This is going to start with a gaming story and then will wrap up somewhere in the neighborhood of me talking about Star Wars, so set your Geek Shields to maximum, folks.
I ran an RPG once that was set in Medieval Japan. As the setting was ostensibly historical, I used the most realistic ruleset I could find, which was (and is) namely The Riddle of Steel. TRoS has a brutally realistic combat system, which I loved. I loved the idea of extremely high-stakes samurai fights. It was going to be so cool.
And then the samurai player took a samurai sword to the groin in his first fight (he engaged an armored opponent while wearing only a loin cloth, which was seriously cool and also really stupid), nearly died, and was laid up healing for the next few months of in-game time. He was also literally emasculated. Unsurprisingly, for the rest of the campaign all the heroes tried very hard to avoid combat with anybody. There were precious few samurai duels and way, way more “stab him from behind in the dark” kinds of things. Which was fine, but not exactly what I had imagined in my mind.
Because of its realism, TRoS basically robbed all main characters of their plot armor – that mystical force that makes main characters invulnerable to everyone but the really scary bad guys. This is fine if what you’re going for is gritty realism, but very much not fine if you’re trying to tell tales of high adventure. The more realistic you get, the fewer superheroes prove to exist. Batman gets taken down by a Saturday Night Special in the waistband of a punk he thought he put down. Inigo Montoya is out of action after that first knife in the guts. Han and Luke never make it off the Death Star.
I see a lot of people constantly ragging on Imperial/First Order stormtroopers for “not being able to hit anything.” It’s a constant meme at this point, and it kinda annoys me. For one thing, with the singular exception of the Battle of Endor (which, yes, was totally stupid), stormtroopers are pretty damned good at shooting things. They kill pretty much every other unnamed force they are faced with, from Geonosis all the way to Maz Kanata’s Tavern. It’s just they can’t seem to get many hits in on anybody who’s got a name. Why? Plot armor, obviously – you know it, I know it, everybody knows it. So why complain? Do you actually want Stormtroopers to be able to gun down main characters regularly? Do you want them to constitute a real existential threat to our protagonists?
If the answer is “yes,” then you’re asking for Star Wars to tell a different type of story – one less about pulp novel heroics and more about grim, gritty “cost of war” kinds of stuff. Less John Wayne and more Oliver Stone, right?
If the answer is “no,” then consider what stormtroopers, for all their inability to hit anybody with a name, add to the story. They make it bright and loud and exciting. Even though we know the stormtroopers won’t kill our heroes, they might get injured (Leia!), might have their ride destroyed (Poe!), might have to be rescued at the last moment by a friend (Finn!), and so on and so forth. They are an important plot device, one that forces the heroes to run, to fight, to undertake heroics, and so on – it’s what we want out of the movie. Stop being so dismissive of their point and pretending they’re inept when they aren’t actually portrayed that way at all.
Now, I guess you could just use them more sparingly and set things up so the heroes are harder to hit or something. Or maybe we can watch our heroes be more stealthy. But, in the immortal words of the late Han Solo: “Bring em on! I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around!”
Which pretty much sums up exactly what the audience thinks, too.
Occasionally, I purchase or acquire new role-playing games from the bargain shelves of gaming stores or from friends who are cleaning out their book collection. I take a look at them, read them through, and make a determination of whether I will do one of two things:
1) Shelve it and never look at it again.
2) Waste hours considering the campaign I’d like to run based off the game, even though I do not, in any way shape or form, have the time to run an RPG campaign.
Option #1 is usually the more prudent choice. I am in the midst of running 2 campaigns right now, both of which are temporarily stalled thanks to me being too busy to think about them, so the idea that I might spend any amount of time thinking about an additional game to play is silly and wasteful.
…and yet here I am.
I just acquired the hard copy of Torchbearer the other day, which is a new RPG by the same guy who did The Burning Wheel, which is at once one of the more fascinating and frustrating rule systems I’ve encountered. Torchbearer is essentially a stripped down version of Burning Wheel, using the same basic rule mechanic but tossing out the fourteen tons of character-intensive soul-searching off of which that game operates. It’s a throwback to the old dungeon-centric games of my youth – players portray a basic archetypical character all of whom collectively need to make their living by invading the dark and forbidding places of the earth for treasure. The best thing about it is that it has de-romanticized dungeon crawling – people who spend their time hunting treasure in deadly places are not heroes, they are not the finest examples of humanity, they are not whimsical storybook characters. They are desperate, poor, and probably starving and the only reason they are doing this is because they haven’t the connections, the will, or the wits to live a more respectable life.
I sort of dig that idea. And I do like dungeons.
The problem (and the debate) that occupies my time, though, when considering whether a game is worth running and planning or not is two-fold:
1) How will this game be different from other games I have run?
2) How can I make it into something new and interesting in its own right.
Torchbearer’s basic world/setting is, frankly, not very interesting. Granted, it is expressly intended to be a throwback game, but just because that’s what the authors intended doesn’t mean that’s what I would do with it. I have run so many medieval fantasy world campaigns that the thought of another, even a gritty survival based one (which, it should be noted, I have already done) sounds fairly dull. So, in the interest of completeness, let me list off the similar campaigns I have run in the past couple years or so:
- The Amazing Race: Talislanta: a campaign where I created two separate adventuring parties who had to go on a cross-continental race to steal a mighty treasure from an unknown land for a fabulous reward. Set in Talislanta, using that game’s system. It was fun.
- Alandar: A game set in my own world with my own modification of the Roll-and-Keep system which ran for a few years and was quite epic in scope and depth. I’m never doing that again (most likely), so there’s no point in pretending to try.
- Burning Imperium: A personal mod of the Burning Wheel system to fit the Warhammer 40K universe. Team-oriented play, dark world, etc.
- Riddle of Steel: Japan: A mod (getting a trend here?) of the Riddle of Steel system adapted to a quasi-historical medieval Japanese setting. Very gritty rules, very character oriented, but mostly political intrigue based.
I will leave out the 3-4 Dungeons and Dragons campaigns I ran as a kid, as well as the umpteen-billion D&D-ish one-shots I’ve played in. I’m probably missing a few things in there, too. Anyway…
Stuff I haven’t done includes Post-apocalyptic settings, anything set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (which might be fun), as well as anything in a player-generated, collaboratively created world. All three of these seem like decent possibilities. The first would require the most adaptation on my part (though it would a very awesome take on the old dungeon-crawl trope: trawling ancient ruins for stuff to survive the wasteland of far-future Earth), the second is just a setting I love and would be fun to play with (though my enthusiasm may be unique in that regard – not a lot of WHFB fans around here), and the third would require the least work on my part, but would rely on actively engaged players contributing to the creation of the game. At my age, I don’t know a whole lot of people with the kind of free time and attention necessary to do that, as fun as it would be.
Ultimately, at some point, all gamers at my age need to understand something that is, regrettably, true: You’re never going to be 15-24 again. You will never have the kind of free-time you used to have before you had a family and a career and so on. All the crazy campaign Ideas you come up with can only come to fruition if, by some work of sorcery, you can pry the rest of your friends away from their real lives long enough to eat up 6 hours of their lives every week or two in order to imagine yourself somewhere else. So, would I like to run a Post-apocalyptic Torchbearer game? Yeah, I would. Will I?
Christ, man – I haven’t even gotten that Ravenloft campaign back up and running yet. I’ve got novels to finish, stories to sell, papers to grade. I’ve got that Warhammer habit to feed. I’ve got two kids, a dog, and a wife. Get out of dreamworld, Habershaw! Get back to business!
Okay everybody, bear with me for a minute as I heap some love upon the 1982 movie, Conan the Barbarian.
Conan is a legitimately great movie. I could write a dissertation on that movie. Dammit, I should write a dissertation on that movie. But not now, not here. Suffice to say that the John Milius tale of a orphaned boy sold into slavery and his long, dark road to revenge is one of the most compelling tales of human will and the ironies of human suffering I’ve ever watched. This movie is, I feel, Schwatzenegger’s best performance of his career, and he mostly has Robert E Howard and John Milius to thank.
But enough of the gushing – let’s get into the details. What drives the original Conan movie (I didn’t see the remake; it looked terrible and, furthermore, it’s a movie that really didn’t warrant remaking, anyway) is one thing: The Riddle of Steel. The Riddle goes something like this:
Crom, the Mountain God, possessed the secret to make steel – a strong, silvery metal that is also flexible. A race of giants stole the secret from Crom and, in his wrath, the mountain god crushed them. He left the secret of steel, however, on the battlefield, for men to find. At the start of the movie, Conan’s Father says:
The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one – no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts…
[Points to sword]
This you can trust.
The very next day, Conan’s father, mother, and all his people are slaughtered in a raid. He and the other children are sold off to slavery. Conan himself is tied to a mill wheel for his entire childhood, until he becomes literally as strong as an ox. And so begins his story.
The Riddle of Steel is just that – a Riddle. Conan’s father does not know the answer. Conan lives most of his life under the illusion that the true ‘discipline’ of steel is a fine sword and a good suit of armor. It’s wealth, power, the trappings of glory, a fine horse and a full flagon of wine, all of which might be won by a good blade and the skill to wield it. He is, however, wrong.
There are two characters in the movie who know the answer, or at least guess at it. The first is King Osric:
There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.
Osric, once a powerful northern barbarian just like Conan, now sees what his steel has earned him: nothing. He is helpless against his daughter’s betrayal. His only hope is to use the wages of his steel – his wealth – to get Conan to somehow bring his daughter back. He is weak, and he doesn’t know how it can be done. Of course, Thulsa Doom is the one who truly understands the Riddle. When speaking with Conan, he says this:
Steel isn’t strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks; a beautiful girl. Come to me, my child…
[coaxes the girl to jump to her death]
That is strength, boy! That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart, I gave you this! Such a waste.
That is the ultimate trick to the riddle. Steel is nothing without flesh. Power over the flesh is power over steel, by definition.
Even when told, Conan cannot accept the answer to this riddle. When he finally gains his revenge, when he casts down Thulsa Doom and destroys his snake-cult, he is left brooding on the steps of the Mountain of Power, trying to consider the implications of his ‘victory.’ We do not exult in Conan’s revenge and neither does the barbarian. He has not really ‘won’ anything – all he can do is sit there and consider his loss. What does it mean, now that Doom is gone and Conan’s great revenge is completed? Is he better off? Has anything really changed? He, perhaps, can be seen to be ‘free’, but free to do what, exactly? Steal? Pillage? Conquer a kingdom like Osric’s? Indeed, later in Conan’s life, he does all these things. But so what?
One of the many, many reasons I love this movie is because it shows revenge for what it is: empty and cold. Those who would trade an eye for an eye do not understand the Riddle. The key to the world is not held in a blade, but it is held within yourself. The film is full of people who, on some level, are trying to answer this riddle for themselves – they try to find something external to themselves, something that will grant them power or safety or peace or wholeness. Osric and his riches, the snake cultists and their religion, Valeria and her search for love, Conan and his desire for revenge. None of them find the answer, because they are looking in the wrong place. As Conan sits and broods, does this dawn on him? I do not know.
This struggle is a universal one. All of us are seeking the answer to that great Riddle – how do we get what we want? How do we become great? The great majority of us are looking, ultimately, in the wrong place. We should look within for that power, for what else do we have more complete control over than ourselves? Conan’s struggle in life is an exaggerated mirror of our own struggles. We are shaped by our pains and our tragedies and our victories alike, and the realization of this is important. Even as we read this – even as I write this – we nod and say ‘yeah, totally, I get it.’ But we still don’t. We don’t really understand, just like Conan does not. We look around us and see bleakness and tragedy and emptiness, but we are missing those things that are truly fulfilling and which aren’t forged from steel but, instead, from our own flesh and blood. This is the Riddle of Steel; this is, ultimately, the Riddle of Technology itself.
Most role playing games involve some kind of magic, whether they actually call it that or not. If it’s a fantasy setting, you’ve got wizards wandering around; if it’s science fiction, you’ve got psychics; if it’s modern, you have eldritch rituals and witchcraft and some such. With rare exception, however, magic is seldom ‘magical’ in RPG settings. It might be interpreted as such by the inhabitants of that setting, but when the rules get slapped atop the sorcery, it rapidly becomes what I’d call ‘mundane’. It is rare that I’ve run across a magic system I’ve liked, including the ones I’ve created myself.
How Magic Usually Works
In most role-playing settings, magic give characters the ability to alter the environment for the purpose of destroying enemies, assisting friends, or acting as a toolbox by which the player can do things he otherwise couldn’t–climb cliffs, open/lock doors, clean his room, carry stuff, etc.. In this role, I usually fail to see how magic differs from, say, equipment. I’ve got a longbow and you can throw lightning bolts–what’s the difference, really? Well, usually it’s two things: (1) magic is more potent and (2) magic costs more. The lightning bolt really only differs from the longbow in the fact that it does more damage than the bow (in most cases) and it requires the character to pay some kind of price for its use, including things like being lousy in combat, taking some kind of drain on their person (aging, a headache, the chance they might catch on fire, etc.), or having some kind of limit on the number of times it can be used.
All in all this arrangement is fairly functional and easy to manage. The trope of the wizard who can throw giant fireballs but can’t defend himself in a wrestling match is well known, as is the ambitious sorcerer who calls down a little too much power and burns themselves up. My problem with it is that, all-in-all, it is fairly uninspiring stuff. I don’t really want magic to be equitable to equipment–I want it to be special, impressive, even frightning. Now, some systems try to achieve this to varying extents (Riddle of Steel is probably my favorite–http://www.driftwoodpublishing.com/whatis/), and others don’t even bother (4th Ed D&D, for instance, has some of the most boring magic in existence, and it is literally indistinguishable from the abilities of other non-magical players). This is not to say magic isn’t fun (the only character I ever play these days in D&D is a wizard), but it really doesn’t capture what I want magic to capture.
What Magic Should Be
To my mind, magic should be unique, impressive, flexible, and dangerous. I want wizards to toss spells that do more than simple damage to their enemies–I want them to do things that make everybody else in the game go ‘whoaaa.’ I want wizards to have a few spells they use regularly (the simple stuff, like telekinesis and little bolts of energy or whatever), but also have access to spells that they only ever use once and that very well may be unique to themselves. I want the execution of those really impressive spells to have a huge cost for the wizard or the environment or the plot or something. In short, I want magic to be a Big Deal.
This goal, of course, raises a lot of problems in an RPG. The first, and the one most often groused about, is regarding ‘game balance.’ Now, first of all, I don’t really think game balance is all that important in an RPG, mostly because game balance is a concept best applied to competitive or adversarial games, like Risk or Warhammer or Baseball. Since an RPG isn’t adversarial or competitive, but rather collaborative, it shouldn’t really matter if one player is ‘better’ than another. Furthermore, if you’ve got a good GM who allows players to solve problems creatively and is able and willing to raise or lower the level of challenge to make sure the game remains interesting (and you’re using a system that allows such things–i.e. not D&D), then the comparative power levels of the PCs and NPCs doesn’t so much break the game as dictate tactics. Obviously you should not engage the superwizard in a wizard’s duel–you’ll die. Figure out a way around it, folks.
Related to the game balance issue, however, and something that is (to my mind) more important, is the fact that magic, if too powerful, kills the challenge inherent in a game. Players always want to do things easily and almost always want to avoid difficulties or risk whenever possible. Paradoxically, if this desire is indulged, the game becomes no fun. If I ever have to say ‘congratulations, you infiltrated the Tower of Despair and escaped with the Crown of Doom without anyone noticing’, I have failed as a GM (that is unless, of course, the Tower of Despair isn’t the main objective of the mission but rather a sideshow that is best dispensed with quickly, but I digress…). Danger is essential to fun in an RPG. It comes in many forms, of course–not all danger is purely to life and limb–but it must be present. Something must be at stake, and there must be a very reall chance of losing it. Therefore, magic that is too powerful without there being some kind or price inherent in it can kill the game and, furthermore, granting players power that they will abuse for the purpose of eliminating challenge is counter-productive to a successful game. This kind of ‘game-balance’ (not the intra-character kind) must be carefully managed. Again, a flexible GM can fix this often enough (by raising the level of difficulty on the fly), but all-powerful wizards can still derail this if magic isn’t properly managed.
So, with these things in mind, let me outline how the ideal system of magic should work, so far as I’m concerned:
If and when a wizard throws a curse at a person, that person should suffer for it. There is nothing I dislike more than a system where somebody gets hit with a giant lightning bolt and keeps going like nothing happened. Super lame. Combat spells should hurt, defensive spells should be potent, movement spells should do what they say they do. Shadowrun was always pretty good at this (http://www.shadowrun4.com/), as is Riddle of Steel. I, of course, like deadly games, so perhaps that’s just me.
Spells should be applicable in multiple situations or, barring that, wizards should have general knowledge of entire schools of sorcery so that they can execute spells that fulfill a variety of roles. If you can produce a telekinetic blast, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to produce a telekinetic hand to pick something up or to hold somebody in place. Talislanta is pretty good at this, as is Riddle of Steel (which is actually too flexible, but anyway).
Wizards should have sharp limits to their power in that they should either not know everything or not be good at certain things or have magic that possesses certain liabilities (like the need to carry around certain objects to do it, or need certain quantities of time, etc.). This is needed so that a wizard can still be challenged and, furthermore, so that the other players won’t feel useless. This is one area where Riddle of Steel falls a little short–those wizards can do just about anything, though they need a few seconds. Talislanta is marginally better, with all their various Schools of Sorcery having unique and particular limitations to their use.
Those who use magic should be wary, since it should exact a stiff toll on them if they overstep themselves. I want wizards to have the capacity to obliterate city blocks, but should be forced to balance that with whether or not it’s worth it. This effect needn’t always be physical. You don’t need to burn out you brain or age, for instance–you could instead simply owe progressively more of your soul to the underworld, or be forced to repay the favor the Gods did you in some fashion to be named later. In terms of price, Shadowrun is okay at this (wizards who overstep themselves routinely fall unconscious) and Riddle of Steel makes an effort (but who really cares about aging their character? How is that interesting?), but no system I’ve seen really nails this idea. Burning Wheel (http://www.burningwheel.org/) leaves the possibility open in their Magic Burner, but don’t really explore it much.
Finally, magic should be really cool in its application and execution. I don’t really want it to function identically to other game mechanics–it needs something special. It must be at least partially apart from the other ways of doing things because that’s what it is–magic. I understand and appreciate the wish to streamline rules and gameplay–I really do–but I don’t wish it done at the cost of flavor, if you will. To this end, D&D falls flat, as does Talislanta. Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, and Shadowrun do it pretty well, but often at the cost of extremely clunky rules and confusing sets of new stats. I’d like to find a balance, if possible.
As those of you who know me can probably guess, I have been tinkering with an attempt to create my own ideal magic system for some time now. It is all going along with my revamp of the rule system I created for my own fantasy setting, Alandar (in which the story “The Martyr” is set, incidentally, along with a novel I’ve written and a huge quantity of background material). Perhaps someday, perhaps even on this very blog, I’ll debut it. It isn’t ready yet, though. Not yet. For now, I and all of us must make our way as best we can with the magic that we’re given, as pedestrian as it might seem.