Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Thyatic Empire Session 0: Character Creation

I was reminded last night of another reason I get those pangs of longing for simpler systems. We spent the entire evening doing character creation, and didn't manage to get to the adventure itself. While this is hardly an alien phenomenon to me - the "character creation session" is a staple of most modern campaigns, I believe - at my age I often wish we could just sit down and play like we would any other type of game. The boys' palpable disappointment at not being able to begin the adventure after laboring over their characters for so long was something I had hoped to avoid. Alas, RuneQuest 1984 has a pretty complex skill-generation segment, which is what bogged us down for most of the evening. When you consider the old tales of D&D grognards rolling up new characters during game play after losing their PC to some devious trap or monster that proved to be too great a match for them, you start to feel like maybe something good got lost along the way. After investing so much effort into building these characters, the thought of one of them dying and having to go through the character creation process again sounded like more trouble than it might be worth. Of course, I say that, but the boys mentioned several times that they had other ideas if their characters did die.

Still, RQ'84 (I think it's referred to in the RQ community as RQ III) has some interesting ideas on character creation. Your Attributes give you modifiers to your skills, which itself takes a little time to figure out, because different Attributes affect each skill category differently, dependent upon the category - you may add percentile bonuses based on how many points the Attribute is over 10, but in some cases it grants you the bonuses if you're under 10, etc.

Once you figure out what Culture you're coming from (Primitive, Barbarian, Nomad and Civilized), you decide on a career, and that determines a lot of your skill percentages before you place the last 30 points wherever you like. It factors in how old your character is and how long he's been in his particular career; the skills you get from your career list multiples, and for each year your character has practiced that career, you get a number of skill points on the given skill multiplied by the listed number. For example, if your career listed Boat x1, you'd get 1 percentile on the Boat skill for every year you were a Boatman; if it said Boat x3, you'd get 3 points per year, etc. This meant that Michael was easily able to make his Rakastoi who had been a Warrior for many years, but has been an Entertainer in more recent years. The boys were able to make characters who were a Malpheggoi who had been raised by Shadow Elves and a Shadow Elf who was the son of a smith and a fire-mage, and had some of both of their skill (he called himself a "flame warrior," which I thought was pretty cool and suitably Elven). I bent the RAW here and there, but honestly, I didn't have to do much - RQ III made such allowances pretty simple.

However, this means that Michael's character - an older adult - has far better skills than the boys' characters do, since the boys both decided they wanted to be 16, and you only begin counting skill points per year after age 15. It took some effort to convince the boys that they weren't going to be failing every time they tried a skill, since their percentile ratings were so low. The game system allows the GM to set modifiers to their ratings based on conditions, and as the game clarifies, the percentile rolls are really for stress situations, anyway - like combat or serious do-or-die pressure - not everyday use. I imagine this will be bourne out in play.

Another old school artifact appears in early BRP - the Appearance stat. Some iterations of BRP replace this with Charisma or omit it entirely, but I felt like sticking with the original version to see how it played out. C's Malpheggoi, Mair'foll, got a pretty high roll for his APP, so we decided his scales were extra-shiny, and he said his character had natural feathered plumage - a detail I hadn't considered for the lizard-folk, but I really liked the notion, so I decided it was a rare trait among his kind, and probably part of the reason he was adopted by the Kaldoroi. N's Kaldoroi Shy'don, on the other hand, got an APP of 6, which N interpreted to mean he had a wild, bedraggled appearance, with an unruly mane of hair and a body so skinny that his clothes never seemed to hang quite right on him. It also gave us a reason why Mair'foll and Shy'don stuck together as they grew up - they were both social outcasts among the Shadow Elves.

All this being said, by the end of the evening, characters were completed, so we'll be able to jump right into playing when we next have the opportunity to meet. I designed my adventure so that we wouldn't have to endure the Buying Equipment phase of creation. Inspired by Elder Scrolls IV and V, the PCs will begin the scenario having been captured by Vikings, stripped of their weapons and armor, bound hand-and-foot and brought to a sea-cave to await the arrival of a slave galley.

One other mechanic I wanted to adopt for this game was that of Hero Points (or Fate Points, or Drama Points, or whatever you want to call them). As I think I mentioned in a previous post here, the boys - like my nephew and nieces when they role-played for the first time - have an overriding desire to dictate the outcome of any given imaginary situation. Getting them to remember that in an RPG they don't get to decide the outcome, but only what their characters do (or try to do), has been difficult at times. I decided that this time I would give them a mechanic by which they could do this, but under certain conditions. First, they would have a limited amount of Hero Points to spend (I arbitrarily said three to begin), which would refresh only after the end of a game session or through some coolness on their part - I was admittedly vague about what said coolness should entail, but I'd like to impress upon them the notion that sometimes in a narrative it's more interesting not to succeed or be the strongest and most impressive at all times. I also want to reward them for being, well, Heroes.

Secondly, the Hero Points can be used in a couple of ways: either to reroll the dice and take the better result of the two rolls; or to change a minor detail of the story. The boys latched on to this latter usage, of course, which prompted them to make several suggestions as to how they might escape their imprisonment, thus providing me with examples of what consituted a "minor change." C couldn't decide that the Vikings didn't notice Mair'foll had a sword in his pants, but he could decide that he had stashed his sword into a nearby barrel before the Vikings could take it from him.

Following all of this, I took the Bachelor's Night prerogative to stay up far too late playing Michael's copy of Skyrim. Delighted by his reports that your character can choose to marry an NPC, I decided to make a new character - a High Elf male - and start the game over. I was initially wary of making a magic-heavy character, as my previous experiences in Elder Scrolls magic-use was always pretty limited (I usually prefer to hack at enemies with my sword), but the combination of magic and sword turned out to be pretty fantastic. The magicka-replenishment rate for High Elves is pretty great (according to Michael), so I was going into every fight giving my foes the flamethrower-hand and then slicing and dicing as they burned. The experience reminded me why BECMI Elves are cool as a character class, though of course Skyrim is more forgiving about combining armor-use and magic. Still, it made me consider playing an Elf if I ever get the chance to join a FLAILSNAILS/Constantcon* game...

*Speaking of which, I just noticed that someone's running a GURPS 4e version of the classic Caravan to Ein Arris adventure at 9PM next Saturday. I wonder if I should try to convince Michael to join it with me...?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Skyrim, Rifts and A Few Revelations

This post is really all over the map - at one point, quite literally - so please forgive my somewhat stream-of-consciousness approach. I had a bunch of different things I wanted to mention, and remembered a few more as I was typing them up. I probably should have just broke it down into separate blog posts over the next few days, but I'm far too disorganized to plan something like that. I'll leave that to the Jeff Rients of the world. Now you know why I haven't posted in months...

My friend and fellow gaming stalwart Michael received an XBox ("for the kids," ha ha) and a copy of Skyrim as Christmas presents this year. He gave me the opportunity to give it a spin, and darn skippy if it isn't a hoot. Even my wife got hooked on her first try. We've spent the last few weeks trying to come up with excuses to either go over to the Slussers or procure an XBox 360 for ourselves (sadly, neither have been possible).

My wife is off on a school-related outing to San Jose this weekend, so I have the opportunity to go hang out at Michael's house like a lazy bachelor (totally different from my usual self, the lazy married man) and sponge off of his family's hospitality and entertainment. However, I decided, this was a good opportunity to give a little something back, in the form of some gaming for Michael's sons. Namely, a Skyrim-inspired RPG session. Fortunately, he tells me the boys were quite excited about the idea, which is good because I've been obsessing over the idea ever since I played.

For the setting, instead of trying to recreate Cyrodiil or whatever the empire in The Elder Scrolls is called, I decided to go with something I'd be familiar and comfortable with, and frankly, something I've kinda been wanting to do for a while. I've taken Mystara, turned a lot of the countries into provinces of the Empire of Thyatis, and amped up the Byzantine feel while lowering the tech level a touch. I've always wanted to portray Thyatis as more medieval Greek than Imperial Roman, anyway - I'm not familiar enough with the Known World Gazeteers to know if that was the direction they were originally going or not, but having an ancient Roman-style state alongside medieval cultures always bugged me for some reason. The Byzantines, however, have fascinated me for as long as I've been aware of them.

With this in mind, I've ventured into modifying Mystara with a more liberal hand than I usually apply to personal adaptations. In the past I had an obsession with learning all of the official details about a setting and then tinkering only within those boundaries, building upon what was already there. These I'm not getting paid to do this, so why stick with details or concepts that I don't like?

Allow me to follow this tangential concept for a moment. Michael's boys are demonstrating that they're capable of getting into more complex game systems than those we've played with in the past; they've recently started getting into GURPS 4th Edition. I mentioned to Michael that they might enjoy a game of Rifts, given their love of gonzo character combinations. As a concept, Rifts is easily as suitable a setting as the Infinite Worlds campaign for testing out all the options GURPS could handle. However, I decided early on that I had no desire to attempt direct conversions of statistics. That would be a load of work that I don't have time to take on, not to mention sounding like a dull exercise to me right now. I've never been a gearhead or a rules monkey, I'm afraid. I would just use the already-extant GURPS equivalents from the Ultra-Tech books and just wing it from there. If the Dead Boy armor didn't have all of the same features as those listed in the Rifts core rulebook, I wouldn't care and the boys would never notice. Then it dawned on me: I didn't need to keep any of the cruft that I never liked in the books. They'll never know I'm not using Worldbook 45 or taking into account the Three Galaxies setting or whatever. As they say, the game police wouldn't come over to break up my game, even if it did deface Kevin Siembieda's intellectual property.

I had already laid out a few minor changes when I happened across SirLarkins' Rifts: 2112 campaign design notes; that gave me extra encouragement to make Rifts Earth my very own without a thought to the canon. And I've been having some fun with it, even though the changes I've made have been relatively minor, probably assisted by the fact that I haven't been a Palladium fanboy since junior high and thus have missed out on pretty much everything since Coalition War Campaign (that's Worldbook 11, for those of you who care). I went through my old copies of d20 Gamma World and took some ideas from that to incorporate into my Rifts setting. So far, it's been a very amusing process.

The point of this whole tangent is this: you can be told, time and again, by everyone from Gary Gygax to Ron Edwards that This Is Your Game Now, Do With It As You Will, but it may take some time for that to really sink in. It did for me, anyway. It still feels a little revolutionary to me now, to rewrite major swathes of a published setting for my own games. It's not as though I was ever expecting someone in my gaming group to take exception (especially since we only play about three games for the most part) or someone to send me a cease-and-desist, but there was always a voice in the back of my head that said, "Well, what if someone does know the original setting, and joins your game? What are you going to do then?".

This is probably RPGs 101 for most people, so call me a late bloomer. I'll post something more about my take on the Rifts setting in another post. In case the suspense is killing you, it's not a huge deal - some of the names are changed, a lot of the stuff in the books is outright ignored, and really grokking that since the Cataclysm happened in our future instead of our present made me realize that I was free to make vast urban sprawls (now in ruins) exist where right now in the real world there is only farmland. And big Olympus-style arcologies, no less.

Okay, back to fantasy. Making The Known World into a Cyrodiil clone. I made a map, of course, to help me visualize the boundaries of the Empire of Thyatis, and their (indifferent-to-hostile) neighbors:

I'm almost certainly going to change the name of Alfheim to something more Elven-sounding, and you may note I changed Rockhome to its Dwarven-language translation. The Five Shires are now The Five Tors, since I didn't want my Hin to evoke Tolkien quite so strongly (in fact, I'm largely basing Hin culture on that of the pre-Roman Celts).

Here are some of the main features I've settled on:

Karameikos. The first Imperial province outside of Thyatis, conquered by the Warduke Karameikos and named in his honor (the original honorific I was considering was Megas Doux, which doesn't quite work for me; as much as I like Dux Bellorum, I wanted to stick with Greek-sounding titles). Though deeply loyal to the Empire, Karameikos remains a more rough-and-tumble province with plenty of opportunities for a commoner to obtain a fortune and a name for himself.

The Minrothad Guilds. I haven't read the Gazeteer on this region, but my version is essentially The Spacing Guild from Dune. These guys control all of the trade on behalf of the Empire, to prevent its nobles from becoming corrupt through the pursuit of profit (at least, that was the original intent; things have mutated a bit since then). The culture is similar to that of ancient Crete, with a mystery cult atmosphere of secrecy, blood-oaths of loyalty, secret rites and lots of hooded guys sneaking around. The people are essentially African in appearance.

The Kingdom of Ierendi. Pseudo-Hawaii is right out. The folk of Ierendi are seafarers similar to those of the Somali coasts.

The Broken Lands. Inhabited by Orcs, of course, who are more Orkworld than "Crock". They basically feel like they've been shafted by the world in general, since they may have once ruled a vast empire called Aengmor until the Elves and Dwarves brought them down. That's what they tell people, anyway, but then someone always derails the discussion with accusations of cannibalism...

The Malpheggi Swamp. Inhabited by the Malpheggoi, lizard men who are analogous to the Argonians of The Elder Scrolls. They claim to remember Aengmor, too, and point to their ruins as proof.

The Principalities of Glantri. Keeping the magocracy and the bitterly divided principalities; ditching the weird ethnic mix (the pseudo-Scots live next door to the pseudo-Spaniards? Huh?). These guys are basically medieval Russians whose distrust of each other is the only thing keeping them from sweeping across the Empire.

Darokin. No more Renaissance Italians. These guys were originally Imperials who split Thyatis when the decision came down to restrict trade to the Minrothad Guilds. They have since mellowed and rejoined the Empire thanks to their exclusive rights to trade with the non-Imperial Glantroi and Atruaghinoi. They've also been heavily influenced by the Celtic-style culture of the Hin.

Alfheim [tentative name only]. Home - more or less - to three, count 'em, three Elven subraces: the Queldanoi, who are basically the mana-addicted Blood Elves from World of Warcraft; the Asuryanoi, brown-skinned Wood Elves heavily influenced by those of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay; and the Kaldoroi, the exiled Shadow Elves who are WoW Night Elves with the serial numbers filed off, cursed with poor daylight vision due to their long centuries of subterranean dwelling. None of these guys really like each other very much, but that's okay, because nobody else likes them very much, either. That's why they agreed to chafe under Imperial rule: too many enemies.

Atruaghin Clans. Actually, this is more or less unaltered. Here's another minor tangent for you: I don't know about what other D&D players thought about the Atruaghin, so maybe I'm just a huge bigot, but I once balked at the notion of a Native American-style culture in my medieval fantasy world. Of course, this new version is more Late Roman/Dark Ages than "medieval", but you know what I mean, I hope. Anyway, a single illustration in a gamebook managed to change my mind:

A Kioga tribeswoman, from GURPS Witch World
Illustration by Larry MacDougall

Such was the power of that simple illustration (and the context in which the associated culture was presented, I guess) over me that I've been quite comfortable with the idea ever since. Maybe it's because it leans harder toward "Barbarian" than toward "Old West"? More Northeastern Woodlands tribe than Southwestern? I can't put my finger on it, exactly, but somehow it makes the notion work for me.

I also made sure to include Mystara's native Rakastas as a playable race, so I'd have an equivalent of the Khajiit. At this point they're basically the Romani of the setting, wandering the Empire and dwelling in nomadic encampments, as per their original descriptions.

There's more, but at this point a lot of stuff is kind of embryonic, and most of the other regions are, to my knowledge, relatively unaltered (aside from the greater Imperial presence thing). The first adventure will take place in the Soderfjord Jarldoms, to emulate Skyrim's Nordic setting, but fortunately, it can go anywhere we want after that.

As far as the actual game system I'm using goes, I was originally going to use Warrior, Rogue and Mage. The concept of this simple system matched up perfectly with what I was aiming for: a classless system in which any PC can fight, pick locks, cast spells, whatever. And I'd been hoping to get some use out of it for a long time. However, where it wasn't quite clicking for me was in the area of skills. WR&M is based on exploding d6s, using a roll-over-the-difficulty-rating system. You either have a skill or you don't; if you do, it adds 2 to your roll and may give you extra benefits here and there. That's cool and good and all, but not quite what I wanted for this particular game.

Instead, I decided to go with Basic RolePlaying. I've always liked BRP's method of character improvement, where every adventure in which you successfully use one of your skills, you get a chance to improve it. That fit perfectly with the Elder Scrolls system, as well as allowing anyone to use magic without worrying about character classes. It's slightly more complex than WR&M, but if the boys can handle GURPS 4e and Earthdawn, they can handle this. I've been going back and forth on which iteration of BRP to use: right now RuneQuest (the 1984 Avalon Hill edition) is in first place with Legend and some version of Magic World vying for second.

Okay, off to get lunch. More later.