Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Galadran Cosmology

The two pictures on the sidebar of my blog are my two favorite modules for AD&D - Castle Spulzeer and The Forgotten Terror. They were in essence a crossover between the Forgotten Realms (which I despise) and Ravenloft (which I think is the greatest setting of all time). The party was engaged in what appeared to be a typical adventure in the Realms, only to have it turn dark and sinister, sucking the party into a mini-domain of Ravenloft that existed in the tortured psyke of the villain.

The concept of domains always intrigued me. In Ravenloft, they served as prisons for the truly evil beings in the world. In most campaign worlds, though, there are planes, which serve as infinite (or near-infinite) world for the characters, each specifically themed (elemental planes, planes of energy, planes of Law, and so on...). I have always been somewhat leery of planar travel for this reason - an infinite plane based on a single gimmick seemed wrong, somehow. If the players want to explore other worlds, they should be other worlds, not planes - there is more precedent for world travelling in fantasy fiction than planar travel (though with the coming of Magic: The Gathering, planar travel has become more commonplace in the genre.

I like the idea of the elemental planes - the raw power of the elements having a physical location is part of my theory about magical practice in Galadran - but planes like Mechanus just strike me as silly. Whole infinite regions dedicated to the concept of Law seems foolish - Law is a human concept, and the idea that it was influenced by planar suggestion lessens the importance of the concept rather than enhancing its importance.

Yet, planar travel should be possible - whole spells are dedicated to the planes and their denizens. I've already decided against Angels and Demons in my setting (they resemble the Christian concepts of absolute Good and Evil too much to have a place in this world), but I want the travel to have an exotic appeal as well - players should want to travel to other planes if they can. They should not be just be another campaign setting (largely because I don't want to do another one).

That's why Ravenloft's domains are so interesting to me - little pocket dimensions of a limited size that allow for some variation of play without needing the same level of detail and composition as the main world. They could be created by magical means by combining raw elemental forces in the same manner as the main world was - but would be limited in scope (and perhaps in duration).

These "demiplanes" are a far more reasonable concept than infinite ones for me - they have everything that a PC would need (including the promise that they might one day have their own).

They also have the added advantage of many more adventure opportunities - many tiny fragments that obey their own rules have more potential for play. And they are different enough that I can play around with them without having them intrude upon my own world and the metagame it involves.

What metagame, you may ask? I'll leave that for next time....

For now, though, let's look at what I need to make this work.

There is no spell for planar creation in the Wizard's spell list. There is, however, a psionic power that allows it - Genisis. It is a simple matter to make this a 9th level wizard spell and be done with it. That part is easy. But the nature of the plane is what's important.

From the SRD:

You determine the environment within the demiplane when you manifest genesis, reflecting most any desire you can visualize. You determine factors such as atmosphere, water, temperature, and the general shape of the terrain. This power cannot create life (including vegetation), nor can it create construction (such as buildings, roads, wells, dungeons, and so forth). You must add these details in some other fashion if you desire. You can’t create lingering psionic effects with this power; you have to add those separately, if desired. Similarly, you can’t create a demiplane out of esoteric material, such as silver or uranium; you’re limited to stone and dirt. You can’t manipulate the time trait on your demiplane; its time trait is as the Material Plane. Once your demiplane reaches 180 feet in radius, you can manifest this power again to gradually add another 180 feet of radius to it, and so on.

Change the "manifest this power" to "cast this spell again" and "psionic" to "magic", and we're done.

But how does this fit in with the rest of the world? This sort of spell doesn't happen in a vacuum. Fortunately, the extradimensional space spells (Mordenkainin's spells, such as the Magnificent Mansion) are a perfect precursor to this spell. The experiments with these lower level spells lead naturally to Genesis.

Mordenkainin's spells are replaced by Math Keeson in my world, so this spell will be named "Keeson's Genesis."

So far so good. We've got the basis for a new cosmology - one based on slow incursions into creationism rather than exploration. This means that very powerful spellcasters have places to go in the world that gets them out of my setting (preventing "powerful NPC syndrome), as well as giving me some lesser worlds to explore with my players - world than can be collapsed and created as the story demands.

Now for the continuity: Keeson is still alive as of 607 (the default starting year for all campaigns in Galadran), and is in his early forties. This spell can be no more than a decade or so old. That limits its viability some for ancient threats, but that doesn't concern me much - there is enough ancient in my world's history that I don't need demiplanes as well. A spell of this power that is new also gives the suggestion of progress in the world - something that campaign worlds lack. The world always seems to be filled with more advanced ancient civilizations and magics than are available in the "present," and that just doesn't fit with what we know about human history and progress.

This new magical invention means that the practical effects and limits to the spell haven't been explored yet, giving my players something else to do at high levels - they can discover the limits of the spell themselves (as I'm sure Keeson is trying to do as we speak), and enjoy the discovery that entails. There may also be hidden dangers that this sort of arcane creation provokes that have not been discovered yet...

Nevertheless, this sort of creationism requires a philosophic school of specialization (as discussed in Dragon Magazine issue 338). This school should be located in Silva, since that was Keeson's adopted home for much of his young adult life (he moves to Oreda in the summer of 607 to become one of the chairs at Crage Hall).

The Creationism Curriculum

Graduates from this Curriculum receive a +3 on all Survival skill checks.

1. Shield, Floating Disk
2. Rope Trick, Flaming Sphere
3. Keeson's Tiny Hut
4. Minor Creation, Keeson's Secure Shelter
5. Keeson's Private Sanctum, Major Creation
6. Create Undead
7. Instant Summons
8. Create Greater Undead
9. Keeson's Genesis, Refuge, Imprisonment

Graduates of this school must take Illusion as their forbidden school.

That's all for now, my friends. Talk to you again soon.

Reimagining the Game Through WoW

I hate World of Warcraft. It's a time and money sink, and a rip-off of the Gauntlet series of video games. I mean, seriously, look at Gauntlet from the 80s:

Right down to the spawning monsters. This game was fun 25 years ago, but adding the ability to name your characters, giving them more to collect, and improving the graphics isn't enough for me to pay a monthly fee. And it shouldn't be for anyone else either.

That being said, though, the game designers have some good points to make about game design - ones that I need to remember when putting Galadran together. They make some mistakes as well.

First point to address:

It's a good point. WoW is a simple game to learn. So was D&D once. I'm not the only one who remembers that, either. What happened? The same thing that happened to wargames before roleplaying - as the players became more sophisticated, they began to demand more from the game. Modern players want gameplay sophistication to a degree that would have killed the hobby if it had been present all along.

But it's wrong at the same time. AD&D was very complicated, and it managed not only to survive, but prosper. The key is that the new levels of complication had a rationale behind them that the new player could understand. This made the rule make sense in a way that the more modern rules and powers do not. Why in 4e does my fighter have so many cool supernatural-style powers? Its never explained how healing surges work, or what they're supposed to represent in a concrete way (they are like a "second wind" for the PC, but even that explanation leaves something to be desired). How do clerics work with their Gods? Are healing surges a mechanical metagaming thing, or do they represent something more? I don't know - the game doesn't tell me. That makes the rule one I need to remember by rote- which is annoying. It would be easier to remember if it represented something I could understand in "real world" terms.

So the secret to adding complexity to your game is to make sure that it represents something that people can understand. Just more rules for their own sake (like powers in 4e) are irritating to remember, largely because people don't learn that way. They learn by applying new information to existing concepts - that's why knowledge in school builds on itself, why you need to understand base principles before more complicated material can be introduced. We learn that way. Memorization is considered the lowest form of educational tool. It is frustrating to the student, and typically considered a waste of time. Why would that be the primary way to play a game made for pleasure?

Second Point:

Gameplay First: Before anything else, you want to concentrate the game on the fun. All aspects of the game -- the design, the mechanics of encounters, the quests and story are focused on making the game fun to play. Not only fun to play -- but fun to play for players, not developers.

I forget this one a lot when designing my game, so it's important to remember. I love my game, but that makes sense - it's MINE. If I want other people to love my game, I need to make it good for them as well. I have a certain amount of this that I can ignore (people that are playing in my game know the sort of person I am, so are expecting a certain amount of my brand of "coolness." But the game is really for them, not for me, and I should remember that.

The challenge is to keep players jumping through the correct hoops, while making those hoops fun.

No. No. No. The challenge is to make the experience fun and immersible enough that the characters will create their own hoops. That is the essence of a sandbox world over a plot-driven one. If your characters feel that they can do whatever they want, they will come upon with things to do, rather than needing you to give them tasks. That is the measure of success in this endeavor.

Point Three:

You can see this philosophy in 4e, and to some extent in d20. It's wrong. There's no sense of accomplishment in that philosophy. That's a no-brainer. If you want the game to be anything more than level grinding and optimizing power builds, there needs to be a sense of accomplishment inherent in the game that encourages players to work together, share the accomplishment, and look forward to the next challenge. If the game is not hard, there is not "winning," only escapist time-wasting. You can play video games for that. This should be more than a video game around a table.

And it can be. For me it is.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Base Classes

OK, the first thing needed to establish my game is to work on the base classes. Classes, races , and feats define the d20 system, so changes to that system are the most important to the manner in which the game functions.

So let's look at my design principles behind the core classes:

- The classes need to be flavorful and draw the power level of the classes together. The fighting classes need to have their power level increased to match the power of the spellcasting classes. As it stands, there is almost no reason to play a fighting class for all 20 levels. This should change.

- Each class should feel unique from each other, and add to the flavor of my campaign world. The Wizard and the Sorcerer are too similar to count in my world. Each class should have its own play strategy, not just be a variation on an existing theme. Variations may be included in regional sections (each area of my world will have additional classes unique to the culture), but when it comes to the core classes, each one needs to play differently and well.

- There should be no more than 11 core classes. That's about all I think the game needs. More than that, and it becomes confusing, less than that, and the important variety is gone. I could go as low as eight, but I will not go over 11. We'll see what we come up with.

- The classes should be divided up evenly. There are basically three class variants in D&D; fighting classes, magic-using classes, and classes that do a little of each (hybrid classes). I want no more than 4 fighting and magic-using classes, with three hybrids to round it out. This should allow for enough variety of play that every player can enjoy some style, without making the game too focused on any one aspect (magic, mundane combat etc..).

- Lastly, the classes need to evoke the character of my world. I know it seems strange, but Galadran has a specific feel that I want to evoke, and every aspect of the game should help reflect that feel. This is one of the things that World of Darkness did very will in its original run - every aspect of each game contributed to the overall feel of the game. D&D was/is attempting a more generic style of play, but my world is unrestricted by such concerns. If you are playing in Galadran, you are playing IN GALADRAN, and the game needs to make the ambiance and prevailing themes clear from the beginning. That starts with these base classes, races, and feats.

So here are the finalists.

The Four Fighting Classes

Fighter (heavily modified): The fighter redux for Galadran is based on two principles. The first is that this is a person that learned fighting from experience on the field, rather than in an academy or dojo (that's what the warrior class is for). Secondly, that he will evolve into a military commander, in the manner of Achilles or King Arthur. The fighter gains auras that improve his allies' fighting abilities when they are nearby him (he is a presence on the field), and after a certain point, he begins to attract followers, who want to learn from and assist him.

The Barbarian (Pathfinder variant): Pathfinder did this right. This is the fighting class that relies on natural talent over training. There's not much more to say - this is a very good and flexible class with many options and tactical subtlety. In it goes.

The Warrior (Tome of Battle variant fighter): The master of personal combat, who has learned the art of personal combat at the feet of some legendary master or under the strict eye of a tutor or academy. This class was taken wholesale from this site, with one change made for the sake of variety. I have collected more than thirty different martial disciplines, and want to use this class as a starting point for all specially trained master warriors. Like domains for clerics, I want each kingdom to have one or more academies dedicated to personal combat, each offering around three disciplines to those who learn the trade from there. This should allow for near infinite combinations, to say nothing of what the prestige classes can offer, without forcing the player to scour through all of the disciplines and pick the ones he wants. For people less interested in the "fluff" of the schools, I will offer them three disciplines in the class description, representing the "generic" fighting school.

The rogue: Straight from the book, with additional rogue abilities taken from Dragon magazine or other d20 supplements for additional options. No other changes - this guy was about perfect out of the box.

The Four Spellcasting Classes:

The Cleric: No changes. This class is flexible and powerful. In it goes.

The Druid: No changes. Same reason as above.

The Shadowcaster (heavily modified, from Tome of Magic): This is the first real change to the spellcasters in this book. The Wizard is out as a core class (I have my reasons - he should be a regional option, in my opinion) and in his place is the Shadowcaster. I like the feeling of menace and weird supernaturality of the shadowcaster, and it fits well with the overall theme of my world much better than the typical wizard. Magic in Galadran is a dangerous force, and it should feel dangerous and creepy. At the same time, I imagined this type of spellcasting to be the first kind of arcane magic practiced in the world, so it goes in for that reason as well. The modifications are taken in to give the class a little more staying power in a fight. They may regain one of their supernatural abilities as a standard action, or all of them as a full-round action, in the manner of a ToB class. This should keep them in the fight longer, and make them a more viable option than they used to be for play.

The Thaumaturgist (taken from Iron Kingdoms' Mortithurge, modified slightly): This class in effect replaces the Sorcerer in my book. He represents a stutter-step between the old casting of the Shadowcasters, and the "new" classic vancian system that is prevalent in my "European" civilization. Basically, it fights a little bit (proficiency with martial and simple weapons, and light armor, and has the armored spellcater ability), but utilizes a spellbook and memorizes like a wizard (with a restricted spell list, and many fewer spells per day). I don't consider this a hybrid class, because the combat ability is very secondary to the class. The class abilities allow the cater to hurt himself (and later, others) to power or reuse spells. This fits with the "magic is dangerous" theme of my world, and so in it goes.

The Three Hybrid Classes:

The Ranger (heavily modified): The ranger is really the scout from the Heroes of battle book. The animal companion has been replaced with an ability to flank at range, and the ranger spells have been added to class. This helps both classes (who suffered from one-hit-wonderdom) by allowing them to function as a ranged harasser class and a scout, while still keeping that supernatural attachment to nature that the class enjoyed (sort of like a paladin for outdoorsmen).

The Hexbalde (modified): The hexblade is really, really, cool - but WAY too weak to be effective. the idea is so good, and the implementation is so bad. It is perfect for Galadran, but needs to be brought up to speed.

The changes are from Mike Mearls' suggestions:

* Good Fortitude save
* Curse ability usable 1 + the hexblade's Cha modifier per day
* Curse ability usable as a swift action
* Curse ability does not count as used if the target makes his saving throw
* Ability to cast in light or medium armor and while carrying a light shield or buckler
* At 6th level, the hexblade can cast one hexblade spell per day as a swift action, as long as its original casting time is a standard action or faster. He gains an additional use of this power at levels 8, 11, 14, and 18.

I've also expanded the curse effects, allowing the power to "scale," as an incentive to keep with the class. This is the paladin replacement.

The Beastmaster (from the Iron Kingdoms Paingiver): This class was presented as a torturer class, but really, it trains animals and herds them into battle. The idea was so cool, I wondered why it was not really mentioned in the class other than to give it the abilities it needs. Screw being able to torture - I love the idea of being able to train and herd semi-tame monsters into battle as "allies." And I think that also fits with the more gritty theme of my world - more so than a bard. In it goes.

One modification, though. Instead of a +3 to Knowledge (torture) at 2nd level, I'm going to go with Animal Handling. Works better.

That's all for now, my friends. Talk to you later.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Thinking About What Makes a Good Game

With the campaign that started this blog on hiatus, and my final year of school before taking on my new role as teacher making more and more demands on my time, I've decided to repurpose this blog for the time being into what it was already becoming anyway; a forum for my thoughts and ideas about game design (specifically, my game's design) and a place to post some idea that are being considered for my campaign world (the PHB of which I hope to finally finish this week).

So, to begin:

I LOVE the d20 system. I never wanted to like It, never wanted to have it replace my beloved AD&D, but it did, and I love it. I do not feel the same way about 4e, but that's because 4e is a steaming pile of offal, not a game.

The only problem I have with d20 is that it doesn't feel much like AD&D - it lacks the teamwork that comes from the earlier editions. There isn't much mechanical advantage to teamwork in 3.5, nor does the same appear to have been balanced around teamwork as the style of play. I'd like the game to have more options, to better support teamwork, and to allow the weird fantasy feel that I've come to associate with classic RPG fantasy, while keeping the incredible outrageousness that has come to typify the "Dungeonpunk" style that 3e introduced.

I mean, look at this:

That is legitimately cool - the classic party of adventurers in a group shot. That will probably become the cover for my Player's Guide, because it is exactly what I want the players to be - a group, a party. Not six lone wolf individuals that just happen to be travelling in the same direction for no appreciable reason.

At the same time, look at this:

THAT'S what a combat should feel like. This will probably be the cover to my Monstrous Manual, for the same reason. Adventuring is dangerous, and most of those that undertake it should have abbreviated lifespans. That's why adventurers don't run the world economy, and why there still are dungeons to explore and get treasure from - this isn't a career choice, it's an all-or-nothing gamble for wealth. Its a desperate attempt at the good life for the 99% of the world that will never see it any other way. It's also a gamble heavily weighted against the player. That's why most people stay at home and farm turnips.

Combat should have a definite Sword & Sorcery feel to it - cinematic, but not in the anime style. It should be gritty and intense, but I don't want to drag it down with too many complications. This game should be about options, not compulsory rules that make everything more difficult for no reason. "Realism," for lack of a better term, but not at the expense of playability. To that end, I want to make as many option available as I can, but I want to give each player a choice in whether or not to use them. There should be mechanical advantages to these options, but not using them shouldn't penalize the players either.

In short, I want a game that allows the players to have the maximum choices I can give them, without forcing them to accept the changes to the system all at once. The additional options should be common sense, or should FEEL optional.

Lastly, look at this:

In my mind, this is proof of concept for the Dungeonpunk style - Eberron may suck as a sandbox world (and it does), but it got the feel of the game right. Menace, activity, and the right combination of dark weirdness and exotic fantasticness that every D&D game should strive for.

It CAN be done. It just hasn't been done PROPERLY yet, not as I see it.

That's what AD20 is going to be - AD&D with 3e mechanics, heavily modified to bring it in line with the philosophy I've outlined here. If I stay true to the concept, it should produce a great game.

That's why I'm doing this, after all. To do it right by my vision. And that's what makes D20 so much better than the 2e or 4e systems. It's my vision that counts, not the vision of the designers. That's what should be true.

Time will tell. I'll keep everyone informed.