Thursday, October 24, 2013

Bumps in the Road

A crack of light on the horizon indicates a new day is coming.  The Black City lives again.

We haven’t rolled RPG dice in months, and it shows in the dearth of content here at the Lich House.  What happened to our smooth running weekly game that knocked if off kilter?  The first big problem is that some of the guys starting playing Friday Night Magic (myself included) which puts me on Sunday night for any kind of regular RPG night - and not everyone can play Sunday with work on Monday.  We had rallied our game group to help save a local store that was going under, kick-starting a MTG gaming scene there and helping them stabilize (and ultimately move to a better location).  All worthy endeavors, but it was rough on the RPG game night.

One of the regular players moved an hour away; another can't have two game nights per weekend, and is prioritizing the Magic; another guy has been on an intense work project with lots of travel; yet another of the players professed they were over and done with the old school gaming (they exaggerate).  It's remarkable how many things have to go right for a bunch of middle-aged dudes to be able to get together for their weekly elf games.  If you have a regular group, don't take it for granted.

But now we’re all set to resume this Sunday, with most of the regular cast returning for "season two".  I'm expecting they'll venture into the never before seen second level below the Black City, the Warrens of Decay, before weather forces the Northmen to leave Thule.  We'll see what they choose - the surface ruins have some unexplored areas, too.  I have a few days to dust off the notes and get ready for adventurers.

Look for a game report sometime next week.  My motivation to blog about RPG's dwindles when I'm not actually playing - though I do try to keep up with what various folks are putting on their own blogs.  The coals are stirring again.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Death Mountain - A Megadungeon Concept

The Lord of Death sits upon a throne of bone, sipping blood from a chalice made from the skull of a dead hero.  There is nothing the Death God desires more than the death of heroes, littering the floor of his great hall with their bones and mounting their skulls on his wall as trophies.  His minions tirelessly work the veins of gold and ore that lace his underground kingdom, for it is the gold that draws heroes and adventurers to plumb the storied depths of Death Mountain.  It is the gold that lures them to their deaths.

After the previous post on MTG Theros, I gave some thought to how I'd position a megadungeon themed on Greek Myth (and also the cinematic interpretations of the Greek gods - a combination of Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts).

I want something that aligns with the core values and objectives of basic Dungeons & Dragons; characters risk life and limb plumbing the dark depths of the dungeon to find gold.  Gold means experience, power, glory, and fame; it's an objective measurement of a hero's success.  The adoring public that waits safely back in the polis doesn't care if a hero stole the gold by outsmarting the monsters, or won their gold solely through feats of arms.  The cunning hero is as beloved as the strong one.

The popular culture view of the gods shows them as petty, manipulative schemers; they advance their agendas through mortal agents, and scry on the world below as a form of "Olympian reality television".  Hades loathes and hates his fellow Olympians, and has devised tricks and traps and all manner of challenges to ensure the blood flows and a steady parade of dead heroes join his underworld kingdom; the more beloved is a hero (ie, a higher level), the sweeter is the victory to the death god when he claims their souls; the other gods, for that matter, are greatly entertained when heroes overcome the machinations of the death god, and have gone so far as to sprinkle Hade's sprawling dungeon with divine boons, godly weapons, and hidden shrines and sanctuaries where their beloved champions might gain a small respite.

But death's kingdom is eternal, and there is no limit to the number of monsters that emerge from the cthonian depths.


That's a summary of the background for Death Mountain.  It provides a "rational" explanation for all the oddities of the traditional dungeon - why there are always monsters and gold, why there are tricks and traps and weird magical things, and why you might find some boons or magic items along the way to help you out on your explorations.  Details of the home base even start to emerge, a nearby town or city that reveres adventurers as if they were famous athletes or Olympic champions.  "Put all your money on Leonidas, he always comes back with the gold!"  Dungeon delving is almost  a competitive sport, with fans, side bets, and rivalries across adventuring companies.  But always, the minions of Hades wait beneath Death Mountain, dragging the dead and the dying into the Stygian deaths to his realm of endless night.

What about a name?  In my notes I've been calling it Mount Mortis, not exactly Greek, but it sounds a bit classical. Less prosaic than Death Mountain.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

An Introduction to THEROS

Last weekend, the next block of sets for the Magic the Gathering card game kicked off with Theros, a setting strongly themed after Greek mythology - gods, minotaurs, gorgons, hydras, the whole thing.  Magic is a gaming industry juggernaut, and the Wizards creative team does a phenomenal job of world building as they introduce these new settings - the blend of art, mechanics, story, and a splash of flavor text pull the whole thing together really well and fire the imagination.  Every time I encounter a new set, it gets me thinking how to borrow ideas for the RPG games.  I actually can't recall too many successful (or popular) settings based on Greek myth in the old school space.  Let's take a look at what Magic is doing with Theros, and then see what kind of ideas can be borrowed for your RPG.

The gods of Theros dwell in the night sky, the starry realm of Nyx.  This is an elegant way of tying in the constellations with the homeland of the gods, and gives the artists a reason to depict all the gods and their enchantments as being made of stars, like "Eternity" from Marvel Comics.  I also like this approach hearkens back to a view of the world that includes "mythic geography", where the mortal world and the divine realms are coterminous.  Climbing a high mountain really puts you in touch with the realm of the gods.

The power of the gods manifests in the game as "enchantments", one of the MTG card types, and there are a lot of new "enchantment creatures" that represent creatures infused by divine power and the realm of Nyx.  Furthermore, most of these creatures have an ability called Bestow, meaning they can be used to power up one of your own other guys, or exist on their own.  To put it in English:  divine power can be bestowed to one of your characters, boosting it into a huge beater, or it can manifest on it's own as a living enchantment.  An example here is the Emissary of Heliod (Heliod is the Theros sun god) - one of your other creatures can take on the powers and become Heliod's Emissary, or you can summon Heliod's Emissary as a stand-alone creature.

Here's an implication for our RPG's:  instead of focusing treasures and rewards primarily on magic items, couldn't bestowed benefits from the gods take a similar (mechanical) role in the RPG?  Greek myths imply a world where the gods are active participants; the gods of Homer's Iliad are directly powering up their mortal heroes for the battlefield.  Instead of earning that boring +1 sword, the fighter who consecrates a great victory to Ares at the war god's dark shrine gets touched by the god so that any spear he uses acts as a +1 item because of the god's favor.  A thief in the service of Hermes might get a one-use divine invisibility boon - essentially a Potion of Invisibility, but with a flavor that ties better into the setting.  Hecate might grant a loyal magic user a one-use Animate Dead in lieu of finding a magic user scroll.  And so on.  I need to think it through further, but I like the implications and setting flavor.

There are a few more Magic mechanics in the new set that are awesome for the mythological flavor but harder to pull off in an RPG; two examples are Scry and Devotion.  Scry allows you to see the top cards of your deck, a nod towards prophecy and foresight.  It's awesome to call to mind a world of oracles and divine visions; unfortunately, prophecy is hard to pull off in an RPG (just look at how messy and used spells like Augury tend to be).  I've done some prophecies successfully in the past, but it warrants a larger \ longer post.

Devotion allows you to gain additional game benefits by being strongly aligned to a certain color of cards on the battlefield; it's basically like being "all in" on Zeus, or Apollo, and getting an extra benefit by showing the loyalty.   The whole cleric class is problematic in D&D for a slew of reasons, not least of which is the general discomfort of a referee having to make some judgment calls whether the player's role playing is line with the god's ideals.  Now imagine extending that to cover all the classes.  However, there might be a way to identify a series of objective accomplishments any characters could perform that would get their god's attention and shower a little love their way - some well-known, stock actions characters can demonstrate to show the love.  I'll need to think about it.

The last two new mechanics are Heroic and Monstrosity, and both affect creatures.  Both types of creatures progress from  their base state into something bigger and better - Heroes are mostly human creatures that get a small personal boost while improving the rest of their team; Monstrosities are beasts that get gigantic and go on a rampage.  The whole class-based level system in a Dungeons & Dragons style game already works well to describe the hero's arc.  When I think about implementing "monstrosity", I'm drawn to having more unique and legendary versions of monsters that represent "boss fights" that act as capstones to an adventure, rather than regular encounters.  However, the Magic flavor of monstrosity is usually a dangerous monster that goes into overdrive, so it might be worth modeling that in the RPG stats.

Here's a big consideration:  How would you structure a campaign inspired by Greek Myth?  My first inclination is that it would primarily use the hex crawl style - legendary locales and mythological sites spread far and wide.  If 1960's "sword and sandal" movies have shown us anything, you have to travel far from the cities of man, to a remote ruin, and there confront the legendary stop-motion claymation monsters in a crumbling ruin.

I really don't like running a whole campaign as a hex crawl.  Travel exposition is difficult or mind numbing, and the infrequency of wilderness encounters creates a "5 minute workday" problem around appropriately challenging the players.  I don't think we have the hex crawl technology right yet.

How about a gigantic, Greek-themed dungeon?  Labyrinths feature in the myths.  How about the sprawling workshops of the forge god (filled with mechanical clockwork monsters).  The mythic underworld could actually be the entrance to The Mythic Underworld.   Hmm.  Ideas are taking form.

I'll see what I come up with.  In the meantime, if you want to bask in the Theros flavor, the entire card gallery is available at the Wizards of the Coast site, and you can read the introduction to the plane of Theros by the Wizard's creative team in their Planeswalker's guide articles:

Theros Card Gallery
A Planeswalkers Guide to Theros, part 1 
A Planeswalkers Guide to Theros, part 2
A Planeswalkers Guide to Theros, part 3

Let me know if you've played any Theros in the comments and what you think of it so far!

*All images and creative is copywrite Wizards of the Coast and the respective artists.  (Nykthos by Young Park, Nylea by Chris Rahn, Heliod's Emissary by Sam Burley, Chosen by Heliod by Zach Stella, and Hundred Handed One by Brad Rigney)