Friday, February 22, 2013

Fighters of Divine Descent

This begins an examination of the fighter, in history, myth, and real life. I hope to touch on many cultures. I already know that I’m out of my depth here, but this review of fighters in many cultures should prove enlightening, and demonstrate that magic and fighters have always gone together. The only real caveat is that “magic” means anything magical, and not just spells. Down through history, fighters have always sought out magic for themselves of some sort or another.

I’ll begin this discussion with heritage. What links so many great fighters of legend? They each had a divine parentage or ancestry.

Gilgamesh - Mother is Ninsun, a tutelary goddess of Gudea and Lagash.
Heracles - Father is Zeus, chief of the Olympian gods
Perseus - Father is Zeus
Odysseus - Hermes (grandfather)
Achilles - Mother is Thetis
Peleus - Mother is Endeis
CĂș Chulainn - Father is Lug

These warriors were amazing because they were beyond mortal. This idea seemed more prevalent in the ancient middle east, especially in ancient Greece. It is even by this action that rulers asserted their special rights to rule, such as all the userpor emperors of Rome conveniently being a descendent of a god, or the Merovingians tracing their descent to Jesus of Nazareth.

Certain themes appear with these special warriors. First, they were immensely strong. Gilgamesh fought with his bare hands. Heracles put the entire sky onto his back. Perseus rolled back a huge boulder to claim a sword. Odysseus had a bow that no other man could even string. Peleus wrestled and kept hold of the sea nymph, Thetis.

Beyond that, each was tough as nails, fairly smart, and occasionally had some family help.

In D&D, divine descent, though useful as a fluff explanation for the heroic fighter, works better as a racial characteristic than a class characteristic. Any character, by this design, could be of divine descent. That means that any class could get that racial benefit, but the race can no longer be tailored to one class.

This leave us in a muddle. The most common explanation for why a fighters are amazing is not available to the class. In that respect, it becomes difficult to have a game where fighter resemble their more mythical counterparts. That makes it difficult to give fighters cool abilities, like those that showed up in tales, because the entire rationale for those gifts is lost.

If divine heritage was available to the class, it suggests some realism-breaking things that would go well with the fighter. The fighter could get stronger, or at least be able to add his Fighter level to Strength checks, which simulates great strength without throwing the numbers out of whack. The fighter could also get divine favors from his divine parent, just as Achilles received armor and weapons from his mother. The fighter could also get a reputation. Unlike magic wielding characters, a fighter is far more approachable to the common man. The peasants may not understand spell, but they do understand butchering your enemies. Your relative could also give you a special mount, unlike any other seen among mortals.

So based on this typical mythic scenario, the fighter class should get all sorts of amazing benefits that the common man never gets. In D&D, this is not the case. The fighter class simply can not produce a mythical character.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fighters and Resilience

Lately I’ve been toying with an idea for 3.x Fighters called resilience. Resilience is what keeps a fighter going beyond all odds. It combines his ability to withstand physical punishment as well as his ability to withstand adverse magical effects.

Rather than plop down the design idea, I decided to walk through the design iterations, showing how I arrived at my current idea of resilience.

Attempt #1:  You can recover hit points. As a free action, you can heal 1d6+Con Bonus hit points per resilience point. Using resilience points is a free action, but the ability can only be used once per round.

Problem #1: You get a huge HP well and it doesn’t scale for level.

Attempt #2: You get 1 hp per resilience point.

Problem #2: You get far too few HP, and it doesn’t scale for level.

Attempt #3: Let’s use math. A fighter begins with 12-14 hp and gains about 8 hp per level. If he heals a quarter of his hit points per use of resilience, then an appropriate equation could be (Con Bonus + level) x2. That keeps us in the ballpark as the fighter advances in level.

“A fighter gets resilience points equal to his hit points gained as a fighter. As a swift action, he may use these resilience points to replace his own hit points, up to (Con Bonus + level) x2 in any round.”

As for spells, let’s assume that a fighter avoids four spells or magical effects between rests. At 5th level, that would be 20 points of resilience. That’s about half his expected resilience for that level. Nice! That’s useful.

“The fighter may also delay the effect of a spell or other magical effect by spending resilience equal to the opponent’s caster level. This cost must be paid each round that the spell is active. Additionally, using resilience points equal an opponent’s caster level, the fighter may immediately make an additional saving throw against that spell’s effect using his Fortitude saving throw.”

This scales right.  I like this solution. It feels like a fighter, gives the fighter something to manage, and there will always be the tension between a hit point reserve and avoiding some magical effect.

Problem #3: The number of resilience gained should be adjusted up or down for finer balancing. Aside from introducing another number to track, I don’t see a downside to this power.

What about prestige classes? No prestige class grants resilience.

“In general, any prestige class that grants d8, d10, or d12 hit points also grants resilience points, although prestige classes which grant caster levels never grant resilience points.”

Problem #4: Rationale: There’s no reason a fighter should be able to do these things.

Solution #4: Fluff!

“Fighters live in a magical world. Although they themselves do not cast spells, they do know that they will face magic, and so learn ways to protect themselves, whether it be through lucky charms, always sharpening their knives in the right direction, or sacrificing to the right gods. These they develop techniques from folklore and superstition reinforced with trial and error.”

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Running a Middle Earth RPG with D&D

With “The Hobbit” so recently released, I thought that I would be fun to tackle running a Tolkien game in D&D. It’s fairly easy, but not exactly easy.

A good time period for adventuring would be immediately following the Lord of the Rings, during restoration of the crown in Gondor. The plot can go anywhere and you don’t have to worry about blowing away the existing plot. Aragorn is now king. The Allies are successful. However, all is not good. Sauron may be gone, but not all his servants and allies. There is still great evil out there, and also certainly, there’s more than enough enemies for the players to hunt down. Given his shortage of arms, the King has called upon his subjects and allies to fight against evil on their own initiative even as a new villain amasses power among the darkness.

At this point, you can just turn the crank. There’s pirates on the seas, brigands terrorizing the land, orcs and goblins dwelling in the shadow, and whatever evil Sauron succeeded in rousing up that the Fellowship never faced. There are surely great captains who were made, allied, or awakened by Sauron.

On top of that, you can add people who are not happy that some nobody ranger from the north now calls himself king. They are than happy to conspire against this pretender and work against his interest. This leads to fights for the the crown.

Along with that, there’s the ordinary problems when the government has been shattered. Unpaid armies look for loot. Opportunists take advantage of lawlessness. Treasure hunters break into old tombs. Unhappy people rebel against their rulers. And many ancient things have appeared about the world, few of them good.

For a D&D system, I would choose 4th. Middle-Earth doesn’t seem to have any sort of clerical or priestly magic. If it does, that sort of magic is very minor, so ability to build a party without a cleric is necessary. I think that 4th edition handles healing sans clerics better than most.

4th also holds its own with strictly martial classes. Although there are magical characters, they are outnumbered by the ordinary man. In many ways, Tolkein’s stories are about ordinary men in the face of magic.

For those who do use magic, magic is mostly invisible. You don’t see magic happening even when it happens, so picking classes that don’t throw fireballs everywhere is important. Classes that are partially magical would seem the better choice. Bards would fit well while wizards throwing fireballs would not. Invokers work surprisingly well.

Of course, you could ignore that all together and just let your characters be special. You can have just as much ignoring those recommendations. Want 3rd edition wizards and druids running rampant over trolls? Sure!  I wouldn’t pick that, but doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t.

I recommend slowing down level advancement. In my opinion, Middle-Earth games play best in levels 1-10, especially if the game goes a long time. A game that advances quickly winds up feeling like a treadmill. Each encounter must generate treasures so that the players can keep up their stats. In a slower game, the treasures can come out far more slowly. Those that do appear more frequently can be single use items. The appearance of permanent items becomes noteworthy, and hopefully, hold a higher significance in the story. Some “magic” items can just be ordinary items upgraded with additional plusses. We never know anything about Gimli’s axe or Legolas’s bow, but we can assume a simple bonus or two.

You can explain bonuses in the game in a way that avoids some degree of magic. A gift ribbon from Galadrial, while tied to a weapon, may make you remember her light, making that weapon holy. Your father’s axe may give you a +1 to hit because it fills you with fidelity. A draught could fill you with health, giving you bonuses to hit and damage.

In Middle-Earth, there seems to be two tiers of magic items: rare wonders, and batshit crazy powerful magic that mortals should not wield and cause more woe than good. Glamdring and Sting belong in the former category, while the One Ring, the seeing stones, and the Arkenstone belong to the second. What Lord of the Rings style game would feel right without such things?

The characters should get rewards beyond magic items and wealth. Possible rewards include titles, lands, fortresses, followers, secrets, friendships, knowledge, and trusts. Such rewards also include responsibilities. Beyond that, I haven’t given that reward system much thought. In some cases, there will be no reward beyond achieving a goal. Perhaps the real reward is in lives saved or people helped?

At some point it may help to freeze levels. Mortals can only get so good. Also, as you advance in levels, the composition of useful monsters change. There’s a point at which the monsters no longer feel like Middle-Earth monsters. At that point, you just need to pack up the game and call it quits. All the more reason to slow down leveling.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Adapting Game Worlds to Novels

I forgot to post last Friday. I'm off my game. I haven't quite finished thinking about this, but I'll post what I have and hope that I entertain you.

My Endhaven novels began as the Endhaven adventure setting on the D&D Wiki. Translating one to the other, and back again, has been quite the educational experience.

The root problem, which is obvious once you think about it, is that you are changing mediums, and anytime that you change mediums, you change what works best. If you are lucky, you have a direct translation. Most often, you must resort to adaptation and inspiration. Just about any DM is familiar with this experience.

When you take a setting and turn it into a novel, you have far more material than you can deal with in a novel. A well developed RPG setting has a variety of villains, NPCs, and adventurers. Putting all of them into a single story would result in an epic story with

Not only that, you must integrate some parts of that environment into a story, and in doing so, discover all these cracks in your setting. These cracks are easily enough glossed over in a setting, but in a book, these little details matter far more. You must understand them better, and in getting to know them, realize how your setting has problems.

In addition, novels require immense amounts of detail. Even though you have taken great pains to create lots of world stuff, you will always find yourself creating more world stuff. The stuff that you invented for your game is good for gaming. There’s nothing wrong with it. However, good for gaming doesn’t mean good for novelization. You may have written a great great background on Treehugger elves, but when you plop that essay down into your novel, you find your narrative grinding to a screeching halt.

Going the other way, from novel to adventure setting, also has its challenges. A novel deals with a finite slice of your setting  and frequently includes explanations about the world. The problem with a novel is not creating gaming material, but in fitting that material well to the game. For an existing game system, you must adapt your novel to the peculiarities of that setting, or hack that setting to match your rules. For example, my lead character in Weeds Among Stone, Maran, can talk to gods, grow plants, and cook like nobody’s business. In D&D, what would Maran be? Besides a trainwreck, I just have no idea how she would translate. Is she a cleric, and if so, why can’t she do all sorts of normal cleric stuff? Would Zebra be an assassin, a rogue, or a swashbuckler? Is Altyn a wizard or a sorcerer? Not only that, what level would they be? And once you have all that designed, does that agree with what you read? Do their abilities suddenly make no sense, or do their classes imply that they should have other abilities?

When porting a game world to a novel, you also bring many restrictions. You normally can’t just change the rulers, or the gods, or the major players. There are other people writing in that world as well. What you can innovate on seems fairly narrow. Yet, how is that different from real life? Many folks write novels without ever worrying about who is president or what the major religions are. Yet, world creators will be world creators, and we just want to change what we can, when we can.

Step one is acceptance. In adapting a game environment to a novel, the adaptation will be imperfect. The purpose of a game setting is to entertain a group of players, while the purpose of a novel is to entertain a single person. That seems like a small difference, but that’s as big as the difference between chess and football.

Step two is implementation. A power or ability is easy to intone at a table, but how does that look in a novel? What implications does it have? How do normal people feel about such power? What advantages accrue to the character because of these powers?

Step three is to remain focused. You can't put everything into a novel. Pick and choose what works the best. When in doubt, pick even less. You'd be surprised at how quickly a reader loses track of which power is which. When a character has fewer powers and abilities, then the readers can track those characters easier.