Monday, January 26, 2015

The Magic School Campaign, Part 4: 6D10 Tables of Plot Generators

Image from Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis

Like any good Dungeons & Dragons fan worth their salt, I made use of randomly-generated tables at some point in my gaming career.  The most common ones tend to be for encounter and treasure generation, although there's quite a lot for other concepts such as NPC name generation and settlement qualities.  Ideally they cut down on the Dungeon Master's hefty workload, which got me to thinking of generating such tables for a magic school setting.

Below are six such tables.  The first one's for generating rumors and potential plot hooks among the student body, some of which might be true yet not indicative of the full story.  The second table's for esoteric ingredients for potions and possibly spell components.  The third one's a sampling of the interesting quirks and personality traits that might be found amid an assortment of diverse magical traditions.  The fourth and fifth tables are for books the PCs might find while browsing the library, either in the main section open to everyone or the dark, forlorn Restricted Section.  And finally, the sixth table provides ten sample classes one might find being taught at an academy of supernatural learning.

Dice ResultRumor
1“The new kid at school’s secretly a prince from a country enmeshed in civil war. He’s hiding his identity so the crown’s enemies won’t find him.”
2“Last night I saw a ghostly girl walking about in the courtyard outside my window. She looked just like a student who mysteriously vanished on these grounds three years ago!”
3“There’s been talk in the capital amid the nobles about our school. They view us as a threat and plan to pass a law to shut us down!”
4“In today’s necromancy class, the spider I was supposed to dissect came to life and skittered into the library!”
5“Merchants from Angel Island have been delivering a lot of crates to the school. The boxes are sealed with anti-divination rituals. Weird thing is, nobody knows who placed the order.”
6“At the end of every month, at midnight, the best students receive an invitation to Darktower Hall, a masquerade party held in the Shadow Plane.“
7“Those fools at the Battle Academy insulted our honor for the last time! We’re gonna trounce them at the next game of fireflicker this weekend!”
8“Druid-girl over there claims to know how to channel wizardly power into flowers. I’m going to find out her secret one way or the other.”
9“Professor Vernadsky doesn’t seem himself lately. Could it have anything to do with his recent trip to the Underdark?”
10“Brent Stonebrewer’s cheating on Lilphaba behind Yamaz’s back!”
Dice ResultIngredients
1Troll’s regenerating toenail
2Pickled worms
3Cockatrice liver
4Deep sea salts, no older than 30 days
5Sheep’s blood, boiled and stirred
6A strand of hair from a dwarf, kept in chilled temperature
7Crushed belladonna leaves mixed in water touched by the light of a full moon
8Dragon’s gallbladder, cut vertically into eighths
9Rust scrapings from an enchanted weapon
10Roc’s feather
11Tears shed of joy from one who has not seen death
12Iron which has never been touched by sunlight
13Whale bones infused with necromantic energy
14Manticore’s heart, freshly preserved
15The breaths of a hound, transmuted into water
16The flensed skin of an electric eel
17Liquid memory
18Warrior’s finger bone
20Raw souls
Dice ResultMage is…
1Part of the Forest Flame, a cabal of druids who seek to understand nature via alchemy
2Actually a spy from a rival academy
3A tattooed arcanist, his spellbook inscribed on his body
4Cursed with a mark forbidding her to use her spells for selfish gain
5Convinced that his power comes from the whispers of an extraplanar serpent-god
6A refugee from a tyrannical magocracy still being hunted
7Able to create illusions at will by singing about the subject matter
8Part of an ascetic sect of wizards, refuses to cast spells except when absolutely necessary
9Able to speak in a low whisper which can be distinctly heard hundreds of feet away
10Kobold, unaware of dominant society’s customs and frequently commits cultural faux pas
Dice ResultBook Title (Open Section)
1An Abridged History of the Elvish Peoples
2On the Subject of Ethereal Entities
3The Hellborn: A Study of Tieflings and Magical Aptitude
4Druidic Cabals: An Outsider’s Perspective
5The Eight Fundamentals of Magic
6The Magum Exemplare: A Standard of Living for the Virtuous Spellcaster
7Witchcraft and Charms: The Understanding of Bound Objects
8On Reality and Illusions
9The Care and Feeding of One’s Familiar
10The Many Marvels of Antigonus III
Dice ResultBook Title (Forbidden Section)
1Reign of the Blood-Prince
2The Hordebreaker’s Codex
3Cold Hands, Dark Hearts: Firsthand Accounts of the Weather Wights’ Atrocities
4Murmurings of the Sleeping Titan
5The Hidden School: Teachings of Necromancy
6Secrets of the Nightmare Kingdoms
7Eight Names of the Crow
8Apocalypse of the Knife
9Origin of the First Sorrow
10 Whispered Poisons
Dice ResultClass
1Opening the Veil: Introduction to Divination and Illusion
2Alchemy & Natural Law
3Amateur Adventurers
4Broomstick Practice
5Dueling & Offensive Spellcasting
6Higher Powers: The Understanding of Granted Magic
7Cantrips, Orisons, and Folk Magic
8The Wonderful World of Magical Beasts
9Bardic Lore, from Sha’irs to Skalds

Friday, January 23, 2015

We need more 1-on-1/small group systems

We need more 1-on-1/small group systems

Image from the Pathfinder Core Rulebook

For the past 4 weeks I've been the Dungeon Master of a Labyrinth Lord utilizing the Solo Heroes rules made by Sine Nomine Publishing.  Aside from the golden times of Sunday, forming a full table for a second (semi)weekly game is very hard to do.  Due to various complications and schedule conflicts, I suggested as an alternative an " Old-School Solo Heroes Delve" when only a single player showed up for our Deadlands game.  After finishing up some character creation for this, I asked her if she was in the mood for a fantasy adventure where they were a one-woman adventuring team standing against a veritable slew of monsters and miscreants.  We decided to go with that option, deciding to seize on the opportunity to get some gaming in at all.

We didn't know if it would be long-term, so I planned out a short "investigate a series of goblin attacks in the nearby mountains" adventure.  I reused some material from an old play-by-post campaign back on Min-Max Boards to give an overall sense of the setting, copied down the relevant tables and monster stat blocks, and voila!  One adventure ready to go!

Black Streams Solo Heroes is ingenious because its proposed solutions are specifically made to answer the problems which will arise from a solo player: fighting multiple opponents is tough, so the introduction of the Fray Die allows for automatic damage in addition to normal attacks, and overkill damage dealt to an enemy spills over to the next one within range.  This takes the form of many quick sweeps, cuts, jabs, thrown and shot weapons, and minor strikes in the fray of combat.

The damage system is redone so that attacks overall deal less damage, but enemies and NPCs have less effective hit points, so the hero of the story is simultaneously able to fell enemies quicker while having more staying power.  Dodging Doom allows the PC to risk potential hit point damage in exchange for negating a life-threatening attack (like an assassin's killing blow or drowning in quicksand) which makes in the context of the story.

It proved to be incredibly fun for my friend and I, and the best part of all is that these rules mechanically reinforce the ideal of a skilled adventuring hero able to handle things on their own.  The fact that it manages to do this in a system where lonesome low-level PCs would be mincemeat is all the more impressive.

It's gotten me thinking this month, of the most popular table-top RPGs on the market and whether or not they can do this adequately.  The truth is a lot of them can't.

The official Editions of Dungeons & Dragons are very team-focused affairs, and aside from some obscure builds at certain levels in certain Editions most adventures assume a party of 3-6 people.  Likewise for Pathfinder, the spiritual successor to 3rd Edition.

Shadowrun is likewise similar in its focus on group-focused teamwork.  Knowing how to hack is essential; so is spellcasting and seeing the astral wards in a corp enclave; and the social skills of a Face help get you out of sticky situations.

The New World of Darkness games are built such that most starting characters are fledgling apprentices in their desired skill aptitudes, and being a jack-of-all-trades is a resource-intensive option.  Likewise the combat system is absolutely brutal to outnumbered characters, even if it's a quick-fingered Mekhet with an automatic weapon staring down four cops.  Chances are the cops' focused fire will seriously injure or even knock out said Mekhet.

I cannot speak to the rules systems of other popular RPGs such as FATE or GURPS, but the majority of games are understandably group-centric.  The fun and joy that comes from table-top is the camaraderie which naturally results from friends regularly getting together and having fun.  But there are times when you might have a child or significant other who wants to play and you don't have a group to get together (and running several characters at once is too cumbersome).  Or there might come times when half the group does not make it, but you still want to play a table-top game in lieu of signing onto Steam or an online video game server.

I think as time goes on, especially for the AAA games, rules for small group and 1 on 1 games will stay in demand if not increase.  A lot of proposed solutions simply opt to make the PC more powerful, but a static increase in numbers doesn't solve everything.  Like what Black Streams did, we should study individual systems on a case-by-case basis, finding the weaknesses wrought by a Solo PC, and designing new rules to fix them and make it fun.

For Pathfinder I can think of a few: action economy, the lack of versatility in certain classes, a redesigning of the wealth-by-level system, the damage and save-or-die problems, and 'minion creation' features such as summoning (and how they can help solo PCs).

Perhaps with more practice I'll find out a way to design good solo hero rules for Pathfinder, and possibly other RPGs.  If you have any mechanics or ideas of your own, I'll be happy to hear them in the comments section below!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Fantasy Novel Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon

Jacket art by Jason Chan

These past two months I decided to get back into fantasy novels.  For the better part of 2014 my engagement in the genre was mostly limited to role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Fire Emblem, and various television shows and comics such as Fullmetal Alchemist.  But after hearing the hype surrounding Game of Thrones and realizing that I have yet to read 
frequently-mentioned classics such as A Wizard of Earthsea, I delved back into the traditional literary world in search of gripping plots and ideas both classic and new.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed was one such story I found, and I could hardly put it down once I started reading.  The characters, the world, and the action scenes are very well-done and rarely fell flat.  It is a sword and sorcery novel drawing inspiration from Arabian themes and folklore, a noticeable choice which stands out amid the fantasy counterpart Western Europes dotting the shelves.

The novel centers around the good Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, an elderly veteran of a prestigious order of ghul hunters who are now few and far between in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms.  In spite of his desire to retire from his duties and live out the rest of his life in peace, the ever-present danger of vicious monsters and wicked sorcerers plaguing innocent folk draws him back into the fold time and time again.  What starts out as a simple mission of tracking down the undead responsible for a family's murder grows into a larger plot of forgotten magic and impending civil war which threatens to plunge the great city of Dhamsawaat into chaos.

Ahmed's world-building is organic, adding over time with revealed information instead of having entire histories and events dumped on the reader in one go.  For example, when Adoulla comes back to his home in the impoverished Scholar's Quarter, we get a glimpse into the woes of Dhamsawaat's poor.  This later plays into the emerging popularity of the upstart Falcon Prince, first revealed to us when the legendary rebel saves a child-thief from an executioner's axe.  There are many forms of magic and supernatural creatures in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, and while there is a bit of detail on the various kinds of disciplines and traditions, the "magic system" as it is is not codified to the point where all mystery is lost.

Aiding Adoulla in his quest is his steadfast companion Raseed bas Raseed, a devoutly religious warrior whose martial prowess is exceeded by his honor to God, and Zamia Badawi, the last member of a nomadic tribe whose people were massacred by the ghuls of the same sorcerer Adoulla is hunting.  All three characters have personality and play off of each other well, and amidst the adventure and mystery there are side plots which show that they're all people with lives outside of their duties.

Adoulla still has feelings for Miri, a brothel madame and information broker who he last met with on bad terms.  Raseed sees the world in straightforward black and white and believes in the rightness of  law and order, which brings him to internal conflict when those in authority stand between him and doing the right thing.  Zamia was blessed with the rare power of the Lion Shape, which led to the other tribes shunning her people for assuming a traditionally-masculine title.  Amidst her quest for revenge are the lingering thoughts of being the last of her Badawi and her mutual feelings for Raseed.

Personally I felt that Zamia was the least-developed, in that her desire for vengeance and being the last of her tribe kind of limits her story potential.  Adoulla and Raseed, in comparison, have more variety in how their motivations interact with the surrounding plot.  My other major criticism of the book is that it ends with several unresolved ties, although that should hopefully be cured in short order once the sequel comes out.

The book's pace is good, and when it does slow down it doesn't take long to switch to another scene or character's point of view.  The overall shortness of the novel (my version has 274 pages) means that it can be completed relatively quickly via a casual reading.  While it is in no comparison to some of the door-stopper novels in the fantasy genre, precious little of it is artificial padding making it money well spent in my view.

Final Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars.  Throne of the Crescent Moon has fun characters, an engaging plot, and strikes the right balance between too much detail and not enough when it comes to 
world-building.  I look forward to reading more about the Crescent Moon Kingdoms and the people which inhabit them.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Magic School Campaign, Part 3: Dungeons

Screenshot from Little Witch Academia, by Studio Trigger

Any supernatural academy worth its salt is expansive enough to be a community in itself.  Dorms for living space, an expansive courtyard connecting the many buildings, a humongous library full of lore from all over the world... all that's needed left are some dungeon-like environs!

The Obstacle Course: If the adventuring occupation is a common vocation in your campaign setting, it's probable that there's enough demand for it by mages wishing to pursue the arts of spelunking and tomb-raiding.  Classes for amateur adventurers need a lot of space to test the abilities of fledgling apprentices, and a series of underground interconnected chambers is perfect for this!

The adventurer's classroom would be accessed in a dark and relatively isolated part of school, guarded by a set of iron bars, below a massive trapdoor sliding open to reveal stone steps leading into the earth, or accessed via teleportation to a mysterious location.  The teacher sets the students in groups of 3 to 6 (the average adventuring party size) to work together through the series of rooms.  They will be graded based upon the amount of treasure they obtain; how many traps, puzzles, and monsters they successfully bypass by stealth or by force; and how many team members make it through to the end.

The teacher hands out circular armlets for students to wear.  This allows him to easily scry upon them, so that he may accurately judge their progress as they make their way through the dungeon.

Artist Unknown

The Forbidden Library: It's a well-known fact that power corrupts, how certain knowledge can be corrosive to the mind and soul of those unprepared for it.  Even on a more practical level, certain spells such as fireball are capable of great destruction, and students lacking the ethical mindset or experience may be denied the opportunity to learn such arts until they're deemed ready for it.

Thus the need for a forbidden library.  In here are tomes of the dark and macabre: here you might find Aris Blackheart's Guide to the Lower Planes, A Treatise on Eugenics & Bloodline Sorcery, or the Song Spells of the Derro Sages.  There are no windows in this cordoned-off space, and the light spells are few and far between leaving the majority of the halls shrouded in darkness.

The Forbidden Library's caretaker might be a mischievous spirit known as Parva Darkwater.  The library's forbidden nature only encourages curious students to sneak their way in, and he has lots of fun using illusions and misdirection to scare them and thus preserving the library's frightening reputation.  Or it might be a wizened crone who bears a striking resemblance to an infamous necromancer; when questioned on this mentions that she does not want to see others go down the same path she did, consumed by the follies of lust for power at the expense of restraint and insight.

The Ruins: It is a rule in fantasy worlds that the marvels of the ancients never truly end.  The animating magics of a long-dead empire of mages beneath the sands might still churn on: summoned familiars dart between decaying towers home to the skeletons of their masters.  War-golems patrol the empty streets, on the lookout for threats which might never come.  A group of enterprising folk who manage to clear out these old structures of danger will gain an invaluable asset.

In this scenario, the magician's school is built upon the bones of the old and dead, a core of the old-world protected by a shell wrought by century's worth of expansions.  With the treasures and lore of the first ones the mages were able to turn this building into a center of arcane learning without peer.  But the truth is that the school's founders were only able to claim a portion of the ruins, the majority still remain sealed behind powerful wards.  The school regularly sends out exploration teams into the catacombs below with limited success.  There is precious little to be found in the already-explored reaches, and many folk are unwilling to breach the wards in case they're containing something dangerous.  In the shadows of the ruins and sometimes the school above, people spot oddities.  A slithering shadow, a quick rustle of air from an unknown source, the dripping of water in a dry room.  Just what did the buildings' original inhabitants have in mind when they built the old structure, and what did they seal away before their demise?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Magic School Campaign, Part 2: Party Composition

Image from the Wizard's Academy, by 3D Total Games

Note: As a disclaimer, my main sources of actual play for D&D-alikes are Pathfinder and OSR retroclones.  If I ever get into other Editions of Dungeons & Dragons I might make another article for them as well.

Dungeons & Dragons games and its derivative works are strongly role-based.  A character's defining features within the greater party are largely determined by their class.  Ideally, the fighter classes protect the other party members from harm and are not as resource-based to use their iconic features (no such thing as 'sword swings per day').  The stealthy thief classes bypass dungeon obstacles and exploit enemy weaknesses such as locked doors, traps, and inattentive guards.  The cleric classes tend to the party's wounds, commune with nature, and cast beneficial spells as well as holding their own in a fight.  And the magic-users are fragile yet have a versatile assortment of spells for just about any occasion.

In a magic school campaign, everyone's probably some variety of cleric or magic-user class.

Party Composition in Pathfinder

In Pathfinder, there are more than enough classes, feats, archetypes, and spells even in official sourcebooks that a character concept is not so restricted by whether they call upon arcane or divine powers for aid.  A party has no need of a Barbarian, Fighter, or Monk to perform exemplary feats of martial might when one can just as easily be a Cleric with Destruction and War domains, a Magus, a wildshaped Druid, or any other number of versatile builds.

Conversely, the availability of stealth-based skills to all classes makes it so that your Illusionist wizard can pick pockets and disarm traps when his spells fail him.  A Bard with the Archeologist archetype makes for a cool Indiana Jones-style scholarly explorer, and the Alchemist class has access to several archetypes like the Crypt Breaker and Vivisectionist which grant iconic Rogue abilities.  The Summoner class' Eidolon can be turned into a mobile scout with variant movement speed upgrades and the Skilled Evolution which provides a whopping +8 bonus to a single skill!  Clerics make great divine gishes even straight from the core rulebook, and even archers with the right builds.

The Advanced Class Guide provides the Hunter and Skald classes, which serve as cool thematic reskins of Barbarians and Rangers along with spellcasting ability at 1st level.

Party Composition in OSR Games

Unlike Pathfinder, classes in old-school retroclones such as Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess are more central to what your character can and cannot do.  This can be alleviated somewhat with multi-classing, although some retroclones have specific guidelines on what combinations of classes are allowed.

I do have plans for write-ups of Battlemage and Abstract Thief classes for magical fighter and thief equivalents, but for the time being I'm going to point to existing works for inspiration.

In Labyrinth Lord and other Basic "race as class" games, the Elf serves as a useful fighter-mage.  Typically the Elf is able to wield better weapons than his Magic-User counterpart and can cast spells in light armor.  Along with the ability to detect secret doors, see in the dark, and a long life-span, the Elf has a lot going for it.  The only trade-off is fewer starting spells in the spellbook, a slower experience progression, and a lower maximum level.

Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea  utilizes Subclasses, which are more specific versions of the classic four (fighter, mage, cleric, and thief).  The Warlock is a Fighter subclass which gets access to spells at 1st level and draws inspiration from Elric of Melnibone.  The Bard is a Thief subclass and sort of a jack-of-all-trades, who draws from both druidic and illusionist magical traditions while serving as inspiring loremasters.  The Legerdemainist is our final Thief subclass who combines stealth and sorcery to become the ultimate rogue.

Adventurer Conqueror King System is another useful OSR resource for hybrid mage characters.  The standard book contains several new classes such as the Blade Dancer (an order of holy women who serve the goddess of war) who don't get casting ability until 2nd level but serve the role of martial clerics quite well.  Elven Spellswords and Nightblades are fighter/mages and thief/mages respectively.

ACKS' Player's Companion not only provides a wealth of new character classes, but a system for players who desire to make their own.  Elven Courtiers make for good mage-noble archetypes, and Gnomish Tricksters excel at confounding and misdirecting their opponents.  The Nobiran Wonderworker's a hard class to qualify for, but it's a master of both divine and arcane magic.  Finally, the Zaharan Ruinguard makes for a fine "seeker of forbidden arts" class with some martial power to back them up when spells fail.

Finally, I've been blessed to own many products of Barrel Rider Games, a fine 3rd Party Publisher or Labyrinth Lord classes.  The Undead Slayer is a good yet highly focused class specializing in killing all manner of unliving creatures; the Dark Elf is sort of a jack-of-all-trades racial class, not possessing the martial capacity of its surface world cousins yet making up for it with some thief abilities and spell resistance; Dwarven Rune-Smiths utilize sacred stones related to crafting, divination, and protection; Fairies can fly, craft magic arrows, and can curse foes with bad luck forcing them to re-roll dice results;  Yule Elves both thrive on mischief and are good at remaining unseen.

My apologies if this post is quite long, but I hope it proves a useful resource for Pathfinder and OSR gaming groups who wish to design their own magic school campaigns.  Both games contain a wealth of variant classes and roles for mages of all kinds, and I'm sure there's a few I've missed.  If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them!