Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons: "Defense" part 1

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have not had access to any other players and so I have just been kicking around ideas that normally would be in a game and instead I am just going to post them on my blog.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

Introduction: Last Week and This Week
            Last time I talked about the very soft and fluffy topic of slang, lingo, jargon, and language as it exists in fantasy settings.  I took an unpopular stance.  So, let’s just leave that behind and move onto a crunchier topic.  This entry started as one and as usual it got really long and so I decided to split it rather late in the process.  It may feel a little uneven (ultimately), but I ended up having a lot to say and so I wanted to give I the space it needed.
            Last week was about Language, but what happens when communications break down?  What if you don’t want to have to drink a shit ton of red potion after the inevitable fight?  What if you want your character to be the type who fears pain and wouldn’t want to take a hit that could be avoided?  What if you want to be a little defensive?
 
What a gorgeous and massively impractical structure.
Why do you need archer cover on the side that faces the 800ft cliff?
You fighting a lot of blimps?

What Have I Got: A Plea for Self Defense, and I’m not talking about the Castle Doctrine
            When attacked, characters have few options for defending themselves.  Unless you made the decision during your turn to utilize the feat Expertise or to fight defensively you do not have any active input for when someone attacks you.  This I feel is kind of mistake, but an understandable one.
            Armor Class (AC) is a mostly static number that serves a meet-it or beat-it barrier to damage (that is to say if the attack roll is equal to or greater than the AC it hits).  AC is simple to understand, simple to keep track up, and beyond the math of adding and subtracting various magical items or armor bits you don’t have to give it much thought.

Sure the pauldrons make it so I can't lift my arms, but it does let me show off all the sit-ups I have been doing.
            AC is calculated as such, 10 + Armor + Dexterity Modifier (to the limit the armor allows) + Shield + Natural Armor + Deflection Bonus + Luck Bonus + … Look, Armor has lots of little things that go into it and they all stack, but bonuses of the same type do not stack, so if you have magic bracelets that give you an armor bonus of 5 but you are wearing Banded Mail armor which gives a bonus of 6, you will only get the 6, the larger bonus and are better off giving the bracelets to the teams mage who does not wear armor.  Regardless, most of these bonuses are Item related.  Your armor bonus does not increase with level in 3rd edition, (IT DOES IN 4TH EDITION!) and there are few feats which give any sort of bonus to it except in specific situations (like running past someone with Mobility).
            Most combat oriented feats and combat actions put the emphasis on attacking, things like Weapon Focus, Power Attack, Rapid Shot, Mounted Combat, or Two-Weapon Fighting.  The game’s philosophy is more one of “the best Defense is a good Offense”.  In theory, this should make the game a lot faster as stronger attacks land more frequently and there are few ways to prevent such damage thru clever rules.  Think of it this way, two level 10 fighters with no armor fighting in a pit will hack each other to death in no time because their odds of missing with an attack are nearly zero.

"Sure it takes six squares working for 90 minutes to get me in this but it is totally worth it."
Or,
"Fight?  And get this all dirty?  Are you insane?"
            I have additional issues with how the feats are attack oriented, mostly in that they are still super boring, almost no status effects, limitations on number of times each day that the abilities can be used (Quivering Palm), way too many instances of abilities being super powerful in the early game and nearly useless after that (Cleave), and rules that are too complicated for quick implementation (Pelor’s mercy, the rules for grappling in 3rd edition require a 2-page long flow chart, PLY THAT).
            I am sure that in the future I will write a long complaining blog about how boring Fighters are because of how boring feats tend to be (though they are a wonderfully modular game mechanic whose value to the medium cannot be overstated, you could build an entire game around using feat acquisition as the sole means of leveling up).
            Today I am going to focus on the limitations of defensive mechanics in 3rd Edition and in the next entry I will try to point to some positive examples of active defense found in other games (Hello again “Bloodborne”).

Alternative 1: Just roll more Dice or Change the way Armor Works
            There are of course rules to change the basic system.  In “Unearthed Arcana” they talk about the very simple addition of Defensive Rolls.  This has nothing to do with your characters’ actual ability to do a cartwheel in fullplate but instead is just a slight mathematical change to how armor is calculated.  Normally AC starts with 10 + Whatever Else, with Defensive rolls that 10 is swap out with a d20.
            So, when someone attacks you the attacker rolls and attack roll and you roll a defensive roll.  This is ‘meh’ to the power of 10.  There is no substantive gameplay or statistical benefit to rolling a d20 compared to taking a 10.  I mean technically it is a +.5 bonus to your armor when you project over the 100’s of rolls, but the amount of real time that is eaten up rolling those dice and waiting for dipshit player, Gary to do the basic addition necessary to figure out the hit or miss will drag things down.
            The only thing that could make this slightly better is the 5th edition concept of Advantage, in which you get two defensive rolls when in a favorable position, but that is ‘meh’ considering if you have a defensive advantage it means you likely have attacking advantage and suddenly the concept of advantage is starting to snowball and become too powerful.
            I suppose you could also look at Action Points.  The idea that you could add a small bonus at an opportune moment or take a reroll, this gives some tactical discussions to the mix, but not so much as to offset the burden of waiting for Gary to do math.  Fucking Gary.
 
This is the Unearthed Arcana I am referencing.
            Also in “Unearthed Arcana” is the idea that armor can provide Damage Reduction (that is to say rather than blocking the hit it makes the hit hurt less).  You would cut the armor bonus provided by a suit of armor in half and that number would become the damage prevented.  For instance, if armor would normally provide a +2 to AC it would then provide a +1, but would prevent 1 damage from all physical attacks, so a bonus of +8 would transform into +4 and 4/-.
            I actually like this on principle as it does provide another thing that can be adjusted in game.  You could even play with the idea of providing armor that was more padded and could absorb more damage or armor that was more deflective giving a higher bonus to AC.  But, having tried it in a game it felt like an unwanted condiment on a very typical sandwich.  It added something, but didn’t change the underlying problem of being something the player does not DO so much as being something the player HAS.  That is to say, the player doesn’t make any choices in combat to alter their AC or defensive options based on this new feature.

The Basics: The many layers of defense
            Before I go any further I have to cover somethings beyond Armor Class because Armor is not the only way to avoid getting hit.  There are several factors that contribute to Defense that most players do not strictly associate with the concept.  This seemingly overlong list will come back in the next entry, but it is important to understanding that defense is actually not just AC but instead several game mechanics that form layers and can be numbered (roughly) by the order in which they protect.

---1--- 
            First we have Protective Spells each with one or more protective effects.  This layer of defense covers a surprisingly diverse range of defensive capabilities.  Since I do not own every supplement ever I will restrict this talk to two specific spells Sanctuary and Mirror Image.  The first, Sanctuary is a ward that makes any attacker pass a will save to make an attack against the warded person, if they fail then they cannot make the attack and they lose that part of their turn.  Mirror Image by contrast creates a defense by creating a bunch of dummy targets for the opponent to attack in place of the real guy.

            Strictly speaking neither Sanctuary or Mirror Image has a direct impact on the defensive statistics of the caster, but they do have strictly defensive functions and as such their application is interesting enough to mention.  It is possible to use these type of spells as a guide for developing abilities that contribute to the defense of characters.

 ---2---
            Second we have Concealment, Displacement, and Miss Chance.  These factors represent a percentage chance of the attacker not being clear on where you are.  There is a small chance that the attacker slashes the space just to your left or right, or is shooting at a silhouette that is the same shape as you thru fog or glaring light.  I consider this one of the less utilized defenses (maybe your GG is a bigger fan of Displacer Beasts than I am so I might be wrong, I did not conduct a survey).
I must have seen 2 dozen images of these things.
Not one bit of art depicting their titular "displacing" ability.
            Mostly these effects show up with Obscuring Mist, Blur, Cloaks of Displacement, Invisibility, or the attacker just being blinded.  They are resolved with percentile dice, one of the few things players might use those dice for unless they have a Rod of Wonder.

 ---3---
            Third up is the most iconic things having to do with defense, Armor and Shields.  This layer is pretty self-explanatory; you use an object to block a hit and the hit does no damage. I am going to mention Deflection bonus, it is a type of forcefield that surrounds you and protects you from being struck, it makes sense as a magical defense that adds to your AC. 
            What is REALLY strange is a couple of the things they chose to put in this category in addition to suits of armor and trusty shields.  There are a couple things that don’t make sense here, first is that they put Dexterity Modifier here, I’m sorry, shouldn’t (logically) the ability to dodge an attack be in the “Miss Chance” category?  There is also Natural Armor, like a turtle’s shell or crab exoskeleton, those are not objects those creatures put on themselves, that is their body, if you hit them and do no damage because of their body’s ability to resist taking damage shouldn’t that be damage reduction?  Speaking of which.


---4---
            Fourth is Damage Reduction.  This is when a body is so tough that it just shrugs off damage.  Werewolves take less damage from non-Silver weapons, fey take less damage from non-Cold Iron weapons, and high level Barbarian characters take less damage from all physical attacks.

He's scary.
            Damage Reduction is only looked at when an attack connects.  If your players took the time to research what they were fighting and planned ahead of time then it will almost always be bypassed if they have the resources to readily retrieve the Silver, Cold Iron, or an appropriate magic weapon.  This is almost certainly a better place to put “Natural Armor” as a concept rather than making it another layer of Armor Class, but that does make things more complicated.


---5---
            Fifth is the combination of healing and resistance known as Regeneration.  This hovers in the strange middle between Damage Reduction and Hit Points.  The ability to heal back any damage not caused by a specific type of energy or weapon.  You could classify Regeneration as more of a variant on Damage Reduction that is kinder to player groups that are more about lots of weaker attacks rather than single big hits.
IT'S ANOTHER HAY MAKER!
            For instance, if a group of players can make 20 attacks for 5 points each and they were to attack a werewolf with damage reduction 5/silver, they could land 20 hits and do ZERO DAMAGE.  Conversely, werewolves had Regeneration 5 (silver) the party in question could make 20 attacks to deal 100 points of damage, probably knocking out the werewolf and allowing them to chain it or secure it in some way, but the werewolf would start to heal back to full strength at 5 points per turn.  Conversely, if your party has 5 attacks that do 20 points each, they would prefer to fight the Damage Reduction werewolf, because they would do 75 points of damage and there would be no healing, they would likely kill the beast in spite of his resistance to non-silver weaponry.
            Regeneration is an ability that is most comfortably in the hands of monsters and only in limited instances like Transmutation spells should players get a grip on it.  I perhaps think of it as more powerful than most people.


---6---
            Sixth is the single most basic concept in defensive statistics, Hit Points.  This is the one I think people will have a harder time accepting.  People (gamers) tend to think of health and defense as separate to the point of never conflating the two.  “Hit Points are health; Defensive stuff is how I protect that health.”
            In spite of this mental cleft between the two, it is still possible to imagine a game system in which there is no roll to hit a character, you only roll for damage, and rather than there being a miss chance or armor to block the attack the enemy simply has more hit points to represent their ability to resist harm.  Sufficiently large hit points can stand in for high Armor Class, Damage Reduction, and other defensive statistics, they have just never been used that way because each of these layers (Hit Points included) represent a nob with which the designers and players can fine tune the game.

Think of how many game bosses just get hit incessantly.
Whose only defense against death is the sheer size of their health meter.
            Let me give another example, some games use a variant called Stun Points which represent not physical damage but a character’s ability to avoid harm, they then have Hit Points which represent receiving real physical harm.  Recovering Stun Points takes only rest, but recovering Hit Points requires medical attention.  Adding Stun Points to Dungeons and Dragons and other RPG’s is a popular variant (I think) and adds an element of “Realism” to the proceedings.  It explains how taking “injuries” from a sword does not always lead to lingering death like most feudal societies in the real world (and yes I know that DnD has magic, but if you start using magic as an explanation for everything… that way resides madness).

---7---
            Seventh on this way too long list is Fast Healing, which is thankfully quick to explain.  Fast Healing allows for healing quickly hits that have already been taken, but doesn’t help to avoid the hit or to tank the damage to begin with.  As Master Chief will tell you, the ability to pull back, fully recover, and then press theattack again is a helpful “defense” against death.

---8---
            Eighth and final on this list comes all other forms of healing.  Is there a cleric somewhere boosting everyone’s hit points via Mass Bear’s Endurance?  Or are they just healing their allies in general?  Healing is a topic I have covered before, and when you look at how long that blog entry is you have to realize that I could probably write nearly as much for each of the 7 other entries on this list.
            Generally speaking I think that Healing as a mechanic is lacking in 3rd Edition and much of it can be addressed in lots of ways, but this blog is more about avoiding having to get to this eighth layer.
 
This is probably the angelic equivalent of sweat pants.


Next Time and the Beg for Attention
            Now that I have covered the basics of Defense as an entire realm of game mechanics that I feel are underutilized and offered the first of 3 variations on these mechanics (the other two variations will come next week).
            I know that I missed the boat in a lot of ways by talking so much about 3rd Edition in this blog.  That while Pathfinder and 5th Edition borrow heavily from the D20 system and there is still so much material floating around out there (because printed material hangs around, for instance 3rd Edition was the last edition to get support from the Magazines Dragon and Dungeon, of which I own many copies that have been re-read to the point of falling apart).


            I present my experiences with this system almost as catharsis for the numerous little issues I have had over the years and in hopes that it can serve to teach others from my observations and mistakes.  Hopefully these are entertaining to read and they provide you, dear reader, with some useful ideas for your own game.
            Have Fun!

______________________________
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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Some Depressing Poetry by Stephen Crane

I took these from the Poetry Foundation, a great resource for anyone who loves to look well read via occasionally posting poetry on their blog.  Each of these poems was written by Stephen Crane, author of "The Red Badge of Courage".  I am sure he was a real peach to be around.


In the Desert
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”


"I saw a man pursuing the horizon"
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never —”

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.


A Man Said to the Universe
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons: "Language"

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have not had access to any other players and so I have just been kicking around ideas that normally would be in a game and instead I am just going to post them on my blog.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.


What Have I Got: A Failure to Communicate
            For the last few months I have been listening to audio renditions of numerous classic science fiction novels via Audible (they are not sponsoring me because few if any read this blog).  My almost anthropological goal was to understand what people of decades’ past would view as a probable or fantastical future.  Often, they use science fiction to comment on society rather than making any sort of realistic prediction (hello, Kurt Vonnegut) but many of the stories have a particular quirk that I am coming to dislike.  Lots and lots of Jargon.

            You have a fictional piece of technology you want to give it a name that makes it sound exotic, powerful, curious, mysterious, or if you have a lick of sense it describes the function of the item so that the audience knows what the hell you are on about.  Or maybe you as a writer just want to make some funny slang to periodically remind the reader/listener that they are in a different world, set apart from contemporary society.  Imagine a science fiction world in which everyone is so strapped for time that they start reducing phrases or sentences into abbreviations for no reason.  That would be silly.  RotFL!

            Let’s me point to some quick examples.  Simple funny words are used to fill in for cursing in family programs like ‘slag’ in “Transformers: Beast Wars”, ‘shell’ in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, or ‘whomp’ from “Disney’s Recess”.  ‘Whomp’ gets an entire episode explaining its origin and they actually have a very mature discussion about free speech and expression for children.  Which is one of many things that elevated “Recess” into a classic cartoon rather than the dregs of its era.
 
I don't think I am rubbing anyone the wrong way by saying, "This looks like a typical gaming group".
            Beyond cursing there are certain phrases that tie into religious or philosophical concepts in the worlds presented.  Not long ago I finished "Stranger in a Strange Land", which features the word 'Grok' which because of the book's popularity became an actual word in our world and I first heard it while watching the live action “Tick” series from the early 2000’s.

            They explain some of the entomological origin of ‘grok’ in "Stranger in a Strange Land" and it becomes the thesis statement of the book.  ‘Grok’ literally means 'drink' in the Martian language, but has taken on deeper context as a form of super empathy, understanding something so completely that it becomes part of you.  It is an alien word in a fictional universe, but it became a real word in the real world.


Nice going Brainiac, You’re a Real Einstein
            Another good example of something coming into the real world, but ironically.  'Brainiac' is the name of a Superman villain, a super smart alien menace which steals whole cities of people to study.  In the 90’s cartoon (which is one of my favorite things) Brainiac was the name of a powerful AI that was used on Krypton to monitor their society, a combination of the internet and Big Brother, you know like what the internet will be in just a few years (I have Google Analytics on this blog, that is how I know that I have a vanishingly small audience).
            If you think it sounds silly to name a Superman villain off a childish insult for nerds… you might be right.  What writer in their write mind (pun) would use a sarcastic term for a smart person as the name of a major villain in a science fiction action comic?  Except the word comes from the villain's name.  He is the origin of the insult.
            Imagine if, in decades and centuries hence, Albert Einstein stopped being a cultural figure and instead the only time you would hear his name was when it was being used as an insult.  That for so long the name Einstein was used to call someone stupid ironically it became synonymous with calling someone stupid emphatically, "Thanks, Einstein!"  That is the origin of the term Brainiac as an insult.  Sadly, that is probably what will eventually happen to Einstein as well.
 
I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.
            If you were to set a book in the near future you could actually have part of the opening chapter be by a historian character lamenting the death of certain words in the minds of people, as they have been literally used so often as to divorce themselves from the previous meaning. You know, like how “literally” has come to mean “emphatically” to people less pedantic than myself.


Say it Again, but This time say it in Gibberish
            A cousin to the idea of fictional slang is the fictional language.  Something to harken back to ages before the internet gave us all translation programs to be used with ease and immediacy.
            Yes, I know that translation products are not perfect, obviously, but the idea of anyone getting a workable gist to what someone from an entirely different culture is saying so quickly and as accurately as they can manage is perhaps the most important thing human civilization could be working on in the modern era.  Know why?  Because immediate translations of studies related to cancer, rocketry, artificial intelligence, those things need to be translated fast so that many different countries can work on them so we can save the world.
            I digress.
            To create a bigger and more mysterious world, writers can create fictional slang or technical terms, but they can go further and make a whole new language or languages to give depth to their fictional world.  Some of the most famous fictional languages would include Dothraki on the “Game of Thrones” HBO series, all the Elven in “Lord of the Rings”, and that nerd language popularized by icon, William Shatner: Esperanto.

Speak, "Amiko" and enter.
             I am kind of confused how to feel about this practice.  While it is an interesting creative exercise and there is a linguist who makes a living inventing languages for movies and television shows so that they can be internally consistent… It is also a huge waste of time.
            I have a terrible difficulty learning new languages and I often wonder why video games or TV shows that have a fictional language in them don’t just use a real language and consider it an opportunity to teach people that new language (or just serve as a brief introduction).  There is zero value in knowing ‘Do Vah’ means ‘Dragon’, but I would say there is some value in knowing ‘Long’ means dragon in Mandarin Chinese.  Why not just use Mandarin in place of the Dragon language in “Skyrim” then?
            “Because, Rocket, it wouldn’t be comprehensive and would be disrespectful to otherize Mandarin Chinese by making it a language of giant monsters,” said Strawman.  “You can’t just co-opt people’s languages and cultures to put in some game, that is disrespectful.”
            To which I reply, “No, it isn’t.”  I picked Mandarin Chinese because more people need to be familiar with it.  Western cultures need a gateway to understanding foreign languages and learning it via a game makes sense.  You could just as easily use Latin, Swedish, or some other real language in an effort to increase usable skills while playing a video game.  There is no value to learning a fictional language.


What Does This Have to Do with Dungeons and Dragons
            Dungeons and Dragons uses foreign languages that are too simple and offer nothing to setting.  For one thing, magic that translates things is far too easy to access.  There are only 22 languages in the base setting and that includes languages from other dimensions.  Guys there are 50 languages in Europe (what even is Galician!? That’s a thing!).  And that doesn’t count all the immigrants from other countries who brought their own stuff into neighborhoods that could be Petit Bangkok or Little Bombay (I actually have no idea how prevalent such neighborhoods are, but colonialism did exist so I am guessing it is more than zero).


            The basic books give no advice for building a world that uses language to divide people or how to incorporate such things into a setting that really needs that kind of national identity instead of relying on race as such a cultural divide.  It is odd to have your campaign take place in a city that has a party with a dwarf, elf, halfling, gnome, and human, and it not be the world’s equivalent of Istanbul or Babylon in terms of cosmopolitan interaction.  I also get a strange mental aversion to using ‘race’ as a catch all for why different groups have different countries or conflicts.
            The closest thing I have to a clever moment when it comes to language in a game had to do with subverting the lack of thought that goes into it.  (I mean, aside from the brilliant thing I did with the Common Language as a country which was actually a metaphor for the game of Dungeons and Dragons itself, I will never stop tooting my own horn about that.  It is the first blog in this series which is linked here.)


My Clever Subversion
            During the single most successful DnD campaign I ever ran I made one of the primary ongoing quests the acquisition of 8 stele.  An Archeologist/Linguist named Gabriel had been trying to decipher a lost language, this language appeared in ruins all over the place, but could not be magically translated, always coming out as gibberish.  Gabriel had found a stele that had a few sentences of the dead language and several lines from other languages displaying conversion tables and some images to illustrate word meanings (a tiny image of a camel or fish next to words for camel or fish).  Gabe knew where each stele was and needed the players to help him get them.

Feel free to google the word "stele", they have lots of interesting images like this one.
            This by the by is one of the best ideas I have ever had for an ongoing campaign, it gave the players a reason to go to exotic locals and get stuck in local BS or raid a particular dungeon, gave some scaling rewards for finding each part of the puzzle and ultimately retrieving all of the pieces of this massive Rosetta Stone gave them an ultimate game changing reward, unlocking the mystery of the language no one could read.
            Their last adventure required them to call in favors from a university of necromancers, a shipwright’s guild, and venture to the bottom of the sea to raise from the depths the lost city of Kraken, an event that set into motion numerous other opportunities for adventure.  Gabe was finally able to read the lost language, discovering untold secrets historical, mystical, and theological.
            In universe, it was such a big event that it dwarfed all of the other accomplishments the players had pulled off till that point and made them celebrities to the entire continent.  Everyone either wanted their help, or just be next to them at big events to receive by implication a political endorsement.

Maybe I am the Wrong Guy to Talk about This
            I kind of hate jargon overall.  I was reading "Neuromancer" not too long ago and aside from quick mentions of things like “the net” and “the sprawl” to refer to cyberspace and the gigantic super-city the events take place in I just got tired of hearing so many gadgets and terms thrown into the mix, add to that the number of eclectic characters and I just gave up.

            Sensors, scanners, transporters, shuttles, scoops, tractor beams, grappler, these are all words that say what the thing they are describing does without making me mentally tired from listening.  But, they are also kind of boring when you think about it.
            There are dozens of objects in our day to day life whose function is their name, and we take that for granted, and while slang does exist for lots of stuff it comes too naturally for us to notice for the most part.
 
There are lots of lists of fictional languages.  Not a lot of articles calling them a waste of time.
So you can probably figure out why I feel alone and not sure what advice to offer beyond, "Think about it."

            I am unsure as to what advice to give on the topic.  To some people a fictional language adds so much to a world, to me it is a shrug, but I resent when it is half assed like it is in DnD more.
            In real life language is such a fundamental part of our existence we can’t perceive of a civilization without it and it has been a factor in countless cultural movements, and in DnD it is an afterthought that gives the barest of glaze to make the world just a modicum more real.
            Think about this stuff and make a decision.
            Will you embrace the idea that a lack of understanding exists and as a result disaster can happen, like the death of the Sacred Leader Dukhat in the prequel to “Babylon 5”?
            Do you instead acknowledge that separate languages exist as a cultural element for flavor but not gameplay like Klingon in “Star Trek” (though subtly of meaning in Dominion-ese was a plot point in one episode of “Deep Space 9” the only instance I know of in the franchise)?
            Or, are you just going to ignore it like they did on 99% of “Stargate SG-1”?
            If you are ambitious you could make it the key to a Lovecraftian understanding of reality like they did in “Arrival” (also, watch “Arrival” it is great).
            But give it some thought, it is only one of the fundamental building blocks of civilization it deserves a once over in the writing process.

Next Time & The Beg for Attention
            This was not originally the topic slotted for today.  But I got a bug up my butt about the topic and then started writing and here we are.  If you liked this, please share it with your own game group or whoever might get a kick out of this.  Feel free to use my ongoing archaeology mission idea in your own game too.
            If you have a suggestion for a future topic you want me to talk about put it in the comments.  I have a few running thru my head, but like suggestions.
 
This exists.  That is a waste of time.
            If you disagree with me, please tell me why in the comments.  Feel free to leave links to your own blog on the topic or articles that you have found helpful.  Or write your own counterpoint to all this (or parts of it) and come back and post a link.  Maybe you love knowing that Klingon exists and think that Esperanto is the future.
            This is not a topic as thorny as Alignment but in a way, it is more of a potential game mechanic and world element.  Language casts spells.  You could build entire games around learning a language.  Language is often a symbol of power and order in fiction.  You could use language as a substantial part of the background of the world.  It is a big deal.
            Have Fun!

            For more on fictional languages, fiction, and fiction translated into fictional language I must refer you to this pair of videos about Klingon translations of Shakespeare.  It is done by Kyle Kallgren and he is both funny and informing.



______________________________
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Monday, March 13, 2017

My thoughts on "Freddy vs Jason"

            I didn’t really care for the movie of “Freddy vs Jason”, but I will admit that there was something to it that gave the confrontation some value beyond the silly mashup of horror characters.



            Here is a basic rundown of several story elements that allow these characters to work on the level of thematic-pairing, and these two pair pretty well together.
1)     Jason was drowned, Freddy was burned.
2)     Jason was a child, Freddy murdered children.
3)     The First Jason movie has his mother as the actual villain, the reason Freddy was killing kids was because of the vigilante justice of the mother and other parents.
4)     Jason is a dumb, lumbering, silent, physical threat. Fred is an insidious, spry, motor mouth, ethereal threat.

            Generally speaking this pairing, along with the blue and red color schemes that are emphasized in the movie, form a good contrast between the characters and I think this elevates the material a bit.  But, the film is dragged down by the presence of the victim kids.  These are the typical teenagers with thin personalities that you can’t really bring yourself to actually care about let alone cheer for.  You need people around for the story to happen to, or at, but these characters are not especially heroic and when you have two big bad monsters you need something a little more impactful.  How could this have been fixed?  Do what they did with the story in the comics.
            I liked the comic in which they added Ash from “Army of Darkness”.  When a hero character is thrown into the mix it gives the story a real protagonist to root for instead of the bland children.  Beyond that the stakes grew considerably, Freddy saw and appreciated the power present in the Book of the Dead and wanted to utilize it for his own ends.  A dream monster steering an indestructible zombie man to kill a time traveling hero to retrieve a mystical artifact.  That is a story with some meat on it.



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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons: "Alignment" part 4

            I have played Dungeons and Dragons for more than 15 years.  Lately, I have not had access to any other players and so I have just been kicking around ideas that normally would be in a game and instead I am just going to post them on my blog.  This is going to be a reoccurring thing as I just keep hammering out things and not all of them can be turned into elements in my “random fantasy novel ideas” folder.

What Have I Got: Magic the Gathering
            Two weeks ago, (I was going to write this for last week but I instead went to Disney World) I wrote about one of my favorite game franchises, “Fallout”.  Though that seems to be somewhat inaccurate, as the more I think about it I only loved “New Vegas” and “Fallout 4” was kind of a letdown, but I digress.  “New Vegas” and “Fallout 3” had two different ways of establishing what Dungeons and Dragons’ players would call “Alignment” within their games.


            “New Vegas” had the complicated but fun and creative Alliances system, in which you are judged based on your loyalty and past actions in regards to different groups in the context of a larger conflict.  “Fallout 3” had the incredibly lazy “Karma” system which either made you wasteland Jesus or Mephistopheles but rarely if ever presented a third or fourth option to consider.
            Then there is the system I wanted to talk about this week, Magic the Gathering.  For those who are unaware, Magic is a collectible card game created by math guy Richard Garfield roughly 20 years ago.  He was the first person to patent the idea of a collectible card game and as such has made money off of every Pokemon, Magic, or Yu-Gi-Oh card sold since then.  Richard is quite wealthy.
            Magic is one of those golden games, quick enough to learn, but of such depth and size that mastery of it is effectively a full-time job for many players.  They have their own invitation only tournaments including a world championship.
            Production of Magic the Gathering has created more fantasy art than anything else ever.  There are thousands of images of pirates, genies, samurai, power armor, kaiju, monkeys, swords, goblins, vampires, and landscapes that can be used to inspire any writer who just wants a picture to look at when asking themselves, “What is the story behind this?”
            Magic the Gathering is deep, rich, and gorgeous.
            I should also warn you that a drug habit would be cheaper.
 
For instance, this is the rarest and most expensive card in existence.
Copies have sold for more than $20,000.
            Magic is owned by Wizards of the Coast, the same company that owns Dungeons and Dragons and the company has been dipping their toe into crossovers between the two games for a couple years now, but they have not fully taken the plunge of integrating the mythology of the two.
            I think the Dungeons and Dragon’s Alignment system and Magic’s Color system are the best starting point for better tying the two properties together in such a way to promote each.  For no other reason than the Color system works so well.
 
It is also prettier to look at compared to the Alignment-Axis Chart.
I feel that aesthetic appeal should count for something.


Multi-faceted Magical Morality: “No two-ways about it… There’s five”
            In all worlds there exists a magical energy called mana.  Mana comes in five colors: White, the color of order, light, and giving; Blue, the color of water, introspection, and curiosity; Black, the color of greed, ambition, and decay; Red, the color of chaos, passion, and fire; and Green, the color of instinct, wood, and beasts.
            All beings possess all five colors to some amount, and some objects and places have only generic colorless mana, but ultimately one or two colors will be more pronounced in any particular individual, and mana of each color is associated with certain types of places.
            White mana is most associated with humanity and the plains of the world, more often angels and knights see this color as their core guiding philosophy.  Blue is associated with islands, with sphinxes, genies, and merfolk.  Black is associated to swamps, and undead and demons being creatures that embody the color.  Red is associated with Mountains (and volcanoes), with goblins, dragons, and barbarians tied to it.  Green is in the forest, with hydras, animals, and elves.


            But even these associations can be blended.  Many monsters, characters, and spells in Magic have multiple colors, some require multiple colors, others have an either/or color symbol meaning that rather than having a particular color be dominate, these creatures and spells are more fluid and have traits spread across the philosophies but are not constrained by them.
            A lot of thought has been put into this system, both for the purposes of game balance, but also for the sake of making a cohesive philosophy toward the game’s look and feel.


My Preferred Method: “Not just 5… there can be 15 combinations before things get too silly”
            The reason I like this so much mostly stems from playing the card game for 10 years and occasionally picking up some cards for nostalgia’s sake.  Beyond that though, it is a mechanic that is both more codified for spells and more flexible for behavior of characters.
            For instance, a player chooses two primary colors to serve as his alignment, or just one color twice if he really wants to commit.  A Red-Red barbarian has a lot of… Passion, but would be doubly hit by a Circle of Protection (Red).  Conversely a character that is Black-White would have to deal with the internal conflict that creates, seeking order and unity, but to a very tight group that he still can’t bring himself to entirely trust.
            With each two-color combination (or double pairing) you have 15 possible combinations, 15 possible alignments than can help to illuminate how your character views the world, their methodology, and even their goals to some degree.
            This could also have real impact on how magical weapons work.  No more Anarchic-Unholy battle axes, but having a Black sword that does additional damage to White and Green characters (or exceptional damage to someone who is both White and Green) is one example as the conflict between the different colors leads to a deluge of different items and spells to target things.
            There is something I forgot to mention!  The Color Wheel and its conflicts.

There are many useful charts.
Though this one is sideways.

The Color Wheel: “Not everyone gets along, sometimes even with themselves”
            The colors are arranged in a standard order forming a ring.  White->Blue->Black->Red->Green->White.  Each color has two allies, those two colors that it is next to one the wheel, each color shares certain values with those allied colors.  And each color has two enemies, those that it does not touch on the wheel and with which they have key conflicting ideologies.
            White and Black are the most traditional natural rivalry, as the greed and self-destructive aspects of Black’s darkness clash with the altruism and life giving nature of White’s light.  But, they also have things in common.

One of the things they have in common is great art by the talented Greg Staples.
            White and Black each have ties to the afterlife, ties to divinity/diabolism, and they both have a lot of clerics and human characters.  They are opposites, but there is a lot of overlap between them over which they play tug of war.  As I mentioned before, the conflicting nature of the two would make for an interesting character, a person who doesn’t really trust anyone, but also recognizes the need for allies.  The Mafia would fit this classic mold, as each little clique of people within the larger organization is constantly jockeying for more power and influence, but that in turn makes them a target by other members, gaining and losing allies as they go.
            Each combination has been explored in depth by Wizards of the Coast for short stories and novels for the Magic the Gathering settings (Magic has a multiverse just like Dungeons and Dragons and each universe has permutations on how the Colors have evolved based on unique starting points).
            Ravnica is perhaps the world that best explains how brilliant the use of Magic’s colors as Alignment could work.  A world ruled by 10 guilds, each guild representing a pairing of colors does the most to illustrate the rich opportunities presented by Magic as a guide.  Each guild looks distinct, has a distinct philosophy, has distinct goals, members, and resources… But they all make sense in the same world together.
And you can bet your ass there are even more gorgeous colorful charts to look at.
            Green and Red make up a barbarian horde led by a Cyclopes.  White and Green make up a powerful order of Druids with a council of Dryads leading them.  Black and Red are a demon worshiping hedonism cult with the arch demon Rakdos being “in charge”.  All 10 of the guilds have their own goons and spells that illustrate how they operate and can serve to illustrate to players how they could play their characters.  A Paladin of Red-White is very different from a Paladin of Blue-White or Green-White.


Alignment and Gaming: “Why does this all even mater?”
            Alignment starts arguments that can split up gaming groups.  That is why.  In real life words like Good and Evil are judgments about people’s values and methods.  I have gotten into explosive arguments about whether a Neutral Good Cleric of Pelor would prostitute themselves for money.  And when you are gaming with someone who thinks prostitution is “Good” and you think that “Prostitution would not be proper conduct for a cleric of Pelor, do something else” ... ARGUMENTS AHOY!
            In the Color system, there are no longer any tortured arguments about “It’s not Evil to raise the dead if I am using them to defend the innocent” because it isn’t about good and evil, he would be Black-White because his methodology and goals would point toward that combination, and it fits logically enough that you are not splitting any hairs.  Since it is broader and draws both on ends and means in a soft way people can make a call and get on with it.
            And the prostitution thing?  That is the color of, “before we start this game let’s all agree to a lighter tone and try not to drag in subject matter like the sex industry,” and those conversations are all White-Blue.  But profiting off of humiliating sex seems more Red-Black.  Whatever is comfortable with your group, but I still don’t think a cleric of Pelor would sell themselves sexually.  Maybe I am just a prude?
And for some reason, "I am the GG" never seems to end an argument.
BUT THAT IS JUST MY EXPERIENCE!
            This is not perfect, but I do think that it fits comfortably in both the “Game Mechanic” category and the “Moral Guidance” category.  Players want to have a sense of the world they are playing in, and a quick way to tell who they will have immediate disagreements with and over what. 
            Getting bogged down in the inherent Good and Evil or Law and Chaos of things isn’t fun.  Having someone playing Lawful-Killjoy or Chaotic-Disruptive isn’t fun either.  You need guidelines.  *Shrug*

Next Time: Something other than Alignment
            I started this series of Dungeons and Dragons blogs with a discussion of the language of Common and where such a concept would fit into a world of Dungeons and Dragons.  So, next time (probably next Sunday) I will return to the idea of language in fiction writing and one of my own personal bugbears on that topic.  Maybe it will be somewhat entertaining or thought provoking.
            I hope you enjoyed this series of discussions on the topic of Alignment and perhaps each of these systems have helped you understand different perspectives on the topic in Dungeons and Dragons, other games like World of Darkness, and fiction in general.  Let me know if you like the idea of integrating the Color Wheel into DnD and if you see some holes in the idea that you have suggestions for patching.  Sadly, I have not had any time to play for months and this blog is kind of my outlet for now.



The Beg for Attention
            If you venomously disagree with me, please tell me why in the comments.  Feel free to leave links to your own blog on the topic or articles that you have found helpful.  Or write your own counterpoint to all this (or parts of it) and come back and post a link.  If you have any interesting moral conflicts from pop culture or your own gaming group, post those too.
            Alignment is the most debated thing in Dungeons and Dragons and Color philosophy is a big deal in Magic the Gathering (though less so than Alignment).  This is because, as I wrote in part 1, we all have personal values.  We all have things we will not do under any circumstance (even if we don’t know it yet because we have never been tested) so if you disagree with me about the question of prostitution just keep in mind that sex can be a touchy subject and that for most people this is a game about killing monsters for gold, not selling your anal virginity.
            Have Fun!
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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Short Story, "The Finer Points of Communication"

I originally wrote this back in March of 2009.  I had to go thru and fix the grammar, but otherwise this is the same story as before.  Hopefully you find it entertaining.

The Finer Points of Communication
There is a slow guy banging his helmeted head against the wall at the base of my stairwell.  Like the ticking of a metronome he keeps perfect time.  “This is making me really uncomfortable.”
“Imagine how he feels,” Terry says with his usual know-it-all-ness.
“I don’t imagine he feels much at all,” I have always been put off by people with disabilities.  “He keeps doing it.”
“You say that,” replied Terry.  “Try and put yourself in his place.”
“Let’s see,” I put my fist to my temple and begin to tap with my knuckles in steady rhythm.  “I don’t feel any thoughts, great or small coming on.”
“No, don’t just monkey-see-monkey-do and expect the reason to come from that,” said Terry.  I didn’t really get what he was trying to say and he continued.  “If you see a man standing in front of a microwave with an empty food box in his hands counting backwards, you don’t stand there counting backwards and expect the meaning of life.”
“So you’re saying that this guy is waiting for something, and we just can’t see what that is?” I really didn’t want a life lesson, but if I waited, maybe he would get tired of trying to explain it to me.  “Or the head thumping is… What, his imagination’s rotation plate?”
“See, you’re doing the monkey-see thing again,” he said.  “You just parrot and imitate and expect the answer to come from the action of duplication.”
“Well, Terry, you aren’t being very clear about this,” I said, now getting a little upset with him.
“Okay look at it like this,” he looked up, imagining some chart and bullet points in his head to help him explain.  “A ballet has dancers, right?”
“Yeah.”
“And dancers dance, right?”
“Okay, if you are going to be a jackass—”
“No listen,” Terry took a second to pick his words, and I guess let the arrogance build in his tone, because the next thing he said sounded like he was explaining something to a child.  “A ballet has dancers who dance, but the guy who created the show wants to tell a story, now, if you just imitate the dancers, jumping and flipping, doing it without context and without an idea to guide it, then you won’t know what the ballet is about, you’ll just be jumping around.”
“So, I’m just jumping around guessing what the head banging is by imitating it.”
“Yeah,” said Terry.  “What you don’t see is the director and dance instructor.”
“Yeah.”
“Now that head banging is this guy’s ballet,” Terry continued.  “A minimalist dance routine for sure, but what do you think the message to his movements is.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, you know the setting, you know the movements, you know what the typical audience is, and you know that the guy down there doesn’t have an audience.”
“So an unpopular guy sits in a stairwell, banging his head on the wall, and in doing so he is trying to tell us something.”
“Yeah.”
“And, he could be trying to tell us all something, and be bad at it, or the show is over our heads.”
“Yeah.”
“Okay Terry, so what is he trying to tell us?  What does his show mean?”
“I don’t know,” replied Terry.  “How about we go ask?”
Terry and I walked down the stairs, and as we got closer, the guy in the helmet stopped and turned to us.  He said, “Can you help me, I think I’m lost.”
And I said, “Oh, god.  Yeah, of course.”

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