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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Cosmic Struggle: Alignment, the Wright Way

Where is this coming from?

The rules for Alignment in Pathfinder, and most editions of Dungeons and Dragons before it, have been a long standing source of frustration for myself and most of my players. Things were usually fine until someone decided to play a Paladin (the only Class with a specific Code of Conduct). In a closely related issue, I have never been satisfied with the treatment of Clerics.

The issues eventually got bad enough that when I brought my campaign to an apocalyptic end, I did away with all gods, and I was ready to eliminate Alignment from the game altogether. This was a lot of work. Many spells, a few Races and many Magic Items, Monsters and Classes were affected, and the changes needed to be defined.

Then I read Dungeon Crawl Classics. If I gain nothing else from it, I value what I learned about Alignment by seeing how it can be done well. It also manages Clerics the way I always wished it would be treated.

The result is that I have decided to embrace Alignment as a powerful story telling tool.

This means that things will be different. Disclaimer follows:

  • Where the Wright Way differs from the rules as published, the Wright Way will take precedence.
  • While there will be some differences from the rules as written, most of the differences are “fluff’. They affect the fiction of the game more than anything else, and it is hoped that players will step up to the challenge and direct their characters’ actions and words accordingly. 
  • Most importantly, the Wright Way Alignment rules will be enforced in play by the GM. This will be the biggest difference from how my games have been conducted for the past 30+ years.
  • This House Rule represents a refining process. I expect to alter things as we play, to get the best fit. I will welcome feedback with an open mind, while I maintain a clear vision of how I want Alignment to be handled in the Wright Territory.

I will begin with some definitions.

What Alignment is not

Alignment is not a way to define a character’s personality traits. It is not a style of play or a way to “meta-game” to gain an advantage for a character. It is not a casual preference of behavior for certain situations.
In the past, all of these have been done. For example:

  • I don’t like being judged or told what to do, so my character is Chaotic.
  • This adventure has a lot of Demons, who are susceptible to Lawful attacks and spells. So my Cleric is Lawful.
  • My character doesn’t steal or kick puppies, so I’m Good! Now let’s slit these Orcs’ throats while they’re asleep before the Sleep spell wears off!"

Alignment is

A character’s Alignment is a big deal. It is a choice each character makes for themselves, and which guides their fate to a large degree from that point on. A Character is not required to take any Alignment.

From a character’s perspective, more than anything else, Alignment determines what happens to them in the Afterlife. Good characters go to Heaven. Evil characters go to Hell.

More than that, choosing an Alignment is an investment in the bigger picture behind the scenes of the fiction of the game. It is a commitment to a faction of The Cosmic Struggle.

Most of all, Alignment is an opportunity for a deeper role playing game experience.

The Cosmic Struggle

In the Wright Territory, the Gods are real. They exist. This cannot be denied. They walk the Earth. Their champions perform miracles, call fire from the sky and raise people from the dead. This makes for a VERY different world from our own.
The Gods have an agenda. They all have an Alignment, which represents a faction of The Cosmic Struggle. The Cosmic Struggle has always been, and always will be. It is at the foundation of the cosmology of the Wright Territory, and that will never change. The Gods are the most powerful beings engaging in it on Earth, but they are not the only ones.
The Cosmos is all of Creation, and it is a battleground between four Factions. Those factions are Chaos, Law, Good and Evil. These forces represent abstract ideas, and exist beyond any cultural ethics or social morality. Some brief definitions follow, in descending order of scale and abstraction.
  • ·         Chaos is the Primal origin from which Creation sprang. It is the Abyss, it is survival of the fittest. Chaos resists any establishment of anything. It wants to return to the roiling ocean of life’s origins, the Primal Chaos which existed before The Creator spoke and created the Cosmos. Chaos is emotion and passion without reason. It is the Law of the Jungle. It is Tiamat. It is Azathoth.
  • ·         Law opposes Chaos. Law represents order out of Chaos. It is civilization and community. It is duty and discipline. It is logic’s triumph over emotion. Law represents the rise of intelligent beings from the Chaos, who established homes and communities, and who sought to understand things, and to unlock secrets.
  • ·         Good is Life. It is the beauty of creation. Good is compassion and charity. Good is Spirit. Good can be Lawful or Chaotic or neither, but not both. Good respects others, and seeks to heal wounds. Good sees the value and beauty in all things.
  • ·         Evil opposes Good. Evil is murder and destruction. Evil is deception. Evil considers all others as enemies, and dehumanizes them to the point of non-personhood. Evil is greed, and can never steal, kill or destroy enough to ever satisfy its hatred. Life is not meaningless to Evil, it is an affront; something to be hated and extinguished if not corrupted, exploited and dominated.

In Pathfinder and its predecessors, there is a ninth Alignment, called Neutral. I have done away with this, and have separated it into the three things it is usually meant to represent. The first is the most abstract and of the broadest scale of all Alignments.
  • ·         The Balance is the perspective of the Cosmos as a whole. It is a holistic consideration of all things. It is the Big Picture. It is Time, Fate and Truth. It is the Cycle: Birth-Death-Rebirth. Balance is extremely abstract and most mortals do not have the ability to fully grasp its scale and perspective. Balance looks on as puppies are kicked and as babies are born. It does not judge. When one of the four Axis Alignments above gains too much advantage over the others (on the Cosmic Scale- not necessarily locally), Balance steps in to tip the scales toward the center. Balance opposes excess and abhors a vacuum.

The last two Alignments are the narrowest of perspective but of highest appeal to individual mortals without a clear vision of The Cosmic Struggle.
  • ·         The Atheist does not argue the existence of the Gods, only their merits. The Gods exist, as any fool knows. The Atheist denies participation in The Cosmic Struggle. Atheism denies the worthiness of the Gods to be worshiped by mortals. Atheists may see the Divine as something in themselves, and are determined to find their own destiny in the world. Atheists are individualistic free spirits who resent the idea that they are not in control of their own fate.

By far the most popular Alignment is no Alignment at all.
  • ·         Most mortals live out their short lives Unaligned. Many see the merits of the Axis Alignments and cannot choose to commit to only one faction. Others take no care for The Cosmic Struggle, their time and attention being consumed with the struggles of day to day life. The vast majority of the population has never heard of The Cosmic Struggle and has no idea that there was ever a choice to be made at all.

Why choose any Alignment?

Choosing an Alignment is not required of any character (except a few Classes). The Alignments represent, at their core, very high-minded abstract ideals which are beyond the scope of most adventurers’ lives. So why bother?
If a character is required to take an Alignment (Paladins, Monks and Clerics), what does that mean?

A character’s Alignment has several game affects.

  • ·         Characters gain a Hero Point when an Alignment is chosen. They will continue to gain Hero Points whenever they pass a Test of Faith- a quandary wherein they are presented with a choice of actions, some of which may be more convenient but compromise the character’s commitment to their Alignment.
For example: The party wins a battle against a group of Orcs who ambushed them on a lonely forest road. Many of the fallen Orcs are not dead yet. Some are dying, others are Unconscious but stable. Some of the characters begin finishing the Orcs off by beheading the fallen. Less Orcs to trouble others, right? A Good character stops this from happening, facing a heated argument from the others, ending in a schism that causes half the party to split off from the Good character and his friends. The Good character and his allies remain with the Orcs to insure the others do not return to murder them. The campaign is fractured and the players must decide whether to continue with half the players making new characters or to stop playing altogether. If the campaign continues, and the Good character remains, he gains a Hero Point (possibly two) for standing his ground.

  • Aligned characters gain in-game support and benefits from allies and followers of their Alignment.
 For example, a Good character can expect respectful treatment by any Good character or creature he encounters, no matter the circumstances. Good NPCs will support him, with hospitality, healing, moral support and possibly money, goods or combat reinforcements.

  • Aligned characters also gain the enemies and hardships of their Alignment.
Good characters are sought out and marked for death by all Evil creatures. If captured by Evil enemies, a Good character can expect gruesome torture and mockery before being cruelly slain.

Most adventuring groups will not work with Good characters, because of scenarios like those above.

  • An Aligned character is held to a standard, and will be judged constantly.
In the above scenario, the Good character, instead of standing his ground, looks the other way. His companions murder their enemies, but he does not participate. The Good character then immediately loses all Hero Points, and will gain none until he atones for his sin. If he is a Cleric of a Good God, he immediately loses all his Supernatural abilities and Spells until he atones for his sin. The character will also receive no experience points for the entire encounter, and will not gain any at all as long as he travels with these companions. Seem harsh?  There’s a reason Good is called the “straight and narrow path”. If it were easy, everyone would do it. If you are afraid to fail, then don’t commit. The Cosmic Struggle is no place for the lukewarm.

The examples above (especially the last), should show how seriously I plan to take a character’s choice of Alignment. Players are encouraged to take it just as seriously, especially if the character is a Cleric.

If you choose not to choose, you still have made a choice

Alignment is now a big deal. As can be seen above, the consequences for failure can be harsh. It is enough to discourage a player from choosing any Alignment at all. That is fine. Alignment is an opportunity for a deeper role playing game experience, engaging the meta-plot in the fiction of a rich setting. That’s not for everyone.

As illustrated in the examples above, playing an Aligned character affects the other players as well. This is why most adventurers don’t want a Goody-Good Paladin in the party. We must be sure that all players involved are okay with an Aligned character if we are to avoid possible game-breaking scenarios as shown above. This has happened every time a player has ever played a Paladin in any of my games. Those games were the closest thing to what things will be like using Alignment the Wright Way. That’s a big risk, for myself no less than all players participating.

Unaligned, The middle of the Road

So, most characters will likely be Unaligned. What does this mean in-game?

At lower levels, not much. Alignment matters more as characters gain power (i.e., levels), and doesn't matter much at all until a character is powerful enough to be of use (or a threat) to the power groups associated with the factions of The Cosmic Struggle in the fiction of the game. This usually happens around 9th level, when characters gain the ability to raise the dead and have become too powerful for normal authorities like watchmen and garrison soldiers to manage. At this point, characters enter into the field of The Cosmic Struggle. Power groups like The Druids, the Celestial Hebdomad and the Dukes of Hell begin to hear the characters’ names and take notice. Some may begin to court the characters or seek to destroy them.

Being Unaligned at low levels affects no one but the characters and their party, if at all. At higher levels, as the characters gain power, the factions of The Great Struggle will begin to see them as either potential recruits or as potential enemies. At some point, the characters will be powerful enough that it becomes dangerous to remain Unaligned. Many factions will not take the chance of the characters choosing their opponents’ factions, or abhor having uncontrolled wild cards floating around. Either way, most factions consider Unaligned characters to be a nuisance at best. If the powerful Unaligned character has resisted all attempts at recruitment, then he has made himself the enemy of all factions. This is no place for anyone to be. No one lasts long in this precarious position. This is why every single Immortal and God is Aligned. They would not have survived to attain their lofty position without the support of their faction. At high levels, that is the way it is.

That sounds like I don’t really have a choice

Some things are true whether you want them to be or not. Gravity and electromagnetism exist, and follow certain rules. We are all mammals living on planet Earth. Life feeds on life. I like that. It puts things in perspective. It helps mitigate mankind’s seemingly limitless capacity for arrogance.

The Wright territory is my creation, my intellectual property, if you will, and while it has changed and grown over the years like a living thing, it also has rules, pretenses and deceits inherent to it. In order to maintain the sense of verisimilitude and suspension of disbelief that makes the enjoyment of using it possible, these things must be kept consistent. And so, whether or not players or characters like it, there exists a Cosmic Struggle. The Cosmic Struggle, along with the other rules, pretenses and deceits inherent in the Wright Territory, is objective. I don’t like the fact that I cannot defy gravity and fly around like Superman, but it is the way it is. Gravity is real and objective and it doesn't matter whether or not I believe in it or like it.

That doesn't mean I can’t enjoy life. And it doesn't mean we can’t have fun game experiences with characters in the Wright Territory. In fact, I believe our game experiences will be made more meaningful, more rich and more memorable by using Alignment the way it was always intended (by the original authors of the first role playing games). By making Alignment meaningful and taking it seriously, we allow our characters to have more meaning, within the fiction of the game as well as in our own memories. Characters’ deaths will have meaning. Playing a Cleric will have meaning. Character’s choices have meaning.

Isn't that what every player wants? Isn't that what every person wants?

Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to many hours of exciting, enjoyable and memorable games!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Crabs, Snakes and Dangerous Beauty

As was promised in my previous post, this Tuesday's game went better. Much better. I had three players who braved Colorado's “springtime charm” (Snow and wind at about 17 degrees F. It's okay, it'll be 60 tomorrow. See how charming that is?) to sit at my table. Some GMs may see that as a table half full, but I don't. I'll run for just one player if that's how it plays out, because I came to run a game, and that's how I roll.

In fact, the number of players only tells me how to run the game. The game experience will be different, but it will certainly not be lessened according to the number of players. Sometimes, it is quite the opposite, and that is what happened on Tuesday.

The three players had attended the previous session. I gave them their characters. In a move perhaps unexpected by the players, I then took the characters of the players who attended last week's game but who were not present for this game and I put them away, instead adding them to the NPC roster as Extras. I could sense a subtle, unspoken horror pass along the table.

For non-Savages, I will explain.

In Savage Worlds, the game system I use for The Edge, player characters are Wild Cards. They are special snowflakes with in game currency (Bennies) and Wild Dice to help them survive and run around doing heroic things like shooting two guns at once while swinging from a chandelier over a flaming chasm and so forth. With Bennies, they can even cheat death by soaking and often entirely ignoring damage, allowing them to heroically survive exploding cars and falling buildings. Even if they don't soak it all, a Wild Card can take four Wounds before being Incapacitated (not quite dead yet).

Extras are emphatically not Wild Cards. They have no Wild Dice or Bennies to save them from poor dice rolls. Equally important, they have no Wounds. If an Extra takes one Wound, they are out of the fight, most likely dead. And with no Bennies, they cannot soak that damage.

The horror (real or imagined) came from a realization that if you (the player) don't show up, there is a very real possibility that you won't have a character when you come back. On top of that, the players that did attend are responsible for keeping those characters alive.

With the characters of absent players included, our three players were responsible for the survival of nine NPC Extras. They each took three NPC cards and we started playing.

When we left the last session, the characters had befriended a band of Irkallans and had agreed to accompany them to their base, a place called Irkalla. There was some disagreement, as some of the NPCs were ambivalent or even opposed to leaving the safety of the building to travel into the city with a group of strangers.

The characters convinced them to go, and so a gaggle of 19 people set out onto the streets of The Edge, trusting these Irkallans to lead them to safety.

It was noted that not all of these Irkallans were human. Three of them were “bugs”. One was a grasshopper-fellow, one was rather beetle-ish and the third was openly mothly. None of them spoke English of course, and the characters were fascinated by them, while the NPCs were scared to death of them.

The group traveled along the trash strewn streets and blood stained sidewalks, going around collapsed buildings and across vacant lots. They were not alone. All around them were the sounds of footsteps, cries and shouts and occasional growls or snarls. Nevertheless, they didn't encounter anything until they came across a big batch of seafood walking toward them.

Five man-sized shrimp-people were accompanied by two massive crab-people with enormous claws. They were foraging the parked cars as they moved up the street toward the party.

The party nearly panicked and hid in the nearest building. It turns out that it is nearly impossible to hide nineteen people, especially when most of them are untrained civilian Noobs whose only idea of stealth is grade school hide and seek.

The crab-guys found them and there was a tense moment when the party thought they might be in serious trouble. One character's quick thinking saved the group, though. An offer of an energy drink softened the situation and the party engaged in awkward trade with the shrimp-people, who were in search of food (and weren't terribly picky about its source or freshness). Month-old cheeseburgers and melted candy bars changed hands.

The encounter was tense and awkward, but no one was harmed and the group proceeded. The Irkallans were amazed, saying that they had heard of the Crab-men but had never seen one. The rumor was that they were monsters who eat people, and that they themselves were supposedly delicious.

There was a brief interlude where the Irkallans shared with the Noobs the basics of their culture. They are led by a woman with “powers” called The Mother, and they live in a safe area with a hundred or so people. They explained their faith, including the belief that the city is a Great Test in which all people must endure and suffer the dangers of The Edge to prove themselves worthy of the comforts and priveleges they took for granted in their previous lives. When they pass this test, they may proceed to Paradise.

This received mixed reactions by the players, but the Irkallans didn't seem perturbed at the players' skepticism. Then the group almost died.

The veiled guardian of the Irkallans, a woman named Sanjika, halted the group and signalled for them to hide or run like their lives depended on it. People crawled under cars or behind walls and watched for this new threat.

A half dozen filthy, disorganized people came into view a block away. They were crossing the street, and didn't see the group. They were driven from behind by a huge snake monster with a brightly glowing red gemstone on its head. This thing was as tall as a truck, and a snake body as big around as a car's wheel trailed behind it sixty feet or so.

The group hid like their lives depended on it.

It worked, but another group up ahead was not so lucky. From the next block up, as the filthy people and the snake monster approached, a dozen or so survivors, like our group, burst from hiding and scattered, sprinting for their lives like rabbits driven into the open by hunters.

The scene was horrifying and disgusting, and the group was glad they weren't found out as the filthy people captured some people while the snake monster constricted others until they literally burst or shot red lightning from its gem, splitting victims in two.

The group hid until the sounds of the massacre could no longer be heard. Sanjika checked around the corner to confirm that they had gone, and led the group in the opposite direction. The Irkallans called the snake monster a Serpentine, and they would only say that they were horrible monsters, incapable of communication or mercy and that they killed or captured all they came across.

After that, the group came across a patch of Mint Spores, and gathered as much as they could once the Irkallans explained that the spores were a powerful antitoxin.

Then the group arrived at Irkalla, which was a square block or two, walled all the way around and occupied by a hundred or so people, including armed guards and others like Sanjika, who carried automatic weapons.

Inside, the group was allowed to shower and were given a place to rest until they were summoned to meet The Mother.

The Mother was a middle aged woman with graying black hair and powerful beauty. The characters were unsettled, but mostly held their bearing. The Mother interviewed them, but she seemed to focus on the characters' latent power, and made an offer to teach them to harness it and use it responsibly if they joined her community. She somehow knew about their special snowflakeness just by looking at them with her piercing eyes. She said she knew because she too had these powers. She explained that she had received a vision of the Lady Lapis, who showed her the way. She is still in communion with the Lady, and she uses what she learns from her to guide the people of Irkalla as they struggle in The Great Test. She said that Sanjika, and other members of her Cadre also possess the gift of power. They lead a disciplined life and take vows of silence in order to maintain control over their powers.

The characters then left the presence of The Mother and wandered around the camp, meeting people until they laid down to rest.

In their sleep, they each had a vision. There was no Lady Lapis or burning bush. There was an ocean full of godlike beings warring against each other, and a hall with giant doors. They were tested by a group of elder beings, and when they woke up, they each had in their hand an apple. The elders had told them that to set out on the path to their destiny, they had to eat the apple.

They each ate their apple and immediately, their power was awakened within them.

What those powers are, and how their possession will change things remains to be seen, as the session ended here.

So, there wasn't any combat at all for the entire session, but it was nonetheless exciting and full of danger and discovery.

A larger group would have made it more difficult to role play the encounters in this session. On the other hand, if there had been combat, whether with the Crab-men, the Serpentine or the Irkallans, it would have been catastrophic, with only three Wild Cards who are themselves only barely effective in a fight. NPCs would've died, and badly; by giant crab claws and red snake lightning.

But they didn't, because the players used their brains instead of their trigger fingers and on at least one occasion, by pure luck.

I am excited to see how the adventure continues next session!

Monday, April 8, 2013

It gets better

Last week, I ran a game set in The Edge, called Rude Awakening. I have run it several times before, and it's always fun. Things went rather a bit differently this time around, as is often the case, and I also came to a realization about my own habits as a GM.

In the game, I had seven players, about half of whom had played Rude Wakening before. They all agreed that they would be glad to do it again. Also, I had three game options for the player group to choose from, which would set the theme for subsequent games, as my intent is to keep this game alive as an ongoing semi-campaign. That choice was whether the game was to be played Normal, Hardcore or Insane!

Naturally, they chose Insane!

Insane! means that the players would choose Noob Ranked characters at random, two each, and choose one of the two to be their PC for the campaign and the other to be an NPC Extra.

Noob Rank characters are like Novice Rank characters, except most of the 24 choices have no skills of any obvious use in combat and only what meager items that they might have on their person. The character choices include students, office temps, truck drivers and unskilled slackers, so those items are not greatswords and shotguns, but smartphones and possibly a few granola bars and a nalgene water bottle. There are a few semi-combatants like the street criminal and law enforcement characters, but even those are much less effective than one may think at first glance. The street criminal is not a gang badass like Swan in The Warriors or even the average Goblin Bandit. The Noob street criminal is more like Jesse Pinkman in Season 1 of Breaking Bad: an insecure, addiction-ridden small time punk with a selfish streak and the attitude that none of his problems are his fault. Likewise, the Noob law enforcement character is not John McClane or Martin Riggs. Instead, this is the Year-One rookie processing drunks at the county jail who has never fired their pistol except to qualify in the academy.

The point is, these characters are not prepared at all for what hits them as they arrive in The Edge. On top of that, in Insane! mode, we use certain Setting Rules, such as Gritty Damage and Critical Failure, as well as some new things like special rules for "strange weather", random encounters and navigating the city that make life in The Edge hellish, brutal and short.

The players drew and chose their characters. I was surprised at some of the choices. It was clear that I had a group of players who preferred to use their brains and perhaps explore their character's psyche than kill and loot with impunity. People chose management and unskilled characters over professional criminal and emergency services characters.

Play began, and this is where my habits showed, though I didn't notice until later. At the time, I felt a bit awkward and befuddled, which I played through with an inward scowl and a roll of the dice.

The characters performed extremely well. They defended themselves against four Edge Rats (that's a 200+ pound, six-legged leathery rat with a taste for flesh) and despite beginning with no weapons, managed to slay them all with only two NPC losses and one PC lightly wounded.

After surviving their arrival in The Edge, they exited the building. "Somehow", during the fight with the rats, a fire alarm was activated, and the building's alarm was blaring its distress for all to hear, echoing down the ruined streets.

As they exited the building and took in their surroundings, they were approached by some rough and nasty looking fellow survivors with equally rough and nasty looking weaponry, including some homemade blunderbusses.

The players decided to open with a parlay.

To my surprise, the parlay worked, and the characters engaged in trade with these people, who called themselves the Red Caps. The Red Cap leader was terribly keen on acquiring the party's two women, but the players were disinclined to go down that road.

The Red Caps ended up with all the characters' assorted smartphones and laptops and other seemingly now-useless accoutrement and the characters were now armed with weapons with names like Cutter, Basher and Big Stabber.

They proceeded to re-enter the building, since the Red Caps had told them that the controls to disarm and reset the fire alarm for the building were in the "basement".

Most of the player characters then entered the "basement" to perform this task, while the rest waited in the building.

This "basement" was found to be a vast underground complex that contained the infrastructure for the entire area. After navigating through a maze of pipe and conduit-lined corridors, they found their building's control station, and found that it was occupied.

These occupants were cleaner and healthier looking than the Red Caps were, but they all wore gray tunics with a strange hourglass-like symbol. One of them wore a gray robe with white trim and a larger hourglass symbol, as well as a veil obscuring all but their eyes.

These people were friendly and introduced themselves as Irkallans. They said they were followers of "The Mother", who leads their community of a hundred or so from her Sanctuary, where her visions of the Lady Lapis provide guidance for the people. Some of the players smelled a cult and were skeptical, but after a brief conversation and the Irkallans explaining how to control the building's systems from the console in the control station, the players trusted the Irkallans enough to agree to go with them to meet this "Mother" and possibly join their community. The Irkallans seemed more than happy to take the characters in. This whole time, the veiled figure spoke not one word.

The game ended there, with the players and the Irkallans returning to the characters' building from the "basement".

I couldn't believe how well things had gone for this group! They not only avoided combat with Red Caps who had come with every intent to kill, steal and take slaves, but they actually traded with them. They killed four rats. They made friends with a group of Irkallans, and most of all, they entered the infamous Sewers of The Edge and not only found what they sought, but emerged again, without so much as a stubbed toe.

As I was packing up, I realized my mistake. While the players did indeed struggle with their Noob characters, I failed to implement important Setting Rules that define Insane! mode, such as Gritty Damage and Critical Failure. Even the travel and encounter rules, which I had written myself, I used wrong. To wit, I had the players use a Smarts Check, even Cooperatively, instead of an Unskilled Check (a d4-2). No wonder they did so well! This is all in addition to a frustratingly common condition where I don't know all the rules and I have to ask my players about whether or not what rule applies in what situation.

This is unacceptable. I have been running games for nearly thirty years. If your mechanic had been working on cars for thirty years, would you expect him to know where your car's alternator is? Of course, you would. Even on a new car, you would expect that much, and if he asked you where it was, and you walked out on him right there, you would be entirely correct.

I gave the issue a lot of thought over the last week. I have decided that the remedy is to run Savage Worlds every week, even if for only two hours on a Tuesday night, for whomsoever should show up and put butt to chair at my table.

I feel like an athlete who has gone from daily practice to bi-annual play and no practice at all in between. In fact, that is exactly what has happened. Once, I ran a game weekly, rain, shine or holiday, and worked on that game every day in between. Now, I run games at Tacticon and Genghiscon and hardly roll 1d6 in the time between. The results speak for themselves, at least to me.

So, I apologize to last week's players, and I promise that it gets better. It will also get harder. It will get Insane!, in fact.

Hopefully, within a few weeks, my players will have a much clearer idea of what The Edge is, and why they might be interested in running their own game in The Edge when it is published.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A Not Entirely Unexpected Review

I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night. It was time.

It’s no secret that I am a Tolkien fan. It’s probably the second thing people learn about me. Maybe the third. For some reason, everyone expected me to run out and see it on opening day. That’s silly. Why is that silly? Well, that’s probably the 43rd thing people learn about me, if they get that far.

At any rate, I am ready to submit my review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. In traditional Wright Style, it is a short novel. Enjoy!

The film is visually beautiful; gorgeous, in fact. I only saw it in normal, Luddite-vision (2D, normal frame rate, whatever that is), and I was nearly moved to tears by the fair, green country of the Shire and its environs. Rivendell and The Misty Mountains were no less inspirational. On the whole, it was breathtaking.

The creatures look different in The Hobbit. That should also be expected, for a couple reasons. First, The Hobbit is not LOTR. The Orcs faced in The Hobbit are not Orcs. They are Goblins. Yes, there’s a difference. Now, Goblins are faerie creatures in myth and lore. In my mind, that means one thing: Guillermo Del Toro. I have never seen any sort of faerie creatures on film that come closer to my own vision of the Fey Folk than the works of GDT. Although his designs were reworked almost completely, enough of his design style shows through to make the Goblins of the Hobbit distinctly different from the Orcs of LOTR.

Orcs and Goblins, in Middle Earth, are the same species. Thank you, purists. However, I would propose that they are separate breeds of the same species, much like a Chihuahua and a Great Dane are both Canis Lupis Familiaris, but no one would argue that the two are distinct from each other. Chew on that, purists! And also suck it, because I will go one step further and propose the radical theory that other species among mammals are also extant in various breeds, including Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Are your minds blown?

On that note…
The Dwarves in Middle Earth are NOT a breed of Humans. They are an entirely different thing. They weren’t even created by The Creator (whom the Elves call Eru Iluvatar, The One). They were created in a forge by Aule The Maker, and he made them strong, to endure.

The intro sequence of The Hobbit portrays the Dwarves as I always wanted them to be portrayed. They are majestic and glorious, and Erebor is absolutely magnificent! If you have ever taken joy at making, assembling or repairing anything, ever, then you may get a bit misty when seeing the splendor and majesty of the Dwarven Kingdom of Erebor for the first time.

In the book of The Hobbit, I was not at all impressed with the Dwarves. They were whiny, incompetent, prideful a-holes and comic relief caricatures that constantly needed Bilbo to bail them out of mortal danger every other chapter or so. Ridiculous!

Thankfully, they were a bit rewritten, and if any are less-than-badass, it is because they are actually civilians, except for a few. Each is very distinct from the others, and even have their own easily distinguishable personalities. That is something I couldn’t say about the Dwarves in the book. With the exceptions of Thorin and Bombur, I couldn’t have told you anything specific about any of them. In this film, each is recognizable, and a few stand out very clearly. I like that.

Also, a few are badasses. Dwalin, Thorin and even Balin and Kili are actually quite deadly. The others, well I’m sure they’ll get a chance to show their worth in the next two movies.  I’m not worried. In my opinion, the nerdiest, whiniest and most passive Dwarf in Middle Earth still has a badass inside of him somewhere, and can easily whip the asses of an entire cubicle farm full of “average” Humans, using only a wooden ale mug or beer stein or maybe a staple remover. Dwarves were from the beginning made strong, to endure. And you can see that in this film.

The film definitely had some of the spirit of the LOTR trilogy. That is to be expected, as The Hobbit was always advertised as its prequel. So quit whining, purists. No movie is ever the same as the book. Deal with it already. That said it also had a certain whimsical quality that felt more like a fairy tale or a children’s story. Of course, The Hobbit is in fact a children’s story, so that too is expected. So you other purists quit whining too. It would be very easy to mess up such a compromise. Like a futon, such a project could end up trying to fulfill two functions and end up doing neither well. In the end, I felt it was done very well. I felt both wonder and foreboding. Thank you, cast and crew.

The Hobbit was never conceived as part of the Lord of the Rings. It was a story that Professor Tolkien used to tell his kids, and decided at some point to go ahead and put it all down on paper, since it was such a beloved tale. It was never intended to be a prequel to anything. There was no LOTR yet. Heck, The Hobbit wasn’t even in Middle Earth at that time! Years later, his publishers wouldn’t shut up about a sequel for The Hobbit. Prof Tolkien eventually acquiesced and began work on something that would eventually become the Lord of the Rings, after plugging it into the vast setting he had been creating for decades. Now he had a problem. The Hobbit was already written and beloved by legions of purists. The Lord of the Rings followed from The Hobbit, but it was firmly embedded in the creative fabric of Middle Earth. What to do?

The answer: Retcon! (google it if you don’t know) The LOTR has lengthy appendices, and in them, he reconciles the two in a way that only a true master of fiction can. What does this have to do with my review of the film?

This is why The Hobbit will be three films, my dear enraged cynics and purists, not as a ploy to squeeze more of your easily-earned money from your bitter fists. Adding to the movie all of the retconned information from the LOTR appendices and other sources, and then reconciling that with an entirely different medium as well as the huge LOTR trilogy of films means that there must be three movies. Would you rather have a chopped up atrocity that no longer resembles its source, like Battlefield Earth? I don’t think you do. I know I don’t.

They did a fine job, and I happen to like knowing all the stuff that’s going on behind the scenes that Bilbo knew nothing about. I like having it all in one place, too.
I was a bit disappointed with the film’s treatment of Gollum, although I do not blame the filmmakers for it. After their phenomenal work in LOTR, they could only do Gollum the way they did. I understand that. So, if you liked Gollum in LOTR, and you think he should’ve been like that sixty years earlier, when The Hobbit takes place, then you will like him in this film. I believe that Gollum would have been a bit different in The Hobbit. He was more dangerous back then. He was more monstrous.

Think about it: By this time, he will have been living in those caves for decades, possibly centuries. What would happen to a person’s mind in that situation? Tom Hanks was talking to a soccer ball in less than five years. Gollum was just as isolated, in complete darkness, and living on cave fish, mushrooms and Goblin flesh for much, much, MUCH longer than that.

Now let’s think about that, too. The dude would turn himself invisible, kill a hapless Goblin with a rock (hardcore), and eat them. Raw. Top that, Bear Grylls! He would do this whenever he could. He was so isolated that he rarely even saw a Goblin, but when one did end up in his little territory, he was overjoyed at the prospect.  Apparently raw Goblin is tasty after you’ve been eating only fish and mushrooms for a couple months or years.

Okay. I have met men who have killed people. They carry a burden. No matter why they killed (usually in the line of duty, whether as a law enforcement agent or a soldier), they carry it, and it doesn’t always rest easy in their hearts, even if it was “justified”. I have also met men who have killed a lot of people. Special Forces badasses, snipers and other highly trained agents have done things that most of us cannot comprehend, and that includes a lot of killing. They carry a burden, too, and they (probably) didn’t eat their victims raw afterward.

Imagine if you can, what sort of person is able to do that and enjoy it. Imagine someone so enslaved to their obsession so thoroughly and for so long, and so inured to killing and eating people that it is no longer a burden. It’s a treat!

Yes, he’s the size of a twelve year old. To me, that makes him no less dangerous and pants-poopingly frightening. This dude snuck into Mordor by himself. He snuck through Lothlorien! That place is populated by the oldest and wisest Elves in Middle Earth, who guard their borders unceasingly, day and night with bows and magic. They were like, “Uh, we saw something following you guys, but we couldn’t catch it. Not sure what it was.” Excuse me?! The Wood Elves of Greenwood caught him for a while, but he escaped. Yeah.

I digress, but I hope you see why I was hoping for a scarier, more dangerous and chilling Gollum in The Hobbit. He’s basically the stuff of horror movies. In this film he was even more human than when we meet him in LOTR. The dialogue between Smeagol and Gollum is obvious. He is comfortable killing people, and more aggressive than I remember him in LOTR, but I rather expected Smeagol to have been a long forgotten dream at this point. It had been centuries, after all. He had his Precious. Why would Gollum need Smeagol for anything? He would’ve suppressed that whiny little weakling long, long ago. I know why the filmmakers did it. I just wanted the nastier Gollum.

What can we learn from The Hobbit that will enrich our gaming life?
                DRAGONS SHOULD BE EPIC
You don’t actually see Smaug in The Hobbit. You glimpse his tail and his great paws and one eye. You definitely get a good look at his handiwork, but you don’t see the Dragon. Not yet. This is a storytelling and movie making technique. I get it. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Smaug is Epic. He is not something that a decent team of skilled friends can defeat if they try really hard, like the cave troll in Fellowship of the Ring. He is not even a fearsome but manageable monster who can be driven off if you’re lucky enough and have the right tools, like Shelob in The Return of the King.

Smaug is more than that. He is described as “a calamity”. WTF? That’s what I’m talking about! When he came to Erebor, it was at the height of its glory, and all the greatest and mightiest Dwarves of the greatest and mightiest Dwarven kingdom in Middle Earth could do nothing against him. He walked in and made himself at home. He’s been there ever since. The land surrounding his lair is blasted and infertile for miles and miles. It’s called “The Desolation of Smaug”. No one messes with him. No army, no King. Not any one; not  ever. People are scared to death to even draw his attention.

This is how I prefer Dragons to be portrayed, in film, in literature and in my games. A Dragon is more than a monster to be slain and added to the tally. It is a force of nature, and it is to be feared, no matter who you are. Some games do this well. Earthdawn comes to mind first and foremost. Warhammer does a fair job.

I look forward to seeing Smaug in his full splendor. All the while, I am also remembering certain other Dragons from Middle Earth’s ancient history: Glaurung The Golden, Father of All Dragons, who was slain by Turin Turambar. He was impressive, and was a complete d-bag. He got what he deserved. But let us not forget the greatest Dragon in the history of Middle Earth, Ancalagon The Black, who was slain by an arrow from Earendil the Mariner in the War of Wrath. When he fell from the sky, he toppled the two tallest peaks in the world. Think about that. Imagine Everest and K2 standing next to each other and then a Dragon, so huge and black and apocalyptic, smashes into them with such power and fury and ruin that they are both broken and toppled into rubble. I don’t care who you are, it doesn’t get more Epic than that!

That’s a lofty goal, but at least take some inspiration from Smaug and make your Dragons worth slaying, GMs!
An RPG is a group effort. It is an ensemble cast. GMs and players alike would do well to remember that your games will not be like The Hobbit. The Hobbit has a large supporting cast, to be sure, but it is still the tale of one hero: Bilbo Baggins.

In my experience, ensembles are best handled over a series of episodic sessions, not unlike a television series, so that there is enough time for all the characters to accomplish their personal goals and experience some kind of change. The only good stagnant character is an NPC.
                HERO’S JOURNEY
The Hobbit is Bilbo’s Journey. In the beginning, Gandalf spells it out for the reluctant Hobbit. When asked whether he can guarantee Bilbo’s safe return, Gandalf says straight up, “No. And if you do, you will not be the same.”

A good character is changed by their experiences. This often takes the form of a Hero’s Journey.  This is a big deal, and I won’t get into its specifics here, but it is a powerful storytelling tradition that has stood the test of time across all cultures that ever existed on this old Earth. It is nearly impossible to accomplish in the context of an RPG in its full form, because RPGs are a group effort and a Hero’s Journey is a solo endeavor. Nevertheless, GMs would do well to make themselves familiar with the structure, strengths and weaknesses of the Hero’s Journey as a storytelling tool, if they seek to create a powerful, emotionally rewarding experience for a special player.
Middle Earth is arguably the most fully developed fictional setting ever put on paper. The author worked on it his entire adult life. It was his life’s work. Add to that his supreme erudition and profound level of skill in his craft, and you have a setting whose depth, breadth and richness may not ever be surpassed. Remember that Prof Tolkien considered Middle Earth to be an unfinished project when he died at the age of 81, after working on it in one form or another nearly constantly for over sixty years. Recognize!

GMs seeking to run games set in Middle Earth have a lot of material to work with. That’s the good news. The bad news is that GMs have a LOT of material to work with, and legions of purists waiting to point an accusing finger at any divergence from The Scripture. I don’t run games set in Middle Earth. It’s too intimidating. Yes, I said it. I am intimidated by something.


I liked the movie a lot, despite theater distractions and the nagging knowledge that I was seeing it in “sub-standard” Luddite-vision instead of whatever new hotness is the thing this year. I will see this movie again, and not because I am some mindless fan of some aspect of it. It is fun, beautiful and enjoyable. I will also see the next two. I doubt I’ll feel ripped off, scammed, hoodwinked or bamboozled, either. I know what to expect, and I don’t let it interfere with my enjoyment of things.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why am I a Superman fan?

I am a Superman fan. I wasn't always, though. I felt the same as most everyone else until I read Kingdom Come.

Yes, Superman is powerful. I admit that is part of the appeal for me. When reason fails and some d-bag just won't stop pushing, it is gratifying to see Kal-El lay the smack down, in exactly the same way as it is to watch Bruce Banner Hulk out on some New York cabbies.

The appeal that Superman has for me is obvious on the surface. I am a big guy who enjoys being strong. There are people in my life who look up to me. There are people in my life that I protect. As a Native American, I even relate to the whole “Last of my people” angle.

But there is something else at work here. To me, the best Superman stories are about the other side of power. Specifically, the responsibility of power. Spider Man stories (especially in the Raimi films) the mantra is repeated, "With great power comes great responsibility". That is all well and good, and in my opinion, Superman is the only hero who actually lives up to that.

Whoa there, fanboys! I know Superman was a racist propaganda whore for a long time back in the day, with posters like, "Superman says: Slap a Jap for America!" and that kind of tripe. As far as I'm concerned, that's not Superman. Not MY Superman. Superman is one of the oldest characters in literature, let alone comics, and he has been through a lot of writers and iterations. MY Superman is the one in Kingdom Come, in All-Star Superman, and the WB animated series (including the Justice League).

My Superman is powerful. Really, really powerful. So powerful that very few villains truly challenge him. That's okay, because the villains aren't the real challenge. The real challenge is the power. How easy would it be for Superman to simply take over? Couldn't he just get rid of every villain in the world in like an hour or so? There have been more than a few "what if" and "Elseworlds" stories addressing exactly that, and let me tell you, it doesn't take much. Basically, if he wanted to be the only living super person, he could be, and in a kind of frighteningly short period of time.

But he doesn't. He never does, and he never would. Every time he does anything at all, he exercises full personal control, because one moment's distraction could hurt or kill a nearby squishy human.

That is a bit extreme, and actually unrealistic, because who has that kind of control? Well that's kind of the point. No one does. Except Superman. Don't worry about it. It will never happen. He's friggin Superman, dammit, and he doesn't make those kind of rookie mistakes. Which brings me to my next point...

Superhero Role Model
This makes Superman a role model. Not just for readers, either. Every hero in the DC Universe looks up to him, and for good reason. Even those who resent him will not deny that he sets the standard of conduct, proficiency, professionalism and leadership. In some cases, his standard is so high that it causes feelings of resentment in the insecure.

On top of all that, Superman is a hero. What is a hero? A hero is the one who makes the sacrifice for others. If it was necessary, Superman would absolutely give his life for a squishy human. No question, no hesitation. He seldom needs to even consider it, because he's damn powerful, but everyone knows it.
"But wait!" you say, "Don't do it, Superman! Your life is worth so much more than that squishy dumb-ass about to get run over because he was texting instead of watching where he's going. It's not worth it!"
You know what? Yes it is. And THAT's why he's a friggin hero and we are just schlubs working jobs. Because that squishy dumb-ass has kids or a mom or a beagle or something somewhere, or even if he doesn't, it's worth it because every single human life is precious to Superman. We compromise our values all the time because we convince ourselves it's for the best or we don't see an alternative or maybe just because it's convenient. Not Superman. Not ever. Even without his vaunted power, his integrity, worthiness and admirableness are beyond reproach.

So yes, he is godlike, because he represents an ideal to be aspired to, but which cannot be attained by humans. He is not a human with special gifts fighting against injustice. He is an otherworldly superhuman who could destroy us all, but instead serves humanity as a protector, a role model and a leader. His alter ego is a bumbling human meat sack, not the other way around. These things all make Superman unique, and for me at least, not at all boring. Indeed, all the more compelling.

I have borne the responsibility of leadership before. Most of us have. It is not easy to do it right. It is easy to resort to bullying, aggressive and petty behavior, because it is seen as an easy path to the goal. When the heat is on, it is all too easy to take the low road and power through a group project by coercing and manipulating others with our "authority", by being inflexible, stubborn and "decisive" and by dominating our coworkers and subordinates with our superior knowledge and experience. The thing is- and we all know this- that's not leadership.

Having more experience, more education, more money, more social status, being older or being a business owner; these things put a person in a leadership role, but none of those things is leadership. What is it? Many people with far more education and erudition than I have tried to define and identify the "X-Factor" that makes leadership happen, and I am not going to try here.

All I can say is that you know it when you see it, and a good writer can show it in a good character. The Best Buy tv sales guy in the Zack Snyder remake of Dawn of the Dead had it. Dick Winters in Band of Brothers had it it (as did the real Dick Winters, I expect). Captain America has it. Superman has it.

When I was young and full of beans, I was in the military, and I saw it there. Once. In four years, serving with dozens of NCOs and officers in positions of leadership, I only met ONE MAN who had that unmistakable quality. It had nothing to do with his rank or time in service or what ribbons and medals he had on his chest.

In my opinion, this aspect of Superman is most clearly depicted in Kingdom Come. Superman had given up. Ridiculous, I know, especially after all I just said. It was an "Elseworlds" scenario, so bear with me. He had his reasons, and he had given up, and so had all the others, to some degree. Many continued to seek justice, protect and serve, but they did it alone, and only in their specific areas. Younger generations of supers, without any role models, ran rampant and roughshod, battling at will against each other and caring nothing for either property damage or human losses.

When things got bad enough, and Wonder Woman was finally able to get Superman to get back in the game, things changed. Immediately. The Alex Ross illustration of his glorious return, as a stern father comes home to his misbehaving children, is moving. Well, I had a stern father, so it resonated with me.

The point is, Superman is not just a powerful superhero. He is not just an icon of American propaganda. He is not just a big, dumb boy scout who's too stubborn or too stupid to change his old fashioned ways and realize that he should start killing villains who really, really deserve it.

Superman is a god, in an academic, mythological sense. He is an idol, representing mighty aspirations worthy of admiration. He is an archetypal paragon of the ideals of humanity, nobility and responsibility.

That is why I am a Superman fan. If I am going to believe in something, I don't go halfway. If there is an ideal, I go for the top. If there is a religion, I aim for the truth behind and underneath it. When I admire a superhero, I choose the one that even the other superheroes look up to. Humanistic comic supers are important, and I enjoy them as well, if for different reasons. For a role model, though, I don't see how you can look anywhere else but to Krypton's Last Son.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Great Characters, Part 6 of 6. Dynamism and Conclusion.

            This last question is unlike the others. It asks not about the character, but a final consideration for you as the player of that character. This question is simpler than the others, but is no less important.
            Do you want your character to change?
            By change, of course, I mean as a person. Is your character going to stay who they are as a person through the ordeal of their adventure? Will they find redemption when they finally defeat the enemy?
            Will the dragon slayer come to respect dragon kind, or will they remain an implacable enemy?

            The answer to this question is something that you should share with your GM, so that together, a transformation can be created for the character. This can be a change of role, a characters retirement, orbuying offa certain hindering quality.
            A character changing in this way is called metamorphosis or sometimes apotheosis. Those are fancy Greek words that mean your character has come full circle, and has reached the end of a journey.
            That doesnt mean that the game ends. It is the best time to do so, if that is your wish, but a hero can always embark on another journey.

            Answering even some of these questions will improve the complexity of your character and make for a more enjoyable role playing experience. You will feel as though you know the character as a person, and you will care about what happens to them. More importantly, you will want to see them grow and improve.
As you guide your character to accomplish their goals and see their dreams fulfilled, you will experience a feeling of accomplishment much more fulfilling than adding up experience points or getting a bigger gun.
That feeling is called catharsis, another fancy Greek word (they were smart guys) that signifies an emotional or spiritual purging.

That is why we play role playing games. It is a rare board game or video game that can provide catharsis to a player, and if it does, it is still a lesser form of it, because it has occurred from observing someone elses character.
By developing a complex, flawed character of your own, and playing them through their personal journey, you experience the second best catharsis that exists in this world.
The only way to experience a better catharsis is to do it yourself, in your own life. I can't help you do that, but I have hopefully helped you improve the quality of your role playing experience.