Monday, 30 April 2018

A new setting... as if it were needed

I'm working on a setting. Not a wildly individual supercool and sideways offering - in some ways, rather the opposite. The idea I'm going for is more generic than that. In fact, what I'm aiming for is to smash right through 'generic' and end at somewhere near quintessential. Generic deals in stereotypes, I'm more aiming at archetypes.

Hyboria is an original setting. Middle-earth is an original setting. Barsoom is an original setting. Mostly what came after was somewhat derivative of these and some other examples of what came to define the genre. But we can take what is derivative, and in turn boil that down and find out what is near-universal. This is what I'm trying to get at. A setting that will be particularly useful I think for relatively-inexperienced players.

There are a bunch of inspirations for this. A while ago I was talking about the 'Tough Guide to Fantasyland' by Diana Wynne Jones (this post). It's the point of departure for this project, for reasons which I hope will become clear.

Angry GM has a great post from the end of last year called 'How NOT to teach newbies D&D', which (in ironic and convoluted fashion, because he's pretending that the idea is to put off new players) has the excellent advice that you should try to make the setting easy to grasp. Instead of your own totally original setting with all of its own monsters and an arcane and convoluted background, something familiar will help the new players make the adjustment. I think this is extremely sensible. It's not so necessary for more experienced players, but if you're unfamiliar with both the rules and the setting of the game, then I'd think it would be very easy to get lost and be put off. Going for the familiar in setting terms makes it easier to accept the novelty of the rules.

Trollsmyth's blog had a recently looking at something similar, or at least related. In 'Would you play with E.L. James?' Trollsmyth puts forward an argument that boils down to something like: 'Old gamers have old cultural reference points; people coming into gaming now have different cultural reference points'.  I think is also very true and sensible (though I've simplified an important argument almost to the point of tautology). Teenagers aren't reading Michael Moorcock and Fritz Lieber like we were 30 or 40 years ago, they're much more likely to have read (or watched) Harry Potter and Hunger Games.

The consequence of all of this is, 'our' references won't have the same resonance for younger/newer gamers that they did for us. So - and this a bit of leap - if we 'old gamers' are trying to get new gamers to play 'old games', we need to be mindful of how to play 'old games' with 'new content'. How do we adapt D&D for people who aren't so well-versed in Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard, who haven't read Lord of the Rings but have seen the Peter Jackson films, who know Twilight and maybe some of the vast amount of fantasy literature out there written in the last 40 years?

There are I think some games that have started to tackle that, particularly from the angle of gaming 'romantic fantasy (link to the wiki)' rather than the 'sword and sorcery' angle D&D has traditionally promoted. I don't know how many other games there are like Blue Rose, that are specifically designed for such settings, but I want to combine something like that with more 'standard' D&D. Is it possible to render those sorts of stories with 'our' sorts of rules? Is it just a question of the setting? Some posts on Against the Wiked City here and MetaFilter here (which heavily references Against the Wicked City) go into more depth, and at least indicate ways that D&D can be used to tell different stories from 'smash the door, kill the monster, take the treasure', in particular by more extensive use of Morale and Reaction rules, and de-emphasising combat. Not that I'm trying to eliminate combat but the default for PC actions perhaps shouldn't be 'stab it in the face'. At the very least, 'stab it in the face' should be one among a range of potential actions the PCs can take. So I'd like to emphasise the existence of other possibilities at least. And in case this seems like a bit of a weird concept in D&D, I'm going to mention A Song of Ice & Fire/Game of Thrones, which is the most popular fantasy franchise in ages, and includes, among the spectacular and bloody violence, intrigue, politicking and manipulation on a grand scale. Complex characters abound and everyone has conflicts and motivations, secrets and desires. It's not all about the fighting.

Mostly, fantasy stories are set in a self-contained world. There are great numbers of examples. Conan, Lord of the Rings, the Belgariad and the Lankhmar stories come to mind, Willow, Dragonslayer and Krull as fantasy movies that are also based in self-contained worlds. But I've also been thinking about what might be called 'portal' settings. These come in some different, though related, types.

Probably the most common type involves someone - or very often a group of people - from our world who make a journey through some sort of portal to another world. The 'heroes' must adjust to a strange new world - literally learning the rules - while (generally) working to defeat the Big Bad in order to come home. This is literally the plot of the old D&D cartoon from the early 1980s. The Chronicles of Narnia, Red Moon & Black Mountain and the Fionavar Tapestry are of this type. It's also by analogy what new players are doing as they learn to cope in a strange new world.

Then there is the portal setting where something from another world comes to this. Elements of the story in Elidor are of this type, though Elidor contains both types: it is the a journey-to-another-world which precipitates the magical invasion of our world. Labyrinth is certainly something like it, but is the opposite of Elidor - the journey to the Otherworld is prompted by the invasion into this. Stranger Things is probably a modern version of this type, though honestly it's hard to know whether 'the Underneath comes to Hawkins' is before or after 'Evil Scientician Dudes go to the Underneath'. One is a consequence of the other but is it the scientists sending 11 into the Underneath that summons the creature to the boundary or is it the existence of the boundary that draws the scientists? It doesn't in the end matter: from the point of view of Will, Mike, Lucas and Dustin, as well as for Nancy and Steve, it's the invasion of this world that sparks the story.

A third type of story, which is very closely related to the second type of portal setting, though it doesn't actually involve a portal at all, is the story which is set in our world, but one where magic secretly exists. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen/Moon of Gomrath, Harry Potter and Percy Jackson are of this kind, as are many superhero stories (where magical effects are generally given a pseudo-scientific rationale). Here the hero generally discovers a secret which means they have power in this strangely-altered world, and they must learn to use it. This power may be intrinsic (Harry Potter and Percy Jackson) or the result of an inherited or found magical object (Weirdstone) and they 'ways in' may be many and various, but often boil down to 'impossible forces attack for unknown reasons' and the hero(ine)(s) must discover why they're involved in this secret war. Even for those few that don't (eg Twilight, in my understanding) the set-up isn't massively different.

I'm going to make a special mention of Dr Who here as it combines all of the above. The TARDIS of course is a portal in its own right, taking the Doctor and the Companions throughout time and space; but also, aliens and other malevolent intelligences often visit Earth; and finally, things what man was not meant to wot of but that have been around for ages are sometimes turned up (Silurians, I'm looking at you). So Dr Who can go anywhere and do anything (story-wise). One reason why Dungeons & Daleks is such an awesome concept.

So - where is all this going? Is it possible to leave the mechanics of B/X-BECMI D&D relatively untouched, but have a setting that includes a) a world containing quintessential fantasy tropes; b) the ability to use other mechanics than combat to solve problems and c) the option to use this in conjunction with 'real world' characters or in a 'real world' setting? In other words, to tell stories a bit closer to the fiction that people are actually reading, and is maybe therefore a bit more culturally-familiar to people who might be interested in D&D but currently aren't?

I don't know, but I hope to have fun finding out.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Rift City Session 9

I've left it too long to be able to provide much detail on this: what I can remember is that the party was composed of:

Cnut the Fighter
Galen the Elf
Gene the Fighter
Gibbet the Thief
Karensa the Elf
Shazam the Elf

and we were joined by a new player, who was running Marl the Halfling.

Oh, and Shazam's Charmed Orc, who is called is called Keith, not Barry.

The party wanted to get to back to the area with the good corridors, where the Orcs were. So, they headed back that way. In the room of sarcophagi, where previously they'd encountered Skeletons, they came across some Ghouls. There seems to be some malign influence in that place that keeps bring back Undead. The party doesn't seem to have noticed, but maybe a spring-clean with some Holy Water might keep things quiet for a bit. The Elves went point and took out the Ghouls, due to a general immunity to Ghoul-paralysis. Someone was injured, but not paralysed (can't remember who it was now).

Scouting a bit further the party came to the room where Keith had been stationed as a guard. As there were now only two guards there (Keith's old mates) they rapidly surrendered rather than face the wrath of 7 PCs and their henchorc. Searching about the party found another door. It was the Orcs' privy, occupied by a few more Orcs. A quick fight and it was all over. I can see I'm going to have to beef up some of the encounters in this area, I think they're more geared for parties of 3-5. 8 (or even 7, Keith is basically a torch-bearer) is just tending to overwhelm the monsters.

That part of the dungeon done the party headed north from the room with the Orc/Ogre corpses and big pit. They found a room that had most recently been used an armoury, but the majority of weapons had gone. Certainly those that were left looked mostly broken or at least rusty, except one. Karensa took that, a sword. There was also a chest with a false bottom that contained a small amount of treasure.

North of this room they encountered a meditating Elf who had barricaded himself in and was attempting to regain his spells, having been separated from his adventuring party, made up of some Dwarves.

The party did find the Dwarves, who said it was the Elf's fault he'd got lost.

On the way out, the party ran into some Fire Beetles, which were quickly defeated, and even though Polly the Magic User wasn't there, the PCs harvested the usable glands to take back to Guisintha at Rift City. They've been trained well.

One of the players produced this lovely sketch of the day's shenanigans:

Session 9 by Cnut Cutlet - clockwise from top: Keef the lantern-bearing Orc, a dwarf, a Ghoul Rising, a Fire Beetle and a Ghoul Attacking