage (bonuses for ability scores, variation of weapon damage) to be a refreshing change of pace.

But there is still room for improvement at the "top end" of the spectrum...at least with regard to the cleric. B/X shows the pitfalls inherent in the extrapolation of the character class from its "basic" roots (the Cook/Marsh expert set was written to be somewhat compatible with Holmes, after all). It's not that I'm dissatisfied with the class as a concept...it's the execution in play (at least at the mid- to high levels) that I dislike. But going to the opposite extreme...removing the class altogether...makes for some tough row hoeing in your usual, dungeon-delving campaign.

Balance. Death in the game should be a setback, an inconvenience...it should give the players an interesting choice (do we spend the time and resources to bring this character back to life? or has the character 'run its course?'). It shouldn't be impossible...this is a fantasy world, after all. But neither should it be incredibly easy. And finding that middle ground needs to be applied to other "penalty effects" (poison, disease, level drain, etc.) in D&D.

Balance. The rules regarding petrification (and restoration of a petrified character) are just about perfect in my opinion. It's a rarely encountered effect (and one that has a save), but it is difficult to reverse requiring both A) a wizard that knows the spell, and B) has the willingness to burn a 6th level spell slot. Even a 14th level magic-user only knows a total of three 6th level spells (in B/X), and there are so many other good ones to choose from...disintegrate, invisible stalker, anti-magic shell, reincarnation, death, etc. Clerical magic doesn't require such hard choices...and that's a pity.

All right, enough rambling. Got to get back to something.
Hard not to tip the scales.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Barbaric Edge

All right, you guys finally broke me. You don't know how tempted I've been to break my self-imposed "blogging ban" this last week. Clerics! I want to write shit-tons about clerics! But I've held off and held off. I cannot, however, maintain silence in the face of a really, really good idea, even if I dislike its execution...especially when it fires my own pistons.

So it is with this latest post from John Slater over at Land of Nod regarding the "edge" displayed by the barbarian protagonists of Bob Howard (and emulated by pulp S&S writers everywhere). The idea that such rugged individuals, by dint of their hard lives and uncouth nature, are a cut above civilized folk is a standard fantasy trope...and one that begs for the modeling and re-modeling (or at least re-examination) of a "barbarian class" time and again. And again.

*Bleah* (that's the sound of me gagging)

I know I've taken a couple-three whacks at the idea over the years, though none of them have "stuck" in my own campaigns...though perhaps that's as much influenced by my personal bias (I like the standard B/X classes) and/or folks' aversion to the idea of playing some primitive malcontent stereotype. Regardless, having a barbarian "class" hasn't worked for me. It just comes down to a set of particular themed bonuses or abilities, and the CONCEPT of the character gets lost. This is why the barbarian class of 5E is so stupid. It's not about someone wanting to model a "barbarian;" it's about wanting a rage bonus in melee combat.

[yes, yes...for some of you it MIGHT be about playing a barbarian. Shouldn't it be a background than? Something to be added to ANY class...barbaric shamans, thieves, etc.? And just what background is a barbarian supposed to take, anyway? Aside from outlander, it would take a bit more effort to work with most of the other 5E backgrounds...but I digress]

The word "barbarian" comes from the Greeks, which they used for all those "uncivilized" Germanic tribes that lived north of their ancient empire. The word means "bearded guys" or hairy ones or something, but it's really a derogatory term for people who don't speak Greek. In other words, "I see you are talking, but all I hear is 'bar-bar-bar.'" Still, though, "beards." We see that today in Romance languages (barba means beard in Spanish, for example). It doesn't mean indigenous American, or spear-chucker, or "savage" (though these things can be inferred from the use of the term). It simply means, someone from outside our polite society.

Howard was a Texan and a bit of a misfit to boot, giving him real issues with regard to "polite society." This he communicated through his stories, both in the attitudes of his heroes and the circumstances in which they generally found themselves (strife and turmoil in the land caused by the decadent machinations of people in power). It's not surprising that a man who felt himself an outsider would write about outsider heroes, nor is it surprising that his characters would resonate with those seeking escapism from "real life" in the fantasy fiction of pulp stories. Anti-authority is a fine attitude to have, until and unless you need your streets paved, your police and firefighters to arrive in a timely fashion, or your post office and DOT office to be well-staffed and helpful.

But D&D is fun for the same reason: escapist fantasy (how often do PCs need a post office?). And PCs are fairly "outside normal society" by their acts and profession anyway, so it's fine and fair to indulge in a little fantasy barbarism of the Howardian staple...the hard dude (or dudette) that sneers at polite society, that solves problems in Gordian fashion, that has an aura of primal leadership (or animal magnetism). A type of character that has an edge, in other words...something gained by dint of their upbringing and uncivilized attitude. Here's how I'd implement it, mechanically, for B/X (or similar "basic" games):

1. To be from a barbarian tribe, you must be a human character, though you can be a cleric, fighter, or thief (magic-users, even those from barbaric backgrounds, have too broad a perspective to carry the disdain of barbarians...their arrogance is of the magician to the mundane and their "edge" is their spell-casting powers beyond that of mortal men). Your character must have a CON of 9+ to reflect the fantasy trope (in a sense, you are playing a new type of demihuman race).

2. Your "barbarian" begins with the following restrictions: you receive one-half the normal starting gold at first level (roll 3D6x10 as normal, but divide the amount by two). Your character speaks your own language (as "Human Dialect," see page B13) fluently, but can speak only broken, accented common (the "civilized" tongue). You begin with no other languages known, regardless of INT.

3. When dealing with civilized individuals of authority (gate guards, tax collectors, nobles, etc.) your character receives a -2 penalty to reaction rolls unless the person in question speaks your character's native language.

4. If your character has an INT of 13+ you may choose to learn a new language (up to your maximum additional languages known) every time you earn a new level of experience. Learning a language implies fluency and capacity for writing as well. Common may be chosen as a language. Being able to speak fluently in a person's language removes the reaction penalty above.

5. Your character gains the following bonuses as his/her "barbaric edge:" +1 to melee attack rolls, +3 hit points, +1 save versus mind control magic, +1 bonus to hear noise, +1 bonus to detect traps, +1 bonus to retainers' morale score.

6. Success and soft-living will gradually remove your character's edge; every time you go up in level, remove one of your edge bonuses (your choice of which is lost). By the time most barbarians reach 7th level, they are thoroughly "civilized."

7. A player may stave off the eroding effects of civilization by disdaining its decadent trappings. This includes taking following actions:
  • Never sleeping indoors unless the weather is bad (and even then, preferring a hard, bare floor to a cushy bed and soft pillows).
  • Eschewing wealth; discarding 90% of all monetary treasure (giving it away, blowing it in taverns/brothels, etc.), and never retaining more than can be carried on one's person and/or horse. Equipment purchased must be of the most practical type: no fancy clothes, decorative armor, etc. Most fantasy barbarians (either sex) never bother wearing pants.
  • Maintain a healthy respect and distance for enchantments; never possessing more magic items than the character has hit dice (so maximum of nine at levels 9+).
  • Display nothing but contempt for the decadence of civilized folks: sneer at their pointless politics, their indulgent foods, their polite manners. Character should be forthright and blunt in interactions and avoid slyness and dishonesty. 
  • Your character's word is his/her bond. Never break an oath.
This issue provides a good model
in the erosion of "barbaric virtue."
So long as the character abides by these restrictions, her barbaric edge is only lost every two levels gained (so at 3rd level, 5th level, 7th, etc.). No spartan lifestyle can completely halt the erosion of one's edge!

[if a character "falls off the barbarian wagon," she may jump back on upon reaching a new level of experience...i.e. after losing one edge at the standard rate...by reconsidering her decadent life and "getting back to her roots" (vowing to follow all strictures). However, only one such attempt at "atonement" is allowed...if the character succumbs to the temptations of civilized life a second time, there's no third chance!]

All right...we now return to our self-imposed silence. Shhhh...
: )

Monday, May 30, 2016

Project Catalyst

Been experiencing a lot of "short-timer syndrome" the last few weeks, as my time here in Paraguay wraps up. I feel listless, just going through the motions, while daydreaming about getting back to Seattle. Really squandering a golden opportunity considering that once I DO return, the "free time" I have for writing will be taken up job searching, daycare providing, getting the kids adapted to a completely new lifestyle, etc.

Plus, I don't think anyone's walked the beagles in the last couple years.

Still, can't help it. I mean, here I am wasting precious time blogging about wasting time. If that's not the perfect illustration of "waste," I'm not sure what is.
; )

Here's the problem. Well, there are a couple really. Problem "A" is that to REALLY write, I kind of need large chunks of time...at least a couple hours and preferably four or more. Just to, like, get the motor up and running. This "snatch 15-30 minutes here or there" thing doesn't really work for me, especially when I'm feeling fatigued.

Problem "A2" is that I'm fatigued a lot. And there's not much I can do about that, except try to sleep more at night or something. *sigh*

Anyhoo, even though I have only a couple-three months left down here (and really, not even that much considering upcoming plans and such), I really want to get a few projects knocked out. I think...I THINK...I can do...um...four. Okay, maybe two. At least two...but I really need to bust my ass.

Hmmm...maybe four.

Anyway, I'm going to try, I'm going to give it a shot...which means I'm going to take a bit of hiatus from Ye Old Blog. Well...from blogging (I'll try to keep up on my blog reading, commenting, etc.). But I don't want to just be writing "progress reports" or my thoughts on...well, whatever it is I'm thinking about this week. I really need to focus if I'm going to churn some of this stuff out. Just to get the writing finished, you know?

I just don't want anyone to think the blog is going dark, at least not "for permanent." Okay? Okay.

BY THE WAY: the title of this post was actually going to be in reference to the superhero genre. In the fantasy genre (wizards and dragons, etc.) most games or fiction start with the creation of a fantasy world...a place to adventure. With the superhero genre, most NEW settings/series (i.e. not the long-tuning, well established Marvel/DC universes) start with a CATALYST...the thing that made it possible for all these superheroes to get their powers in the first place. Some sort of world-shaking event other than the presence of a criminal underground that causes vigilantes to don a mask and skulk the night. The usual ideas are things like some sort of radiation/mutagen-releasing explosion or alien/dimensional invasion that forces the evolution of humankind.

I say "the usual," but...at least when it comes to RPGs...there are a lot of times when the catalyst is simply glossed over, or is even nonexistent. "Since the dawn of human history, there have always been heroes..." blah, blah, blah. Great. Most of the super RPGs out there are taking place in our contemporary world, and it matters little (or nothing) whether there were fire-breathing mutants in Ancient Rome or if Merlin was the first Sorcerer Supreme.

So, yeah, I wanted to talk about catalysts in the supers genre, but then I realized that it was more important to talk about a different kind of catalyst: the "I'm-going-to-be-kicking-myself-in-the-ass" for the next few weeks.

All right, that's enough. More later, folks. Really...I will be back.
: )

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Cap's "Civil War" (Redux)

[**SPOILERS**]

SO...last night my wife and I were supposed to go out with some friends of ours for burgers and beers at a (relatively) new place called Saint Glutton. It's nice because they have a lot of rotating imports (it's the only place I've found Sam Adams south of Texas). Unfortunately, they flaked. We still went out (since the babysitter was already in place) and found ourselves at the VERY new (opened this month), very large, very extravagant shopping mall built by Guatemalan business interests in the heart of the "tourist district" (i.e. next to the Sheraton). As per usual, it was nearly devoid of people, relative to its size, as the people who can regularly afford to shop in such places generally acquire their loot in Miami.

Anyhoo, we found ourselves at the movies and we ended up seeing Captain America: Civil War for a second time. This my wife's choice, just BTW...I was willing to see anything (both X-Men Apocalypse and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising we playing at the same time...slapstick is my wife's flavor of humor), so I was a little surprised at the choice. She's not a comics fan by any stretch o the imagination; as a kid in Mexico she watched (dubbed) X-Men cartoons and enjoyed those, but she tapped out of that film franchise round about X3 (as did I). She hadn't even watched the prior Captain America films.

But she liked Civil War (even though she had complained about many of the same issues as I had) and it felt like a popcorn film night and, well we decided to watch it again. And after a second viewing, both of us came away with revised opinions: Captain America: Civil War is pretty darn awesome, and the plot is both tighter and stronger than we remembered.

I'm allowed to change my mind.
I think that part of the problem with the first viewing was (for me) that the action sequences were SO spectacular, you forget (and/or miss) the elements of Zemo's scheme that are present throughout the film. The scenes are tightly woven into the plot, and the dialogue provides exactly enough exposition without hitting the audience over the head with extra redundancy. The "Soviet dude" Zemo hunts down for the "red book" isn't a Soviet...he's ex-Hydra. Zemo's knowledge of Hydra's Winter Soldier program is from deciphering the encrypted files released by Black Widow two films ago. The phone call he makes to the Berlin hotel from Siberia isn't about the room service...it's about getting the room service to find the dead body in the tub, knowing that this will get into the German police waves, makes it's way to Tony (and showing him his mistake), thereby luring him to Siberia.

It's actually fairly genius, given Zemo's year-long study and following of the Avengers, and Tony's well- (and self-)publicized issues with his parents' demise, notorious instability, and crazy-ass death wish. If the other Avengers had shown up along with Stark, he would still likely go berserk and the ensuing mayhem more spectacular (feeding Zemo's ultimate goal). It's not like Zemo had been planning on walking away.

So great movie. Clearly, it required a second viewing for me to fully appreciate it. A few other revisions to my prior post:

How many wrecked faces do we need?
  • I (now) understand Zemo's characterization and "get it." In the comics, Zemo has two main drives: his anger at Captain America for the "murder" of his father (when he first appears it as the costumed villain Phoenix, attempting to avenge his father), and his hideous facial disfigurement at the hands of Cap and Falcon (which results from his first fight as the Phoenix). But the filmmakers already HAD a disfigured character in the film...Crossbones...which was necessary as part of his character's development as a villain (and thus gives him the extra motivation he needs). So instead you have to boost the "avenge family" motive (hence, he blames the Avengers for the loss of his father, wife, and son). I get it.
  • Now that I paid closer attention to the plot, I also see just how intelligent, innovative, and audacious the filmmakers made Zemo...all in line with the actual character. Zemo is more an organizer and schemer than anything else (until he later gets ahold of his magic rocks)...even his mutants were created with the help of Arnim Zola (I forgot that part). While the "extra winter soldiers" and the "blue serum" still seem rather extravagant red herrings to throw into the plot (as is his willingness to throw away such readily available tools), the rest of the film is a showcase of the thinking man's Zemo, though perhaps lacking some of the scene-chewing grandstanding longtime fans have come to expect from the Baron.
  • I decried the lack of women in the film previously, but actually there are three (Natasha, Wanda, and Sharon Carter) who all get huge, heaping amounts of screen time, and plenty of ass-kicking. Black Widow has definitely become my wife's favorite character (she keeps hitting me in the shoulder and saying, "she's so awesome" throughout the movie). Over the course of the films she grown, rather understandably, into that "den mother" role that often occurs in a team environment (a trope that goes back at least as far as Wendy and the Lost Boys). It's strange considering Widow's comic book characterization, but makes perfect sense given the development of the MCU. And I have to say I prefer this version of Black Widow to the "evil, lusty Rusky" version found in both the classic comics and the Ultimates imprint.
  • I under-appreciated Black Panther a bit as well. While I'm still not as gaga over the character as some folks, his "cat scratch" fighting style and (yes) panther-ish grace and agility IS very distinct from other scrapper types. I will admit my main turn-off was a scene that saw him running on all fours in a bounding style reminiscent of Sabretooth (in the X-films) or most any werewolf movie I've seen in the last decade plus). But both he and Wakanda have a lot of potential. BP is a guy who seems to get a new update every few years as people try to figure out how to incorporate all that vibranium technology (at least he wasn't wielding glowing, purple knives).
  • Lastly (regarding Crossbones)...these are films, not comics. It's pretty insane to trifle over the demise of a character when you're dealing with an entirely different medium of the genre. Per comic vine, Captain America has appeared in nearly 8700 comics. Crossbones has appeared in 285. Given that we may see...what? 10 or 12 films with the good Captain, what's a reasonable percentage of them to include Crossbones? Probably about as much as we got here. And it was a good bit. But he certainly doesn't need to become a recurring villain...this isn't a television series we're talking about.

All right, that's it. Civil War IS better than your average "popcorn film." While I complained before that it "played small" given the number of super-cameos and the scope of the Civil War story arc, as a self-contained film inspired by elements of said story arc, it's actually quite good. And though there IS an awful lot of Tony Stark and Avengers characters, the story is still centered on Cap, his traditional crew (Falcon, Bucky, the Carter woman), his rogues gallery (Zemo, Crossbones, Winter Soldier), and his usual issues (revisiting the past, being outside of his own time, steering between your moral compass and your duty as a soldier). As a fan of Captain America, this movie had nearly everything I could have hoped or asked for.

It's just that I needed a second watch to see it all.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Super Classes

Yes, "supers week" appears to be continuing at Ye Old Blackrazor...at least for one or two more posts.

Just continuing my thought process from yesterday's blog post:

One of the (many) inconveniences of residing in Paraguay: most of my RPG library is inaccessible, being 7000 miles from my current location. 

[and my library, I should have you know, is extensive]

Which is incredibly frustrating when I'm either A) researching a particular game or subject matter that I know I have a book for, or B) just have the itch to read or review some game or other. It can lead me to doing things I don't really want to do...like re-purchasing books in PDF form. Like the other day when I came out of Captain America: Civil War and found myself thinking heavily about Aberrant. I nearly broke down and picked up a PDF of the game off DriveThruRPG, something (in a more rational frame of mind) I really didn't want to do. I was fortunate my "cheap-O" instinct kicked in when I saw the $9 price tag. Even though that's small change, it's a lot for a PDF considering:
  • I have already determined Aberrant's not a game I really want to play as written.
  • Even if I did play it, I use hardcopy at my game table not PDFs.
  • I already own a hardcopy of the game.
  • My laptop has finite space anyway, AND
  • That's money I could better spend on some other indie-designer PDF that needs my support.
However, even after going through that rational argument in my mind, I STILL nearly purchased a copy of Heroes Unlimited Revised in PDF form off the same site (not even the 2nd Edition HU, mind you...the PRIOR iteration), despite it being $13! And despite having already purchased that particular edition in hardcopy not once, but twice

And I'm still considering buying it, even tonight. Hey, I'm sure Mr. Siembieda would appreciate the ducats.

But at the moment, I haven't. Instead I'm going to work from memory here.

HU: gives us ten "power categories" (classes), which I long ago memorized in a moment of extreme nerdy-ness: Aliens, Bionics, Experiments, Hardware, Magic, Mutants, Physical Training, Psionics, Robotics, and Special Training. The indispensable HU supplement Powers Unlimited 2 provides an additional ten power types: Empowered, Eugenics, Gestalt, Imbued, Immortal, Invention, Natural Genius, Super-Soldier, Symbiotic, and Weapons Master.

[man, I am a nerd]

Not as outrageous as Rifts sourcebooks.
What's neat about these - other than the sheer creativity on display of someone willing to create entirely different systems for each individual super type he wants to model...and then working to squeeze it into the three "universal holes" of HU (skills, combat, and SDC/HPs) - what's neat about these is that a number of these classes are broken down into subclasses. For example, a Robotics character might be a humanoid robot (like the Vision), or a powered exoskeleton (like the Iron Man armor), or a giant robot (like the old Shogun Warriors, etc.). The Magic character might be a sorcerer (Dr. Strange), or a magically imbued character (like Captain Marvel), or a dude with a magic weapon/artifact (like Captain Britain). The Special Training category includes secret agents, street magicians, hunters, and super sleuths. There's a lot of variation and variety present in EACH of these classes...enough so that you can model most anything in the same power range as the Marvel Universe (some heavy hitters aside).

It's both fun and functional if you can A) come to accept the peculiarities of the system, B) are at ease with the possibility of a WIDE range of possible power levels (with no cinematic bridging), and C) have a GM willing to do a lot of work to make.

[hmm...alternatively, you could skimp on "C" so long as you're willing to lower your expectations of what you want out of your game]

But "functional" (especially with those caveats) isn't really what I'm craving. A little elegance of design would be nice. I mean, isn't gestalt more a superpower than a power-type? I suppose it depends on who you ask. I'm sure Swamp Thing would have considered himself an "altered human" (in MSH terms) or "experiment" (in HU) back when it still believed it was Alec Holland. Wouldn't a "weapons master" simply be another subheading of the Special Training character? Etc., etc.

However, my interest here isn't so much about pinning down archetypes as it is about establishing different styles of play.

Gosh...I was trying to find a prior post I could link to (among my 70+ "class" labeled posts), and could not, so here's the brief skinny on B/X play styles:

  • Fighters: offer straightforward play-style. No surprises, no limitations, but no variety either. It does not behoove a fighter to wear leather armor instead of plate (for example), and if using the default D6 damage rules, weapon matters for little. Advancement is linear, stamina (staying power) is robust. Class requires effective risk management.
  • Magic-Users: offers a wide variety of options, but limited resources (spells). With progression (advancement) variety increases and resources both increase, though always finite (spells will eventually run out). Stamina is low, as is effectiveness outside resource-based ability. Slow advancement. Class requires effective strategy (choice of spells and when to use them).
  • Clerics: offer a hybrid of play-style. Variety added (limited spells) with some variety removed (no edged weapons or missiles). Staying power is good, but less than fighters. There is an expectation of support for other players, presumably with corresponding thanks/appreciation. Swift advancement. Class requires team attitude and balance of strategy and risk management.
  • Thieves: offers a number of options, without the resource limits of spell-casters (thief abilities don't run out), but variety is fairly static (skills don't change much over time), and use is unreliable (always a chance of failure, more so at low levels). Trade-off is low staying power (less HPs, poor AC), partially offset by very swift advancement. Class requires gambling on the part of the player and reliance on luck...not just with regards to skill use but the expected outcome (scouting ahead and hoping not to run into something bad, opening the chest or door and hoping for a positive save against any missed trap).
  • Non-humans add minor trade-offs for bonus abilities. Elf is an exception...adds extra abilities plus benefits of two classes with the trade-off of VERY slow advancement and reduced stamina.

This is a pretty good base to start working from, and I've actually got a few ideas about how I'd divvy up my class categories for a supers game (I was furiously jotting down notes at 3am this morning)...probably three basic classes plus an optional one for "non-humans." However, as with all my recent game designs, I'm really trying to keep the focus human-centric, so maybe the non-humans are out the window. Minimize the weirdness, you know?
; )

By the way, "mutant" is not going to be a class in this little starting-to-form project of mine. I just found out this morning (researching) that the reason the Marvel Cinematic Universe has no mutants is because Fox, upon acquiring the rights to the X-Men, also acquired the rights to the term "mutant" as far as the term applies to the Marvel comics universe. Which is, you know, crazy...but whatever. Mutants muddy the waters of what could otherwise be a post-modern pulp-SciFi supers game...which is kind of the direction this little train is heading. Besides, if I follow-through with my current idea of making it B/X-based, there's already a great, B/X-compatible game with a system for creating mutants (that would be Mutant Future).

[yes, I've been playing around with the idea with drafting a B/X-based supers game for years. What happens is I tinker and write and then think of non-B/X ways to accomplish design goals and end up scrapping and shelving the basic chassis...I just haven't committed to the concept. There IS, by the way, already a B/X-style supers game on the market...Sentinels of Echo City...and I will probably pick up the PDF with the $5 of those dollars I saved by not buying Aberrant. Probably. I kind of want to stake out my own design parameters first, so as not to be unduly influenced]

[ah, hell...what's five bucks anyway?]

: )

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Of Altered Humans and Hi-Tech Wonders

I've written many times over the years of my love-hate relationship with superhero RPGs. I love them because...well, because the superhero genre appeals to that same part of me that the whole "fantasy role-playing" thing does. I hate them because I've so often been frustrated with the actual products.

Yet the list of supers games I've purchased over the years has continued to expand. I've owned the first two editions of Mutants & Masterminds, as well as Green Ronin's DC Adventures. I've re-purchased Heroes Unlimited Revised and picked up Ninjas and Super-Spies as well. And in edition to the hardcopy of Supers! and Supers! Revised Edition, I've picked up a number of PDFs: Champions for 5th edition HERO, Hero High for M&M, Bulletproof Blues, John Stater's Mystery Men, Barak Blackburn's Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul...even tracked down  copy of Dragon 47 for Dave Cook's Crimefighters game. This in addition to fat hardcovers of Wild Talents, Mutant City Blues, Champions 4E, and all the many other books I mentioned back in 2010. Oh, yeah, and some other random ones like the original Villains & Vigilantes and "for free" stuff pulled off the internet (one was a 286 page book that's still not worth mentioning by name).

All of which, BTW, are nothing but a small handful of all the superhero RPGs (and material) that have been released over the years. Lowell Francis over at Age of Ravens has a great series of posts reviewing all the superhero RPGs published from 1978-2014 (presumably, his review of 2015 games will come out sometime this year). Certainly recommended reading for anyone interested in the genre (either as a player or designer)...but there's a LOT of ground to cover.

However, most of the ground covered is pretty similar. Aside from the specific settings some of them have, most supers RPGs come in a fairly general package. Characters show up as a set of human-ish attributes (abilities, skills, whatnot), and then have powers added (from a provided list), with an attached system for modeling the kind of comic book antics one expects from a superhero RPG. Similar to the superhero genre of film, character is the main facet/draw of the game (exploration of what the character can do in relationship to the adventure/scenario/story the GM crafts)...however, the amount of character development that occurs varies wildly from game to game, from glacially slow (Marvel Superheroes) to ridiculously fast (Mutants & Masterminds).

That being said, of the variations that do help to distinguish RPGs from system to system, the one that most interests me is the one least often seen within the genre: class-based archetypes. Most supers RPGs eschew any type of D&D-style class system (even the D20-derived M&M) in favor of an open-ended system of character creation. I'm not exactly sure why this is, though I know that a lot of the genre's fans also happen to be folks who HATE class-based systems in RPG design (Barking Alien, I'm looking at you!). Maybe it's because so many (comic book) heroes over the years have defied being pigeon-holed by type? Maybe because there IS only "one type" of superhero: the kind that resolves conflict with (super powered) violence?

[to the fighter class, every problem that arises looks like a combat encounter, yeah?]

Honestly, I don't know. I suppose (putting on My Designer Hat for the moment) that having character classes in an RPG helps distinguish one player's imaginary avatar from another...and such is unnecessary when characters are readily distinct based on their various power suites. That being said, it's certainly possible to categorize power suites by archetype, and certain games have done this...City of Heroes (yes, there was a tabletop RPG based on the MMORPG) and Capes incorporate such categories explicitly in their design, while Mutants & Masterminds did it by way of sample, playable archetypes.

These particular categorizations, however...and simpler categorizations like the original Marvel Super Heroes RPG's "origins" (Altered Human, Mutant, Alien, Robot, and Hi-Tech Wonder)...ignores one of the best benefits of class-based RPG play: variation in play style. Consider D&D as a well-known example: playing a fighter is very much different from playing a magic-user and both are very different from playing a thief or cleric. Each class emphasizes different game systems, requiring different sets of rule mastery AND providing different play experiences. Play in MSH doesn't differ from character to character (you are taking an ability or power, rolling on a chart, and trying to get a good "color" result...probably using your best trait, i.e. "the one that will do the most damage" and/or "has the best probability of a good color result"). Capes (as another example) is even more pronounced in its lack of distinction...the systems function exactly the same for each character (regardless of whether or not you are a Brick or a Shooter or an "Animal Avatar"), only the narration differs. The game (like many story-first games) is about how you use the system; the system doesn't offer any variation in form/style of play.

Of the superhero RPGs I've seen, the only one that comes close to delivering class-based play variation on the same level as D&D (or Gamma World or Adventure! or Vampire: The Masquerade or...) is Kevin Simebieda's Heroes Unlimited. And, no, I don't think this is due to any particular forethought or genius of design; instead, it is almost certainly due to the haphazard fashion in which he throws the thing together, marrying different systems that model various comic book tropes while lacking any coherent, unified vision (other than the system for combat). Regardless, the variations in class allow for widely different styles of play...even wildly different styles of chargen!...possibly explaining the longevity of a system that has taken a beating from so many critics of games and design over the years.

Accidental genius? Does it matter?
If it isn't evident from the slant of this post, I should be clear that I am a big fan of class-based design.  It's not the ONLY way to do RPGs...and it's not the only way I design games!...but I think it's under appreciated for what it (potentially) offers. In fact, I should probably write "under appreciated, even by me" because of the three superhero RPGs currently on my design table, two do not utilize class at all, and the one that does does no more than categorize characters by types similar to MSH (normal, mutant, altered human, and non-human). For the first two (both of which are limited in terms of scope and duration), that's okay. For the third, though, I'm thinking I should really reconsider my approach to the thing.

Anyway, I am (as usual) running long on word count and short on time, so I'm going to have to cut off here. However, I do want to leave you with one last thought from my head (which I hope to come back to...perhaps tomorrow). Consider for a moment how the Marvel Cinematic Universe does not own the rights to the X-Men and their associated characters, and how this has influenced the way characters in the MCU are portrayed: there are no mutants. Comic book mutants are a long-running staple of the superhero RPG genre (some RPGs feature them as the ONLY type of character one may play...see Aberrant, Wild Talents, etc.). Do they need to be? Are they necessary for a decent "superhero" RPG? Was it necessary to make the Maximoffs mutants in the latest Avengers film? Do the MCU films suffer for a lack of mutation or "mutant menace?"

But more on that later.