Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Dying of the Light

WARNING Spoilers Ahead.

If you are still here you have been Warned. I was really looking forward to this story. And now that I read it I feel, let down. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the ride. The banter between Valkyrie and Skulduggery was as good as ever, the action just as good, and the plot at about normal levels of convoluted complexity. But what ruined it for me was the Ultimate Fate of the characters.

Valkyrie

First the whole Meek Ridge plot line Just annoyed me. Yea I get the point of it. The point was supposed to be that the reader does not know which of the Three possible characters this actually is. But the problem is that There never was a doubt in my mind about who this is. I had no doubt that Darquess would loose. And the whole point of the reflection was that she wanted a normal life. So this had to be Valkyrie.

What is more that once we got to the end I felt that her decision to go into self imposed exile was not justified and what is more we didn't See her make it. Indeed we didn't actually get to see how the final climactic scene played out, nor what the aftermath was actually like.  Instead we got a summary told by Valkyrie five years later. As she is about to rejoin Skulduggery, ready for a new adventure.

Worst yet we are teased with her new powers, which she barely gets a chance to use. All in all it makes me want to know how is she going to grow up and finally get out from under Skulduggery's shadow. Especially as her actions here end up being no more than something to distract Darquess with while someone else executes the real plan. This all adds up to her remaining stuck in Skulduggery's shadow, the girl who wasn't strong enough, who's big decision turned out to be futile and pointless sacrifice. The one who couldn't triumph over her own dark side. This is not where I wanted to Leave Valkyrie!

The Reflection

OK, I actually liked her story line. We got to see things from her point of view enough that it actually hurt when she got killed in such a nasty way. It was brutal but effective. She learned to be human, and then had it snatched away from her. Tragic but satisfying. 

Skulduggery

Part way through the story Skulduggery actually straight out and tells us how its going to end. In hindsight this is extremely annoying. What is more the reader expectation is not met. Right at the beginning in Book one we get told that Gordon Eddley likes to let his characters learn their lesson and then kill them off in the worst way possible.  Now Sure this is a fictional character we are talking about. But It built an expectation that this was going to happen. Heck If you look at the cover above its note even subtle in its hint that Skulduggery is going to die.  The idea that this will happen is teased several times. And really Its what I was expecting to happen. Skulduggery dies and Valkyrie must go on without him, because there is still a job to do. 

So I was disappointed that he lived. And the problem with that is that we end up back at the status quo. He is now so awesome that he could use his necrotic powers and and then put them back into the box so easily that it happens off stage. But his plot is not actually resolved. Does he finally achieve redemption? No. Does he take up his family crest? No. Does he actually make the ultimate sacrifice? No, he finds a way out of it just as he said he would. Still the same old Skulduggery., to be continued next year.

Tanith

Yea, she survived. But it was so gratuitous. She had to get naked for her final fight? Come on. And her internal monologue nearly broke the fourth wall, arg. This sequence was pure fan service, which really didn't add anything to the story. Also she gets back, Valkyrie and Skulduggery are about to go on a mission to another reality and she doesn't even ask to come along? The desire to get back into the team just doesn't register?

Zombie King

So you need someone to defeat a guardian, the entire plan hinges on it, and you decide to send the incompetent Zombie King, who is likely to decapitate himself if you give him a long enough sword? Really, this has to be one of the most stupid and unjustified decisions in the history of stupid and unjustified decisions. But then the whole 23 minutes of Invulnerability bit was rather a distraction.

Other Notes

The occasional unnamed chapters, and significant typography, was another sticking point for me. I found it distracting. A jump that constantly pulled me out of the story and reminded me that I'm reading.  And finally Darquess isn't killed, or destroyed, but banished.  So what the evil incarnate character who we just established can open doors between realities, is never going to come back right, right?

In my final analysis this story left just the wrong things open. Skulldugary didn't achieve redemption, Valkyrie remains a sidekick, the big bad could return, and while the world might have changed, we didn't get to see that, the status quo has been reastablished so tune in next year.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Active Exploits, my new goto RPG

I recently decided to try a Diceless RPG.  On acount of it being available for free I chose Active Exploits.  And I've found it to be a lot of fun and really simple to play. the big advantage of no dice is that you can play it any time any where.

I strated a game with my son Saturday night, we made up aesetting using some random tables from Instant game.  and started an adventure.  I gave him the choice of using dice , in which case we would be playing Risus.
In a sligtly ironic twist he rolled a d10 to decide that no we would not be using dice.

His charcter is a pyrokinetic circus preformer.  Who owes the Ringmaste a debt whic he I working off.

So we played until bed time. then on Sunday morning we resumed our game while walking to the shops, something that we could not have done if we where playing a normal dice based game.  And it was still a fun game.  Right now we are in the middle of a battle in which the circus that his character is part of is being attacked by frost goblins.  He just defeated their snow golem but now one of the NPC's is about to be grabbed by two of the goblins.

Either he will have to go after her, or the ringmaster will discover that the stole all the circuse gold.  Either one will lead him to follow the goblins to their lair.

Playing dicelss does present intereting GM challanges, in that I have to be careful with what obsticles I set and keep the consequnces of failure in mind.  The game part of it comes in the form of resource management. Each character having pools of luck, discipline and expirence points to draw on.  There is also the neat feature in the system that you only get a defence total if you say you are defending.  Otherwise getting hit is almost certain.  This serves to bring an element of uncertainty back in.  A character who makes no attempt to defend can be taken downe even if their opponent is less skilled. You can try to do more then one thing in a single turn but doing so requires you to split your effort in some way.

The rules as given have a surprising amount of depth to them.  Quite detailed rules on weapon damage type and armour type, and even rules on sanity for horror type games.

About the only thing I don't like are an optional rule called accented abilities.  The notes say this is new in the 2nd edition and it feels tn me like a poorly conoeived patch that tries to solve a problem I havn't encountered as yet. At the moment this corner of the system feels broken to me so I'm ignoring it.  I also have a few quibbles about the main book being a t6oo vuage in places, but this can be solved by looking throught the rules for soem of BiG's other games, quite a few of which seem to more or less the same game with different die mechanics.  So you ahve genra Diversions which is a roll high 2d6 system, and Iron Gauntlets which uses a d10 dice pool . But all of them use the same terminology, and the same core abilities.

Other than that I'm really liking this system and I expect to playe more of it.  Anytime anywhere. I just have to remember to bring water. I was quite parched after that walk.

Monday, February 17, 2014

I've Joined the Renaissance

Recently I've gotten into the Old School Renaissance RPG's, In particular Swords & Wizardry and Scarlet Heroes, I also managed to hope I managed to snag a copy of the D&D Premium reprint before Amazon stopped selling it. Though that particular bird is not in my hand just yet, though Amazon tells me it will be in early March.

One problem I perpetually have is that only one of my sons is interested in RPGs, the other finds them boring. Which has historically made getting much of a campaign going kind of difficult.  This is where Scarlet Heroes come in, as its a set of rules that has been designed to allow old modules designed for 4 to 5 players work with a single hero. So far my older son is finding Old School Play with its focuse on exploration to be far more enjoyable that more modern my character has umpteen ways to hit things play, that seems to characterise newer games.

What we have ended up playing is at present a real Frankenstein's, or perhaps Zielinski's Monster of a system, which includes elements from the above two systems along with a home brewed roll under dice rolling mechanic. And it all started with the shear number of things that Swords and Wizardry defines as having an X in 6 chance of success, from opening doors, to searching and the thieves Hear sound ability.

I started trying to fit everything into a D6 system, and found this post about how to make the system scale. And then I had an Idea. What if we use dice size to represent difficulty. So 1d4 for trivial tasks, 1d8 for average, up to 1d12 for extreme difficulty and 1d20 representing the stress of combat. And yes using skills in combat will require a 1d20 roll, which I fee nicely reflects the fact that whatever it is your trying you only have 10 seconds to do it.   The other change I made is to get rid of the arithmetic. So if you roll the highest number on the dice its generally a failure, unless your skill is at least that high. If it is then roll again using the next higher die type, and if you still fail then you really fail.

I've made attack rolls and saving throws work this way too. Incidentally when your target is to roll low, descending AC scores actually make a whole lot more sense.

It would be nice to get a hold of some d16 to even out the difficulty curve a little.  Heck I'd be tempted to use  4, 6, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24 as my dice set, But finding odd sized dice in Australia is a little hard, and shipped in from the US or the UK ends up working out to more than $5 per dice. Edit. I've decided to run with it anyway, simulating the 16 and 24, with the odd / even trick that was used to get results of 11-20 on d20 rolls back in the day.

I also devanced the magic system, replacing one shot spell slots with a magic point pool that increases as magic users and Clerics go up in level. Now that My son has multi classed his thief into a magic-user/thief, we shall see how that one works out.

So things are looking up on the Role Playing front for the moment, and I'm looking forward to doing more of it.


Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Deverry Cycle

I've been reading the last four books of the Deverry Cycle recently and its really hammered home something I've already know about myself as a reader. I really don't like Multiple Points of View. And parallel stories even more so.So Much so that I've actually been skimming or skipping entire sections until the action gets back to the characters I actually care about. More specifically the characters I'm interested in are the original four. To me at least all the others are just a distractions.

Edit: Now that I've finished I'm a little disappointing. In this set of Books Branna and Neb, the current incarnations of Jill and Nyven really don't do much. Indeed they spend most of the story sitting on the sidelines. The problem I think is that there are no less then five experienced Dweomer masters plus two other novices. Meaning that Neb and Branna are mostly over shadowed throughout the story.

Seeing as the end of the story conveniently gets most of the more experienced masters out of the way, I'm hoping we see another story where Branna and Neb get to live up to their potential a little more. Sadly the afterward to the Silver Mage says that Kerr has no plans to write more about these characters.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Twilight

In David Brin's "Uplift War" there is a pivotal chapter where the Tymbrimi Teenager Athaclena is pondering her feelings for the human Robert Oneagle. She thinks she may be in love with him, but they are different species, and it could never work. That is unless she completely changes herself and becomes human, an action that she is capable of. She also knows that it will be irreversible. Being rather rational for a Teenager Athaclena eventually comes to the conclusion that doing this for a boy is a really really bad Idea and that the most they can be is comrades in arms. This chapter probably makes Atheclena a very good role model, but completely ruins the romantic subplot of the book.  And really as the reader I was disappointed by Athaclena's rational deliberation, I wanted to see her fall head over heals and do something stupid, the chips fall where they may.

And this is exactly the point where "romantic" focal characters Like Bella Swan and Arial (AKA the little mermaid) do the stupid thing and decide yes I will change everything about myself for my handsome prince. Granted that at least in the original version of the Little mermaid things don't work out so well, it is a cautionary tale and Arial is punished for this moment of irrationality.  Bella, like the Disney version of Arial, however gets her happily ever after. What we have here is not a role model but a cautionary tale that has been subverted with a happy ending.

There is also another important detail David Brin can allow Athaclena to make the sensible choice because it is not what the book is about. You could remove this subplot entirely and still have a coherent story. Apply the same thing to Twilight and you wouldn't have a story. Bella's discovery that vampires are real followed by her quest to become one is what the story is about.

Feminist cirques of twilight tend to complain a lot about how it encourages traditional gender roles. To some extent I have to say that it does. But making the story do otherwise would really feel false. Firstly we are in small town USA, the fact that there are more old fashioned ideas of gender are somewhat expected.  Secondly Most of the important female characters are vampires. They where literally born in another age, mostly in an Age which had much stronger ideas of gender roles. From where I sit the real issue is not that Bella does not make choices but that many feminists do not agree with the choices that she makes.

Edward and Bella's relationship also gets a lot of flack. To this I would say that yea, Edward does start out as a rather messed up character. Hay he is a guilt ridden vampire who has been brooding for 90 years, he has issues. Much of this is based on highlighting things Edward says through the books. Highlighted they do seem to support the argument. But do they still support the argument in context? Very early on Bella complains that the students at Falks High School seem to not get sarcasm. And really there later conversations with Edward are loaded with it, and both of them seem to be aware of this, and playing with it.

While Edwards obsession with keeping Bella safe does go over the top repeatedly, It is also thwarted repeatedly. Generally Bella will find a way to go and do what she intended to do any way. Yes in the real world breaking up with him and getting a restraining order if necessary would have been a much more sensible choice. But we are not in the real world here, but in a fantasy world where the dangers that Edward sees are real dangers and not irrational fears.

More importantly About half way through the 3rd book Edward has his epiphany and starts treating Bella as more of an equal. By this stage he know that he really can't stop her doing whatever she has set her mind on doing, and no longer tries to do so. He has finally resolved a character flaw. After that their relationship is carefully negotiated, and both get some of what they wanted from it.

However there is one Feminist  Critique of the Twilight saga that I do agree with. The Warewolf imprinting on children thing is very disturbing. I would note that the creepiness factor does come up in the story several times, and it does get to the point where the characters are protesting too much. In any case any pretense that this isn't an instance of Wife Husbandry is pretty well undone in Breaking Dawn when Jacob gives Renesmee the Quileute version of a promise ring. But despite this it still seems to fit the fictional world that it takes place in. It is a fictional element in a fictional story about a fictional race that is not quite human. Most readers will realize this and know that it was not intended to apply to anything in the real world.

All that out of the way, What do I think of the writing. Occasionally it does drag on a bit. But this actually makes it feel more authentic. We are in the head of a girl who likes reading classic English literature. She has read Wuthering Heights so many times that the binding is almost falling apart. The flowery delivery fits, and at the end of the day I liked it. Though I will admit to Breaking Dawn getting less and less satisfying the more I think about it. The following alternative conclusion (taken from this amazon review, does indeed sound like a much better story:


Bella would have actually wanted to marry Edward. She would have cared about the decorations and Alice would have developed into a real sister, and not some overblown party planner. There would have been real sex - not smutty, but real, nonetheless. Pregnancy would have disappeared. Bella would have had to make the choice - between having babies and having Edward. She would have been cruel to be kind and given Jacob his freedom. Jacob would have grown and gotten over her, and moved on and found real love with someone who loved him back - maybe even Leah, since that ground was laid pretty well. Bella would have spent months being a newborn, filled with nothing but bloodlust. Jessica would be her first victim. The Cullens would have worked tirelessly to help her transform, and we could have gotten to know them all so much better. Rosalie might have died, doing something selfless for once in her life. That would have been doubly meaningful if Meyer rewrites the whole series from Edward's POV (ala Midnight Sun, which in rough draft form is head and shoulders better than Breaking Dawn.) Bella would have to give up Charlie and Renee for a while, but eventually they would be able to be in her life, altho in a much more limited way. There are a million possibilities that could have had a very nice happy ending, with a bit of bitter thrown in with the sweet.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mythic why it works and Why it dosn't

So I've worked out why I love Mythic as a game master emulator but am not so keen on it as a standalone RPG. And it all comes down to the Fate Chart. In both versions of the Mythic book there is a chapter of play advice. And of the items in that chapter says don't ask the fate chart too many questions. Go with one, or two at the most and then do whatever seems the most logical in context.  This is great advise because using the fate chart is a bit of a mechanical process.

The problem with Mythic as an RPG is that it breaks this rule. To resolve one attack you need to ask the fate chart at least three and possibly four questions. And that can take a while.

Worst still how you look up the fate chart is much more complicated. When doing emulation you use the same column of the chart for the entire scene, and the only thing you need to do is estimate the probability. Better yet you do this by basically asking and answering the question in a very natural way.

player:
Has the the Don's Bodyguard got a gun?
GM:
Sure thing.
Player:
Is the Butler still carrying the murder weapon?
GM:
That's very unlikely.
Easy quick and simple.

In the attack version things are not that simple. Firstly both the row and column vary from roll to roll, with the Column representing the defenders most relevant attribute or ability. And even though both edges of the chart have textual labels, you have to do maths on them. So lets see I'm attacking and and I have a +1 shift for being so quick so that's a High, but I'm wounded for a -2 shift so that brings it back to average. VS your Exceptional ability, ow but your wounded as well so that's a -1 shift.  OK so now I can roll. to see if I hit. Really if your going to make me do maths its better for my character to have a strength of 7 then a strength of "average".

But back to the example. I've already rolled to establish that I get to go at all. And then to hit, lets assume I do. Now we do the same dance again, with a different set of abilities and modifiers to work out if I do damage. And possibly again for a fourth time to see if you succumb to you injuries. And the end result is that it all takes too long. The attempt at realism is just hard to implement with dice, paper and brain.

And if we where playing a supers game things could be even worse ad the full fate chart is open ended, while the the GME version is fixed. 
 

Now I have a campaign running with my Son which is using Mythic and will probably continue to do so. But realistically I think its the one and only game I'll run using full mythic rules. And Even that's not a sure thing, If I can work out a nice way of making Pokemon Trainer into a Dungeon World Class.

But the Mythic Game Master Emulator is another question entirely. The GME is awesome, and a Really good fit for Dungeon World by the way. I'll say more about why I think these two rule sets work well together next time.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Techniques of the Rules Author

I make sporadic attempts to write something good enough charge people money to read. So far these have not resulted in a published work, though they have made me a rather brutal literary critic at times.  Over the course of these various attempts I've amassed a little writers bookshelf.  Some of the books seemed good but I've never gone back to while others have become standbys that I refere back to and re read all the time. One of these standbys is Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain What has struck me is how much of this book I've seen in RPG rule sets recently. So much so that it seems to be the unsung hero of rules wrting, unlike Hero of a Thousand faces which gets mentioned all the time.

Two systems in particular stand out in this regard. Marvel Heroic Role playing1, which has an explicit structure of Scenes and Sequels, and even calls them this in the rules. And the various games derived from Apocalypse World. Apocalypse World and its derivatives, of which I'm most familiar with Dungeon World, have  the interesting idea that the Dungeon Master does not roll dice, only the Players do. And based on the role they either fail, succeeded at a price or succeed outright. IF success is not outright the Dungeon Master gets to make a Move in response which may involve just dealing damage, or a host of other things. End result is that every dice roll matters to the story.

The standard rules in Dungeon World is present the situation, the looming threat and ask "what do you do?" The player then responds and probably rolls their dice. In Dwight Swain's terminology the chunk of converstation between the Dungeon Master and Player is a Motivation Reaction Unit. Indeed go to any example of play in the Dungeon World manual and you will see a seqnece of prefect MRU's strung together into a scene. And that accounts for everything the game calls a basic move.

Then we have special moves, which could just as well have been called sequal moves. They are things like making camp or making an entire perilous journey through the wilderness, and other such bridging details that go to make a smooth narrative wihout getting bogged down.

I've also being playing Mythic RPG both in whole (Pokemon inspired game with my sons) and the Game Master emulator subsystem (solo play dungeon world on the train). What has struck me in the last day as missing from Mythic is any mechanic for dealing with sequels. The system as it stands works very well for scenes but I can't seem to get it to frame sequels at all. At the table with my sons we just narrate them, while in my solo play they are quit conspicuously missing, mostly because I'm not motivated enough to type them in on my tablet. That said The Mythic GME is a great product, and has worked very well for me both at the table and solo. Mythic as a generic system not so much though, but thats a post for another day.
  1. What? Marvel Heroic Roleplaying has been pulled. I went looking for the link only to find that the entire product line is gone from the Margret Weiss Website. I'm assuming their relationship with Marvel soured for some reason, but man I didn't see that coming,