Wednesday, May 27, 2015

So you want to convert: OSR to Pathfinder Self-Publishing

Cover Image of the Lost Lands: Sword of Air by Artem Shukayev

I tend to keep abreast of the developments of Frog God Games, even if I cannot afford many of their products.  As developers of dual-stat Swords & Wizardry and Pathfinder books, the designers distill the charm of old-school dungeon-delving into varying rulesets.  I wasn't surprised to find that their Sword of Air KickStarter delivered product versions for both games.

What did surprise me was the sight of an updated City-State of the Invincible Overlord KickStarter for the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game System.  There is also Castle of the Mad Archmage, an adventure heavily inspired by the Castle Greyhawk megadungeon developed for the Adventures Dark & Deep and Pathfinder rulesets.  The author, Joseph Bloch, was not familiar with the latter ruleset, so he hired someone to help convert it.

Although these are but three samples, each of them are popular pieces within the OSR fandom, so I definitely believe that this is part of an emerging trend.  It's understandable that some cross-pollination is going to occur between the two when they share so much in common in terms of aesthetic value (dungeon-delving, fantasy worlds, class and level system, etc) as well as having dedicated fanbases.  But the underlying design issues and play-styles are incredibly different, and "straight conversions" of games rarely work out well due to the nuances which don't always translate well.

As someone who's regularly played weekly games of both Labyrinth Lord and Pathfinder for months, I can shed some light for OSR folks with only a passing familiarity with D20 system games but wish to expand their products to a multi-edition platform.  This is more a series of pointers for newcomers than an exhaustive system breakdown (which I may cover in future posts should this one prove popular enough).

Ability scores being gradual in their modifiers.  Demi-human races being their own class.  Player skill over a skill system.  Magic items being priceless and random.  These are common tropes of the OSR, but they do not hold sway in Pathfinder.  First we'll talk about the most common OSR mechanics and how they're changed or done away with in Pathfinder.

Let Go of the Sacred Cows: Ability Scores

Ability Score Bell Curve from Hero Builder's Guidebook

Although both games utilize an initial 3-18 bell curve for starting characters, ability scores in Pathfinder matter more due to their granularity.  Whereas an OSR Fighter with a 13 Strength and middling Constitution can do well for a while, in Pathfinder this character concept isn't going to remain relevant for long unless they're focusing on ranged attacks or choosing a "finesse fighter" route.

Not only do Pathfinder scores add a +1 modifier for every multiple of 2, it is possible to further increase one's score with starting race, ability boosts every 4 levels, magic items, and certain spells such as Bull's Strength.  Since Dexterity modifiers add to armor class and the mental scores allow for spellcasters to prepare more spells per day, ability scores are now just as vital for character-building as one's class or race.

Long story short, an 18 is no longer the pinnacle of human(oid) achievement, so you might have to change up the numbers for NPCs a bit to ensure that their desired traits reflect how they act in play.  The Pathfinder SRD has a good sample list of ability score traits and corresponding monsters to sample values.

Let Go of the Sacred Cows: 'Player Skill'

Every character has skills in Pathfinder, traits which determine proficiency in certain actions and occupations.  From Acrobatics to Intimidate, they provide avenues which can help give a PC a much-needed push at a certain task.  The paladin's player may not be good at crafting speeches, but his +12 to Diplomacy guarantees a positive reaction from most people who don't wish him ill will.  A thief might find out about the Lost Era of Malgoniva by stumbling upon some ancient tomes, or he might gain similar or additional information with a high enough roll on Knowledge (History).  Used properly, the skill system adds another facet to the game by granting access to new opportunities for exploration.

If you're writing an adventure, impose a DC (or Dice Challenge) as a target number for actions of particular risk.  This is most common in exploration and non-combat sections.  The skill system curve is wonky and doesn't always scale evenly, but if it would pose a challenge to a professional in the field or a mighty task for a novice, it should probably have a DC.

Let Go of the Sacred Cows: Priceless Magic Items

From Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

Pathfinder not only allows for magic items (at least the less-powerful, non-artifact ones) to be bought, sold, and crafted by PCs, the constructs of the game mechanics make assumptions that adventuring parties will have access to equipment in line with their power level within reason for combat encounters.  At higher levels fighters should have magic swords and armor, rogues wondrous items which help them out with stealth and skills, et cetera.  The higher the level, the more likely it is that monsters and encounters will contain elements requiring spells and magic items to bypass, so an under-equipped party will suffer greatly.  There are still magic items which are unique and one of a kind (or so expensive that they aren't sold on the open market), but most can be conceivably bought or crafted with materials of a certain value.  The concept of an adventuring party convincing an eccentric antiquarian to part with a rare blade for gems and coin is something which can not only happen in a Pathfinder campaign, it is expected in many adventures and games.

Although not explicitly stated, the Big Six in particular of prime importance to high-level characters: magic weapon, magic armor and shield, ring of protection, cloak of resistance, amulet of natural armor, and ability score boosters provide much-needed boosts to PC abilities.

If you're writing an adventure, consult the wealth-by-level guidelines and ensure that the treasure awarded is not too sparse (yet not too generous) to allow for a reasonable degree of challenge.

This SRD page has a list of character wealth by level measured in gold pieces.

If the buying and replacing of magic items goes against the mood and theme of your sourcebook, consider checking out the rules for Scaling Magic Items in Pathfinder Unchained.  One Bling to Rule Them All: Scaling Magic Items and The Genius Guide to Relics of the Godlings both have their own rules for magical treasures which increase in power as the PCs level.  Granting the static bonuses of the Big Six items as inherent character traits will do well to increase the party's survival rate.

Your World's Foundations: Race, Class, and what it means to be a Halfling Cleric in a realm of Tiefling Magi and Elven Oracles

My Daughter's Tiefling by Uncannyknack of Deviantart

Many OSR games tend to be light on setting lore and detail, acting more as a toolbox with some well-recognized fantasy tropes for further development.  Even then there's a solid foundation of Basic D&D traditions permeating the most popular retroclones.  Clerics are forbidden from using edged weapons, only elves and humans can master the workings of spells (at least on the PC side of things), and magic items cannot be bought and sold for mere gold on the open market.

In general terms, OSR games are more restrictive than Pathfinder in terms of what races and classes can do.  Although there are hints of this in more modern editions, they tend to be more stereotypes than hard-fixed facets.  With some very rare exceptions, there are no banned classes for races for PC use.  Even certain cultural taboos and traditions will not be mechanical restrictions, instead pitting such examples as rebels and exiles with a backstory for why they bucked their peoples' way of life.  Race and class are separate in Pathfinder, and while some excel more at certain professions (halflings make better stealth-focused characters than melee ones), race is more of an add-on than a core component of how your PC plays.

Let's take dwarves, for example.  In OSR, they're a class of their own focused on martial expertise  with no magical abilities.  Perhaps their lack of magic is due to an inherited trait (which might explain their saving throw bonus vs. spells).  Perhaps the few mages they have are so rare they're hidden from the general public due to their valued talents.  Either way, a magic-using dwarf isn't possible without some GM intervention and the creation/remodeling of an existing class.

In Pathfinder, a dwarven cleric or wizard is not just possible, they can actually excel at the role.  Virtually every sapient civilization has a patron deity or pantheon, and for a race to be exceedingly rare and poor at a given class is more represented with ability score penalties than outright bans.  One of Pathfinder's primary strengths is the versatility of character options, and restrictions are exceptions to the rule which require explanation for why this is so in your world.  The classes of later Paizo releases such as Alchemist, Magus, and Summoner are just as as popular as the iconic core options.  Not just official material, but a select assortment of third-party books are popular choices such as Dreamscarred Press' psionic options.  In short, adventuring parties who want to play in your sandbox are going to be a more diverse bunch than what you're ordinarily familiar with at OSR tables.

Option One, Preserve the Old Ways: I do not recommend this option for several reasons.  Now that any race can select virtually any class, humans gain more skill points and a bonus feat in exchange for the loss of their unique status as "jack-of-all-trades."  If you ban dwarves and halflings from utilizing magic and restrict them to a scant few classes, everyone's going to be picking human and elf PCs.  Unless you have a bevy of new racially-exclusive classes to make up for this, you're going to get people asking why they should play a Halfling Rogue when they can be an Elven Wizard specializing in Illusion spells with some ranks in Disable Device and Stealth (or something along those lines).

The truth of the matter is that Pathfinder is very, very friendly to spellcasters, while being very restrictive on martial archetypes.  A few Paizo designers earned some notoriety for wanting to limit Fighters and Monks to real-world physics in a game where PC wizards can potentially create their own demi-planes or gain 24-hour flight among many, many other things.

Option Two, Allow Concessions: Maybe you have an intriguing setting reason for why dwarves cannot manifest magic, or why the gods only chose humans to manifest their will in the world.  If you're a good enough writer, and can give some unique toys for the restricted races to play around with to make up for it, it's possible that it will be overlooked in favor of a cool campaign.  But this actually takes more work and thought on your part: given that the majority of Pathfinder classes grant some form of spellcasting, you might want to apply a lighter touch.  Perhaps dwarves cannot manifest the bloodline powers of sorcery or comprehend the arcane runes of wizard's spellbooks, but maybe they're exemplary alchemists and pray to the spirits of the earth for divine aid.  Halflings might be a forsaken, godless people, but they come from an esteemed line of illusionists and elemental manipulators.

If you restrict a few classes, do the ones in line with their weaknesses (wizardry to orcs, sorcery for dwarves, etc), and give them a few exclusive feats for the classes they excel at to make them skilled in their preferred professions.  Dwarves might be able to gain feats which allow them to craft alchemical items more cheaply; maybe they can infuse adamantine plating into weapons after they're created to allow for equipment customization.  People react more positively to what appears to be a "gift exchange" rather than a blanket ban.

Option Three, Embrace Diversity: Tolkien was an exemplary writer and world-builder, but dwarves, elves, hobbits, and men are not the end-all be all of fantasy.  Unless your OSR book has detailed setting lore and a unified plan for the races of the world, it probably has enough forlorn corners and distant lands to host an array of catfolk, tieflings, and dragon-blooded to accommodate such PCs.  It might be tempting to have the more 'exotic' races be treated with fear and contempt in order to preserve a humanocentric feel, but keep in mind that familiarity breeds contempt.  A catfolk who comes into a realm with a history of wars with goblins might generate worried glances, but they might be left alone if a PC in good standing with the community speaks on their behalf or have a benevolent service.  There is fear of the unknown, but locals will not have generations of superstitious fables and veterans displaying battle scars to draw from, unlike the goblins.  If your setting is a trade hub, magical nexus point, or center of learning, it may be more readily able to accept the unknown (at least until said unknown factors prove a demonstrable danger).

Secondly, there is a lot of modern fantasy novels, televisions, and video games which posit all kinds of sapient races.  Snake-like nagas, adorable moogle-like animals, and even elusive faeries will not be regarded as so exotic to modern gamers that they can't connect with your setting.

Advice: Pathfinder Players Love Crunch

Pathfinder RPG Promotional Material

Every so often you might see some folk on the Paizo message boards worrying about their favored RPG getting too bloated, or considering a return to core-only games, but the truth of the matter is that the huge array of supplements has not worn down the fanbase's love for the game.  One of the best-selling products on Drive-Thru RPG, the Midgard Campaign Setting, is a truly beautiful and unique world, but a fair portion of its setting pitch waxes praise on new cleric domains, equipment, background options, etc.  The supplements for Ponyfinder, another popular setting, frequently achieve hottest-selling status for a few weeks on OneBookShelf when they're published.  Ultimate Psionics, Book of Monster Templates, In the Company of Dragons, and other option-based sourcebooks compete with adventure and setting products for best-sellers.

There are a few good sourcebooks which provide mostly familiar material, and those can sell well if they help cut down on GM prep time, but a particular thrill of getting a new Pathfinder book is finding material that one can apply to their own home games.  One could cut up individual adventure seeds and dungeon levels and achieve the same effect, but a dungeon which has a new set of themed spells, a setting with a flavorful race, or new archetypes for a class ensure that the book finds use beyond that one world.  For example, Midgard has an archetype to make clerics truly polytheist, able to switch around patron deities on a weekly basis; this is an archetype very common in literature and real-world cultures, and is otherwise quite rare in D&D settings.

If your OSR sourcebook has an unorthodox idea, such as a secret society of cultists who call upon a deity hidden deep within the Plane of Shadows, grant them an array of darkness-themed spells.  Do merchants in your setting sell rare hallucinogens which help bolster the spells of mages?  Turn them into new consumable magic items!  It helps make your own fictional world more unique and provides new material; what's not to love?

Advice: Outsourcing Work and Reviews

If you're new to Pathfinder, you have two choices: continually play the RPG until you can grasp the rules system intuitively, or outsource your work to a writer experienced with the system.  Coming into a new RPG and expecting it to play just like your familiar favorite is going to blind you to a lot of variables.  The initial playtesters for 3rd Edition committed this folly by playing the game like 2nd Edition, missing entire sections of spells and feats which fundamentally changed how classes were played.

Paizo has a Freelancer Open Call thread for third party publishers.  The Pathfinder subreddit has a lot of members who can help answer questions about the game.  Although they're not as fond of 3rd Edition's spiritual sequel, the folks at Min-Max Boards have years' worth of experience of actual play and rules analysis of D20 D&D; they can help judge if your product's too out of whack in the rules department.  GiantITP has a vibrant D20 community as well.  The designers at Dreamscarred Press are the gold standard for quality design, so you might consider approaching them for help or look to their material and design notes for inspiration.

Once you polish your work and have it ready to be sold, you're going to need exposure.  Unlike the OSR's thousand-something catalog on OneBookShelf, third-party Pathfinder is home to four-thousand and counting, about a third of them shovelware worth two dollars or less and only a few pages long.  Products promising new spells and feats are a dime a dozen, so unless you have an inbuilt fanbase, eye-catching artwork, or a nifty sales pitch and willingness to advertise it everywhere, you're going to get lost in a sea of sourcebooks.

However, there is hope.  Actual settings for Pathfinder are few and far between, so this is a relatively untapped market.  Endzeitgeist is the most renowned Pathfinder reviewer out there, and a review from him can help give your work some much-needed exposure.  However, there's no guarantee of a good review should he accept your submission letter, and the same applies to Paizo reviews as well.  I understand that some websites scratch out negative reviews, or that in some circles reviewers feel obligated to leave a positive score if they receive a complimentary copy, but this horse-trading is far from universal in Pathfinder.  Hopefully you have enough pride in your work for it to stand on its own merits.  By all means favor constructive criticism, but don't be shocked if people hand out one and two stars reviews due to dissatisfaction with your work.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope that this post proves useful to self-publishers wishing to follow in the footsteps of Frog God Games and their ilk in designing multi-system gaming material.  In the future I might cover more specific areas of system difference, or even compare and contrast OSR and Pathfinder versions of multi-system sourcebooks should I ever save up the money for them.  To those community designers wishing to expand their love of the game to outside fandoms, I wish you the best in your efforts!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Brainstorming: Monotheism in a D&D World

Taiia from Deities & Demigods

An interesting aspect of fantasy literature is the use of a creator deity.  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series did not overtly state their world’s cosmology, but there were implications of a single god responsible for the creation and oversight of reality.  This is not a surprise as both men were very religious Christians.  Deliberate or not, it’s quite common for a writer’s personal beliefs and experiences to feature in their work.

There is a lot of appeal to polytheist settings, in part because multiple deities offer a lot of variety for players and thus more potential character concepts for Cleric PCs.  But in recent days I’ve wondered about ways of creating a monotheist D&D setting which does not simply replicate the Abrahamic God.  The goal of this is not to create a religion which demands only worship of one deity or who believes in one deity, but a setting cosmology where the existence of but one deity is an objective truth.  Even in settings where one entity is responsible for the creation of reality itself (Ao from Forgotten Realms or the High God of Dragonlance), such “overdeities” are often distant figures who are not worshiped.

True Monotheism vs. Monolatrism and Dualism

Many campaign settings for Dungeons & Dragons attempt to go the polytheist route, but this doesn't always feel genuine.  As mentioned in my earlier Pantheist Priest post, true polytheism is rare.  A lot of fictional religious traditions acknowledge the existence of multiple deities but clerics and mortal populations choose to honor one.  This practice is actually monolatrism, for monotheism is both the belief and worship of one deity.  There is also the case of dualism where both divinities are equally strong and divine.  While Christiantiy and Islam have a Satanic figure and enemy of God, his power and wisdom is but a fraction of the true Abrahamic deity.

In some rare cases there are deities (such as Lolth of the Forgotten Realms) who keep their followers in the dark about the existence of other gods and goddesses so that they can consolidate their power base.  This is a more accurately monotheist, but it is often a constructed lie which flies in the face of cosmological evidence in the campaign setting.  In this case, the setting is still polytheist and monotheism is objectively false.

Nature Spirits, Demonic Cults, and the Granting of Spells

Oath of Druids by Daren Bader

In some settings divine magic can come from non-godly sources.  Druids draw their power from nature itself, while demon lords and archdevils can grant spells to mortal followers despite not being true gods.  While most D&D settings have divine spells as an essential part of deity worship, in a monotheist setting this may not necessarily be the case.  Below are a list of options for one to use in a monotheist setting.

Option One, Lesser Servitors and Patrons: A monotheist deity may act through divine intermediaries such as angels and saints to commune with the faithful.  Perhaps the One God’s wisdom is too great for any mortal mind to handle, so they instill an infinitesimal fraction of their essence into numerous servants to carry to the mortal realm.

Or maybe so-called “divine” spells are merely a powerful entity sharing its gifts with another; a powerful dragon or nature spirit may be able to instill spells, but they are not gods because they can fall prey to the vices of arrogance and short-sightedness.  They are merely children of the One God, like everything else in the universe.

Option Two, Stealing the Gift: An individual’s communion with the One God results in holy gifts in the form of spells, meant only for the most virtuous of servants.  Demons, devils, and false prophets might have found a way to tap into this universal consciousness of divinity and take the spells which rightfully belong to the One God.

This is an especially vile form of spellcasting, for it allows otherwise good men and women to be tricked into following selfish and wicked folk who wield divine magic as “proof” of the One God’s favor.

Option Three, the Nature of Magic: Arcane magic is ill-described in most settings as-is.  It is an irreligious form of spellcasting which comes about via study or a supernatural entity in one's ancestral bloodline.  Christianity and Islam (I cannot say for sure about Judaism) posit magic as a negative force granted by demons, evil spirits, and the like.  One could go this route, although in this case this can be very restrictive on party dynamics if clerics and mages are expected to be mortal enemies.

The Adversary

Eye of Sauron from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings

As a monotheistic setting requires an unorthodox reworking of the cosmology, this raises the ever-important question of the deity's status and why evil occurs.  The true god might be equivalent to a wise parental figure who seeks to guide mortal kind to greater awareness and prosperity.  In many cultures the presence of evil is caused by a fallen figure, a malevolent force which seeks to lead the righteous away from the oneness of God.

Or perhaps the deity is entirely beyond morality, equivalent to a force of nature of the cosmos which simply is.  That very same deity might have multi-faceted personalities, the creator and the destroyer, bringer of harvests and plagues.  Different cultures might worship and prize different aspects as befits their circumstances.  In a way it is similar to druids who revere different aspects of nature, or religious denominations who share certain core assumptions but differ on several key issues.

Or a potential idea is that the deity is actually malevolent, a cruel tyrant who cares more for loyalty above all and will inflict a host of plagues upon nonbelievers.  This is more common in some Japanese Role-Playing Games, where the mortal priesthood is not just corrupt but the creator of the world itself is a tyrant who the heroes must destroy or seal away.  This Game Theory video has a good article on Final Fantasy's religious symbolism.  Such a campaign is the most unorthodox one, as it puts heroic PCs against the power structure of not just established religious orders but the cosmology itself.

Going for a classic fantasy trope of good vs. evil is a ready-made trope common in fantasy media as well as our own culture.  But making the leader and/or originator of evil a deity or equivalent power would make the cosmology a dualistic one instead of a monotheistic one.  If the monotheistic deity is truly good, why does she/he not vanish evil from the world?  Is the creator omnipotent and/or omniscient?  Why are mortal heroes and good-aligned outsiders relied upon as intermediaries?

As these very questions have yet to be answered in a satisfactory manner in the real world and spawned centuries of debates among philosophers and theologians, you don't need to concoct an answer in your own campaign immediately.

Monotheism for Pathfinder

The 3rd Edition book Deities & Demigods had an entry on designing a monotheist cosmology for D&D.  It also contained the sample deity Taiia, a universal entity of creation and destruction with major denominations honoring different aspects (and thus a different set of domains).  The guidelines were that a monotheist deity should have at least 20 domains, which at the time there were 22 domains total in the Player's Handbook.  In Pathfinder's Core Rulebook, that number has almost doubled to 35 domains!  This is not including the myriad new domains provided in supplements for either game.

As the vast majority of domains govern aspects of the world (artifice, fire, war, etc) with only a few specifically devoted to morality (chaos, evil, good, law), one should allow Clerics to pick 2 domains of their choice as a sufficient option.  A Cleric with Chaos and Liberation might be drawing upon the One God's teachings of overthrowing tyranny and fighting unjust social structures, while another Cleric of that same deity derives inspiration from Artifice and Fire to build great creations and temples.  Evil, Madness, and Void might be a little too macabre for a "fair and just" deity of light, but otherwise 32 domains is more than enough for most character concepts.

Further Reading

This idea has been bandied about before, so here's a list of articles and threads:

Although it's purely in the idea stage, I'm also hard at work on writing up a sample monotheist fantasy setting.  I might explore it in future blog posts if this one generates enough interest.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Anime Review: Nadia the Secret of Blue Water

Back in 1990, the landscape of anime and its Western fandom was quite different than it was now. Although shows such as Astro Boy had a following in the United States as far back as the 60s, it wasn't until this decade that the terms entered into a gradual awareness in the common knowledge; before this, such shows were dubbed "Japanimation."  Without the modern conveniences of online file-sharing and the like, shows were held to higher standards in order to make it to Western shores due to the risks of cost.  Even then, the popularization of home videos enacted a sort of revolution in the access of anime to fans.  In both Japan and America, Nadia: the Secret of Blue Water proved to be a very popular series.

Directed by the same man behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, Secret of Blue Water is heavily inspired by Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Set in the year 1889, the story opens up at the Paris World's Fair, where the young inventor Jean Rocque Raltique meets the wandering circus performer Nadia.  Bearing a mysterious blue jewel coveted by the villainous Grandis gang, Jean utilizes his prototype airplane meant to be entered into the Fair's contest, helping her escape and and beginning their journey beyond the comfy confines of France.

Captain Nemo with First Mate Electra in the Nautilus' command room

It's not long in their travels that there's more to Nadia's jewel, the Blue Water, and Jean and Nadia run into Captain Nemo of the Nautilus submarine.  It turns out that the supposed sea monsters sinking ships across the Atlantic are other submersibles.  A masked figure with access to technology beyond the confines of the era, these "Neo Atlanteans" enslaved a population of native islanders to build factories, and their leader Gargoyle is building a weapon of great destruction for unknown yet undoubtedly nefarious ends.  After escaping from his island fortress, Jean and Nadia find out that Captain Nemo's on a mission to take down Gargoyle's Neo Atlanteans.

Like most of Hideaki Anno's other works, Secret of Blue Water is strongly character-focused.  While there's plenty of room for action and adventure, the little slice-of-life moments develop the personalities of even minor characters and crew members of the Nautilus.  In spite of there being 8+ regular recurring characters on the ship, they all have developed personalities and rarely fade into the background for too long, which speaks to the writers' accomplishment in story-telling to manage such a large group.  I especially loved the transition of the Grandis Gang, who began as early Team Rocket-like antagonists, but eventually became friendly rivals and genuine friends of Jean and Nadia.  The places the Nautilus' crew visits, from an ancient series of caves under the South Pole to the ruins of Atlantis, are not just pretty places to "ooh" and "ah" at but often contain elements which further shape the narrative.

Nadia, upon seeing a "pile of dead bodies" (or fish ready for dinner)

Another aspect of the show I liked was Nadia's vegetarian status, and this is most likely a bias on my part due to being on a meat-free diet myself.  Many folk found her to be rather zealous in this regard; although during the Island Arc I have to agree that it's taken to an unreasonable extreme, I overall found her reasoning to be understandable and sympathetic.  As one raised in a traveling circus and possessing a self-professed ability to speak to animals, Nadia has a keener insight into their minds.  She can intuitively understand what her pet baby lion King wants or says at any given moment.  As many a dog or cat-owner can attest, it's normal for us humans to develop a bond with creatures we care for and raise; imagine what new dimension communication would add to the relationship.  Can you really blame Nadia, then, when she can only views meat as carcasses and angrily refuses to partake in such meals at the repeated behest of other characters?

The musical soundtrack is superb and full of memorable melodies, and in keeping with the spirit of adventure the show focuses on the crews' exploration of wondrous maritime islands and fantastic locales in between dealing with Gargoyles' machinations.  Sadly the show takes a dive around the infamous "Island" and "Africa" arcs, where Anno temporarily lost control of his own show and the writing and animation team was given over to other hands.  The majority of the intervening material can be safely skipped without losing much in the plot (although I recommend you at least see Episodes 30 and 31 which have genuinely heart-touching moments), although in spite of this the bright moments of the show outweigh this dip in quality.

I highly recommend watching Nadia if you're a fan of anime in general, steampunk science fantasy elements, and enjoy shows with nice evocative music and characters you can grow to love.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hit Points: Blood & Guts vs. Action Movie

Footage from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

A lesser-known yet still much-debated aspect of the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset is what hit points are supposed to represent.  After briefly talking about this on my Twitter and some Something Awful forum posts I decided to blog about it, namely the two most common interpretations I spot among player groups.

Blood & Guts: In this model, hit points primarily represent actual physical harm suffered by a character.  Fighters, barbarians, etc have more hit points than mages not just due to fitness but because they're overall portrayed as bigger and stronger.  The fact that large monsters such as dragons and giants have greater-than-average amounts reinforces this paradigm.  Even a large fellow with a high Strength but low Constitution might have a low pain threshold or be afflicted with ailments hindering their ability to fight.

Action Movie: In many shoot-em-up thrillers, it's common for the hero to get beaten up and bruised but manage to largely avoid grievous harm.  Through a combination of quick reflexes, luck, and sheer willpower they push on through where most people would have given up and succumbed to pain and exhaustion.  Even if the star of the show is supposedly a "normal person" in a world without superpowers, their very survival is nothing short of miraculous.  In D&D games with this model, hit points represent not just the physical realm, but a combination of mental fortitude and lucky dodges.  Losing hit points thus represents exhaustion and loss of focus as well as injury.

Sounds all well and good.  Is there a problem?

Both structures have their place, but where it becomes problematic is when gaming groups and individual players develop different expectations.  Such discussions are not unlike alignment debates and arguments in their passion.  During the time of 4th Edition many folks thought that the idea of a Warlord "shouting wounds closed" was a ridiculous suspension of disbelief, when in reality the class' inspiring words restored the will to fight in their comrades so that they can press onward through the dungeon.  A similar thing happened during the 5th Edition playtest, when Fighters had a feature which allowed them to still inflict some damage on a missed roll.  Many gamers were so incensed at this that the moderators at EN World had to create a separate subforum solely dedicated to that class feature to act as a containment section.  That way the complainers wouldn't restart the arguments anew in every single thread.

I think that the major problem is a lack of communication in game design on the part of the creators, and to a lesser extent the suspension of disbelief when it comes to non-magical classes and their healing capabilities.  1st Edition D&D is actually a good example on developer commentary helping inform the experience: Gygax explained that hit points were a combination of health, luck of the gods, willpower, and other factors.  If it was solely relegated to physical injury and size, then a high-level Fighter would be able to suffer more blood loss than horses and ogres, which to him seemed silly and ridiculous.  Compare this to 3rd Edition, which is more vague: "Hit points mean two things in the game world: the ability to take physical punishment and keep going, and the ability to turn a serious blow into a less serious one."  The former part suggests the blood and guts routine with some willpower thrown in, although the latter can be reasonably interpreted either way.  Is turning a blow into a less serious one represent half-dodging out of the way, or more akin to taking it but shrugging it off?

Does D&D better reflect one or the other?

That probably depends on the Edition, but in my views and experience I'm going to have to side with the action movie interpretation.  Characters who gain levels aren't necessarily packing on additional mass every time they roll a Hit Die, and allowing for hit points to represent a variety of staying power fits better into the games with less house rules and complications. If hit points represented the sole province of injury and were presented as such in the game mechanics, then at some point they're going to cap for human-sized characters; one only has so many liters of blood and internal organs.  Blood and guts can potentially be done, especially for grittier games, but it will take more work to implement.