Friday, June 30, 2017

Conan, Fafhrd, and Mouser Walk into a bar . . .

I've often thought that the default D&D adventurer's attitude most definitely came from Conan and Fafhrd and Mouser. I mean, that's not revolutionary, it's just that the "we want to be rich, maybe famous, and we might save the world while we're at it" default of earlier editions got clouded a bit with 2nd edition's push that PCs are heroes, and if they aren't paragons of virtue, then they must have deep philosophical reasons for not being good.

Now, what I've had a harder time with is pinning down the slight differences between shades of Conan and shades of Fafhrd and Mouser. I know their worlds are different--Conan lives in a world where the supernatural always seems to be way at the edges of things, whereas magic is a bit more common for Fafhrd and Mouser to encounter, even if it's not easily accessible to the heroes.

I even thought about how early D&D showed higher level adventurers and how they end up gaining followers and getting settled in. Conan becomes a king, Fafhrd and Mouser retire to Rime Isle with their crew of miscreants in tow. But following that thread backwards, I think I finally hit on what (to me) the big difference between the approaches might have been.

Conan doesn't have a home. He's a wanderer that is largely devoid of sentimentality. When he becomes a king, it's not because he feels especially endeared to that nation--he has the opportunity, and it seems like the next challenge in his life. Even when his rule is threatened, it's more about defending what is his and proving himself than any affection for his kingdom.

Fafhrd and Mouser get attached to things. They have a home. Early on its Lankhmar. Even when they try to run away from the city, they end up back there. Later in their lives, they finally break away from the city, but they are still attached to Rime Isle. You could argue that both of the Twain have those homes because they also form specific attachment to their lovers, and while that's not wrong, they also show a need to have a home base even when they don't have consistent, attached lovers.

So, to me, that now starts to stand out as a big difference in the style between Conan and Fafhrd and Mouser--do you have a home base and attachments, but a need to adventure as well, or are you all about the next conquest, without any real desire to settle down.

I am almost loathe to say this, but--Conan is much more the murder hobo than Fafhrd or Mouser. Fafhrd and Mouser are more Murder Homebodies. Conan wanders the land, back and forth, murderhoboing, while Fafhrd and Mouser go on extended murder vacations, then come home in the off season.

It's not that one is better than the other. The idea of getting rich, maybe famous, and indulging in the spoils of adventuring, is a strong theme in both. Both sets of stories have the protagonist doing morally questionable things. But as a person who likes to set down roots and have attachments, I think I get Fafhrd and Mouser more, and that might be while I'm a bit more drawn to them than I am Conan.

Another difference? Fafhrd and Mouser are DC guys and know Wonder Woman and Catwoman

I also think this plays into what you want out of your D&D-alike game. If you like knowing persistent things about the city outside of the dungeon or the wilderness, a different playstyle is going to appeal to you then if you are looking for the next challenge and the city is the place you relax, provision, and maybe get double crossed, before you move to the next city next to the next challenge.

The Hyborian Age certainly has consistent characteristics, but they exist to make sure you know you are in the same setting, at the same time. There isn't the sentimentality of the same bar on the same street with the same bartender. There is the utilitarian knowledge that nobles from X culture behave this way, armies from Y nation arm themselves thus, and the trade road between Z and A is important, so many battles naturally happen there. Conan's world is all the harsher because Conan himself is very results oriented.

Anybody surprised that this happened? Makes perfect sense to me.

Conan gets restless and decides to challenge himself with a new, greater task. Fafhrd and Mouser get bored and decide to poke something dangerous with a stick. Unlike the author of a story, of course, when you DM, you are likely to have a mixed table of Conans, Fafhrds, Mousers, and maybe an Aragorn or a Bilbo along for the ride as well. And probably Deadpool. Deadpool doesn’t care about genre.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

World Building Thoughts From A Guy That Works With Spreadsheets All Day

Non-Revolutionary thought in progress--complex game settings aren't the problem (and I'm not going to go into how I think they should be expressed for maximum gameability, because that's a whole separate thought process). You either like them or you don't, but there isn't a right or wrong.

The problem is, where is that complexity housed?

If you have a campaign setting that presents a world, and then products that make individual areas even more detailed, if you are interested in that specific area, that's still only "two layers deep." Main setting book and regional sourcebook.

However, if you have a faction book that also adds significant details to that region, and then maybe an adventure that will be assumed to be canon in its events as well, things have gone four layers deep. All of those books have significant details on a region, but only two of those books have an obvious connection to the region, with two less obvious connections.

I think I understand how this happens. Working with data now for my job, I have to stop and think about how I want to design a report. There are times I think I have accounted for everything I want to display, but I realize I can't show part of my significant data without going back to the beginning and adding something to the overall structure. It's a pain, but once the structure is in place, adding new data is going to be simpler, because I have the structure defined.

However, when people are being creative, they often don't think about end users and structures. Because they aren't thinking in terms of what should or should not be included in specific product, three months after a setting book comes out, an adventure comes along and levels a region, and three months after that, a new sourcebook assassinates a key ruler and invalidates even more of a setting.

For maximum "buy in" to a setting, my structure at the beginning would be that the core setting book is a snapshot of the setting that will be true until a new core setting book comes out. Regional books might add to details, but won't contradict anything presented. Adventures can have huge, huge stakes, but they aren't assumed to have happened in a campaign unless you use them at the table.

If you want to put out a new setting book five years later, cool. That's the new default, and its really easy to point people to the new product and have it be your new standard. It also makes it easier for people to say "no, I don't like that they advanced the timeline and destroyed X." Regardless, it's an easy, clearly defined transition point, instead of an aggregated mess that becomes more difficult for new people to navigate.

If you have novels, set some rules for what they are in your grand plan. If they aren't canon to the setting, make it clear. If they are, set some limits. Have them only happen before the date of the "snap shot" in your core setting book, and make sure they don't create any new major events you didn't already define in the core setting book. If you want the King of Peaceful Land to have been a doppleganger all along, don't do that in a novel, wait until you do your setting update book five years from now. You can explain the aftermath of what happened, or you can throw in some plot hooks for how that will matter for the PCs.

If you have things that happened in the past involving a legendary team of mercenaries or adventurers, that's a great place for a novel that gives details and personalizes that legendary team. Don't move the timeline forward, introduce new heroes, and have them do all the important stuff in the setting that will now "count." Fill in details of the past in a consistent manner with what has been presented and leave the future as an open canvas, at least until you stake your next point on the timeline with a new core setting book.

I've never published a setting, so maybe I'm full of crap. However, it seems like if you keep these ideas in mind, and have some rules in place ahead of time, even a complicated setting gets less daunting to manage.

  • Keep everything that is in your core setting book true until you are ready for a new core setting book
  • Add detail in sourcebooks, but don't contradict what has already been stated
  • Avoid absolutes where possible--knowing there are only X number of temples in a city can trip up a GM that already started using a region in their campaign, but saying the major temples are X, Y, and Z is fine
  • If you have a fiction line, don't let it do what you wouldn't let it a sourcebook do
  • If you have a fiction line, set it before the "snapshot" of the current setting book's timeline
  • Don't assume events in an adventure are canon for your setting--if you want to "canonize" the adventure later, do it when you update your core setting book
  • Don't let a sourcebook add detail to an aspect of the setting that it wouldn't obviously be concerned with--if you detail an organization, don't add significant details to a bunch of cities that organization is active in, especially if those cities have already been detailed

    Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding on Audible

Full disclaimer, I just recently finished listening to the audiobook of the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. I don't think any one essay presented exactly what I elaborated above, but lot of them said large portions of what I mentioned above, my brain just kind of needed to mash together some of the bits that were common to many of the essays together and sprinkle in my own, less brilliant flavor.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Predation (Cypher System)

My siblings greatly enjoyed jumping out and scaring me at various points in time, because apparently I’m at my most hilarious when I’m worked into a panicked frenzy. At no time did they enjoy this more than when they could jump out and scare me when the dinosaur roared at the end of the intro to Land of the Lost. Despite their dedicated work at trying to make me terrified of all things dinosaur, I fell in love with the poor, extinct things, and in 3rd grade I was reprimanded for being able to name various dinosaurs and which ones existed at the same time as the others, but neglecting actual, useful information--thus establishing a pattern in my life of being really dedicated to knowledge that has no immediate practical use to me.

I will freely admit that my dinosaur-lore is nowhere near as developed as it was in those halcyon days of 3rd grade, but I still have a weakness for the formerly existing beasts of yore. So when I see RPG products that have dinosaurs as a theme, it’s hard for me not to take notice.

While Tomb of Annihilation is coming later this year, and seems to be filled with dinosaur goodness, it appears that the Year of the Dinosaur is getting started early with the release of Predation, a setting book for the Cypher System RPG.

How It Looks, Feathers and All
My review is based both on the PDF and the physical version of the book, since both arrived before I finished my read through of the book. The book is 192 pages, including an index, glossary, a standard character sheet, and companion character sheets in the back of the book.

Cypher System books tend to have nice, high-gloss art throughout. This book is no exception, but in this case, the setting has a specific look. That look is a mix of post-apocalyptic remnants, high tech gear, savage trappings, and cybernetic dinosaurs. Because of this distinct look, there is very little artwork in this book that has appeared elsewhere in the Cypher System line, and because it does such a good job capturing this specific look, you will probably want your players to see this as an aid to help visualize the setting.

In addition to the many evocative art pieces in the book, there are a few continental maps and city maps for the major locations. There are the usual sidebars with quick stats and page references both in the book and in the main Cypher System rulebook. While the entire line of Cypher System books has high production values, this has to be one of the nicest looking of the line.

Part One: Getting Started
This section includes two chapters, From the Far Future to the Distant Past, and Predation Basics. The first chapter gives the zoomed out, broad strokes synopsis of the setting, while the second chapter explains what rules from the Cypher System rulebook are utilized and what special rules apply to the setting.

The elevator pitch for the game is that you are living in the era of the dinosaurs, sometime close to the arrival of the big asteroid event that caused them to go extinct. Your character is the second or third generation to live in this time, as the corporation that developed time travel and established a colony is no longer in communication with the settlements. There is high tech stuff around, but it’s not always reliable, and you probably have a genetically modified or cybernetically advanced dinosaur as a buddy.

In the Predation Basics chapter, we find out that the setting uses the flavor rules from the Cypher System rules. What this means is that while the character types from the core rules are (kinda) used (but renamed), some of their abilities at each of the tiers is replaced to give the character type a special feel unique to the setting. Essentially, you have big bruisers (Karn), mad scientists (Tec), explorers (Pteryx), and shamanistic types (Osteon) who have an affinity for the temporal anomalies and storms that pop up.

Companions are mentioned in this section, but they are detailed in another chapter. The teaser you get here is that you make them for your character, and another player runs them. You can chose not to have one, and you get extra abilities if you do not have one, but the assumption is that you will have your own dino (or early mammal) buddy.

Cyphers work as they do in many settings, i.e. they are one use items, and you have a limited number of them that you can carry. The twist for this setting is that cyphers get encoded directly into your DNA, rather than being a separate object. That DNA programming comes from code swirling around in the temporal anomalies you can find, so you have incentive to seek them out (of course, they also spew remnants and artifacts as well).

Part Two: Characters
This section is composed of the following chapters: Character Creation, Character Type, Character Descriptor and Focus, Companions, and Equipment.

These chapters walk you through making a character in the setting. To a point, it’s very similar to making character in other Cypher System games. The Character Types have some abilities swapped out in each tier using the flavor rules, as mentioned above. Thankfully, there are charts that detail exactly what each character type has available at each tier, and which book (Predation or the core rulebook) has the details. In addition, there are Cretaceous Abilities that are new to this rulebook.

There are the usual things you might expect in a Cypher System book like new foci and descriptors, but I have to admit, that section is probably the least exciting aspect of this section. That’s not an entirely fair assessment, since there are some nice twists on the regular Cypher System rules in this section, overall.

Speaking of those twists--companions! While you can play without a companion (and you get extra abilities to compensate if you don’t have one), the assumed style of play is that you create your character, and your companion. The twist is, on your turn, you run your character, and another player at the table runs your companion, so that on each turn, there is usually a pair of players acting. Often companions don’t do what their partner tells them to do, and whether they do or not, it is up to the other player to determine how those orders are ignored or followed. It’s a nice twist on the idea of a player character companion that makes it much more interesting. You build your companion by picking a base type, adding a disposition, and then layering on special abilities that might do things like passively help you or boost their stats or abilities.

The rules governing equipment in the Cypher System are fairly simple, but there are some evocative descriptions that go along with those simple mechanical effects that do a good job of portraying the themes of the setting.

Part Three: The Setting
The chapters in this section include Welcome to Grevakc, Laramidia, Appalachia, and Groups and Organizations.

Welcome to Grevakc goes into more detail on the timeline of the setting. It explains what the first generation was like, and the differences between life before and after time travel failed.

Laramidia details one of the two continental bodies in the setting, and takes up a lot of the pages in this section. Laramidia has the most settlements, locations, and plot hooks detailing the setting wide and local power groups.

Appalachia has fewer settlements--both land masses are largely untamed, but Appalachia is exceptionally wild, compared to the other continental mass.

Groups and Organizations goes into the setting wide power groups that lurk behind the scenes or jump up and scream “here we are!” There are people attempting to keep the old corporate structure going from before time travel broke, an organization looking to prove the literal existence of the Garden of Eden, and a group that wants the humans trapped in the past to die out in order to minimize their potential to destroy the timeline.

In addition to the implied plot hooks that the setting details provide, each region has a sidebar that explicitly spells out some adventure starters. There are simple character stats in various sidebars, and each region usually has an NPC or three for the PCs to interact with, who are given their own personalities and goals in relatively quick summaries.

In particular, there is a town that is revisited in the sample adventure that is a good starting point for new adventurers. It is both a crossroads and a place where the sport of dinosaur wrestling is very popular. The section on genetically modified spiders raised for their silk, and the environment created for them, is also especially memorable.

Part Four: Creatures and NPCs
This section is split into Using Creatures, and Creatures and NPCs.

The Using Creatures chapter details what creatures from the Cypher System rules are appropriate for use in the setting, and how to describe them to tailor them to the setting and its themes. There are some unique creature abilities, which can also be used for companions if the GM is okay with them. There is a two page spread that gives a size comparison of the various dinosaurs and other creatures in comparison to a human.

Creatures and NPCs gives the specific stats for creatures native to this setting, as well as giving some interesting background information on them, such as what place they might have in society or in their ecosystem. There is a note in this section that all of the dinosaur artwork shows modified versions of the creatures, since the “standard” version of various dinosaurs can usually be found fairly easily, but finding a picture of a stegosaurus genetically modified to throw lightning bolts is harder to find. I can’t fault their logic.

Part Five: GM’s Toolbox
This section contains the following chapters: Running Predation, Cyphers, Artifacts, and Remnants, and Promised Land.

Running Predation specifically discusses some of the potential issues with mentioning time travel in an RPG, and then discusses the “grey areas” of the setting. Specifically, while some aspects of the setting are presented as “fact,”, things like exactly why time travel stopped working are a mystery, and there isn’t an actual answer. This section has multiple potential answers for various setting mysteries and how those might influence campaign development.

There are also some adventure hooks not tied to a given region, and some setting specific example intrusions a GM might want to use.

Cyphers, Artifacts, and Remnants details some setting specific versions of those game items. I’m not sure that any of them jump out at me as especially radical departures from what we’ve seen in other Cypher System books, but the random tables are nice for funneling towards items that are appropriate to the setting.

Promised Land is the sample adventure in the book. It is a fairly straightforward introduction to the town mentioned back in the Larimidia section, which leads to a simple investigation, and an interaction with one of the organizations detailed in the Groups and Organizations chapter. It is a solid introduction to the setting that walks the PCs through some elements that they should get familiar with, but the adventure does one thing that really bugs me in starting adventures.

There are two NPCs that hire the starting NPCs to do a specific thing, but one of them “pays” by offering a discount on their goods. It’s an old RPG trope, which essentially reinforces that new characters equal “people that can’t be treated like competent adventurers yet.” Doing work for favors or discounts in a starting adventure is the RPG equivalent of adventurers doing a job “for exposure.”

Part Six: Back Matter
This section is divided up into References and Resources, Questions and Answers with Dino-Scientists, Kickstarter Playtesters and Contributors, Glossary, Character Sheets, Companion Sheets, and Index.

Most of these are useful, but serve a fairly obvious function. The Questions and Answers were especially entertaining to read.

Back to the Future
The setting could have been a by the numbers example of how to use flavor substitutions in a dinosaur setting, but it offers a lot more than that. The unique spin on the companion rules is a wonderful departure from just giving PCs a second set of stats to use in play. There is a great balance of setting facts, and open ended mysteries that the GM can determine on their own. The setting introduces lots of personality with elements like dino wrestling and how genetically engineered spiders are raised.

Temporal Paradox
If you read my Expanded Worlds review, you already read my thoughts on levels as they relate to companion characters or allies. In play, especially as they are described in this setting, they work fine, but assigning them levels, which is usually a GM side mechanic, and then making them player facing, feels like its mixing rules elements in a confusing way. The descriptors, foci, and cyphers introduced are good, but not really exciting enough to port to another setting. Then there is that minor quibble I had with the payment of young, up and coming adventurers.

Downloading some Cyphers to the DNA
This is a great setting book for the Cypher System. The setting is imaginative and evocative, and the artwork reinforces everything that gets described. The way cyphers and companions are handled are wonderful, and make this setting unique compared to the rest of the line. If you love dinosaurs and over the top settings, this setting has so much to offer.

If you aren’t really into dinosaurs, or you want your dinosaur, post-apocalyptic, or time travel settings a bit more grounded, this may not be for you. The book mentions that you can run the setting with a more realistic, hard-science bent, but it still assumes cyborg dinosaurs with lasers on their fricking heads, so that advice only goes so far.

If you like dinosaurs, wild adventure settings, and the Cypher System, you definitely need to pick up this book. If you aren’t really into the Cypher System, you may still find a gonzo time-travel, dinosaur, post-apocalyptic (kind of) setting that you can use elsewhere. I don’t imagine too many people that would be disappointed in this purchase.

**** (out of five)