Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Staying sane

Dear reader,

I've been working my green butt off on my post-graduate degree, but lately, between this, that, and the other piece of "legitimate" work, another work has started to take shape.  I call it Lunarkis, and while I hate the name I like the concept.

Without going into the story that I have (poorly) planned, I would like to mention the mechanics.  I have been, for a long time, a pretty solid D&D player.  This is mostly down to tradition, I suppose.  My first game was D&D, I received the 3.0 PHB as a birthday present, I got my hands on 3.5, and I'm passing into that grumpy stage where I refuse to look at 4th edition.  In the meantime I've played Stalin's Story, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (an appendix to Second Person), and glanced at a few other systems.  But in terms of ongoing role-playing campaigns, it's always been D&D.  I have a love-hate relationship with the system, and have wanted to branch out for a while.  I worked on a homebrew system that ended up as this bizarre affair after many incarnations (some of the earlier ones were probably more playable).  I created a character for a Shadowrun campaign that never took off.

So now I'm working in FUDGE.  As many of my readers will know, FUDGE asks the GM to essentially craft their own system, with nothing but a few ideas, guidelines, and some basic (but solid) mechanics.  I'm having the most fun right now with the magic system.  The setting is loosely medieval, and I'm trying to avoid a fantasy setting.  But I still wanted magic... maybe this is a hangover from D&D.  But my system is all my own.

I knew I wanted magic to be:
-Socially situated.  Priests can perform miracles, which are looked upon kindly, and wizards can perform other acts, which basically amount to devil worship.
-Something that a character uses only after great consideration, in great need.
-Potentially very powerful all the same.  I like the odd cinematic fireball, even if most of the focus of the game is on crossing rapiers.

I read the FUDGE rules, and one of the first questions was where magic came from.  So I gave the medieval answer: God or the Devil.  After that the system followed pretty quickly.  Every spell uses the following format, based on The Rites of Passage, which involves opening a gate through which an otherworldly "Power" may enter (that's jargon, let it be noted):
1.  Contact Power.  The priest either prays to God, or the magician invokes some demon or spirit.  Different Powers can do different things.  Some can heal wounds (nicey-nicey deities or nature spirits, whatever), some can make fireballs (hellish demons), some can find answers to questions.  Every Power has a difficulty that the character has to achieve (at least Fair, I imagine) with their roll to call it.
2.  Power acts.  Note that the character's stats do not matter at all for this phase!  They merely become a vessel for something else acting.  Hence, magic can be extremely powerful, even in untrained hands.
3.  Return Power.  This is the tricky part, and the crux of the whole system.  The character has to make a roll against the Power they just summoned to force it back to the otherworld.  If they succeed, the ritual safely ends.  If, perhaps having bitten off more than they could chew, they fail by a massive amount, they can be possessed by that Power.  Being possessed by God makes you into a Paladin, probably.  Being possessed by a demon does something else entirely.  Every Power has its own agenda.

Let's say you fail your return role, but only by a little bit.  That means you've closed the gateway, but not completely.  To some extent you're still channelling that entity.  This is recorded as an Power's Influence, and it increases with every failed roll (starts at Poor, could go as high as Superb).  Every Power has a short description of how its Influence will be activated.  A healing deity, for instance, may have a taboo against initiating fights or slaying defenceless foes, which would activate any time the character tried to violate it.  So priests that constantly worship kindly gods will actually be filled with the holy spirit, as it were, and become better people.

On the other hand, if you've been consorting with a fire demon, its Influence may activate once a week, at an opportunity chosen by the GM.  If you fail your roll against the Influence, then the angry, jealous, insane demon drives you to attack the symbols of any other religious worship.  If you fail the roll by a little bit, you might start shouting blasphemies uncontrollably in church, or rip pages out of a Bible.  If you fail by a lot, the demon momentarily possesses you.  You walk down main street, shooting fireballs out of your eyeballs at every church in sight.  Or something.

Priests, under this system, will be quite free to use their Power.  Everyone approves, but of course it means a certain kind of submission to that Power.  The healing cleric of D&D will have to become a somewhat more saintly character, just by channelling so much of the presence of a healing god.  Wizards, however, will have to be careful.  If they indulge too heavily in the use of their Power, they will slowly become controlled by it.  And this will not be socially acceptable.  What do we do with witches?

I think it's quite a neat system, because there's no game-mechanical distinction between gods and demons.  However, gods will influence characters towards an established social structure, demons will influence them against the structure.  So the problems with consorting with Satan are practical more than anything else.  At the same time, some characters may not wish to surrender their will to even a benevolent god.  (Note, I still haven't settled on whether the official, acceptable pantheon will be monotheistic or polytheistic; if it's the latter, certain Powers will be proscribed as demons, just to get that inquisitorial feel).

Also, I can always add new Powers.  I could have an entire subplot around the discovery of a cult worshipping (highly under the Influence, some Possessed, regular ritual proceedings) a plague demon, probably starting with a plague hitting the city.  There could be hundreds of minor powers, the equivalent of first-level spells, that wizards will invoke without a second thought, because it's safe to contain.  And there will be leather-bound tomes, locked deep within the city library, containing names of some of the most powerful and dangerous demons ever contacted...

Paradoxically, getting to do this is keeping me sane.  Compared with the constant demands and requirements of "real work," the need to meet an external standard, this is entirely a creation of how, in my opinion, an RPG ought to work.  Screw you, Gygax.


Saturday, May 2, 2009


Dear reader,

You are welcome to what this house holds.  These are the first words spoken by the Lord Bercilac to Sir Gawain as he entered his great hall.  For those of you who are not familiar with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I thoroughly recommend it.  I chose the nom de plume Bercilac for my online gaming persona for a couple of reasons.  First, my obsession with Arthurian myth in general.  But, of course, all of the well-known names are taken, so I couldn't be Lancelot, Arthur, Tristram, Gawain, or Merlin.  I had to pick something relatively obscure.

Second, I read and loved the above-mentioned poem.  It's a great example of the English language.  In particular, it features one of my favourite knights, Sir Gawain (Tristram and Gareth are runners-up).  It also has a great feel to it, the structure of the poem being a mix of medieval romance and Celtic myth.

Third, the character of Bercilac himself.  He is simultaneously the welcoming lord, and the Green Knight that tests the hero.  This idea of a dual nature appeals to me (and green is my favourite colour).  So, yes, you are welcome to what this house holds.  Hopefully it will both nourish and challenge you.

The purpose of this blog is to reconcile a bad habit of mine.  I've been posting on Play This Thing, Enworld, The Forge, and Gnome Stew on and off for a while now.  But I often get carried away in responding to what others have written, producing vast tracts that have little relation to the subject at hand.  So I'm writing this in the spirit of organisation, more than anything else.  This is a place for my ideas about gaming, primarily Dungeons and Dragons, but also whatever else strikes my fancy.