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|Friday, July 31st, 2015|
|Sunday, May 17th, 2015|
Like many other people but not as many as those who went to see Pitch Perfect 2, I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road.
This is an interesting movie. I have some things to say about it, hopefully without giving away too much.
Matt Colville, always an interesting commentator on movies, had some thoughts about it too, though his is more spoiler-y. You can read about his impressions here.
I think it is interesting as a note about our society that our artistic movies, our commentary movies, our movies about who we are as a people, are now this filled with violence and dystopia. I suppose though that for anyone who grew up in the '80s in the U.S. this is nothing new. We all lived under the spectre of mutually-assured destruction and the fear of imminent nuclear Armageddon.
Fury Road is, basically, a two-hour car chase, one that goes back and forth and winds up ending where it started. Of course, that's how many good stories work: Something happens to change the status quo, characters leave their home and come back wiser, sometimes upending the society upon their return. That's basically the formula here, and it works very well, because the characters reveal themselves in the journey and the movie is very tightly wound, with pretty much every element that's introduced important either as a catalyst to a later event or due to its symbolic power.
I feel like Fury Road is a movie that you can get a lot of meaning out of, but what meaning you get will be largely based on your own interpretation. I feel like George Miller made a spectacular romp, knowing exactly what he could get away with in terms of story and action and CGI, and he made many events that matter as the movie unfolds, but a lot of meaning in it is based on what you decide to apply to it.
The brief opening mention of oil wars and water wars should sound familiar to anyone living in California. It's a future that we simultaneously tell ourselves will never happen while secretly dreading that it's just around the corner. This is perhaps important to Max's characterization; he's a shellshocked survivor from a world mostly familiar to us, trapped in a hellscape of our creation.
This is one of the important parts of Mad Max's dystopias: They aren't of an Earth destroyed by a meteor or a volcano. They're destroyed by us. In all of Miller's Mad Max movies, there's some kind of cult-like leader figure (the Night Rider, Lord Humungus, Aunty Entity, etc.) who's building their own society from the ruins of the old world. As the movies become increasingly bleak and dystopian, these leaders become more and more wrapped up in eccentricities, in religious trappings, and in their grip on control of the precious resources of life. Even trampled, the world can support a little bit of life, but just like a two-headed lizard, life takes on strange forms when it's put under such pressure.
In Fury Road, Max tackles the question left hanging at the end of Beyond Thunderdome: Where is there to go? Where's the promised land? Where can we make a new home? Obviously the viewer knows that Max will never find a new home. His old home is dead and destroyed and all he has left is wandering and survival. With Fury Road, Max goes out to help look for a new home, but in the end he says, there is no new home. There is only the home you have. It's up to you to make it worth living in.
To me, this is inspirational. It's one of those moments where I take meaning from the movie that might or might not be intended, as I mentioned earlier. Max is dragged into a dysfunctional society of warriors who live in what could be a paradise, but it's under the thumb of a diseased dictator (a familiar and recurring trope of Miller's). At first, some people want to escape. They want to find another paradise, a promised land where they can raise children and live in green and have peace. After all their struggles, though, Max tells them bluntly, there is no promised land. Out there is nothing but desolation and death. If you want to live in a peaceful, green, flourishing society, you must make it. You must take it from the hands of tyrants and shape it into the paradise that you dream about.
The parallels of this message, the message that there's nowhere else to go so you have to make your home livable, with the offhand comment early in the movie about "water wars" is obvious. It's a kind of ecological litany crossed with an invocation against tyranny. We only have one world to live on, and if we overtax it and make it poisonous to us, if we let tyrants control the water and the green and all that lives and grows, it will choke us and kill us. The only thing we can do is try to turn the home that we have into the paradise that it could be, and to do that we must overthrow the tyrants who want to control all of the life and poison all the minds of its people. And Mad Max doesn't shy away from saying that many will die along the way, and many will never see that promised land. Even innocents. Children. Unborn babies. They will be casualties of these struggles. Because just as Max is desperate to survive at any cost, if humans are to survive we will have to pay costs for the horrors that we've racked up. But there's nowhere else to go, nobody out there who will swoop in and save us, so it's up to us to figure out how to make our world one that we can live in.
Another message that I took away is that of consequences. Arguably that's just good plotting: every significant action has a consequence down the road. You accidentally nick someone's leg while wildly firing a gun, and it's that injury that leads to the victim's death later. You establish that Max is an unwitting life-giver -- he's a universal blood donor -- and this ties him to other unwitting life-givers, when the tyrant of the piece tries to claim them all as property.
There's a lot of transformation, too. The movie's replete with chains. Chains are constantly used to hold people back, to turn them into chattel. Those chains must be cut or thrown off in order to move forward. Yet those same chains can bring people together, force them to cooperate or help them to work for a bigger cause that they can't do alone. It's pretty straightforward symbolism, but it feels like it's pointing to the idea that there are symbols in this movie, here's an obvious one, now go find more. The chains point toward other bindings: masks, chastity belts, artificial pieces made to bind people; it's when they are removed or cast off that people are able to develop bonds to each other and form their own road community. Every one in Max's unwitting band undergoes some kind of transformation along the way, whether learning to fight, exchanging dreams of the past for a hope of a new kind of future, or from living to dead. Max is looking for that transformation - he wants to leave behind his nightmares and be at peace with himself - but he gets something else instead: He succeeds in helping someone he cares about. This is important because it's something he was never able to do before. His wife and son were murdered. The peaceful inhabitants of the refinery were killed en masse and then forced out of their home. The children hoping to go to the Promised Land in Beyond Thunderdome . . . well we don't really know what happened to them but the implication in Fury Road is, nothing good. This time, Max connects with someone -- he doesn't want to, but he can't help it -- and he saves them. He makes things better. His destructive power, channeled in concert with a glimmer of hope for a new world, becomes a revolutionary force.
You can find other messages in Fury Road, too, whether feminist or fascist or futhark. Some are uplifting, some are horrific, but that's the funny thing about our world: It's full of things wonderful and terrible. Mad Max's world is pretty awful with glimmers of good. So how good do we have it, in our world that's pretty good with some pieces of pure nastiness? And how much will it take for us to take responsibility and keep our world from sliding down from pretty good to pretty bad?
Also, lots of cars explode.
|Friday, February 27th, 2015|
|"Don't Grieve, Admiral."
"Don't grieve, Admiral."
These simple words are some of Spock's last as he's dying from radiation burns in the warp core of the Enterprise while fighting to save the crew during the Wrath of Khan. It is a curious choice of phrase.
Spock can't tell Kirk "I know you are hurting." He can't say "I did this because of my love for my captain and my crew." He can't let anyone know what he feels.
"I have been, and always shall be, your friend."
And an unlikely friendship, between passion and logic, the connection of reason with intuition. There's so much unspoken under what Spock says. Don't grieve -- not because I am telling you not to hurt; not because I am telling you not to care; because I know
you care, I know
you hurt, but I am telling you in the only way that I can that what I have done was logical
; I made a choice to sacrifice for people because I, too, cared about them. So don't grieve, because it is not a pointless death or an empty death. It is a logical
death, and if I could feel, I would tell you that it is the death that I chose because of my love for my crew and captain.
The final word to McCoy, the rival, who becomes the unlikely acolyte. A note which triggers McCoy's response later: "You know, he's not really dead, as long as we remember him." Because we all
remember him. We remember the part of us that he touched, the part that lives on in our minds. In the case of McCoy this touch was literal. For the rest of us, though, it will live on through the experiences we shared.
|Monday, February 23rd, 2015|
|Running Pathfinder: The Adventure Paths
While my last article discussed a bit of Pathfinder's Kingmaker
adventures and their specialty rules for building kingdoms, I figured that I would take a quick detour (and buy myself some time to work on the additional construction material for elven and dwarven themed kingdoms) to write a little bit about Paizo's market strategy with Adventure Paths.
For those who're not big-time role-playing game aficionados, Paizo is the publisher for the Pathfinder
game, which is essentially the half-step adopted successor to 2000's Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition
is, by several metrics, very successful and quite a competitor with D&D as far as sales and brand loyalty in the role-playing game market. This should not be a surprise, because Paizo is under the watchful gaze of Lisa Stevens, who's been keen on industry opportunities for over twenty-five years at this point and is one savvy businesswoman -- especially for a business sector that's generally pretty low-profit.
Anyway, Paizo regularly publishes "Adventure Paths," which are monthly adventures that connect in a six-episode arc designed to carry your game group from introduction (brand-new characters) all the way to a heroic conclusion (at the upper tiers of gameplay, as mighty adventurers with a history of many victories). This means that Paizo publishes two complete series of adventures every year. Their other releases often synergize with this: If the current adventure takes place in the River Kingdoms, there's also a Guide to the River Kingdoms. If you're exploring a crashed spaceship, there's a Guide to Technology in that release cycle. It's a very smart release strategy and it's certainly no accident.
The current iteration of Dungeons & Dragons
, the fifth edition, is positioning to emulate this -- to some degree. At least one industry survey found that the typical fantasy gaming campaign lasts for about a year, and the new D&D has opened up with one-year story arcs. Last year was the Tyranny of Dragons story arc; this year it's Elemental Evil. Each story arc gets a campaign sourcebook detailing the particulars of that campaign, and some adventure support -- in the case of last year's Tyranny of Dragons arc, via the third-party publisher Kobold Press, under the guidance of the effulgently creative designer Wolfgang Baur. (You've heard his name before if you're an old hand with D&D -- he is, after all, for whom the Bauriar of Planescape
The problem that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast has with D&D right now is that their publication schedule is basically sticking them with one book for the whole year. This causes a loss of momentum in the customer base. People want to be excited about upcoming releases, and one campaign sourcebook -- with the adventurer's handbook to go with it, chock full of meaty new character-creation goodness, cancelled and turned into a PDF -- isn't cutting it. Folks are looking at their D&D sourcebooks, saying "That's it?" and looking around bored, wondering what to do next. The loss of momentum is going to cause people to drift away from the brand and seek something more dynamic with more frequent support. (Wizards of the Coast's design department is in a tough nut here, though. Too many books cause feature bloat and make it impossible to support the game. Too few mean not enough releases to sustain interest and sales. They could probably get away with doing something closer to Paizo's model, releasing smaller amounts of content every month or two -- or subcontracting that out to other companies -- and tying a lot of their game rules updates into that content in small bite-sized chunks, but they aren't doing so and nobody seems to know why they're so hesitant to license out for other companies to help out with the small-run publication of adventures and support.)
So, aside from having an aggressive release schedule that supports the sale of other setting books, Paizo is also eating Hasbro/WotC's lunch by reprising everything popular that D&D players have loved, and going through that with their releases. A significant chunk of Paizo's adventure paths -- say, maybe half of them -- have storylines that are pretty close to some of the very early D&D modules that are known by, loved by, and popular with old hands of the role-playing game field. Let's have a look . . .
||Rise of the Runelords
||Your basic "Evil is awakening, fight your way through a series of dungeons to defeat it!" Straight-up boilerplate out-of-the-box epic adventure.
||Curse of the Crimson Throne
||Fresh off a dungeon saga, Paizo says “You like that? We’re gonna do something wildly different,” and throws players into a court intrigue and political gamesmanship campaign.
||Fight against the dark elves and their attempt to take over the world, starting with a major metropolis on the surface and tracing back to their demonic roots deep underground! It’s the old drow series of modules: D1-3, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and Vault of the Drow.
||Legacy of Fire
||Strange events are afoot in a desert landscape where two warring factions invoked genies to do battle. Sounds suspiciously like the infamous Desert of Desolation modules I3-5: Pharaoh, Oasis of the White Palm, and Lost Tomb of Martek.
||Council of Thieves
||A corrupt city in an evil empire is the source of all manner of hellish problems, as the heroes infiltrate criminal enterprises while evading the wickedly malevolent forces of the ruling class. Some similarities to Iuz the Evil, the sourcebook of Greyhawk’s evil kingdom ruled by an evil demigod.
||Explore the wilderness, build a kingdom, then defend it. This is essentially the main thrust of D&D development in 1st edition AD&D and in the D&D basic and later boxed sets: When you have had enough adventures to become powerful leaders, you settle some lands, fight off monsters, and become a local baron or other noble and collect taxes while fending off rivals. The D&D Companion Set also had a system for domain building and management, something that Kingmaker also includes as an integral component.
||Shipwrecked on a jungle shore, the party eventually reaches a dangerous trade city and uncovers activities of a deadly cult of serpent people. Some similarities to I1, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, which featured serpent cultists in a desolate city deep in the jungle, as well as N4 Treasure Hunt, which has the party shipwrecked. Also echoes of C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, with its jungle crossing to a ruined ancient temple.
||Horror adventures in a grim, haunted kingdom. Very much in the vein of I6 Ravenloft.
||Escort a caravan and a few local friends across the North Pole to reach the far east and establish one of them as the rightful ruler of a distant fantasy Japan-themed kingdom.
||Skull & Shackles
||Escape from captivity on a pirate ship and become pirates yourselves, then fight for the pirates and traders of your independent archipelago. Opens similarly to the aforementioned N4 Treasure Hunt with the players enslaved on a ship, then goes straight into Pirates of the Caribbean territory.
||The players find themselves roped into re-assembling the Sihedron, a powerful artifact that was broken into seven pieces long ago. Very close concept to the Rod of Seven Parts. Same number of pieces, even!
||Reign of Winter
||Baba Yaga and Rasputin show up to bring eternal winter to the fantasy Russia analog. Naturally the fact that it has Baba Yaga means there’s a content connection to the module The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga, though there’s a lot more going on in this adventure path.
||Wrath of the Righteous
||Descend into a massive hell-scar to fight demons and try to save the world. Features the special mythic hero rules, as one might expect. This somewhat mirrors the Bloodstone series H1-4, which had the players going to Hell to steal an artifact from a demon prince and was recommended for characters up to level 100 (that is, mythic!).
||Fight the cult of an ancient undead god-king in fantasy Egypt analog land. Has some similarities to Gygax’s Necropolis supermodule hardcover and to module RA3 Touch of Death.
||Explore tech-dungeons from pieces of a crashed spaceship, collect space weapons and fight aliens with the goal of overthrowing a mad tyrant, a secret society of tech-sorcerers, and a crazed AI. Very much a Thundarr the Barbarian style adventure in the footsteps of the famous module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.
||Giants are invading! Fight them off! So far this adventure path looks like it’s treading some ground similar to modules G1-3 Against the Giants.
So am I saying that Paizo's Pathfinder
team is just doing a bunch of rip-offs? Not at all. Paizo's staffers know their audience. They know how to schedule releases, they have a good idea of what people want, and they're bringing their own touch to classic adventure ideas, while occasionally throwing their own curve balls. Keep in mind, too, that the typical old-school D&D adventure module is 32 or 64 pages, while an adventure path boasts a series of 6 books at 96 pages each, including the adventure, some short fiction, and some supplementary monsters and new rules. So Paizo's doing what any good creative endeavor does when making sequels: They're taking the familiar elements that people learned to love, putting a new polish on them, and giving them much more lavish treatment.
Since Paizo manages two adventure paths every year, this also gives players an "either-or" choice. If you just want to play in one game (or run one game), you can pick either adventure path for the year and run it. Since the average campaign goes on for a year, you'll have two more choices by the time the end of your campaign rolls around. Thus, you can pick the one that you like.
I daresay that this is an example of something incredibly rare in the game industry: a marketing division that works with the creative division and actually gets what the audience wants. Pathfinder
's success rests on people who felt like the newer editions of D&D left them behind; they liked what they were playing, and they wanted to keep playing more of it. The adventure paths that Paizo is publishing recognize that these are people who will spend their dollars on adventure gaming that lets them reprise the cool stories from their game roots with a game system with which they've become familiar over the last fifteen years.
Thus far, D&D's new 5th edition looks like a good game, but a good game will only last if you have something to sell to people. Wizards of the Coast needs to step up its commitment to publication -- either on their own or through their licensed partners -- or Paizo is going to continue to eat their lunch.
|Monday, February 16th, 2015|
|Running Pathfinder: Kingmaker -- Entry 1: The Not-So-King-ish Maker
For the Pathfinder role-playing game, the Adventure Path (series) Kingmaker is famed as a semi-sandbox collection of stories that start with exploration of monster-haunted wilds and move into settling the countryside, domain management, and the establishment of a new kingdom under the stewardship of the players. Veteran adventure gamers will, of course, recognize this as an old conceit: In early Dungeons & Dragons games, experienced adventurers eventually settled down, gained minor titles, and built castles, temples, wizard towers and thieves' guilds. This system was even heavily codified in the D&D Companion Set, part of the series of boxed versions of the game that were made specifically easy to learn but with a lot of long-term campaigning.( Read more...Collapse )
|Monday, December 29th, 2014|
|Running Dark Sun: Merchant-Adventurers
In the original incarnation of the DARK SUN game, the supplement Dune Trader
detailed the independent traders who ventured from city-state to city-state, hawking their wares and sometimes engaging in shady dealings. Players could take on the Trader class and deal with the problems of trying to move caravans of goods, bribing templars, buying low and selling high, running a business, and defending against thieves and scoundrels. Athas.org's 3rd edition version of DARK SUN didn't explicitly deal with traders, but 4e included the trader as an archetype, continuing the trend.
Now, some players didn't like the trader class. This was a character that didn't fight well (using the thief's combat ability and often without armor), had limited skills (like a thief but not as competent), and had no magical or psionic power. The trader's main claim to fame was having access to more money than most characters, but not so much that it really mattered after a level or two. So why would you ever play one?( Read more...Collapse )
|Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014|
|Running Dark Sun: Dark Secrets for Dark Hearts
The original DARK SUN boxed set includes a small section of rules regarding the shift in alignment of characters suffering from extreme thirst. In short, if your character's dying of dehydration, morals and scruples slip away, and the character becomes overwhelmed with the need to acquire water to slake that burning thirst, no matter the cost!
Of course, many players dislike the sense of losing control over their characters. I'm the one playing this character, why are my actions being dictated by circumstances beyond my control? If I decide that my character is a heroic martyr and would give up his or her last sip of water, who's to tell me otherwise?
The reason for this set of rules isn't just to take away control from players or simply to underscore the brutal realities of the desert world of Athas (though that latter is certainly part of the equation). This rule exists to create terrible situations in which characters do awful things to their allies so that they can regret it later!( Read more...Collapse )
|Monday, November 3rd, 2014|
|Running Dark Sun: The Order
In the DARK SUN campaign setting, spellcasters face specific threats and challenges in tandem with the powers that they wield. Preservers and defilers are both pariahs and social outcasts; defilers have special difficulty concealing their magic, while preservers are specifically hunted and killed by the sorcerer-kings (not to mention angry mobs who don't understand the distinction between the two styles of arcane magic). Clerics are constantly pushed to promote the agendas of their elemental patrons, while druids will find themselves fighting against the encroachment of city-dwellers and resource exploiters, not to mention against mages who might defile the druid's guarded lands. Psionicists, by contrast, are largely accepted in society; nobles send their children to psionic schools, psionic mercenaries work for merchant houses as guards and information-gatherers, and slave tribes rely on both wild talents and trained psionic abilities for defense. Psionic powers don't have the stigma attached to wizardry, nor do they have repressive pall of the templarate or the revolutionary cast often attributed to elemental clerics. Psychic powers are, for the most part, free of any prejudices. This means that playing a psionic character is an attractive path for players avoiding the difficulties that spellcasters face.( Read more...Collapse )
|Monday, October 20th, 2014|
|Running Dark Sun: Memorable Magic Items
Magical treasures are a mainstay of Dungeons & Dragons
games. After all, they're the means to acquire special bonuses and powers that your character might otherwise never have -- and for players interested in building their character stories, every magic item is a piece of the character's history, a reminder of past adventures and a glance backward into the world itself (after all, someone had to make that magic item).
In DARK SUN, magical items sit on an awkward position of the reward hierarchy. Characters typically pursue metal weapons first, then hope to improve to enchanted metal weapons, but this isn't a sure thing. A 5th-level fighter with a +1 obsidian broadsword
is still pretty fearsome, as the magical bonus on the weapon helps to ameliorate the drawbacks of obsidian. Essentially, for low- to mid-level DARK SUN characters, an enchanted nonmetal weapon might have parity with a mundane metal weapon. For nonweapons, though, the utility of magical items stays the same, or is even better. When you're stuck using bone-studded leather armor, a +1 ring of protection
is a pretty big deal!
To match the setting's emphasis on damaged, second-hand, and worn-out gear, magic items in DARK SUN should have some kind of story or heritage that fleshes out their individual histories. This is good practice for magic items in any Dungeons & Dragons
game, but in DARK SUN it's particularly useful to underscore the ancient history of the world. Here's an example from the oft-overlooked DARK SUN game, Shattered Lands
Obsidian Bloodwrath: "This looks like a ritual sacrifice item of the templars of Tectuktitlay. Its blade is magically sharpened to better pierce the hearts of the dragon king's victims."
This is just a +1 obsidian longsword
, but this nice little description explains where it came from (some templar made it in Draj for ritual sacrifices) and this gives it a bit of history. How did it get out of the hands of the templarate? Will they recognize it if they see a character carrying it? Built-in story development!
Since magical weapons in DARK SUN may well be made of obsidian, bone, or wood, you might extend this principle to other items as well. You could give the players a +1 ring of protection
that is made from twisted knots of agafari wood, but it loses its enchantment for a day if the character is struck by a metal weapon. (Avoid the temptation to specify that its +1 bonus doesn't work against metal weapon attacks -- these kinds of situational modifiers that have to be applied on the fly to individual attacks are hard to remember.) Or, give a +1 cloak of resistance
that's made from dyed erdlu feathers with solar patterns on it, enchanted by a para-elemental Sun cleric, but it only grants its bonus in daylight. A suit of +1 studded leather armor
might be made with bulky pieces of hide that also give it extra weight or grant the wearer a penalty of some sort on various Strength and Dexterity checks (the implementation of such a penalty being dependent upon your edition of the rules). This way, you can give magic items with edge-case bonuses and drawbacks, just like magic weapons.
As noted with the cloak mentioned previously, the style of an item can also reflect the nature of its enchanter. A neutral defiler might make a wand of magic missiles
out of simple teak, but an evil defiler might make such a wand out of a thigh bone wrapped with a rough leather grip and inscribed with tiny dart-like sigils. A set of boots of striding and springing
enchanted by a druid could be in a sandy dun color that blends well with the desert, while ones made by an elemental priest of Air might be of white leather with blue trim.
Naturally, as the characters reach higher levels, they'll acquire or enchant weapons and items with better qualities, perhaps taking that extraordinary metal sword from an earlier age and placing their own spells upon it to make it even more powerful. As a rule of thumb, the bonuses for items should hover around a +1 bonus starting at 4th level, and going up by another +1 for every four levels thereafter (+2 at 8th, +3 at 12th, +4 at 16th, +5 at 20th). This might vary depending upon your edition -- in 3e or 4e, weapons with special properties tend to be more common instead of higher bonuses, and they may show up somewhat earlier -- but this general guideline indicates that your DARK SUN characters will have their low-quality obsidian or bone weapons when they start, get slightly better weapons at 4th or 5th level, then around 8th they will start to see enchanted metal weapons or powerfully-charmed weapons of inferior materials. You can and should, of course, break this progression if you feel that the players have earned an exceptional magic item, or if you want to saddle them with something beyond their level of ability and make them a target because of it. (Going the other direction is painful because there's already so much stacked against DARK SUN characters, but it might make sense in a city-heavy game of gladiators and thieves who don't need special magic weapons to fight their humanoid adversaries.)
Why go to all of this trouble? Because when your magic items have these extra bits of description, this descriptiveness helps to set them "in the world." A +1 sword
is more than just a sword with a bonus: it is an object with a history, that was made by someone, went through various hands, and eventually wended its way to the players. The item not only has a past, but it reinforces that it came from somewhere, and that the world itself has myriad events and people in it that the players' characters may not know or have met. This provides versimilitude both to the item and to your world.
This bit of advice wouldn't be complete with a few tables to help inspire you with ideas for your own special magical items!
1. Ancient -- This item is from an earlier age of Athas. It is possible that it has only survived to the current age due to its enchantments. If it is artistically embellished, the artwork may reflect creatures or settings that no longer exist.
2-3. Old -- This item is from the current age, but it was created decades ago -- maybe even a century or more. The creator, if human or humanoid, probably isn't alive any more. The item probably doesn't have a reputation, unless it was used for a notorious deed in some place (a knife used for a series of killings in a city-state, a wand carried by a defiler who murdered several druids and terrorized a specific feature of the landscape, etc.).
4-5. Recent -- This item was created in the last few years, possibly by a local enchanter, or maybe it made its way to the area after its creator was robbed, killed, or sold the item. People who knew the creator might recognize the item; it could have a local reputation in some areas.
6. New -- This item was created very recently. The creator is probably only one or two steps removed from its falling into the hands of the player characters. It probably doesn't have a reputation yet, but if its creator was well-known the workmanship might be familiar to people who knew the creator.
Artistic Decor (1d6)
The nature of an item's artistic decor will reflect the preferences of its creator. A druid is likely to use pictures of natural spaces, animals, and natural phenomenon, a cleric will depict his or her patron element, a preserver might work arcane shapes into pictures of plant life, and a defiler might use symbols relating to death and terror.
- None -- The item is purely functional.
- Subtle -- The item has some sort of artwork built into it, but it is not apparent without close inspection (a pattern in the grain of wood or the fibers of cloth, a small number of colored spots that are out of place, a fresco that is so finely hewn that it can be felt but not seen).
- Minimal -- Item has a single rune, picture, or piece of embellishment.
- Decorated -- The item was made with several artistic choices, influencing its choice of material and also its form. The item is made of materials that may have some intrinsic value, specifically carved/woven/dyed/tanned/shaped to have a pleasing aesthetic, such as a wand with a smooth finish and tapered point that has an embedded ring of obsidian just under the tip, or a set of sandals with colored tassels on the ties and buttressed with polished pieces of petrified wood along the front to protect the toes.
- Whimsical -- The item is decorated with patterns and symbols that might be representative of an idea, but are not necessarily a specific shape of a creature or other object (tiny stars all over its surface, a stylized flame picture, a bolt of lightning with lines radiating from the point of impact, a picture of a cloud).
- Symbolic -- The item may be made to resemble a specific other object or creature (a wand that is shaped like a slender cactus, or a ring shaped with carved feet to look like a mekillot), or a natural phenomenon (a shirt with patterns in the dye-work to make it look like rain against a dark sky, a flask twisted into the shape of a sandstorm dust devil).
Only roll quirks for items that you want to be limited in some fashion. In general, you can think of a quirky item as one that has a bonus equivalent to an item one "plus" lower -- a +2 sword
that only functions in daylight is roughly similar to a +1 sword
in terms of its value, unless your game happens to always or never take place in daylight.
- Item only works for a specific period of time (day, night, during the waxing of one of the moons, half of the months of the year, etc.)
- Item is powerless when exposed to a specific element (e.g. if wielder is next to a fire at least the size of a bonfire, item loses its magical bonuses)
- Item has powers only after exposed to a specific element for an hour (e.g. wielder must immerse the item in water for an hour in order for its power to become active, item must be left unattended in the sun for an hour, etc.); lasts for one day
- Item only functions for characters of a specific race (thri-kreen, mul, etc.)
- Item's power does not work on one class of enemies (beasts, elementals, undead, etc.) or one specific social group (templars of Nibenay, clerics of Fire, etc.)
- Item works for a given owner for one week, then works only for a different owner for a week. Must be traded to resume functioning. If traded back, remains inert until the current owner's week expires.
- Item's power only activates when wielder is at 1/2 maximum hit points or less.
- Item's power only activates when wielder is at more than 1/2 maximum hit points.
- Item "turns on" by activating it with 5% of the user's psionic power points (minimum 1). Lasts for 24 hours. If item is dropped or given away, it becomes inert again.
- Item "turns on" by activating it with the user's blood -- 5% of the user's hit points (minimum 1). Lasts for 24 hours. If item is dropped or given away, it becomes inert again.
- Item radiates magic with triple normal strength and radius.
- Using item's power causes defiling as if casting a spell of level equal to item's bonus (e.g. +1 sword causes defiling as if casting a 1st-level spell every time it hits).
- Using item's power causes water sources to dry up. Calculate range as if defiling and destroying plants, as entry 11. above, but this causes water sources to completely dry up and become empty instead of destroying plant life. This still causes pain in living creatures (due to dessication).
- Item is fragile and subject to breakage like a normal item of its type, not as an enchanted item.
- Item has immediately recognizable characteristic or legendary history and many people will recognize it instantly (especially other magicians).
- Item causes a penalty on certain skill checks. Choose two skills. Item causes a penalty on those skill checks equal to its bonus (2nd/3rd/4th edition) or grants disadvantage on those skills (5th edition) as long as it is carried or worn.
- Item irritates psionic creatures nearby. Unintelligent psionic creatures seek out and attack the wielder to try to break the item. Range is dependent on item power (a good rule of thumb is, if the item could be detected with detect magic, it can be sensed at that range by a psionic beast.)
- Using item's power angers elementals nearby. Determine range as entry 17., above, but with the added effect that clerics carrying the item cannot regain spells (as their elemental patrons will not respond to them). Could be used as a shackle for an imprisoned cleric...
- Item temporarily loses its powers if it is in area of defiling magic. Powers are suppressed for 1 round per level of the defiling spell.
- Using item's power within a city-state alerts sorcerer-king to its presence.
Have fun with your +2 bone sickle of the scrublands
, a druid-created weapon that bears a carving of the scrub plains and mountains west of Tyr, made a hundred years ago by a druid who eventually died in his guarded lands, but not before passing it on to one of his students, who took it on her journeys into the world. Or your +1 cloak of tears
, a +3 cloak of resistance
that looks like a limp gray length of cloth with a silvery threaded lining around the neck and shoulders, which only functions while it is damp with water. And may your weapons never break!
|Monday, October 13th, 2014|
|Running Dark Sun: City Adventures
Last time, I wrote a bit about settlements in the wilderness of DARK SUN. I mentioned briefly the presence of the major city-states, so now's a great time to talk a little bit more about adventuring there!
Since the world of Athas is a devastated nightmare of diminished resources, survival is a difficult proposition. Naturally, this prompts people to band together anywhere that they have a decent chance of avoiding the monsters of the wastes. This, though, places people at the mercy of different kinds of monsters . . .( Read more...Collapse )
|Sunday, October 5th, 2014|
|Running Dark Sun: Making Interesting Settlements
The DARK SUN setting comes with several built-in settlements: the various city-states of the sorcerer-kings. This gives you plenty of options when you're running a city-based game, with characters hustling, avoiding and bribing templars, looking for patronage from the noble houses, and running small-time operations. Characters who head out of the city into the wastes -- pretty much a requirement at some point in any DARK SUN game, if only because at some point you'll cross the wrong templar or be framed for a serious offense -- will probably run across various small settlements out there in the desert landscape. While the core DARK SUN setting includes a few villages and tribes, the books also note that transitory settlements pop up from time to time, lasting only a short while before they're wiped out by monsters, the environment, or internal strife. This means that even characters familiar with the wastes might find themselves surprised by coming around a bend and discovering a tiny settlement huddled around some natural feature! Play their cards right and the adventurers might have shelter and a hot meal -- or possibly an entire mob of angry villagers chasing them . . .
If your player group decides that they're just going to haggle for some supplies and be on their way, you don't have much work to do; but, if you want the settlement to be memorable, or possibly to serve as a new temporary base of operations or as a story lynchpin where players can get attached to the locals before you threaten them with your devious plots, you'll want to put a little bit of thought into it. Settlements in a DARK SUN setting are much like settlements in any other game world: People need places to live, and they gather together in groups for safety and mutual prosperity.
When creating a new transient settlement, avoid the temptation to make everything unique, unusual, and strange. The DARK SUN setting is already full of unique, unusual, and strange things. Having one element that stands out can be a hook that players remember for the location; having too many strange elements just makes it noisy and confusing. With that in mind, here are some questions to consider when you're building a settlement for your adventurers to encounter in DARK SUN.
* What natural feature anchors the settlement? It's rare for people to just put down a tent somewhere in the middle of the desert away from everything. The obvious choice is an oasis, but this isn't the only possibility. The settlement might abut a cliff face, have a large sinkhole of silt along one side, sit among cactus plants, or be festooned with chunks of basalt from an ancient volcanic eruption from an earlier age. It could lie in a natural arroyo, sit atop a mesa, or be dug into a ruined remnant of an older city. The inhabitants will make use of the feature for defense or resources. This also tells you what might get them to leave: If the locals rely on the natural cactus plants to create a thorny barrier that keeps out predators, a defiler's magic that destroys a ring of the cacti might cause them to flee the locale, since it is no longer defensible.
* How do they get their food and water? The basic survival questions central to DARK SUN apply just as much to settlements in the wastes as to any traveler or city-dweller. The typical answer is that the settlers have a small oasis -- maybe a mud flat, a spring, or a salty pond. Other settlements might get their water from cacti, from trade, from raiding of other nearby caravans and villages, or from exotic sources like a magical device or alchemical distillation of kank nectar. For transient settlements, it's possible that the water or food source is seasonal. It may be tempting to go afield from the usual "small oasis" answer, but it's not necessary; many settlements will make do with whatever small water source they can find, and a small, temporary oasis is a perfectly viable answer to that question, especially if you want the settlement to seem relatively normal and have its unique characteristics come from something else.
* How many people live there, and what are their relationships? A settlement could be a tiny gathering of inix-hide tents, holding a single family, or it could be a lone psionic master and his students, or perhaps even a band of soldiers who decided to sack the caravan they were guarding, escape into the wastes with the goods, and set themselves up in a remote location for a while. If the settlement is small, the players might be tempted to confront the people there, on the premise of overpowering them; similarly, a small settlement usually appears of limited utility -- there's not a lot to trade if there's only a half-dozen people there -- unless one or more of the villagers are something more than just a survivalist out in the desert. A slightly larger settlement, though, may tempt the players to stay there as a new base, especially if they can make themselves useful. Depending on the direction of your game, this may or may not be desirable. After all, if you want the characters traipsing around in the desert themselves, you can't give them a safe place to be homebodies!
The relationships of people in the settlement are important because these give you your adventure hooks and drama. Consider the classic movie Yojimbo
(you might've heard of it as A Fistful of Dollars
). When the stranger arrives in town, two sides are warring, and he profits by getting in the middle. Not every settlement in the Athasian desert needs to be a peaceful place. Villagers might have any number of reasons to dislike each other, and hostilities might be kept from boiling over only by the desperate needs for survival. A village might revile a local magician but be too scared to confront him or her, and the adventurers could find themselves in trouble if they try to curry favor in hopes of acquiring new magical spells. Or the villagers might consist partly of slaves and partly of ex-templars, who have avoided killing each other only because they need to band together to stave off the attacks of monsters of the desert.
* What threats does the settlement face? Monsters, water sources drying up, sandstorms, raiders, nearby city-state templars, slave-takers, the Dragon, defilers, angry elementals, angry druids, starvation, ancient curses, disease -- pick one or two. This will give the adventurers problems to tackle (or, possibly, a reason to high-tail it on to the next destination in a hurry).
Feeling stumped by these questions? Fear not, in the vein of the ancient lore from days of yore, here are some random tables that you can use to generate some answers!
Roll 1d20 for each table.
- Cliff face
- Silt estuary
- Cactus field
- Obsidian field
- Intersection of trails/animal runs
- Defiled ground
- Mud flat
- Boulder field
- Colorful sand/rocks
- Hardy vines/root plants
- Tar pits
- Lava pools
- Shattered psionic crystals/enchanted fragments
- Roll twice
- Spring (roll 1d6: On a 5-6, hot springs)
- Kank herds
- Erdlu herds
- Small lizards and mammals
- Local cleric
- Bird flocks
- Bat flocks
- Stores from previous location (taken when fleeing/from a caravan/from former home)
- Succulent plants
- Honey bees
- Edible flowers/native fruit-bearing or leafy plants
- Well drilled into aquifer
- Rain-catches and cisterns
- Sand/rock crustaceans (crabs, insects)
- Roll twice
POPULATION & RELATIONS
- Small family of 1d4+1
- Large family of 2d4+2
- Extended family of 3d4+3
- Small mercenary group of 1d6+2
- Large mercenary company of 2d6+4
- Small group of escaped slaves, 1d4+2
- Band of former slaves, 5d6
- Explorer and hired help, 1d6+1
- Cleric and acolytes/followers, 1d10+1 (Roll 1d6: Para-elemental on 6, elemental otherwise)
- Psion and apprentices, 1d8+1
- Magician and apprentices, 1d6+1 (Roll 1d6: Preserver on 6, defiler otherwise)
- Nomadic community, 5d6
- Split community of former slaves and non-slaves, 6d6
- Split community of magician (and possible apprentices), 1d4, and suspicious villagers, 3d6
- Split community of former merchants, mercenaries, or nobles at odds, 5d4 on each side
- Small band of hunters & herders, 4d4
- Dwarves with a shared focus, 1d6+2
- Travelers who got lost, 4d4
- Miners/treasure hunters/resource exploiters, 4d4
- Roll twice
PERILS & HAZARDS
- Limited water supply
- Limited food supply
- Resource shortage (tool-making materials, clothing, fire fuel, etc.)
- Poisonous plants
- Dangerous plants (razor vines, needle-shooting cactus, psychic strangler vines, etc.)
- Obsidian shards
- Templar or templar group
- Angry elemental(s)
- Unknown thief
- Other nearby settlement
- The Dragon
- Roll twice
|Tuesday, September 16th, 2014|
|Running Dark Sun: Chance versus Fate
A common tension in running games is the conflict between telling a story
– the idea that characters are central to a dramatic narrative and that their challenges should follow a fulfilling dramatic arc – and playing a game
– the idea that skill and randomness come together under a set of rules operations to decide on an outcome. These goals wind up at odds because random outcomes (as determined by dice or cards or whatever) are not conducive to a story that follows a character’s choices to a dramatic conclusion; indeed, over a sufficiently long campaign, the odds will probably wind up falling against a character and some kind of random disaster becomes nigh-inevitable. In a nutshell, this is chance versus fate: Is your character's ultimate destiny set by the dice gods, or by dramatic necessity?( Read more...Collapse ) Current Mood: creative
|Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014|
|The Book of Infinite Spells Problem (yet more game design)
The earliest printed edition of Dungeons & Dragons
was pretty thin on the ground with magic spells. The starting list for magic-users included a whole eight spells, such as charm
, and read magic
. The neophyte magician's palate is limited to some simple enchantments; the character -- and the player! -- must rely on cleverness and caution more than just spells.
Of course, this situation wouldn't remain for long. Once the first edition of A&D debuted, the Player's Handbook
included 30 spells, ranging from write
(transcribe a spell that is too difficult for you to understand yet, so you can at least have a copy in your spellbook for later) to magic missile
(the venerable low-level damage-dealing spell) to spider climb
(climb up walls and ceilings like an arachnid). As the years and editions rolled on, this situation continued to expand. Unearthed Arcana
added new spells to the list, then 2nd edition updated the list and added new spells with its Tome of Magic
supplement. 3rd edition similarly added spells in nearly every hardcover character-centric book -- Complete Arcane
, you name it, there were new spells.
This presents a bit of a problem. On the one hand, players love the variety. Having lots of spells provides you with the opportunity to flip through a hundred pages of wonders and find the ones that really speak to your character. If you want to play a wizard who's a master of cold magics, you pick and choose all of the cold spells from the many lists. On the other hand, though, you wind up with choice paralysis and non-choices. Some spells are clearly advantageous -- even looking at tiny cantrips in 3rd edition, acid splash
is often slightly better than ray of frost
, simply because acid splash
is a conjuration spell that bypasses spell resistance (you're making a ball of actual acid, instead of shooting a ray of magical cold -- a distinction that really winds up being hair-splitting in a lot of cases). And there are so many spells that unintended synergy is a real problem, and you can almost always find a magical spell that does exactly what you want.
With so many spells, there's little incentive to "think outside the box," to find creative uses of existing spells or look for nonmagical solutions to problems. Instead, magicians are encouraged to simply find just the right spell for any
problem. Plus, if there's a spell for everything . . . what does your magician create? There's less incentive to make your own spells -- and leave your mark on the world! -- when all the spells you could ever want already exist.
Naturally, this sells lots of books. Having spell compendiums is a good way to generate revenue because players are primed to accept that anything published is always, de facto, included in the game. If it wasn't "balanced and appropriate," it would never be published, right? D&D went down this road pretty hard late in 3.5 edition, with Eberron explicitly trying to include everything published in every sourcebook. It sells, so it's in the publisher's interest to do it.
What happens when you go the other direction? Pare down your spell list. Remove non-essentials. Give spells a specific niche and make them fit a theme. This lets you tune your magic to support your campaign setting. If you remove detect evil
, you can create a campaign setting with more moral ambiguity. Remove all evocations and you can have a game that doesn't use flashy fireballs
and lightning bolts
, so wizards will focus on other ways to get the job done. Obviously in Dark Sun
, you get rid of create water
. The very divide between cleric and magic-user spells from early D&D speaks to the idea that spells can function according to broad thematic categories. A great example of tightly theming spells is in Sean K. Reynold's Kickstarter project Goody White's Book of Folk Magic
, which provides a selection of spells that work like curses and remedies from folk tales about witchcraft. This kind of book isn't a grab bag of twenty new ways to blow people up; it's a way to infuse your campaign setting with a specific flavor -- in this case, the home crafts, charms, and hexes that one would associate with witches both petty and powerful.
If you want a campaign in which spells are a bazaar and there's something for every occasion, you can throw a thousand spells into the mix and have something like the Forgotten Realms
, where wizards have figured out ways to do everything worth doing (and a lot of things that aren't). If you sharply limit your selection of spells, you can build a campaign setting where your magic supports a common theme, or one where magic is a great problem-solver but only some of the time; your players have to use their wits to get out of scrapes, and they'll spend less time flipping through sourcebooks and more time thinking about how they could make their own named spells as a legacy!
If you're following in the footsteps of Vance's Dying Earth
, in which there are just over a hundred known spells in all the world, less really can be more.
|Tuesday, June 17th, 2014|
|Mixed Messages: The Multiclassed Student Becomes the Master
As I previously discussed
, multiclassed characters in D&D descend from a lengthy history, in which they began not really as multiclassed characters but rather as elves who could choose whether to use warfare or wizardry on a per-adventure basis. This then turned into the idea of the hybrid multiclass, which remained in 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, and in 3rd edition turned into a new kind of hybrid where instead of combining features of two or three classes in off-peak levels, the multiclass character split performance between several classes but was generally pretty bad at all of them. 4th edition tried to mitigate this by, for the most part, just making you substitute one kind of power for another similar kind of power.
Since 1st edition's multiclassed characters basically function one or two levels behind a single-classed character -- at least, until they hit a performance cap, usually somewhere just below "name" level (most demihumans cap out at 4th to 9th level for anything but thieves, with elven magic-users potentially peaking a bit higher) -- what would happen if this were tried with 3rd edition multiclassed characters? It might look something like this:(Note: There are significant problems with this implementation, which I'll discuss afterward. Keep your hats on.)
You pursue a blend of the skills from two different adventuring professions.
This feat must be taken at 1st level.
Choose two classes. You gain the ability to blend those two classes' features as if they were a single hybrid class, so you might be a cleric/fighter 6, or a rogue/wizard 3. You can gain levels in this hybrid class as if it is one class, but most of your features function as if your class level is one level lower than your actual level. This provides you with the following characteristics:Base Attack Bonus:
Your Base Attack Bonus from your hybrid class equals the Base Attack Bonus from whichever class is better, as if your class level were one level lower. For instance, if you are a fighter/wizard 3, you use the Base Attack Bonus of a level 2 fighter, a +2 BAB.Saving Throws:
Use the base Saving Throws that are best in each category, as if you were one class level lower. For instance, the aforementioned fighter/wizard 3 gains the Fortitude saving throws of a level 2 fighter, and the Will saving throws of a level 2 wizard. The Reflex save is the same for both classes and thus is the same for the hybrid class.Proficiencies:
You gain all of the proficiencies granted by both classes.Class Skills and Skill Points:
You gain the class skills listed for both classes. You gain skill points from whichever class grants the most favorable total, as if you were one level lower -- for instance, a rogue/wizard 3 would gain skill points as if a 2nd-level rogue (because rogues gain more skill points than wizards).Feats:
You gain feats based on your total character level. Thus, a rogue/wizard 3 gains a feat for reaching 3rd level.Class Features:
You gain the class features of both classes, as if you are one level lower in each. All level-dependent features function as if you're one level lower than your hybrid class level. For instance, the aforementioned rogue/wizard 3 gains the sneak attack bonus of a level 2 rogue, the 2nd-level rogue's evasion class feature, the wizard's Scribe Scrolls feat, and the spellcasting ability of a level 2 wizard. The character doesn't yet have 2nd-level wizard spells, nor does the character have the trap sense bonus normally gained by a 3rd-level rogue.Hit Dice and Hit Points:
Average the hit dice of your two classes, and use that as your hit die type. Roll this hit die as appropriate for your total character level. For example, a rogue/wizard 3 would gain 1d6 hit dice from rogue levels and 1d4 hit dice from wizard levels. Averaging these provides a hit die type of 1d5 (roll 1d10, 1-2 = 1 point, 3-4 = 2 points, etc.), and the character would have a total of 3d5 hit dice.
So what does that get us? Essentially this is a pseudo-copy of how multiclassing worked in 1st and 2nd edition, to some degree. You get the better saving throw bonuses and attack rates, all of the proficiencies, all of the weapon and armor skills, and some of the class features, but you function as if you're a level behind the rest of the party.
Where does this fall down? Well, in several places, mostly because of departures in how 3e and later versions of D&D function compared to 1/2e.
Too Many Class Features: In 1/2e, the fighter class had few "class features" to speak of. The fighter's claim to fame was the ability to learn to use any weapon, to wear heavy armor, and to take all the punishment that the monsters could dish out. In 3e and later versions of the game, the fighter starts gaining extra class features, primarily in the form of feats. (Pathfinder starts taking this into the direction of giving the fighter more combat-specific bonuses that make the fighter the undisputed king of the battlefield, which is a good direction.) Unfortunately this means that when you make a multiclass character in 3e, you're no longer taking a set of class features from one class and layering on the better combat survival abilities of the fighter. You're taking the fighter's better combat ability AND class features and adding that to another class's features. This means that a character who is, functionally, a fighter 2/wizard 2 may not quite hit the peak performance levels of a fighter 3 (your BAB is one point lower) or a wizard 3 (you don't have second-level spells), but the hybrid functionality may well push you over the top. This becomes more pronounced when you look at multiclassing into similar classes. A fighter/barbarian hybrid under this system would lag slightly in terms of BAB but would still have phenomenal hit points and would get bonus feats and rage. This disparity becomes really pronounced (in bad ways) at very high levels. For a group of 20th-level characters, a fighter/barbarian 20 hybrid would have ten bonus feats as well as all the barbarian's best damage reduction, trap sense, and rage benefits (except mighty rage). The loss of one point of BAB is a small price to pay for this. (1e/2e prevents this to some degree by having classes in categories, and you can't multiclass in two classes that share the same category, so no fighter/ranger or rogue/bard for your enterprising demi-humans.) How to deal with this? Well, the problem is that at at higher levels, having all of these combined class features is more valuable than the base attack bonus and saving throw bonuses, but at lower levels, getting the best BAB and saving throws means a lot. When you have a choice of BAB +0 or +1, that +1 BAB is a big difference, but when it's between +19 or +20, getting other powers is desirable.
You could apply level limits like 1e/2e did, but this is generally an undesirable feature because you're essentially making it impossible for multiclass characters to continue adventuring with the rest of the party once they "cap out." You could apply an XP penalty: -50% to earned experience points after some level -- say, level 10. This would mean that the hybrid character starts to really slow down at some point, but this also becomes undesirable because the character's BAB, saving throws, and hit points will wind up lagging so far back that the character can't survive. You could rule that your hybrid class functionality only continues until some arbitrary level, at which point you "cap out" one of the classes and go back to just advancing in one or the other -- so you could be a fighter/wizard 10, but after that you are gaining levels, benefits, and class features as if you are either a fighter or a wizard, not both. This front-loads a lot of benefit but lets you continue some amount of high-level progression, but then raises the problem of, if you can do this, why would you ever be just a wizard? Get the hybrid levels at the low end for survival, keep advancing as a wizard at the high end to get the best spells. This is because of the difference in how progression works between 1e/2e and 3e/Pathfinder; in early editions your progression tended to top out around 9th-11th level and most progression after that was mildly incremental, while in 3e/4e/Pathfinder progression continues on a linear scale regardless of level. Thus, in 1e/2e having a maximum level isn't so terrible until you start talking about a difference of ten levels or whatnot, because the major feature improvements happen at lower levels -- having a 9th level dwarf fighter in the group in 1e or 2e isn't that bad when the rest of the party is 12th level, because that 12th level human fighter really only has a +1 or +2 over you on attack rolls anyway and doesn't get all of the cool dwarf abilities.
One possibility is to rule that each time you gain a hybrid level, you can pick the class features from one class or the other, but not both. But now you're back to essentially having half your level in each class.
If you stick on the 1e/2e limitation of putting classes into categories, and not allowing multiclassing of two classes in the same category, this does mitigate some of the stacking. So you'd have:
Warrior types: Barbarian, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, Psychic Warrior, Ranger, Soulblade
Divine types: Cleric, Druid
Arcane types: Sorcerer, Wizard
Vagabond types: Bard, Rogue
Psionic Manifester types: Psion, Wilder
(You can do your own homework by inserting your favorite nonstandard class here as appropriate.)
This means you don't have to worry so much about the 10 bonus fighter feats + all the class features of a level 19 <something else that rocks at fighting>. Instead, you're more likely to see hybrids that are trying to combine functionality of two disparate roles, but without quite hitting the peak of either. Still, this packs a lot of powers onto a single character. Having the spells of a 19th level wizard with the abilities of a 19th level monk is pretty crazy good!
Early 1e and (especially) 0e were even more stringent, and only let you combine a very limited schema of classes. This might do the trick, since you can basically eliminate any class that has a strong suite of class features. No multiclass barbarians, paladins, or monks! But you can stick fighter and wizard together and get something reasonably viable, especially because there's some collision of features (with a fighter/wizard worried about not having really good armor). If you do this, you could just enumerate which hybrids are considered permitted for multiclassing, such as cleric/fighter, cleric/rogue, cleric/wizard, fighter/wizard, fighter/rogue, and rogue/wizard. (Your top performer in such a case is probably a cleric/fighter, since the cleric gets to use all the heavy armor and fighter weapon proficiencies and cleric spells and bonus feats, while the other classes have some degree of collision over their use of armor with their skills or spells.)
Other other classes: This system starts to get really murky when you start adding on yet more classes. Since a 3e character can just take a level in another class, this presumably would allow you to advance as a hybrid some way, then add on something else. You could be a fighter/wizard 3, rogue 4. Doing all of the necessary computations would become taxing, to say the least, not to mention that this becomes yet another way to exploit class feature advancement in hopes of finding the quickest way to some favorable prestige class, feat, or power.
Multiple Ability Dependency: Arguably this is a feature, not a problem; when you multiclass, especially into two different disciplines, you make a character who now needs to have good ability scores in several areas. A fighter/wizard needs strength and intelligence to function competently in each class. This means harder choices about how to arrange your ability scores and more scraping for magic items to supplement them.
Where this ultimately led, of course, is in the single-class multiclass designs of late 3e and Pathfinder, in which two classes have some of their features mashed up into one base class, like the duskblade (something resembling a fighter/wizard) and the beguiler (a sort of rogue/wizard), both appearing in the Player's Handbook II for 3.5e. Pathfinder, similarly, has their new Advanced Class Guide providing hybrids like the warpriest (fighter/cleric-ish) and the investigator (ranger/rogue-ish).
But players still want to play their good ol' fighter/magic-users, so multiclassing in some form or another will likely never die . . . I'll dig into another variation on this theme next time!
|Monday, June 9th, 2014|
|Saturday, May 3rd, 2014|
|Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or, The Day After Sci-Fi Changed
I recently took the opportunity to re-watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). This, the first entry in the Star Trek movie franchise, is an oft-panned film. Audiences dislike the emphasis on visual effects over character, the slow pacing of the film, the lack of action, or the trouble with making sense of the story. Nevertheless, the movie was financially reasonably successful, and it's actually filled with interesting symbolism, questions, and classic science fiction. It is because it is a product of its time that it is often given short shrift.( Read more...Collapse )
|Wednesday, April 16th, 2014|
|Running Dark Sun: Metal Weapons
One of the foibles of the DARK SUN setting is the scarcity of metal. This provides several elements: For starters, everyone in the art is always wearing thongs and loincloths, which has a very Frazetta/Vallejo design. It also means that the nonmetal materials used for weapons and armor provide some level of mitigation for the personal power of the characters, as I'll explain . . .
Characters in DARK SUN tend to be personally very powerful, with ability scores that average better than characters from other game settings, higher levels, and extra class features. In contrast, their equipment is woefully inadequate. Thus, while your character might have a high Strength score that translates into an extra +1 bonus on attack rolls and some more damage, the use of a weak bone or stone sword could cut into that with a similar penalty (plus the chance for the weapon to break). The lack of heavy armor also means that combats are faster, because attacks so rarely miss. The extra hit points garnered from a higher-than-average Constitution score really come into play for combatants who would be wearing mail or plate armor in other campaign settings; on Athas, your fighter's lucky to have a suit of bone-studded leather. Even the higher Dexterity scores usually don't make up this difference. Thus, your fighters and gladiators rely more on their ability to take punishment than on their ability to avoid solid hits -- which translates into making the advantage of the half-giant (in the 2nd edition version of the game) even more formidable, with a huge bonus to hit points.
Coming back to that -1 or -2 from your weapon's poor quality, having a metal weapon becomes a big deal when it doesn't have those modifiers. You're getting the full advantage of your gladiator's 20 Strength score! Numerically, getting rid of a -1 is equivalent in most ways to adding a +1, so getting your metal weapon in DARK SUN is the equivalent of getting a magical weapon in another game setting. This is underscored by the fact that many Athasian monsters are susceptible to damage from metal weapons but not from other materials, much like the category in early AD&D of monsters that you can hurt only with magic weapons.
Acquiring metal weapons in DARK SUN, then, is much like gaining magic weapons in other settings. A metal weapon is not only monetarily valuable, it's a treasure of great utility. Fighters will go out of their way to learn to use a weapon just because a metal version is available, because that steel short sword might not hit as hard as a bone battle axe, but it'll hit more often and it won't break. Gladiators, of course, have the advantage that they can pick up any weapon and use it without penalties at all!
This comparison means that metal weapon will generally appear fairly early in a Dark Sun
campaign. Playing out battles with suboptimal gear is a feature of early character hazards, but within a level or two the party will start finding the weapons that will give them baseline performance without constantly worrying about gear breakage and ugly penalties on attack rolls and damage.
This comparison also
means that at about the same time, the party should start seeing magical weapons -- but the first magical weapons they find will be made of suboptimal materials. A +1 bone short sword
is functionally almost identical to a normal steel short sword; the main difference is that the former detects as magical. Thus, both of these weapons could appear in treasure hoards at about the same time. As the party gains higher levels, they'll start to see really great treasures, the +2 and +3 steel weapons, but those will always lag a little behind where you'd expect to see them in other campaigns, because the innate capabilities of the characters substitute for having the top of the line gear.
Armor's a bit of a dodgier problem, simply because wearing metal armor in Dark Sun
typically means a quick route to heatstroke and inability to fight anything well. Thus, you're often stuck wearing partial metal armor (scale armor on one leg and one arm gladiator-style!) or looking for enchanted nonmetal armor. This interestingly means that those suits of +1 studded leather
are suddenly really valuable because your party's fighters, gladiators, rangers, and clerics are all looking to use them! Once again, the trade-off here becomes a materials issue. A suit of chain mail (AC 5) compared with a suit of +1 leather armor
(AC 7) -- the leather doesn't offer as much protection, but it doesn't include the potential problem of heat stroke. The chain mail allows you to do stand-up fighting with an expectation that some enemies will actually miss, but it will hurt your own fighting ability. This means that players are encouraged to pick their armor on the basis of specific strengths: A character with a really high Constitution score is more likely to go for the chain mail, as it may be possible to avoid the heat stroke for a while (with the right proficiencies, anyway), while the leather will be more popular among clerics and (of course) thieves and rangers. Naturally, all of this is moot if the characters are so resource-hungry that they don't have a choice! You wear that mail sleeve because it's better than no armor at all
Another great advantage baked into the setting with respect to metal arms and armor is that it's noticeable
. If your character in, say, the world of Greyhawk is carrying a magical sword that is sheathed, who knows or cares? You're just another dude with a sword in a scabbard. But if your character on Athas has an iron scale hauberk, or a sword with a metal pommel, people will pay attention to that. It's a mark of your character's expertise and importance. When your fighter takes to the field of battle in that battered steel helm, casually holding a broken-tipped steel sword and wearing bronze greaves, everyone knows -- that guy's in charge of the army! That, in turn, means more hooks as people try to inveigle the character into their dramas, perhaps to curry favor, or perhaps just to steal your steel!
(Incidentally, this was one of the minor but annoying points that bothered me in the Dark Sun
novel City Under the Sand
: At one point, a character arrives at a city gate on a fast-moving cart full of metal items that have been scavenged from an ancient city, and throws open the back of the cart so that the metal items fly out all over the place. This is a central conceit of the plot: The main character can sense metal, and was sent specifically to find this metal and bring it back. In this scene, metal winds up flying everywhere and nobody cares.
If you want to underscore this quality of metal weapons in your DARK SUN campaign, you can use the same tricks that many DMs use with magical weapons in other games. Give the items their own sense of character. A steel long sword can be "a three-foot flatchet with a jagged tip and many notches along the blade, the metal burnished to a dull glow with evidence of the years of sand that have blown over it. The pommel's leather wrap has been replaced many times, and it has the feel of crimped, weathered leather that has fitted to many hands." A bronze-tipped spear becomes "A shaft made of slightly-curved bone, clearly not the original haft to this weapon, but a replacement made with the best materials one could find at the time. Sinew binds the foot-long bronze tip to the end of the bone. The knife-like blade is aged and has a green undercurrent from the touch of blood and other ichors, most pronounced near the guards, one of which is broken about a half-inch out." You can underscore this by giving the weapons specific histories (which also gives bards something to do) and even slight modifiers to their usual qualities. The aforementioned bronze spear, for instance, might not be quite
as good as a steel weapon, but better than any of the other substandard materials around -- say, no modifier to hit, but -1 to damage. An iron dagger might have no penalty to attack and damage, but still have a chance to break. All of them could have a name and a history, stretching back ages into the lost times when they were made on a more verdant Athas, before they were handed down or dug up in the brutal world of the DARK SUN.
|Monday, February 24th, 2014|
|1st edition AD&D: The Tyranny of Detect Evil
Pretty much every iteration of Dungeons & Dragons includes alignment -- a barometer of a character's chosen ethical and moral parameters. The degree to which alignment actually defines the character's behavior varies depending upon the iteration and the game group in question. In early D&D, alignment just covers a character's commitment to Law, Chaos, or Neutrality. The player picks a side and plants a flag there for the character.
In current D&D games, alignment is a fairly broad subject, because it impacts certain triggers: Some spells only work on creatures of a particular alignment, some magic items only work for characters of a specific alignment, and alignment has enough definition that it spawns arguments about how much the choice of alignment should influence character behavior.
Going back to D&D's roots, there's a strong vibe that D&D's alignment system was heavily influenced by Michael Moorcock's work. In Moorcock's books of Elric of Melnibone, the forces of Law and Chaos are locked in a bitter war to decide the eventual fate of the cosmos, and Elric weaves his way through both sides (usually, but not always, with Chaos as his patron). The very choice of the word "alignment" seems to bear this out: a character is "aligned with" the forces of Law, or "aligned with" the forces of Chaos, or "aligned with" Neutrality, refusing to join either side. (This also seems to be a likely influence for the druidic Neutrality in D&D0 -- druids are not concerned with the politics of humankind in the war between Law and Chaos, instead favoring the cycles of the natural world, and thus they are Neutral in that conflict.)
From this perspective, the ability to detect someone's alignment via spells like detect evil
, or the use of alignment languages, makes a certain kind of sense. Having an alignment isn't just a commitment to a particular set of principles -- it's an active decision to join up with a particular faction in a cosmic war. That faction has its own rules and its own secret language -- hence alignment languages. When you detect evil
, then, you're not just looking for "evil thoughts," you're looking to see if this person has signed up as a member of the forces of evil. It's the ability to sense a conscious, deliberate commitment on the part of the target!
Advance a few years, when this sort of idea is scrubbed from the setting. D&D has alignment, but it's more of a moral compass and sometimes a tag for magical effects. The notion of it being connected to a cosmic war is pretty far removed, as the various settings for D&D now assume more cosmopolitan pantheons of deities rather than a stratified war between Chaos and Law. There's still a detect evil
spell and a know alignment
spell, though, so now you're not detecting whether someone is "aligned" with one side or another in a cosmic war, but whether someone is an adherent of a particular set of behavioral principles.
The tricky part now is that you have a repeatable, objective standard
for determining aggregate behavior. Your detect evil
spell gives you a specific yes or no result that tells you when someone has been naughty. Based on this, you can say with certainty -- with some testing -- what kind of acts constitute evil. You can explicitly call someone out as being evil. You know
, based on this objective method, who's evil and who isn't.
Once you go down this road, you now have a justification for that "kick open the door, kill the bad guys" behavior. Your detect evil
ability infallibly tells you "This person is evil," which is not hard for players to extend into ". . . and thus it's ok for me kill him/her/it," especially if evil in your game means that the creature in question will inevitably turn on you if spared (as it does in the Dragonlance
One story related in Dragon
magazine described a character who always, without fail, would attack and kill anyone who detected as evil. The DM built a convoluted mechanism to "punish" this player by divine fiat, in order to discipline the player for making this "assumption." The problem with this is that the player wasn't
making an assumption, he was acting according to the rules of his world
. In the setting with a detect evil
spell, you have a reliable barometer that always tells you if someone is evil or not, unless they're taking magical steps to conceal their alignment. In other words, what you have isn't just magic, it's a form of technology. It tells you someone's evilness just as surely as you could measure their height with a yardstick and say "Yes, this person is over two feet tall."
In short, the existence of detect evil
means the existence of objective standards of evil, which means that taking precautionary behaviors when you can detect that evil is in some ways justified. Not rigorously -- essentially you're using evil
profiling to justify pre-emptive strikes -- but it certainly grants some weight to the notion that an otherwise "good" character is justified in attacking an "evil" character and in killing "evil" monsters without ever giving them an opportunity for dialog, because they are, by an objective standard, dangerous and unable to be trusted.
Of course, if you're running an adventure like The Temple of Elemental Evil
, this helps you out. You're perfectly justified in kicking down the creaking wooden doors in the moathouse and killing all of the brigands in there, because you know that they are objectively evil
. There's no awkward discussion with your kids when you introduce them to D&D when you have to explain that killing orcs in their homes and taking their stuff is still "good" because we know
that the orcs are evil. (Let's just put on our cultural insensitivity hat and say that our culture values are "good," so the enemies of our culture are "evil," and it's ok to kill them!)
This also means, interestingly, more
arguments about alignment, because different players and DMs will have different ideas about what constitutes an evil act (it's subjective), while the existence of the spell means that there must be some settled, objective standard. Naturally, this means that when the DM decides that something is evil and a player disagrees, there's an argument not just because the rules are in conflict, but because there's a values conflict
between the DM and the player.
What do you do about this? You could get rid of the detect
spells, or perhaps change them to sense unnatural things -- undead, elementals, extraplanar beings; things that are not of this world. There's no moral judgment there, just detection of an inherent property of a creature from or powered by "some other realm." Or you could go back to the idea that alignment is not just ideology, it's actual allegiance to a specific faction. Then your detect
spell isn't just looking for behaviors, it's looking for whether the target is on Team Red or Team Blue.
No wonder 1e AD&D describes the use of detect evil
or know alignment
as a huge social faux pas. If you could just use these abilities willy-nilly, you'd be able to parse out all of the people you could trust, all of the folks who are primed to be part of your group and ready to uphold your values, and make sure that your team -- heck, your whole society
-- ran in accord with your vision. You could literally
have Kingdom of Good vs. Kingdom of Evil, with people jailed, executed, or deported based on the results of a divinatory spell.
Naturally, that doesn't work so well when you talk about adventuring parties, where often the group includes people of various moral and ethical standards, some more rigorous than others. But then, adventurers have always been cast as outsiders to mundane, settled civilization...
|Thursday, February 6th, 2014|
|1st edition AD&D: Weapon vs. Armor Type
Hanging out in the old 1st edition AD&D Player's Handbook
is a rule that, by most reports, very few gamers ever used. There's an entire page devoted to the modifiers that various weapons have on attack rolls against certain armor types. The table shows that against certain kinds of armor, your weapon may gain a bonus; against others, a penalty. The system ostensibly models the fact that some weapons excel against certain kinds of armor, but others are very unlikely to make a successful, penetrating hit.
Now, because this extra step comes on a huge look-up table, many players report that they never used it. It's an extra step of complexity when you're calculating an attack against a humanoid opponent. Plus, there's the whole business of figuring out which armor class type
is represented as opposed to armor class
-- an enemy using only a shield is armor class type
9, even if it's a magical shield; the table uses these entries to determine the effectiveness of weapons against certain kinds of armor based on their physical characteristics rather than any magical properties. Thus, an extra step to look up when making attacks, and one that most people ignore.
Obviously, this table exists for a reason, and in theory it's that extra modeling step: A sword is less effective against heavy plate armor than it is against mail, for example. But there's another reason, one that's not explained, but becomes evident with some examination.
Flip back a page to weapon damage. A quick look shows that in 1st edition AD&D, the long sword is the king of one-handed weapons. If you're going to be fighting with a one-handed weapon, you take the long sword if you can use it, since its damage output is tops: 1d8 damage against small and medium targets, 1d12 against larger targets. Sure, some two-handed weapons slice better (the two-handed sword is pretty phenomenal), and there are some weapons that come close -- the battle axe rolls in at 1d8/1d4, the morning star at 2d4/1d6+1, the scimitar at 1d8/1d8. Basically, if you're fighting small- or medium-sized targets, there are a few weapons that are pretty comparable; once you're fighting larger targets, the long sword is it, bar none. So you take the long sword, because it's going to give you the best damage output (not to mention that the majority of magical weapons in 1st edition AD&D are magical long swords).
As a game designer, why would you do that? Why make a game where there's a specific choice that is obviously the "best" choice and leave everything else behind? Partly it's the wargame roots; there's a desire to model weapons based on their perceived effectiveness and desirability, and the sword is hard to argue with just in terms of its utility, balance, and chopping/cutting/thrusting power. But there's another reason: the long sword isn't
Flip back to that armor adjustments page. A look at the long sword shows that it takes a -2 on attacks against an enemy wearing plate and carrying a shield, a -1 against a foe with plate alone (no shield), and gains a +1 against an enemy with a shield and no armor, and a +2 against a foe with no shield and no armor. No other modifiers apply. It's pretty across-the-board.
Take a look at the scimitar by comparison. -3 vs. plate and shield, -2 vs. plate alone or chain and shield, -1 vs. chain alone; not so great. But +1 vs. leather or shield, and +3 vs. unarmored opponents! The scimitar is made for draw cuts with its sharp edge, and that's modeled in how it functions against some kinds of armor. If your enemy's wearing mail or plate, the sharp edge is more likely to slide off ineffectively. Against an unarmored foe or one in very light armor, though, it's more likely to make an effective, deep draw cut. That's reflected in its bonus on its attack roll -- a better chance to score a "telling blow" that causes damage.
So if weapons are categorized there according to how they function against armor, let's look at a weapon that seems really suboptimal -- the military pick. It's doing 1d6+1/2d4 damage in the heavy (footman's) size, which is all right but no long sword. It's also a weapon that typically would only be used by a fighter -- clerics can't use it because it's a piercing weapon, thieves and magic-users don't have the training. Why would a fighter take the footman's military pick over the long sword? Check out those armor adjustments! +2 against plate mail, with or without shield! +1 against chain, with or without shield! -1 against shield, leather, or leather and shield, -2 against unarmored -- but you're probably going to hit those guys anyway; they have a lousy armor class. So you bring the military pick in case you run into a heavily armored foe. The force of the swing powering a narrow beak against the armor just busts right through it.
How about the morning star? 2d4/1d6+1 damage is respectable. No modifier vs. plate and shield, but it has a +1 or +2 bonus against everyone else
! This is a weapon that's made to mangle anyone on the battlefield, no matter what kind of armor they have. Wearing chain? You get a nasty bruise and a spike in the gut! Leather and shield? The spikes punch through the shield and the weight breaks your arm. Poor unarmored magic-user? That morning star is gonna replace your skull.
Now the poor battle axe isn't that great unless you're fighting a lot of guys in leather armor. Sucks to be a dwarf, I guess. But they do get to use the hammer, which has a very mediocre damage output of 1d4+1/1d4, but takes no penalties to attack anybody and gets a small +1 bonus against enemies in chain or plate without a shield. A good choice for clerics, too, if you need a thrown weapon -- but for melee, your cleric is going to use the awesome footman's flail, which clocks in at 1d6+1/2d4 and scores +2 against plate with or without shield or unshielded chain, +1 against everyone else except a totally unarmored opponent.
The upshot: For all you folks who skipped weapon vs. armor type adjustments, you accidentally made the long sword the undisputed king of the field. 1st edition AD&D may have some strange complexities, but it seems that they're not without reason. Needless detail, or mad genius?
|Saturday, November 30th, 2013|
|Running Dark Sun: Defilers
Players of the beloved DARK SUN
campaign setting will, of course, remember defilers as one of the principal enemies of the setting. In a game replete with environmental motifs, the defiler represents the perils of untrammeled exploitation of nature. The defiler gains arcane power through the reckless theft of life-force from the ecosystem. Of course, this means that all mages are tarred with this brush: No matter if you play a responsible
mage; the people at large only know that arcane magic is a force to be feared, that mages are to be hated, and that the horrible state of the world can all be laid at the feet of greedy, selfish defilers!
Since defilers in the original DARK DUN
setting are always neutral or evil, they're pretty much all selfish assholes, as the people at large believe. Naturally, the dragon kings are also defilers, so that's not helping anyone's reputation any. Of course, defilers are selfish assholes for a reason -- ultimate personal power. A defiler gains levels and additional magical abilities slightly faster than a preserver (the "typical" mage variant in DARK SUN
, who isn't wrecking the environment by draining the life out of everything in sight). This makes them great villains; your DARK SUN
players can fight defilers at any level, because they're pretty much always bad dudes and you can feel a nice sense of self-righteous eco-preservation when you give one a justifiable beat-down.
As always with villains, the storied DM will change up this formula from time to time. Sticking the party with a defiler with whom they have to work for some shared goal is a great way to ratchet up tension (assuming that the party's druid doesn't eviscerate the defiler regardless). Preservers can still learn spells by stealing them from defiler caches, and that makes a wonderful hook too; if the party can't figure out the defiler's magical code, the party's mage may have to cut a deal in order to learn much-needed magical secrets from the jerk who doesn't care about the Tragedy of the Arcane Commons.
The juiciest bit about defilers, though, is temptation. For some DMs, defilers are just bad guys who wreck stuff and that's that -- no complexity; we know they're selfishly destroying the world, one 10'-diameter circle at a time, and there's no moral question about where they stand. But the defiler does have advantages over the preserver. Their magic is generally more powerful. They can prepare and deploy more spells. Their magic, even the otherwise inoffensive spells, draws on life-force so painfully that it can shock and slow their enemies.
The good DM knows that for temptation to work, you have to offer the players something that they actually, legitimately want. The temptation must be something that makes the player agonize over the choice; otherwise, it's not tempting! When a demonic creature offers the player a magical sword in exchange for baby-murdering, nobody's going to take the deal; the sword's obviously not worth the price, and it's probably cursed, too. The temptation of defiling, though . . . you can
have just enough power to make a difference. You can
save your friends' lives. You can
fight the templars of the sorcerer-kings and defeat them. You can
reshape the world according to your whims! All it costs is the lives of a few lousy plants and trees. Who cares about that? It's just a tiny little sacrifice, right? And it doesn't cost you anything. And what you get in return is pure power!
That's where the defiler shines in a DARK SUN
game -- not just as a villain, but as a temptation. Every PC mage is someone who could be
a defiler. The angry mobs who lynch mages aren't wrong: Somewhere in every mage is the tipping point that would push them over the edge into defiling. Wrenching that magical item from the templars . . . freeing a slave . . . saving your wife . . . there's something
that will make the mage say "This time it's worth it. Just this once."
But it's never "just this once."
And that's why the world is a bad place. That's why we can't have nice things on Athas. Because the people who can make the biggest changes, the people who wield the most potentially wide-ranging powers, are the ones who have the greatest temptation to use that power for destructive ends. You can
bring about a new age on Athas. You can
bring safety and security to the helpless people of the land. You can
overthrow the sorcerer-kings. All you have to do is become one of them.
So, are defilers evil? Of course they are. They're the kind of evil summed up by that most apt description: "All it takes to make a villain is to put a reasonable person in an unreasonable situation." Well, Athas is full of unreasonable situations.
Can you play a mage who never succumbs to temptation? Who doesn't bow to blackmail, extortion, loss, hate, revenge, any of those horrible things that can and do happen all the time to the residents of the burnt world? There's only one way to find out . . .