Friday, November 27, 2009

Tonight Half-orcs vs. Halflings

So I've got elves and dwarves relatively out of the way. Mind you, they are not finished ideas, but for now they will do.

Ok, so it's time to tackle the little races, half-orcs and anything else I might allow for players.

Round one

Half orcs are really easy to get out of the picture. They are sterile, so there is no chance of multiplying and they are either killed at birth by humans, or brought up by orcs, and than they are simply treated like orcs.

Half -orcs aarrrre out!

Round two

I have a strong objection to halflings for the same reasons as J. Maliszewski. They are just too Tolkienesque. You can call one Mustakrakish the Bloody and in the minds of players he will still be a little furry hobbit (maybe covered with blood, but that's all).

The one noteworthy attempt at changing this state of affairs was Dark Sun, but since I want my game closer to the od&d, I think introducing dinosaur riding cannibal midgets as a player race might kill the whole effort.

Halflings arrrrrreee out!

Round three

As much as I dislike halflings, I love gnomes. I find several reasons to include them in my setting:

- having kicked halflings out, I feel I need to fill the hole somehow, so that the players have what to choose from;

- they actually appear in germanic mythologies (altho mostly used as a synonym for dwarf) and don't make people think of only one piece of work like halflings;

- I like the idea of them being a magical-technical race surrounded by a shroud of secrets and I think it goes well with the idea that they are mostly illusionists;

- since they are illusionists I see no reason why they can't be famous for their thievery skills, thus replacing halflings in case someone can only play little race thieves;

- putting them into my setting gives my a safety hatch, allowing me to introduce whacky magomechanics without blowing up the setting;

Having said all that, If I want to have gnomes I need to make them mysterious, exotic and secretive. Which is fine with me. For now I have little idea about their background, hopefully I'll come up with something interesting.

Gnomes win the match!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dwarven culture in a few difficult words

Ok, today I'll try to focus solely on the topic of dwarven culture. My idea of how it should be organized is a quite complicated one, but bare with me, as I hope you'll find it rewarding.

As I've already stated the dwarven society is a matriarchal one due to the small number of females. No one knows why the number of females being born is significantly smaller from the number of males, but it should be obvious that this long lasting phenomenon has led to a society in which women are highly privileged.

Here are some ideas I have about their society:

The society is organized into clans, which follow the rule of matrilineality , meaning that the lineage is established through the mother and maternal ancestors.

Dwarves cultivate polyandry. That is, one woman may take many husbands (in this case the maximum is 3), each of them however has to pay a dowry (or a lobolo if you prefer) before he is accepted as a husband.

The tradition has it, that such a fee must be payed only in what a male can carry by himself (counting what he wears). This might have given a beginning to the strange concept of dwarven money, which are shaped into spheres of gold, silver or copper, that are worn on display by being thread into beards, or worn as necklaces.

Dwarves are also avuncular. This means that a child is brought up not by it's father but maternal uncle. There are several reasons for that, the main one being to secure that all fathers will treat the child equally well (which of course doesn't work so well in real life) and to create a stronger bond with the clan, than with the family.

To avoid incest, dwarves are forbidden to marry into their own clan. This rule also secures the strong connection between the clans.

There exists a dwarven king, however his role is mainly representative. He is the leader of the Council of Clans, which appropriately to it's name consists of all the clan leaders (or their representatives, each of the clan leaders can bring all her husbands to join the discussion) with each of the council members, including the king, having one vote. The king also holds the title of the First Warrior. It means that in case of an armed threat to the dwarven kingdom, he becomes the leader of the armed forces, since the counsel has no word in matters of war.

The last thing is the problem of half-dwarves. It's obvious that my previous idea for that race doesn't fit this concept. Thus I need to turn it around a bit. Indeed half-dwarves aren't shunned by dwarven society, however as they can't participate in the reproductive cycle, their social status is rather low. Marrying outside the race is not forbidden, but it carries some social disadvantages, as the dwarf marrying a non-dwarf looses the privilege of being able to use the clan vaults and has to raise their child on their own.

The End

not yet! I wanted to say one more thing that I forgot to add. The slavic and nordic dwarfs stay, simply some clans lean one way and some the other. Is based on geographical location. That's all!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dwarven Oddity

Today I'll speak about dwarfs and also continue some of the topics that surfaced in two previous posts.

The first of them is the problem of race-as-class. I've presented the main argument (apart from the one that it's the OD&D way of doing things) in favor of this rule when I was talking about elves. It simply underlines the difference between humans and fantastic races. Today I'd like to present the argument against the rule, which again helped me shape another demi-human race.

The argument I have in mind is the fact of homogeneity of demi-human cultures. Some might ask, what the fuck am I talking about?! What I want to say is that somehow we are stuck for better or worse with the stereotypical view of "one race = one culture".

You may object, by saying that many RPG's and settings have a lot of variation when it comes to demi-human subtypes. But a race subtype like for example drow, is often (correctly) called a sub-race, that is, one of the different races that together create the race group/category of elves, or so it would seem system wise.

A good example of this way of thinking is the treatment of elves in the Forgotten Realms 3e Handbook. We have 5 elven races, each with it's own distinct ability modifiers, however the descriptions point more to the difference on the cultural or lifestyle level, more than to any important morphological* differences, which would in my belief justify the ability mods. The exception here are the drow, due to their significantly different environment. The other problem is that the descriptions of different elven cultures are at leas laconic and amass to something like: "yellow elves are yellow and are scholars, green elves are green and fight, wood elves live in woods...", which isn't really any useful information to me.

I also find this whole approach unsatisfactory because it's logical continuation would be providing different ability modifiers for human nations. This solution is for me a dead end for three reasons. First, it's an unnecessary complication. Second, I don't see any significant morphological differences between the British, the French and The Germans and finally, I'd feel I might be getting dangerously close to racism.

But let's get back to the problem of cultural homogeneity.

I think that creating sub-races is the lazy approach that gives the illusion of variety instead of real choice. We might come up with an endless number of "dwarf types", call them Shield Dwarves, Doom Dwarves, Monkey Dwarves and so on... And even then 99% of players will end up role-playing all of them as an archetypical dwarf.

All this (and this ingenious post) led me to think that perhaps there are two cultures of dwarfs in my world. One are the classical nordic/tolikenish dwarfs, the other are the slavic dwarves. There is no morphological difference between them, thus they are treated equally in terms of mechanics.

The reason for introduction of those cultures is that I'm tired of having all the same dwarfs all around. Also, since I'm Polish and so are my players, the slavic dwarfs will be right at home, being a cultural archetype easy to relate to for all of us.

I've decided that, as a legend has it, at the beginning there were two brothers, who split the mining duties between themselves. One decided to go dig down into the mountains to find precious stones and unknown metals, the other decided to stay close to the surface, building quarries, coal mines and so on. There is no antagonism between two dwarf nations and all are considered equal, helping and trading with each other.

The last problem is of dwarven females. They exist, but in very small numbers, thus it's quite obvious that some dwarves have decided to marry human females thus bringing half- dwarves to the world. Unlike half-elves, their dwarven counterparts are accepted by their society, however they remain infertile.

The last thing is, because of the shortage of women, dwarven society has developed a very complicated matriarchal clan system. The head of each clan is a woman. I'm seriously considering introducing some kind of polygamy...

More on that to come!

*I mean the scientific term, as used in physical anthropology

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Half life of elves

Ok, so we know my elves are hermaphroditic, cool... Now what? Well... Before I give half-elves donkey heads and shave off dwarven beards I'd like to come back to the elves.

I've been thinking what impact my idea of elves might have on game play. I imagined my friends role playing an elf, about whom the rest of the party thought as being male, until the fertile phase starts, and the elf kicks into being a flirting woman! You see, to me it sounds like fun and a way of relieving tension. I also know that my friends will be treating the situation gently, with no vulgarity. However as I was looking at it in a wider perspective, I thought that perhaps not all people who want to play elves are comfortable with them being gender ambivalent.

Thus I want to implement a security buffer. Mainly, because the elves' hermaphroditic status is an effect of an experiment, there are still some cases of elves being unable to enter the gender-active phase as both sexes. This means, that for that time in the month, when their gender functions become active, they are always only a man, or a woman. This poses no true problem and is easy to hide in the elven society (since due to pheromonal negotiation the partner automatically will take the other sex), but can be looked down upon by other society members.

Ok. So simply, if you want your elf to be only a man, you can.

Now that we have this problem out of the way. Let's move to what this post is really supposed to be about.


I always wondered why the question of half-elven fertility isn't clearly answered in RPG handbooks. In Erthdawn or Shadowrun, the case of fantastic races cross breeding is resolved in a clever and simple way, the child of such union will just be the same race as one of the parents. As much as I like that solution, I don't think it will serve my world right.

Thus, the I've decided there are half-elves in my world, they are rare, not fertile and generally looked down upon by both elves and humans. Because of their elven ancestry there is rather small variation in the way both genders look, with males having very little, weak body hair, with a kind of gentle charm and females having no body hair, small breasts and generally being attractive in a way that some call alien.

I also consider giving half-elves an attribute bonus to charisma. My reasoning is that in my game, humans think of elves as weird and alien and not as beautiful. However I thought it would be interesting to make half-elves generally charming, but lacking in social status.

Next post -> Dwarfs

Friday, November 20, 2009

Those strange Elves

As you might know from my previous posts, I've assumed that in my development of a D&D setting, the themes of the setting itself will help me choose the rules I want to use. It seems that I was wrong. Since I last decided I'm leaning heavily towards OD&D, I've been doing some thinking about the race-as-a-class rule.

When I first came into possession of several D&D retro clones, the race-as-a-class idea was bothering me. I was always aware that it existed in the original game, but I guess just because I was used to not treating races as classes, the idea seemed simply unattractive and limiting.

Some time later, as I was reading some Grognardia, I found this article in which the author states:
"Aside from mechanical simplicity, what I really like about race-as-class, at least in the case of elves, is that it helps emphasize their differences from humanity."
It is a point I totally agree with. This and an other very good post from the same blog got me on the track of thinking how to differentiate demi-humans from other races.

Today I came up with the solution. It's not a revolutionary one (at least for me, I can imagine there are people that would behead me for what I'm about to say), as I've first encountered it in the 2ed. of WFRP, where the only elven deity is a hermaphrodite. There, I've said it. My elves are hermaphrodites.

The true source of the idea is one of my all time favorites "Left Hand OF Darkness" by Ursula K. Le Guin. One of the themes investigated in the novel is the problem of how sexuality and gender influence culture and political life. One of many strengths of the book is a very interesting depiction of the hermaphroditic race. Here's a quote from wikipedia:

"The inhabitants of Gethen are sequentially hermaphroditic humans; for twenty-four days of each twenty-six day lunar cycle they are sexually latent androgynes, and for the remaining two days (kemmer) are male or female, as determined by pheromonal negotiation with an interested sexual partner. Thus each individual can both sire and bear children. It is hypothesised by the first representatives of the Ekumen to explore Gethen that their unique physiology arose from a genetic-modification experiment."

I think the idea to apply this description to elven race is a very good one, especially that I've already found a way in which it might serve my "prime" setting assumptions. Namely, the experiment mentioned in the above quote, will be performed on the race by itself. I can easily see my image of eternal elves conquering the world, just to decide that it's not enough for them and since they are already immortal, they will try to ascend into godhood. However the experiment went wrong in the end also depriving the race of it's close to immortal status.

So there. I know it might be too much for some of you. And I don't blame you. This solution brings many problems into my setting, but I always liked to put "difficult topics" into my games...

Oh. Btw. I'm still not decided about race-as-class!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Little misunderstanding

I thought some time will pass, before I can say anything constructive about mechanics and yet, here I am.

The reason for this post is my latest blog discovery, which addressed many game-play/mechanics issues I was troubled with.

The set of custom house-rules presented is simple and well constructed, augmenting the basic Sword & Wizardry, which to my taste, seemed a bit too bare and (dare I say)too primitive(in the best OD&D sense).

Even though I don't agree with all the custom house rules presented in that package, it made me realize that my previous statement about mechanics was too hasty.

So to be clear: (for anyone reading this blog and for myself) I am much closer to adopting old-school rules than I thought. As I am an opponent of feats and list based skills, my D&D might actually be much closer to OD&D than I previously supposed.

That's All Folks!

Monday, November 16, 2009

If you want to make an apple pie from sratch, you must first create the universe

Yesterday I decided to make a set of, more or less, custom mechanics that will suit me best. However, I think I will need to give myself more time before I can post anything else on the topic, as I want my mechanics to be well thought out and coherent.

That is why I will start creating the game setting first. Hopefully the process of gradually building up ideas and putting them in order will also influence writing mechanics, clearing some controversies and making it fit the setting.

As I've stated before, my biggest influence now is the OD&D and it's roots in pulp fantasy fiction. I've also decided to take the approach of just outlining my world's realia and overall atmosphere without filling out many details beforehand. This seems to be the method that fits me best, since it enables me to give my players the feeling that I want our game to have, without over intellectualizing it or creating artificial political and cultural constructs that my players may never encounter.

Don't get me wrong, I like making stuff up, I just think that letting things develop organically is much more effective and in the end will make the setting feel more real (whatever that means).

Below are the basic assumptions for My World, (I'm not so good with names, any help would be greatly appreciated), please note that they might be subject to later change.
In no particular order:

1. Magic exists, however there is no division between arcane and divine magic. I see it as a flowing, chaotic undercurrent (dynamic, prime substance) on which the material world (static) is founded. This assumption leads us to the conclusion that clerics and wizards in fact don't use two different kinds of magic, but apply two distinct ways of shaping it.

I think that my wizards will be kind of a blend between Howardian evil sorcerers and pre-socratic philosophers.

In the social context, magic will be a power feared by common folk, often associated with evil practices and so on. There will be at least one state, where wizardry is banned.

Even though I want it to have quite a dark feel, I'd also like it to be rather widespread, as I don't want to deprive PCs of magic objects. That is why I came with the story presented in 2.

2. I want my game to take place in a dark and dangerous world that has it's best days behind it. I'm thinking of a transition period, where everything is seemingly cool, yet everyone knows that life is harder, people less trustworthy and the time of great empires and truly great deeds is gone.

I've also thought that I want my world to have some old ruins that will be cursed but filled with magic items and treasures that everyone is afraid to steal, being a great theme for adventures.

That is how I arrived at the idea of a great Empire that fell under it's own hubris and gluttony. They will be an equivalent of Roman Empire or the Ottoman Empire in my world. I'll also make it highly magical, thus giving the explanation why magic is quite popular yet feared (they won't be well remembered). I think that magic will also be the reason for the Empire's end, I have some magical ├╝ber catastrophe or curse, wiping their power away, though I have no idea what it could be.

Also, I'm not too keen on the Vance'ian feeling of "Holy shit, the sun might die any minute now". Think more early medieval times, maybe 8th century Europe.

3. I quite dislike the idea of gods walking the earth in rpgs, but on the other hand, I'm not a fan of settings completely devoid of deities (they can sometimes prove conceptually interesting).

I also dislike the way many game designers treat gods, as if they are a mere addition (a good example would be 3e and 4e players handbooks), thus closing them in simple categories like god of war or goddess of love.

I think, that looking at the history of western culture (and in fact history of our world overall) religion took a very important place in shaping cultural behaviors and the way people thought for centuries. Thus I decided to create my own pantheon, that I hope will be more complicated than being a simple collection of Odin and Thor rip offs.

4. The last factor, is the presence or lack of demi-humans and in fact most fantastic races.

In the early moments of outlining my ideas in my head, I seriously considered dropping all demi-human races, but than I read this. That made me realize, that in fact, I would be needlessly limiting my players. So what I really need to do is to reinvent the classical tolkienish races.

My first thought was to place elves as the race that built the Evil empire (however I discovered that someone had already done that and now i feel stupid), that would give me a good excuse to place elves in seclusion in the woods, give them an inbuilt guilt and back to the roots profile, as well as limit their population in the world.

I also thought that because of the fall of their Empire and the magical curse/cataclysm, the elves had become not only mortal, but burdened with the problem of aging in a horrifying manner (altho their life spans would still be much longer than human).

The other problem are the dwarfs, since from my experience players tend to view them through one archetype (which is sad, but difficult to change). I've found J. Maliszewski's take on dwarfs very nice, but I'd feel super bad about copying that (since I already feel a bit guilty about the elves).

As to Halflings or Gnomes, I have no ideas yet. I thought about dumping them in favor of a race of frog-men which I came up with some time ago, but I'm not sure if it wouldn't be better to use them as an addition...

Anyway. Those are my basic ideas for the game world. In posts to come, I plan on discussing them in more detail.

art by Frank Frazetta

Sunday, November 15, 2009

This is where I'm at...

As I said in the previous post, before my game begins, I would like to outline the setting my adventure will take place in and the system of mechanics I will use. Since I was reading a lot of blogs bout D&D, I was certain I want to play that system in some kind of a fantasy setting. But before I went on to establish more details, I asked myself what atmosphere and flavor will my game have?

Do I want a game revolving around combat, or storytelling?

Should the setting be a high magic one or a low magic world?

Do I want epic, high adventure, where characters save the world from great evil, or should they be mere mortals, struggling to survive in dark, difficult times?

The answer came from discovering the old school D&D revival movement. The idea of bringing D&D back to it’s roots instantly clicked with me. Even though I’ve never played the original D&D, the experiences of the modern day gaming industry - the present trend of overemphasizing rules and copying mmorpgs (damn you 4e.!), is enough for me to sympathize with anyone who stands by the old ways.

As I was digging deeper into the OD&D scene, I stumbled upon some great articles (namely here and here) outlining the literary inspirations behind the original game. I found the concept of a pulp fantasy game, created by James Maliszewski, especially useful in putting my mind on the right track (the right track = reading Jack Vance, digging up my long forgotten Robert E. Howards). Thus I’ve decided that I want my game to have a darker, raw feel, much in the atmosphere of early Conan adventures, with PCs having to stand against an unfriendly and dangerous world. I’ve also pondered on how magical my world will be. I’ve decided that magic will be much feared and more associated with danger and evil, but all in all not very difficult to find (I do want my players to get magical treasure). Having accomplished that and having read Jack Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld, I came up with an idea of a world that is already over it’s prime, one that used to be populated by some powerful magical civilization which failed and fell under it’s own hubris. I think that is enough for now.

On the mechanics side of things, the encounter with Grognardia made me look for OD&D retro clones like Swords & Wizardry and OSRIC. I’ve dug through them and decided that in fact being unaccustomed to these rules, using them, as they are, would be unintuitive and might in fact slow the game down, instead of making it simpler. I gave that problem some thought, went through all D&D editions available and asked myself; what would be the most intuitive solution for me and my gamers? I arrived at the conclusion that most of my future players are well accustomed with d20 mechanics, it also struck me that using one dice for most rolls and checks would be least confusing to new players. However, my distaste for such 3e. table sprouting features as feats and huge lists of skills, led me to thinking that in fact the 3e. needs a lot of modifications. The final (I hope) conclusion is that I’ll try to make up my own d20 system, which will be more in tune with my recent old school interests.

Summing up. In posts to come I will try to focus on the description of new mechanics, that I am going to use in my game, as well as the description of the game’s setting.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Come with us now for a jorney through time and space

Elves ate my homework is my take on the idea of a gaming blog. Truth be told, I've never thought that blogs could be of any use to me... That is, until fishlemons told me about Zak S' blog. I read it and got instantly hooked. That blog is well written, contains loads of super ideas and is very enjoyable. It also became a gateway to other gaming blogs, opening me up to a community I've never realized existed. All the great material I've been exposed to has reawakened my interest in playing RPGs, a hobby I thought "I grew out of". Having read Grognardia and other blogs, I've realized that I still want to play D&D, I just don't have the right people to play with. Luckily that has changed too, as fishlemons became interested in playing (mainly thanks to Zak S).

So, now I'm preparing to once again lead a game. As I'm trying to put together a group of people who will be as enthusiastic to the idea of playing D&D as we are, some questions have arisen.

What will the setting be?

What rules/edition to use?

Will I suck?

I want this blog to serve as a platform for sharing and discussing ideas and solving gaming problems. I will also update on my game's progress, once it gets started.