Friday, February 23, 2018

A Strongly Defined Milieu

Why It's Important
A strongly defined milieu or setting has several advantages to both referee and player in campaign or one-off adventure play. Boundaries that are defined and defended make for friendly games...and I am not talking about a wall or line on a map type of boundary. The kind of boundaries I have in mind are cultural and religious boundaries, norms and morals - the patterns of behavior that define deviance and expectations. Having an established history, culture and religion for your game setting allows referee and players to start with common assumptions and gives everyone some guardrails for their role-play.
Perhaps having recently experienced a "bad session", I am more aware of the advantages of boundaries, both in terms of our implied social contract as gamers setting down at a table together for a friendly game and in terms of game milieu. The milieu begins with either a published setting or better yet, an idea the referee has for the setting or stage on which the players will act out their parts. The milieu can be well developed before the first session gathers around the table, or can begin as some vague ideas which will be fleshed out during group play. I am all for incorporating what happens at the table into the setting and building as we go, but I can also see advantages to starting with a pretty well defined milieu.
An established setting history allows players and referee a chance to share knowledge of what has transpired before. It gives everyone a place to start when creating characters. Often such detail will influence how the game is played as much or more than the system rules themselves. Following tradition or breaking with historical norms can pose an interesting dilemma for a player. Tying PC backgrounds and referee scenarios closely to the history of the setting adds to the believably of the game world.
Knowledge of the prevalent culture(s) of the setting helps the players and referee to develop the personalities of each PC and NPC over the course of play and can color their reactions to each other and to the environment. Culture establishes norms of behavior such as what is considered courtesy, the role of the individual in the group, how outsiders are viewed, what is common knowledge, and what behaviors are seen as taboo. Playing a PC from inside the dominant culture means dealing with the guardrails of expected behavior. Sometimes it is fun to play a "rule breaker", but there may be consequences. Playing a PC from outside the dominant culture involves social discovery and exploration and may lead to conflicts that must be role-played.
Religion is a special aspect of culture and can be a source of power and conflict within a society and across competing societies. Two people of vastly different  cultural origins may share a common religion while competing religious beliefs often create conflict within an otherwise homogeneous social group. In a setting with active deities, the gods themselves may directly play a part in the milieu through avatars or priestly agents and cause conflict among their believers. Religions often have a public side and a hidden side to them and this can be very useful to the referee as plot tools. What people consider right and wrong - the morality of certain actions - is often defined by religion, but even then may be debated among the faithful.
The milieu is the situation in the "sit-comedy. It is the stage for the play or the "set" for the film. It is both backdrop and determiner in the action as played out by the players. The more definition the milieu has, the more the players. referee and PCs, have to work with. Milieu is fuel for the imagination as well as the creative sum of world generation. The milieu deserves thought and planning and should be more than something "implied". It should be discussed and explained and explored thereby adding to the richness of the game. The milieu or setting can be as important as any player character or NPC and many campaigns have been defined more by the milieu or setting than by the characters.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Rules Cyclopedia POD

A Welcome Addition
The original Rules Cyclopedia (1991) is one of my favorite versions of the World's Most Popular Role-Playing Game and enjoys a good reputation in the hobby as perhaps the best, most complete single volume version of the game. Long out of print, scans of the Rules Cyclopedia was released for sale in digital form in 2015 through various online sources. Recently, a print-on-demand option was added. I recently ordered a softcover and a hardcover copy of the printed version from DriveThruRPG and received them after about a week.
The books are color prints shipped from Lightning Sources out of La Vergne, TN. They recreate the small amounts of color used on the interior of the original - green table dividers and the 16 pages of color hex maps of the known world. The paper seems of good quality. I find the soft cover version (pictured above) very handy to flip through and the glued binding seems sturdy enough for average tabletop use. The hard cover version is a bit stiff upon opening, but it seems well glued and I expect it to also hold up well with normal use. Both have a nice glossy finish to the cover with vibrant color illustration. The neutral cover edges and illustration tones differ slightly from the original TSR printing as can be seen when comparing the two images.
I assume the print on demands are from the same digital scan I purchased in 2015. Digital scans can vary quite a bit in their quality and I rate the scans of this document as pretty uneven between best and worst with the document as a whole as middling. There is significant shadowing of the print on some pages making it a challenge to comfortably read, but not so much on other pages. I have found the pages to square-up nicely and none are completely illegible, even down to the finer print on some of the tables.
The Rules Cyclopedia ranks high in my list of preferred versions of The Game because it continues to strongly support the "rules as guidelines" approach of the Original Edition/three LBBs and presents a complete game in a single book. The Rules Cyclopedia is not a slim tome at 304 pages and includes a pretty comprehensive version of the TSR-era fantasy rules for playing characters up to level 36. It also has a monster section and ample world setting material. In other words it makes a noble attempt at being a complete game in one book, albeit one that presents many "optional" rules allowing for customization.
The Rules Cyclopedia is compiled and developed by Aaron Allston and draws heavily from Frank Mentzer's BECMI  (Red Box) version of the Basic Game. As such it includes significant deviations from the Original Game including race-as-class, but retains other elements such as the original system of three alignments. The original printing of the Rules Cyclopedia has been difficult to find among the second hand dealers and often demands a premium price for a nice copy when it is available. Having this classic back in print (on demand) is a welcome addition in my eyes.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Be Inspired!

The "Beyond" Stuff
There is a strong reason why ODD is my favorite flavor of the game. It demands input from the would-be referee. More so than its OSR clones and simulacrum, more so than all later editions called "Basic" or "Advanced", the three LBBs in the White Box demands you make it "your game" by adding to and customizing. And by doing so, you inspire others to make their own game too. It is a creative catalyst for gaming. That is how it worked in 1974 and how it works today.
There is probably a reason (or two...) that TSR continued to support the original game through the "Basic" product line long after "Advanced" was released. The tournament friendly version of the game is more limiting, more confining than the version most directly descended from the original three LBBs and bearing its simple ampersand name. Why two parallel product lines within TSR? Because they each supported a different vision of the game and met different goals. One is introductory, aimed at home play and presented as guidelines open to personalized modification. The other emphasizes homogeneity and allowed for tournament play with standardized rules.
When WOTC joined the two product lines into one, something was lost in the process. Official sanction of the "rules as guidelines" philosophy has been abandoned, at least until 5e where it is getting some recognition again as a non-heretical, alternate play style. Personally it is a play style I have never abandoned and have brought to every rule system and setting I have ever used in role-play gaming. I treat just about everything I read, rules, setting material, and literature, as guidelines and inspiration. It isn't the only way to play, but it is my way.
So what about Middle Earth? How much must we adhere to canon? Are welimited to only that which the Professor wrote? I like to imagine things beyond what is written, but keeping with the general feel of the material. So in my M.E. there are "witch-priests" who are drawn to the power of the "black arts" and who align themselves with the forces of darkness... For me they represent those whom I imagine to have embraced corruption and are willing to serve the Shadow. (Is this not what Saruman does?) It seems plausible to me that ordinary men/women, being flawed humans, might act this way and earn the name "witch". Did the Istari ever teach men some magic? How about the Elves? Can there be mortal men/women, who having studied the art under greater beings, begin to dabble or even master some forms of magic in your game version of Middle Earth? They do in mine.
Don't be fenced in by what the author wrote...any author. Use it as a starting point and be inspired. As I introduce players to my Middle Earth game I sometimes say something like, "You have read about Middle Earth and all you read is true...but there is so much more to discover, so let's do some adventuring!"

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

What Is Magic?

In a M.E. Milieu
Pondering the nature of magic in a Middle Earth milieu has me thinking about how various people might view "magic" - particularly the people of a fictional Middle Earth. Its creator, J.R.R. Tolkien  draws on early medieval European folk traditions (including magic) to some extent when creating many aspects of his Middle Earth. The fantasy role playing game community tends to think of magic in terms of a game mechanic which reflects the fantastic as found in the common sources from which the genre draws from, namely fantastic fiction, myth and legend. Turning a person into a newt for example would be "magic" as described in a certain "silly" movie. The rules for just how a user of magic turns a character into a newt during game-play depends upon the magic system for that game. None of it is real, of course, except in the sense of actually rolling dice and playing make-believe.
The World's First Fantasy Role-Playing Game didn't invent the idea of magic. People told stories about things magical way before White Box came into being. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson just borrowed the magic idea for their game and wrote some rules to cover how it would work in game terms. People have, and do really believe in magic, however, but that is not part of the game...or is it?  The idea that "magic" exists is part of the non-scientific history of human culture. Anything unexplained may be termed magic...or not, depending on the belief system of the observer. I think of superstition and magic as being closely related concepts.
So what is magic in game terms? The White Box, which is my system of choice, gives some very basic guidelines for magic and its use during game-play without any explanation of what magic is, where it comes from, or how humans master it. Magic in the game is divided into divine and arcane and is available to the Cleric (divine) and Magic User (arcane) character classes.  Magic may be found in items, potions and scrolls and some of these are usable by the third character class, the Fighting Man. Monsters may also use certain magics.
White Box magic is termed "Vancian", named after that magic found in the Dying Earth fiction of author Jack Vance, in which the author describes the magician casting magic "spells" which are previously memorized and stored mentally for later use. Casting or "throwing" the memorized spell releases its power and erases it from memory. Each game character is limited in terms of how many spells and of what level of magic power they may memorize and use. Spell lists are aimed at dungeon adventuring and combat and generally the spell takes effect during the round (game turn) in which it is cast.
OK, that is a very brief overview of magic according to the three Little Brown Books of White Box, but what has that to do with anything beyond the game really? I think it is a way to represent what is written about in fantastic fiction and what has been described in sword & sorcery and other stories over the ages as unexplained "powers" which may come from advanced science and technology, supernatural forces, psychic powers or divine miracles. It exists in the game to add mystery and fun, something beyond the ordinary.
Professor J.R.R. Tolkien created a very detailed fictional world which is the setting for his most famous writings, Middle Earth, all of which are one of the many influences on White Box. It is in many ways a believable world setting, with much in common with our own and I think this is by design. Middle Earth is filled with the fantastic things of the good professor's imagination - Elves, Ents, Hobbits and more and Middle Earth seems awash in magic (unexplained power). Power over death, power over men's minds, power to create and hold light, power whose source is generally unexplained and which often seems beyond anything we can accomplish with today's science and technology is present on many pages of his work.
To a simple farmer the power of a seed may seem almost magical. How much more so the power of bringing forth light without a source such as fire? Being's with the ability to assume either human or animal form, walking, talking tree-like beings, animals which communicate with humans, and the spirits of the long dead that can be of danger to the living all appear in the pages of Professor Tolkien's writing and all speak of his Middle Earth as being a place of vast magic. To limit the perception of magic to the spell-like abilities of the Istari Wizards such as Gandalf, the servants of the Shadow including the Nazgul, and even the Elves, is I believe falling short of the vision the good professor had of Middle Earth. I like to think the fictional inhabitants of Middle Earth see magic everywhere they look. Some of it delights them, some concerns them and some terrifies them. Living in a world where dragons, orcs and Sauron all exist as real entities, how could it not be so? If Sauron would teach magic to the Witch-King of Angmar, why wouldn't lessor magic be taught to lessor folk? Those who grasp for power and be eager pupils would exist in any world, imaginary or not, I think.
Magic is an explanation for that power which we cannot understand, that which we perhaps fear, or desire access to. The power to read the future in the stars, to speak with animals, or commune with the spirits of the dead, or simply to make a rabbit appear from a hat, would seem to be at least as likely in middle Earth as it is in our own day. A skilled woodsman who seems to pass noiselessly and without trace is seen as using magic, or not? There is no reason to suppose that the inhabitants of Middle Earth would not attribute magic to the mundane much as we have on our Earth and I rather like the idea that since Middle Earth is a fictional place, magic might be more tangible, accessible and powerful than in reality. So why not include a bit of magic in your game of Middle Earth?

Friday, February 9, 2018

A Bad Session

A Perspective on Understanding
Every once in a while the best laid plans go astray and things blow-up in our faces. This is disappointing to say the least and can cause much grief and unhappiness if not addressed in a positive manner. Our hobby, our escape from the pressures of work, family and life in general is not immune to this disappointment. Occasionally the bad game session happens. My fault, your fault, nobody's happens.
Assigning fault or blame is not the point, however. It is good for each of us to look at our role in the bad session and ask ourselves, what happened and what can we learn from the experience. How can we do things better next time? It may also be good to talk about the session (after things cool down) and try to figure out what went wrong among the group, but that can risk making a bad situation worse. Sometimes we must agree to disagree. Gaming groups are friendship forming and sources of shared fun, but they can also be sources of tension and hurt feelings. So tread lightly!
One of the groups I regularly play with has been using Genesys as the rules for adventuring in the Aventuria setting of The Dark Eye. As I have mentioned in another post, the Genesys core book is incomplete and needs a lot of work to adapt it to any setting. The group attempted to do a lot of that work at the table during play and during our last session this led to disagreements and frustration. Tempers flared and good friends found themselves in a tense situation over a game that is supposed to be fun.
Design by committee is hard enough under ideal circumstances. While engaged in a game, with each player working their own PC's agenda as well as objectively trying to contribute both criticism and suggestions is a tall order. The referee, who both wishes to please his players and promote his own vision for the game, is probably not in the best situation to be making design decisions and have fun either. Perhaps that is expecting too much.
So what are my general bad session take-a-ways? Expectations play a big part. The referee as well as each player brings to the table a set of expectations about how the game will play, about what role each person has, about how decisions are made, and about the unspoken social contract that is always present in a group setting (rules of politeness, trust, mutual compromise, boundaries, taboos, etc.).
Designing on-the-fly produces a very different experience than that found in an average game where the rules are established (even if unknown). Looking up a rule is very different from making up a rule. Old School style referee fiat involves rulings-not-rules, but uses a different social contract - one based on lots of trust where the referee makes the rulings and players don't argue. Design on-the-fly with input from the players means opening the table up to discussion every time a ruling must be made. Players may disagree on how they would like it to be and if this is being done during play the fate of characters may bring emotions into play. (Egos may even get involved!)
Bad sessions may happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the referee (or players) are tired and grumpy (or unmotivated). Sometimes the players just refuse to cooperate and party tension gets out-of-hand. Sometimes expectations clash - maybe the referee wants to set a sinister mood for a horror themed game and the players just want to be silly. New rule systems may produce a bad game session because they don't fit the group's preference for complexity, or style, or tone, or pace. Sometimes the adventure just doesn't play out the way the referee envisioned it.
Perhaps how a bad session is dealt with afterwards is more important than understanding why it happened. This hobby is ultimately about fun and entertainment...and friendships. Putting the friendship factor ahead of the fun and entertainment seems to clarify things for me. A bad session can last a few hours, a friendship can last a lifetime. Make it so!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Middle Earth Musings

Shadow Thoughts
I have been thinking about Middle Earth again of late, which seems to be a current trend among several bloggers. My go-to system when thinking about a game is always White Box, so it is with the three Little Brown Books in mind that I am usually thinking of ways to model Middle Earth in game terms. One of the challenges for me is to get the atmosphere or feeling right. This means I need to add something for the Shadow influence of evil that haunts Middle Earth through much of it's history. I usually tend to think of gaming Middle Earth in Third Age history terms, somewhere between 1000 and 2000 TA. The 1300-1400's being attractive because of the kin-strife in Gondor and the 1900's fall of Arthedain in the north. I have also found the freedom presented by the lack of details on Far Harad and the Easterlings presents a lot of opportunity.
The influence of the Shadow influence or corruption upon the PCs seems to loosely fit into an  alignment kind of thing. Alignment in White Box combined with a saving throw mechanic is my latest thought regarding this evil influence. I am thinking about starting player characters off as Neutral (halfway between good and evil on a continuum) regarding their alignment and during play they may slide toward good (Law) or evil (Chaos) as they are exposed to events involving good or evil, beings (supernatural and otherwise) and as they make various decisions.Wisdom seems to be the associated attribute score (if one is needed) and a high Wisdom may grant a +1 to resist the draw of the Shadow or aid in moving toward good. I am also thinking about a series of behavior dichotomies such as greed/generosity, mercy/ruthlessness, hope/despair, and truth/deceit which could move a PC further along the continuum between good and evil depending on player choices. Witnessing an evil or good act could also call for a saving throw.
Advancing along the alignment track toward evil should make the PC more susceptible to control by Shadow forces, ultimately leading to complete loss of free will and handing the character sheet over to the referee to become a minion of evil. A fate worse than death? This is in keeping with my interpretation of Middle Earth as a dark and perilous place. Along the way as the PC adventures one could develop good blessings or evil curses which affect the PC (example "Paladin" abilities ala Greyhawk). This idea needs work.
Saving throws against Shadow should get easier/harder to make as the campaign progresses. Shadow saving throws should be tied to the PC's history of resistance rather than level. As one succeeds in incorporating goodness into themselves and resisting evil influences, one should become more good and better able to resist evil. In other words the saving throw reflects this. The slippery slope to corruption by evil and domination by the Shadow would work the same. The more evil one becomes (failed saving throws) the harder it gets to resist evil's influence (make saving throws and move toward good).
Question to self - could one play an agent of the darkness, always on the edge of losing one's freedom of action? It might be fun for a time to try.