Resonance and aimlessness

Prompted by nothing in particular, some thoughts about Game of Thrones.

At one level, Martin has an amazing accomplishment. His world is symbolically believable. Many of his characters have become almost iconic. Most creators never reach the point of establishing even one such character. In contrast, for example, Moorcock, despite all his creativity, really only has one or two (the character of Elric, the idea of Stormbringer; maybe a popularization of the struggle between the principles of law and chaos).

Consider in contrast the list of powerfully identifiable Game of Thrones characters. Circei, Tyrion, Brienne, Jon, Arya, Daenerys, Joffrey!, Petyr, Samwell, Davos, Melisandre, and that is just off the top of my head. “Winter is coming.” The new gods and the old. Wargs. The faceless men. Melisandre’s summoning. The wall. Even Tolkien might have fewer such characters and concepts. Bilbo, Gandalf, Golem, a realization of the Norse Ring mythology, Smaug, maybe Thorin, maybe the Steward of Gondor. There are probably a few more, but not that many and either way the contest is close.

Now, I am not really interested in arguing whether these characters resonate or not with you or any other person in particular; I think it would be difficult to reasonably claim, however, that they do not resonate more broadly. Madonna cosplaying your character is some sort of achievement unlocked.

Back in the late 90s, I read the first couple Song of Ice and Fire books and liked them well enough, but at some point Martin fell afoul of my Wheel of Time rule* to avoid multivolume doorstop fantasy sequences unless they are finished. So my experience with Westeros is mostly recent and through the HBO series.

In contrast to the power of his characters and setting, the plotting of Game of Thrones is muddled. Part of this may be decisions that were made for the TV adaption, but I suspect that this is true of the novels as well based on the few that I have read. When you have 10+ plot lines moving in parallel, it is difficult to make them all matter. For example, how can it be that Bran Stark has not showed up at all in the first five episodes of season 5? The story sprawls too large and loses its focus. It almost feels as if Martin himself sometimes forgets about what is happening to some of his characters. I find myself caring less about what happens, and this is not because of the low character life expectancy. Living or dying, the outcome just does not seem to matter all that much.

* Still active and broken only once for The Name of the Wind.

Ruins of Valeria (source via Google Images)

Ruins of Valeria (source; via Google Images)

Vulnerability, challenge, & becoming

In the left corner, Arnold K., Never Defang the Darkness:

In the right corner, 1d30, Your Game Evolves Get Used to It:

(Magic can be read as shorthand for any extraordinary capability.)

I am largely cheering for Arnold in this fight, however it seems like the bigger problem with darkvision races is that they get the ability from the beginning, making it part of the character build, charop process potentially. (“Okay guys we need a cleric for healing and an elf to see in the dark.”)

Which is to say, finding out through play that your party is less inconvenienced by drowning is perhaps a different sort of experience than getting rid of that hazard through character build choices. Unlimited abilities or items that do not expire are harder to handle from a challenge crafting perspective, but there is also something unique and valuable to a campaign when PCs are able to exert their autonomy with fewer constraints as time progresses and the story of the party unfolds.

In this light, see also Zak on campaign evolution:

Helheim class and review

2015-05-09 17.15.51 helheimIt is hard to say too much about Helheim without spoiling the story, so I will keep this brief. First, I liked it. It is a relatively self-contained story with an engaging, vaguely Norse setting that focuses on an undead warrior and some witches. (What more could you want?) The art is a bit photoshop for my taste (flat in both color and line), but it gets the story across just fine and has some creative character visuals. The setup would work nicely for a small faction-based overland adventure. The depiction of the supernatural is good too; recognizable but not cliche. Overall, recommended.

You can get it at Comixology, and notably the publisher has enabled DRM-free access to PDF and CBZ formats. Just checking that, it looks like there is a followup series, Brides of Helheim, but the collected edition is not out yet and I have not read it. Helheim is by Cullen Bunn and Joëlle Jones. You can find more info about Cullen Bunn at his site. He’s also behind The Sixth Gun.

Here is a PDF version of the class detailed below.

Helheim class

  • HD, attack, save, and XP as fighter
  • Benefits: toughness (damage reduction), body augmentation, undeath
  • Drawbacks: recovery and charisma loss, stench, no missile weapons

A helheim is a zombie raised from the body of a hero or person with otherwise exceptional will. Such zombies are often employed by witches as enforcers of curses or avengers. Sometimes, the witch’s necromancy is not sufficient to fully dominate the creature, however, and the helheim becomes free.

Toughness: Helheims ignore 3 points of damage from mundane weapons, including claws and teeth. Each time a helheim suffers damage, they lose one point of charisma permanently. These points never return, and represent the descent of the helheim into a mass of patchwork, stitched flesh.

Augmentation: As helheims grow in power, they may incorporate body parts from defeated foes. For each experience level, a helheim can incorporate one special body part. Such parts may be added or replaced during downtime with surgery, but only from fresh bodies slain by the helheim’s own hand in combat. The remains of an execution will not do, being tainted by passivity and oppression, the qualities most inimical to a zombie-creature’s autonomy. Incorporated parts may grant additional capabilities. For example, a harpy’s wings might grant awkward flight. Actual abilities may be less literal, however, as negotiated between player and referee. Any powers granted should be determined with an eye toward maintaining future challenge within the game.

Undeath: Helheims do not need to eat or breathe, but they must periodically fall into reverie, much like sleep, to retain their humanity. Otherwise, the helheim will slip back into a partially catatonic state waiting for necromantic commands.

Recovery: Helheims do not recover as normal. Instead, damaged limbs or body parts must be physically stitched back together or replaced. Any necromancer or mundane surgeon can accomplish this task, but a helheim may not repair themselves without assistance.

Stench: The stink of the grave is never entirely absent from a helheim, as the zombie body is continually rotting from the flux of necromantic energy. This stench makes it impossible for a helheim to surprise enemies with a sense of smell unless chaotic circumstances would make such senses useless.

Weapons: For all their great strength, a helheim’s motor control and visual acuity are crude. Though they can use thrown weapons such as daggers and small axes, they cannot effectively use missile weapons. Beyond several hundred feet their undead eyes perceive only a phantasmagoric riot of swampy color.

The helheim class is suitable either for new first level characters or as an option for deceased player characters raised from the dead.

2015-05-09 17.26.06 helheim

Optimization and preparation

From An apology to some min-maxers:

In fact, if anything, my sub-optimal character builds were me being lazy, and not doing the homework other players were doing to build more optimized characters.

At the same time, as GM you should min-max the opposition to the same level as you have allowed for your players. Dig into the system and look for how to optimize NPC’s and monsters. That is likely going to be more work for you, as you may need to take stock stat blocks and beef them up, but it will create challenging opponents for the players, making encounters more exciting.

This concisely captures why I gravitate away from games that support or require significant optimization. It’s just making more work for everyone involved, and not in a way that adds to the play experience. It’s work inflation: everyone needs to spend more time in order to get the same result. And the result is the same, assuming that competition has no value (which it does not, for me, in RPGs).

Compare this to working more on setting detail or even character personality. Such preparation can consume as much time as you want, but it can also qualitatively improve the play experience. Optimization and what I am going to call (for lack of a better term) preparation can thus be seen as two independent dimensions of out-of-game work required by RPGs, leading to four rough categories of game: high-op/high-prep, high-op/low-prep, and so forth.

optimization and preparation bw

A railroad is a way of constraining preparation requirements. There may be some overall conservation law operating such that sustainable games on average tend to be low in either or both dimensions. This may be why it is difficult for me to find an example of a game that is naturally high in both categories. Games associated with high optimization (Pathfinder, 4E D&D) can be played using sandboxes or with more extensive world building, but doing so ends up being a higher-maintenance activity.

As an observation it seems that many games in the focused design tradition, especially Forge and Story Games, seem to prize minimization of both kinds of work. Games like Lady Blackbird and Apocalypse World, for example, put few barriers before getting started (AW requires the MC to create some fronts, but the instructions seem geared to avoid potential scope creep). Minimizing out-of-game work a way to increase approachability by decreasing cost. If the reliability of play experience varies with the prep time, that is seen as a flaw in this tradition. The system is seen as “not working” if play is inconsistent, as it will surely be if preparation is required given that different groups or players will invest in different amounts of out-of-game work. Other traditions seem to focus more on the other side of the equation: increasing value (such as the intricate setting and art of Warhammer, or atmosphere of the World of Darkness, separate from amount of work required). Obviously, the two approaches are not exclusive, but there still seem to be trends toward one or the other.

And yeah I may have been working on a data analysis assignment before writing this post…

Deflective shields

My first Dark Souls dude, with a shield

My first Dark Souls dude, with a shield

These are the current shield rules (approximately the third revision) for The Final Castle. To make sense, I have included preliminarily a few general combat rules as well. Combat Tests are d20, roll high, aiming to meet or exceed an enemy threat level (similar to the probably familiar armor class or difficulty class). Hopefully the fragmentary nature is not too hard to understand.

“Unbalanced” is a state, something like a temporary condition (in 3E terms) that persists until addressed by the combatant. Deflection is a reaction that can be taken in response to an enemy attack.


Exceeding the target number of an Ability Test by at least 4 or rolling a 20 prior to any modifiers is an Overkill. For Combat Tests, Overkill adds 1d6 damage and may have additional effects in other contexts.


Unbalanced combatants may only Melee, Shoot, Flee, or Recover and may not deflect attacks withs Shields. Recover balance with a maneuver.


To deflect an attack, deploy a shield. Deflection must be declared before rolling dice to resolve an attack. Deploying a shield Unbalances a combatant but does not require an Action. Shields may not be deployed when Unbalanced. Bypass Maneuvers cannot be deflected with a shield. Different kinds of shields offer other benefits. See the Shields entry in the Weapons section for details.


Resolve Maneuvers with Melee, Shoot, or Throw Actions depending on the character of the desired effect, substituting Maneuver effects for damage. Overkill applies to Maneuvers also. Thus, Maneuver Overkills cause the Maneuver effect and also 1d6 damage.

Recover (Maneuver)

Recover from being Unbalanced, stand up from prone, or escape a Grapple.


To deflect an attack, deploy a shield. Deflection must be declared before rolling dice to resolve an attack. Deploying a shield Unbalances a combatant but does not require an Action. Shields may not be deployed when Unbalanced. Bypass Maneuvers cannot be deflected with a shield. Shields come in three varieties:

  • Bucklers grant +4 to parry maneuvers, but are useless against ranged attacks and great weapons.
  • Medium shields grant +2 defense against small missiles.
  • Tower shields deflect all small missiles but are useless against standard or smaller weapons.

Putting this all together, it means that PCs with a shield can deflect (that is, totally nullify) one melee attack per combat (not per round) essentially for free, though the deflection must be “used” before rolling Defense (the equivalent in the system of an enemy attack roll). After a shield has been used for deflection, combat options narrow generally due to becoming Unbalanced, and specifically the shield may not be used again until balance is recovered.

Since maneuvers work like attack rolls, but substituting effects for standard damage and only inflicting any damage upon Overkill results (exceeding target numbers by 4 or rolling a natural 20), the effect is that a skilled fighter attempting a Recovery Maneuver is still fighting (not potentially “wasting” a turn), just at a disadvantage (approximately -4) if they wish to earn another use of their shield during the current combat.

(Don’t worry about Parry Maneuvers; they are beyond the scope of this post.)

The Buried Giant

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Set in the British dark ages one generation after Arthur, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Buried Giant mostly follows the adventures of an elderly couple on a journey to visit their son. A mist of forgetfulness blankets the land, so the story unfolds shudderingly as if through a clouded or scorched lens. This both evokes a wonderful mood and allows Ishiguro to narrate without explaining too much too quickly. Though there are several underlying ideas, the novel is rewarding even if read as a straightforward fantasy, so I will not burden you with my thematic interpretation.

The depiction of myth-historical Britain and the way combat is described are worth focusing on in particular. The ogres and monsters and fairies and dragons are none of them cliches, and this is particularly impressive because Ishiguro describes them all in detail rather than resorting to the common strategy of leaving the imagination to the reader. For one example that I think does not risk spoiling anything overly much:

They might have been gazing at a large skinned animal: an opaque membrane, like the lining of a sheep’s stomach, was stretched tightly over the sinews and joints. Swathed as it was now in moonshadow, the beast appeared roughly the size and shape of a bull, but its head was distinctly wolf-like and of a darker hue—though even here the impression was of blackening by flames rather than of naturally dark fur or flesh. The jaws were massive, the eyes reptilian.

And the warrens that the Britons live in would be a great backstory for a series of mega-dungeons. It would not stretch the imagination to have many of these connected together in one great subterranean sprawl, partially taken over by restless dead, ogres, and other haunts while being active “towns” in other areas.

For warmth and protection, the villagers lived in shelters, many of them dug deep into the hillside, connecting one to the other by underground passages and covered corridors. Our elderly couple lived within one such sprawling warren—“building” would be too grand a word—with roughly sixty other villagers. If you came out of their warren and walked for twenty minutes around the hill, you would have reached the next settlement, and to your eyes, this one would have seemed identical to the first. But to the inhabitants themselves, there would have been many distinguishing details of which they would have been proud or ashamed.

The technique used to describe combat is singularly effective, with many paragraphs of positioning and perhaps some exchange of words prior to any actual attacks. The closest thing I can think of is the high noon contest of nerves in the wild west, but this is not quite that. Finally, the conflict is concluded swiftly with decisive action, with the loving detail focused on the slow buildup rather than a balletic interplay of punches, stabs, and blocks as is usually done in cinematic or adventurous combats. It is probably unlikely that any game would be able to capture this sense of combat, but it might be worth trying. A single scene ends up having many paragraphs like this:

Then the two men became fixed in their new positions, and to an innocent spectator, they may have looked, in relation to one another, practically unchanged from before. Yet Axl could sense that these new positions had a different significance. It had been a long time since he had had to consider combat in such detail, and there remained a frustrating sense that he was failing to see half of what was unfolding before him. But he knew somehow the contest had reached a critical point; that things could not be held like this for long without one or the other combatant being forced to commit himself.

Ishiguro’s Gawain is also perhaps one of the most memorable characters I have read in a long while. Here is a taste.

What do you say, sir? I’m a mortal man, I don’t deny it, but I’m a knight well trained and nurtured for long years of my youth by the great Arthur, who taught me to face all manner of challenge with gladness, even when fear seeps to the marrow, for if we’re mortal let us at least shine handsomely in God’s eyes while we walk this earth! Like all who stood with Arthur, sir, I’ve faced beelzebubs and monsters as well as the darkest intents of men, and always upheld my great king’s example even in the midst of ferocious conflict. What is it you suggest, sir? How dare you? Were you there? I was there, sir, and saw all with these same eyes that fix you now! But what of it, what of it, friends, this is a discussion for some other time. Forgive me, we have other matters to attend to, of course we have. What is it you asked, sir? Ah yes, this beast, yes, I understand it’s monstrous fierce but no demon or spirit and this sword is good enough to slay it.

A successful writer of literary fiction can afford to dedicate five or more years to the writing of a single novel, and the level of resulting craft is clear. Though doing so is a career risk, I hope that more serious writers experiment in this way, because The Buried Giant is a masterpiece. I devoured it over the course of a few days despite my current huge grad school workload, and I plan to read it a second time soon. Recommended without reservations. Apologies for the long quotes, but I felt like I needed to let the novel speak with its own voice.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending delivers fantastic visuals, including lepidopterous attack ships, galactic palaces, refinery cities inside gas giant planets, and gothic cathedral styled battle cruisers. The last I suspect were a conscious homage to 40K, especially given that at one point the protagonists need to “break through a field of war hammers” (some sort of geometric space mine). Warning, there may be some mild spoilers below, though I do not think they would really spoil the movie.

The plot is somewhat ridiculous, though not nearly as bad as some reviews I read made it out to be. The Wachowskis retain their fixation with harvesting human resources as seen in The Matrix. The universe is apparently ruled by giant space cartel noble families that live for millenia due to youth serum harvested from subject planets after they have marinated in DNA diversification for long enough. I actually enjoyed the over the top performances of the antagonist Abrasax siblings. Eddie Redmayne’s Balem Abrasax in particular was suitably Harkonnen with his decadent rasp, though his final behavior was not really believable for a semi-immortal space magnate.

Channing Tatum, unfortunately, does not sell the space wolf character at all. Someone with more believable sense of violence and threat was required, and the primary impression I got from his performance was tranquilized. Further, he looked soft, clearly not having trained very hard for the role. Chris Evans, Henry Cavill, and Hugh Jackman as action heroes have raised the bar and Tatum just does not cut it here. This is especially clear in his shirtless farmhouse fight scene where the camera seems to recoil from ever focusing on his midsection. It does not help that he has zero chemistry with Mila Kunis, who also does not seem particularly committed to her role as Russian immigrant housekeeper turned space princess (yes, you read that correctly). Her character is not particularly competent or clever and seems to be largely carried along with little agency of her own.

The major plot arc is essentially the navigation of galactic inheritance law. The process of claiming her title requires Jupiter to proceed through a host of kafkaesque and ridiculous official requirements. The source of this bureaucracy is unclear, but the sequence itself is enjoyable enough, and it culminates with Terry Gilliam himself playing some sort of heraldic functionary, in a clear homage to Brazil. There is a capitalist exploitation theme under all the action, with the Abrasax heirs being primarily concerned with the profit from their youth serum business.

The combat, both in terms of style and power level, looked on screen like how Numenera reads, especially the gravity parkour boots and materializing energy shield. The gravity surfing is not something I think I have seen on the screen before, and it was genuinely kind of exhilarating to watch, especially since much of the action happened in my city, Chicago. I think I could even see my apartment building in a few of the scenes.

Overall, the parts are more interesting than the whole, but we do not get many big budget space operas. The vistas are probably worth it alone, though occasionally the style overwhelms the substance so much as to be distracting.

Oh, and there are dragonborn (which, surprisingly, I can not really find any good pictures of).

jupiter-ascending-005-970x646-cjupiter-ascending-0030-970x646-cjupiter-ascending-00390-970x646-c(Images from here.)

Training bonuses

dark_souls_swords_by_bringess-d7bebkw copy

Dark Souls swords by Bringess

This is an idea for weapon training that I had which is probably too fiddly for online play, but might work in person. To gain more than a +1 to attack or damage (whether from attack bonus, strength, or wherever bonuses come from in your system of choice), a combatant must train with a given weapon. Each weapon is rated with minimum stat requirements and maximum bonus potential. Mundane weapons might be, for example, min +0 and max +3/+3, meaning that anyone without a penalty can use them and they can support at most a +3 to attack and damage. Insisting on using a weapon without the minimum stat imposes some large penalty (-4 or 5E style disadvantage).

The constraints would need to be tracked for each weapon along with training level, which could default to starting scores for starting weapons initially (representing background training). For example, consider a first level Labyrinth Lord fighter with 16 strength, which grants a +2 to attack and damage. A first level fighter in this system also has the equivalent of a +1 bonus to attack. Assume further that this character starts with a battle axe and dagger. Under skills, the player would write battle axe +3/+2 and dagger +3/+2. This is the character’s initial training. If a sword is picked up, it will be wielded with +0/+0 until the character can train with it.

How does training work? As a downtime action, the character can pay for training in a weapon. This costs some set amount, maybe based on bonus to be unlocked, say 500 GP per target plus (so, moving from +1 to +2 would cost 1000 GP). This raises either the attack or the damage by one point, assuming that is supported by class attack bonus or ability scores. Thus, that example first level character above can gain no more bonus points in battle axe until ability scores or attack bonus increase.

The benefits are that it gives fighters something to do during downtime actions, somewhat restrains bonus progression, makes special weapons more valuable without needing to resort to magic weapons as treasure all the time, and allows fighters to ease in to using crazy weapons like the Berserk dragon slayer sword or the asylum demon’s great hammer which might make their use feel a bit more special (and also more fictionally justified). It would also allow weapons to be numerically defined on dimensions of finesse and brutality. For example, a big club might be +1/+4 in potential, making it a good choice for a character with low skill but high strength (assuming such is possible in the base system).

This would would particularly well with a system that has regular stat increases, such as this adventurer class or Green Ronin’s Dragon Age, but should also be functional with a regular attack bonus.


Pits & Perils divergences

Because I am tentatively planning to run a Google Plus hangout game of Pits & Perils this friday, I was reviewing the rules. While doing this, it occurred to me that it might be useful to summarize the aspects that differ from “how things are usually done.”

As a player familiar with traditional fantasy roleplaying games but new to Pits & Perils, I think these are the most obvious differences.

  • PCs have 1 or 2 abilities. As in, you “have strength” (no numbers).
  • Abilities constrain what you can do.
  • To attack, roll 2d6. 9-11 = 1 damage. 12 = 2 damage.
  • Fighters get +1 to attack. Magic weapons grant bonuses here also.
  • Saving throws succeed on 7+ rolling 2d6.
  • Using an ability (for example, dexterity) works like a saving throw.
  • Encumbrance is armor & shield + 10 more items (hard limit).
  • HP is static (for example, a 3rd level fighter has 14 HP).
  • Armor works by adding a small amount of HP.
  • Casting a spell costs one spell point (no preparation).

Image from Pits & Perils title page

Image from Pits & Perils title page

There are a number of other specific rules, but if you already know, for example, B/X D&D, I think this will get you most of the way there.

Also, here’s a list of the core spells with numbers, in case you want to determine starting spells randomly (break out that d24). Or click here for a popup.

  1. Bolt
  2. Call
  3. Calm
  4. Cure
  5. Fade
  6. Fear
  7. Find
  8. Foil
  9. Gaze
  10. Glow
  11. Heal
  12. Hide
  13. Know
  14. Link
  15. Load
  16. Mend
  17. Mute
  18. Null
  19. Pass
  20. Rise
  21. Ruin
  22. Send
  23. Stun
  24. Ward