Friday, December 9, 2011

Languages in D&D

I mentioned in my last post that languages in Rogues and Reavers deserve their own write-up. Here it is.

In the standard version of D&D, there are a huge number of languages: Common, Dwarven, Elven, Goblinoid, Giant, etc. Published campaign settings often add even more languages, one for every ethnicity and nation, living or dead. I'm dubious about the value of this linguistic variety. It is certainly realistic, but I don't believe it creates better gameplay.

First, it often prevents negotiation with monsters. If no one in the party speaks Orcish, they can't parley effectively with the baddies. Second, it acts as a blockade for exposition when they're listening in to a conversation or reading a scroll. No one speaks Flumphic? Too bad that you can't hear their diabolical plans.

Yet, there are times that not knowing the language can be an interesting bit of roleplaying. Early in A Princess of Mars, John Carter must communicate with the Tharks through sign language. Discovering the mysterious ruins of an ancient past can lead to speculation about what their strange markings mean, giving the players an excuse to visit the local sage. The classic pulp literary example here would be At the Mountains of Madness. 

Despite the language barrier being an intriguing plot point, both Burroughs and Lovecraft quickly become bored with this obstacle, and their heroes quickly master the foreign tongue. I think this is the right way to go about it - players may not be able to understand the language of strange creatures or cultures intially, but it is a problem they can quickly and easily overcome. That way, you can preserve the mystery of a foreign people while preventing it from becoming a frustrating roadblock for the PCs.

For my game, most creatures and cultures will have adopted some sort of universal "Esperanto", but especially alien beings and truly ancient civilizations may have their own unique languages. In other words, other tongues will only come up when it could prove to be interesting. With that in mind, I'll allow a chance to learn one of these rare foreign tongues in character creation, but it won't be anywhere as necessary as it is in a standard game of D&D.

How does a PC learn a foreign language, then? My first idea was to give players the opportunity to pick up a language when they level, but I can foresee problems with this method. If the players finish a scenario featuring a savage language and then spend resources researching said tongue only to never have the topic revisited again, they're going to feel jipped, and rightfully so. One answer would be "don't introduce a foreign language unless you've going to use it with some frequency", but there is an inelegance to that solution that doesn't please me.

Another way to handle this problem is to give an in-game period of study time necessary to pick up the foreign tongue. There is a distinct advantage to this method, in which the need to understand said language is dictated by how much 'on screen' time that is afforded the people who employ it. So, if the crypt of the ancients is a three-room lair or the degenerate morlocks from out of time only fill a single room in a dungeon complex, and I have no intent to dwell on them again, there is not a large enough 'sample' to decipher the language. What I'm clearly indicating here in doing so is that 'this does not matter, move on.' However, if the degenerates from elder days are being released from their hibernation pods across the continent and working to restore their lost city of 10,000 unspeakable idols, the language is important and the players will be able to learn their sinister dialect.

If we settle on a progressive linguistics that is learned through exposure, a couple question arise. First, how long should it take to learn the language and second, should the PCs have an incomplete understanding that grows with time or should they grasp it at once?

Going back to the literary sources, John Carter masters the martian tongue in a week. Burroughs provides a reason for this: martian telepathy, along with a simple verbal language. William Dyer (in At the Mountains of Madness) begins deciphering the symbols of the Old Ones in a single day, although he notes that much was inferred, but it was deciphered in detail since their return (in which no date is supplied, although the text was written in 1931 and the adventure takes place in 1930, indicating a year passed). Using these as "benchmarks", a week of observation and instruction would teach someone to speak a new language, while a written language will give hints upon initial observation, but will take a year of dedicated study to master, requiring the use of a scribe in the short-term. I suspect that the effect in play will be a reliance on scribes to decipher old texts and an increase in captives taken to learn the spoken tongue of foreign people.

Looking at the excellent Chaosium mega-adventure Beyond the Mountains of Madness, it handles translating the script of the Old Ones with a rather fast-paced skill mechanic. Some clues in the text found are easier to gather than others, and every time a piece of text is decrypted there is a chance for a skill increase. In relatively short order, the players will have a good chance of being able to understand many of the concepts presented to them. This is based on the INT score from Call of Cthulhu, with higher multipliers for easier clues. Mimicking this system, I'm currently thinking of using the following formula:

Base chance to gain a clue from an ancient text or from a conversation: 1 in 1d6

Some concepts are easier to decipher than others, increasing chances to 1-2 in 1d6 or 1-3 in 1d6.

After three clues have been gathered, the chances increase by 1, i.e. 1 in 1d6 becomes 1-2 in 1d6, 1-2 in 1d6 becomes 1-3 in 1d6, etc. This continues until the character has mastery in the skill (1 in 1d6 becomes 1-6 in 1d6).

On the character sheet this would be reflected as Languages: Old Ones +1.

Although a 1 in 6 chance seems fairly low, as every member of the party will be attempting to decipher the script the odds increase fairly quickly. With four players, the probability for success is 52%. Not too shabby, if I say so. With a roll of 1-2 the odds increase to 80%, and with 1-3 we move up to a staggering 93%.

I'm of two minds about this system. Here are the positives and negatives that I can think of:


1. It reflects a growing understanding, with the PCs quickly grasping simple concepts at first, and soon thereafter learning complex and abstract ideas.

2. Likewise, the subsystem builds a mystery element directly into the act of translation, where more information is revealed over time, doling out clues with an ever-greater regularity as their skill increases.


1. Yet another thing to track on the character sheet and another mechanic to memorize. Too much of this stuff bogs down a game.

2. Clues may not be distributed when they are important. Although you can provide multiple opportunities for discovering the same clue, with deciphering the script only being one method,

Another method I stumbled across recently, in the Indiana Jones Judges Survival Book, is intriguing. In that, they suggest a mini-game where players are handed a "key" and a piece of text which they must decipher by hand. I've seen something similar in kids' activity books, and it has a certain charm, but I imagine it would bog down play if employed too often. Perhaps, should the players fail the roll above, they're given a second chance to decipher the script if they do it by hand? That way, if the players enjoy cracking this sort of puzzle, they can choose to do so. If not, they simply move on.

The problem with this system is a question of time. Requiring the DM to write down foreign characters by hand in case they are needed is a lot of extraneous work. There are a couple shortcuts that come to mind:

1. High-Tech: There are a number of "translators" for Mayan, Cuneiform, and the like of varying quality on the internet, as well as fonts that mimic these ancient languages. These require up-front prep on the part of the DM, but once found would require little work, although they could prove to be a drain on the ink cartridge.

2. Low-Tech: Alternatively, one could find a suitable alphabet, cut out individual characters, and laminate them. When a message needs to be translated, the DM could pull out the needed characters and arrange them on the table for the players to puzzle out. This would allow more improv on the DM's part, but it would be a bear to set up and could eat up a lot of table time.

In the end, I'm not sure if translations of this sort would be worth the hassle. I think it's an interesting enough idea to be worth trying, but we'll see if it ends up being cut in the crucible of playtesting.

Variety and Encounter Types

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. Nowhere is this more true than in roleplaying games. If there is one thing that makes them truly unique, it is that no other entertainment will challenge the players on so many levels.

... Or, at least, that's how it used to be. I'm about to cover some well-trod ground, but I believe it bears repeating: RPGs are not games of tactical combat, or storytelling, or improv acting, or complex problem-solving. Instead, they are all these things and more.

Robin Laws, in his Guide to Good Gamemastering, talks extensively about different player "types", and how the referee should try to appeal to each of them. This is true, to an extent, but I've never met a player who doesn't enjoy each type of play to a certain degree and their enjoyment of each type will vary from one moment to the next. It is important, then, to provide players with opportunities to engage in different "styles" of encounters that the players can choose to pursue at their leisure. Even more elegant are encounters that layer these types, presenting a range of options to solve the problem therein. The most obvious version of this is humanoid encounters, which can become opportunities for combat, negotiation, or stealth.

What are the "styles" of encounters, then? Here's a list I've compiled for consideration when designing adventures. This is a rough guide, and I welcome any suggestions that you may have:

1. Combat: One of the most popular forms of play, the excitement and adventure of life-or-death conflict has been a draw since the beginning, owing to our wargaming roots. That said, I do believe that combat can be overemphasized, and the current iterations of D&D, where fights literally take hours to resolve, steal the blood and thunder of the struggle as tension cannot be maintained over such an extended period of time.

2 Negotiation: Although you could create a broad category of "roleplaying", there are different types of social encounters that require different skill sets, so I'll be handling them separately. The first is negotiation. Whether this be outwitting a tribe of ogres to pass through their territory, haggling with a street vendor for a good price on the statue you've recovered, or cajoling a witness into describing the crime they saw, the core of these incidents is that the players are attempting to convince someone to perform an action that they are reticent about, or vice versa. The onus lies on the players to overcome these reservations and find a solution that will please both parties.

3. Exploration: RPGs, in large part, are a travelogue. Visiting strange places, meeting new people, and the like is a huge draw. Exploration can include wandering the wilderness or the stars to see what's over that next hill (or in the next dimension!), experimenting with alien artifacts or the Deck of Many Things, or simply pressing buttons to see what they do - as Jim Raggi so eloquently put it, toybox elements.

4. Mystery: The correlating of clues is one of the core activities of roleplaying games. I'm not talking about evidence gathering, per se, as that is accomplished through negotiation and exploration, but rather what the players do with that information. Using the evidence that the players have before them, theories are developed and tested. If those theories are incomplete, the players will often rely on the previous two types of play to prove or disprove their arguments. This can be as simple as puzzling out a treasure map or as complex as an Agatha Christie whodunnit, but it will appear in every game you run.

5. Running & Sneaking: Perhaps better stated as 'avoid detection', horror games understand the simple joy of hide and seek, where players attempt to avoid or escape foes that they cannot handle. Once a major facet of D&D, modern versions of the game have de-emphasized this aspect of the game, an unintended consequence of EL/CR. Yet, fearfully creeping past or fleeing from monsters is a core component of the experience. To my mind, it is of utmost importance that this style be restored to prominence.

6. Resource Management: While some people find the bookkeeping aspects of the game tedious, preferring to avoid tracking food, encumbrance, experience and gold, I think these are an important part of the overall experience. Early in a campaign (or whenever the players are broke), food is of critical importance - the PCs may very well starve to death if they prove too cautious, and that drives them to go out adventuring. The fear of starvation becomes very real, and emphasizes the desperation of adventuring. Food also sets a time limit on delves, as the PCs will find their rations running out. This gives them an excuse to return to civilization, providing greater variety in locales. Likewise, encumbrance doesn't interest me for the realism, but rather because it forces PCs to make tough choices about what to carry. Finally, experience and gold are important because they create desire in the players - it is the waiting that makes it so sweet, and when the players are just short of buying that war wagon or hitting 4th level, their lust increases to a fever pitch. These aspects of game may slow the pace, but their benefits are too great, to my mind, to just throw away.

7. Problem-Solving: All of the previous entries could be folded into this category, but instead I'll be dealing with three types of 'pure' problem-solving exercises: terrain, traps, and puzzles.

7A. Terrain: How do we get across this chasm? How do we reach the City at the Bottom of the Sea? How do we get this giant hoard across the Desert of Shattered Glass with only one donkey? D&D can be viewed as an obstacle course, as the terrain itself is often one of the greatest challenges. This invites creative, open-ended problem solving on the part of the players, who often seek to circumvent these obstructions or use them to their advantage. Along with resource management, terrain makes the game a question of logistics.

7B. Traps: Much like terrain, traps are exercises in creative problem solving, but have fallen out of favor in current versions of D&D. Discouraged by design, unlike EL/CR this was not an unintended consequence but rather a choice - players would feel frustrated by their inability to think around the problem, and therefore the designers decided to please those players. Removing those problems to acquiesce to player complaints misses the very point of the game, hedging closer to masturbatory fan fiction.

7C. Puzzles & Riddles:Unlike terrain and traps, puzzles and riddles often are binary in nature - there is a right answer, and all others are wrong. As such, I can understand why these have fallen out of favor. Yet, as someone smarter than I pointed out, the weakness in design is not the introduction of these elements, but the dependence on them. If a puzzle or riddle blocks the only door through the dungeon which will lead to the 'win' conditions, it can be an exercise in frustration. If, on the other hand, a puzzle or riddle is employed for a vault holding an especially tasty bit of treasure that is secondary to the overall goals, or a door which would provide a shortcut through a tough section of dungeon, players who overcome this challenge are rewarded, while other groups are inconvenienced, rather than blockaded altogether.

8. Interpersonal Conflict: Robin Laws points out in his book Hamlet's Hit Points that stories are a mix of procedural (problem solving) and dramatic (interpersonal/emotional) elements, and while RPGs have handled the former quite well, few even discuss the latter at all. I have found this to be true, for the most part, but I have yet to find a system that models dramatic conflict well in RPGs. The problem, in the main, is that such systems either restrict or force action, and players buck these artificial constraints on their choices. Rather, a game should encourage dramatic choices. I have some ideas about this, which I'll discuss further down the line, but I'd love to hear any feedback from you.

What does all of this have to do with Rogues & Reavers? As you can see, there are a number of very different games nested within D&D, and yet modern designers assume that a single, unified ruleset is the best solution for every problem. I can understand the desire for simplicity, and that is certainly a goal of mine, but the madness in the quest for a single, unified ruleset has, to my mind, done little to increase the playability of these games we love so much.

Instead, I will endeavor to provide the right rule for the right circumstance, with a need to tie everything together. While I have a simple 'core' mechanic that can take care of many situations which will arise, it is not the sole mechanic, but rather the most commonly used system. Other sub-systems, or mini-games, will be introduced when appropriate.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My Temptestous Relationship With "Fantasy"

As a younger man, I held fantasy fiction in disdain. Although I had an endless love for Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, growing up in the '80s shaped my understanding of what fantasy was comprised of: Piers Anthony, Margaret Weiss, Anne McCaffrey, Terry Brooks, and J.R.R. himself. I tried reading this stuff, but found it tedious even at a young age. I loved fantastic worlds, but the bloodless epics presented within those pages lacked any real verve.

Those preconceptions kept me from reading many of the seminal pulp authors. Lovecraft appealed to me at an early age and I read his work voraciously, as well as his many imitators. I also enjoyed Clark Ashton Smith's weird tales, although I knew him primarily in relation to HPL, and his stories were of interest to me when they contributed to the "Cthulhu Mythos". Yet, I considered these two aberrations, the rest of the pulps filled with derivative works like Derleth and Lin Carter.

Howard, in particular, I avoided for far too long. Conan seemed at first glance to be nothing but a brutish lout, and what little I read of his work ("The Fire of Asshurbanipal") I considered only as a "Mythos" story. Doing so meant that the criteria by which the story was judged was purely based upon its ability to evoke a Lovecraftian mood, instead of dealing with it on its own terms.

It was not until attending a panel on Howard's work at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival that I began to reconsider this opinion. One of my favorite authors today, Cody Goodfellow, spoke of how dynamic REH's prose was and how his work was a constant source of inspiration. With such a hearty recommendation on Goodfellow's part, I took the plunge earlier this year, starting with the excellent Del Rey collection, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. I was awestruck, and more than a little embarrassed. How I had denied myself, based on presumptions and prejudices against his imitators!

Since then, I've been diving into Appendix N and continue to expand my understanding of the pulps, reading Vance and Burroughs, with Lieber and Moorcock on the way. What has impressed me the most is the unique appeal of each of their visions, unburdened by the weight of genre expectations.

A secondary effect of this exploration into swords & sorcery is my growing awareness of "space fantasy" and the thin barrier between these genres. I'm currently reading the excellent C.L. Moore collection of short stories Black God's Kiss, and have been struck not only by the strangely phantasmagorical nature of her work, but also by the science fiction elements that are hinted at but never clearly revealed. Howard, of course, employs similar in "The Tower of the Elephant" and CAS does so with glee, such as in the story "The Werewolf of Averoigne". Today such casual use of these elements would strike a dissonant chord with many fantasy fans, but it is a wonderful frission to my mind.

Inspired by the wonderful blog A Field Guide To Doomsday, and especially the "Devastation Drive-In" series, it occurred to me that there's enough unique creatures in swords & sorcery lit that you could run an entire campaign without once encountering Tolkienesque dragons, elves, or orcs. While this may seem a turn-off to some, it certainly appealed to me. Imagine a game world filled with Burrough's Tharks, Vance's Twk-Men, von Vogt's Coeurl, and Shaver's Dero! I'm still on the fence regarding mythological monsters, but I suspect they'll be purged as well, with perhaps a handful of exceptions (such as the Penanggalan, one of my favorite monsters).

Here's a few monsters I'm considering:

Hellmaids from Roger Zelazny's Guns of Avalon.

Elephant-men from Robert E. Howard's "Tower of the Elephant".

Formless Spawn of Tsathoggua and Half-Spawn from Clark Ashton Smith's "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros" and "The Testament of Athammaus".

Voormis from Clark Ashton Smith's "The Seven Geases".

The Beast of Averoigne from Clark Ashton Smith's "The Werewolf of Averoigne".

The winged apes from Robert E. Howard's "Queen of the Black Coast"

"Henchmen", based on Bobo from Robert Heinlein's "Orphans of the Sky".

The swarming critters, mocking shadows, screaming horses, hopping people, dangerous plants, infectious statue, and "Tower of Living Light" (AI) of C. L. Moore's "Black God's Kiss" and "Black God's Shadow".

Thoats and Calots from Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Princess of Mars, as well as the Plant-Men of Mars and Banths from Gods of Mars.

Oasts, fleshy plants and other vat-born from Jack Vance's Dying Earth

Farers, Pods, Children of the Sea, and Children of Skaith-Our-Mother (as 'High Voormis') from Leigh Brackett's The Ginger Star.

Cats of Ulthar, Gugs and Moon Beasts from H.P. Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.

White Apes from H. P. Lovecraft's "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family".

Ghouls which synthesize ideas from H.P. Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model" and the Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath with Clark Ashton Smith's "The Ghoul", "The Hunters From Beyond", and "Zothique", along with various Call of Cthulhu renditions, such as in the excellent The Realm of Shadows.

Rat-Things, like Brown Jenkin in H.P. Lovecraft's "The Dreams in the Witch House", organized into a horrifying society ala Brian Aldiss' Non-Stop.

The black slugs of Clark Ashton Smith's "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis".

The Dweller in the Gulf as a "god" to the Dero, from the short story by Clark Ashton Smith.

 Vulthoom as another "god-being" of local worship, from the short story by Clark Ashton Smith.

 Whistlethistle, dumblers, traversers, bellyelms, the Black Mouth, and the immense banyan tree from Hothouse by Brian Aldiss. Presumably, I can come up with better names than these, but they're great monster designs.

Gyaa-Yoth from H.P. Lovecraft's "The Mound."

Aliens of Leigh Brackett's People of the Talisman.

Dire Wraiths and '50s Atomic Giant Monsters from Marvel Comics (I'm breaking my own rule here, but I can't resist).

Since I'm still an initiate in pulp fiction, I imagine this list will expand significantly with time, but it is certainly a start. I'd appreciate any and all suggestions that you'd care to make!
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