Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Back in the Shadow of the Black Giant

It's been a long time since I've talked about my half-cooked (not to be confused with half-baked) idea for the "In the Shadow of the Black Giant" campaign. For newer followers of the blog, here's what you've been missing: In an Alpine valley in southern Bavaria, a vast, black volcano of vaguely man-like aspect looms above a smattering of idyllic farmlands and peaceful villages. Peace reigned in this valley for an age, but now the Black Giant has started to smolder once again and the ash that settles in the valley has brought with it a return of dwarves to the mountains (and the much fouler gnomes and kobolds), elves to the forests, rumors of witchcraft and Satanism amongst the peasants and a tension that threatens to erupt into a homespun inquisition or revolution. Add into this mix PCs and you've got an adventure.

For everything I've written on the topic so far, click here.

Great, now that we're all caught up, I want to talk about rules in the Shadow of the Black Giant. At first, I was torn between two rule systems and had settled on one. Now, I've gone back to the drawing board and am considering three different rule systems, weighing them for their own merits and ability to actually fit the story I want to explore with a group of PCs.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy

LotFP Weird Fantasy has a lot to recommend it. +James Raggi did a great job crafting a tight set of rules that fit exceptionally well with historical fantasy role-playing. The one place I think this shines more than any other is (and this might not make a lot of sense at first) attack progression. Only fighters get better at hitting stuff as they gain levels. In a game where few people make use of any armor at all, I think this makes a lot of sense. Most folks' AC is unlikely to improve, therefore the only people who ever get more accurate are the folks whose stock and trade is physical violence. I dig the "specialist" riff off ye olde thief. Wizards are fine, clerics are fine. All in all, this game is very non-controversial as far as rules themselves go. I like it. It's easy. Also, the simple weapon damage system is a big plus here, too.

What Doesn't Fit

The level of lethality here is slightly higher than I'd like. Realistically, I can fix that by applying my "Death Dice" system (read this if you don't know what I'm talking about). Magic is a bit easy to access in LotFP, but that's to be expected from a BX clone. The presence of dwarves and elves in the rules might provide more temptation than I'd like to play those particular races, particularly since this campaign focuses squarely on the Bavarian people of the valley; I might have to just trust the players to not be lame, here. I really want dwarves and elves to feel alien and that can be very hard when you've got PC elves and dwarves. (Yes, I know I can just say "no elves!" but I've learned that just telling players "no" isn't as wise as one might imagine.) I've realized that, as time's gone by, I've gotten lazier and lazier where Saving Throws are concerned and the old 5-fold system is awkward and clunky and I'd rather have something else (that's obviously not a specific criticism here, but a general one that I can level at most retroclones). I'm also not sure that the xp system from LotFP and other retroclones would work out; their heavy reliance on treasure for experience would not fit the feel of the genre.

BLUEHOLME

Yes, I'm still thinking about BLUEHOLME. It's simple, it's easy, it's Holmes written for today. BLUEHOLME, being a Holmes Basic retroclone, preserves the pre-AD&D, pre-genre feel of OD&D, that sort of "you can play anything with these rules!" sort of free-for-all ecstacy that really gets my brain juices flowing. I think my prior attachment to BLUEHOLME had more to do with the fact that it inspired the Black Giant in the first place, particularly with its healthy use of Clarke's illustrations for Goethe's Faust, which invokes in me the sense of the German pastoral idyl as well as Faust's own railing against it, a tension which is key to my idea of what the Black Giant campaign is. +Michael Thomas knocked BLUEHOLME out of the park, but I feel like I'd have to houserule it heavily to get it close to being the "perfect" system for the campaign as I'd like to see it.

What Doesn't Fit

What "heavy houserulings" would I have to make? First, there's the same objections I have with LotFP (saves, lethality, etc.). All of that is fine and fixable. We've got elves and dwarves here, too, though they seem to be more easily written out (since it's race-and-class rather than race-as-class, it feels like I'm denying players fewer options). The five-fold alignment I think is pretty pointless, so I'd drop this for the good ol' three-point alignment system. I know that its very much en vogue to talk about "bounded accuracy," but I very much think that it makes sense when considering a historical setting where folks might not always go traipsing around in armor. Weird Fantasy fixes this by making improved accuracy being the province of one class; for BLUEHOLME, this problem looms large.

Transylvanian Adventures

In my last post, I showed off my new copy of Transylvanian Adventures. I apologize for that vulgur disply of consumerism. I just finished reading it yesterday morning and here's what I can say: that is one hell of a system. Yes, I understand that many folks find it not to their liking; it's a game of ass-kicking Gothic horror, not straight-up Gothic horror, and it doesn't pretend to be anything else. Some folks have found +Scott Mathis's straightforward, natural language style of writing and subject matter to be jarring or immature, but I dig it. One of the core themes of the German pastoral idyl is that the common man wins out, the hero beats the villain and gets the girl. This theme I feel is reflected quite well in TA. PC death isn't the dime-a-dozen thing that it can be in DCC proper, which fits the genre, so there's one fewer change I'd be making. Experience would be easy, since TA uses DCC's super-simple, challenge-based system. Further, I've come to rely a lot on DCC's Luck mechanism and feel it does a great job of encapsulating all of the random vagaries that we can't quite keep track of all of, distilling them down to one number, and giving you really easy ways to use that distillate in game. Finally, TA doesn't exactly have a "bounded accuracy" solution, but more of a "bounded difficulty" one; since few people in Transylvania wear armor, few ACs ever improve, but they start out a bit higher to compensate. Finally, the restricted access to magic feels great and keeps it from becoming a hackneyed solution to every problem the party can't figure out on their own.

What Doesn't Fit

Sadly, I'm not sure the rule set's target genre, ass-kicking Gothic horror, fits terribly well with the German pastoral idyl. Frankenstein and Dracula will not be lurking in the shadows; instead it will be demons, witches, greedy gnomes, inhuman elves and other creatures of legend and folklore. But aren't these things horrifying by nature? If we read Goethe's der Erlkonig, we're reading a horror story (horror poem?), only slightly less so is his Faust. German folklore is chock full of horrific stuff, much of it cataloged by the Brothers Grimm. Blend in a healthy dose of Enlightment-era Anabaptism-fueled witch hysteria and you've got something that really closely resembles a horror story. My only worry is that, to fit the genre, I'd have to play this rule set so straight that I'd lose much of the "punch Dracula in the face!" flavor that TA brings to the table.

And so, I feel I'm back where I started, but with more options. I'm happy to hear opinions, folks.