Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rediscovering TSR's Later Settings: Part III, Ravenloft and Jakandor

Last time, we talked about the two 2e era settings that got me really excited by allowing all PCs to mess around with stuff that had been reserved for higher-level characters (namely, planar travel and domain management), but that pushed me away with some poor choices in design. Before that, we discussed two 2e-era settings that promised awesome heights of genre specialization, but wimped out by an over-application of what I call "post-genre D&D" and the tropes of D&D in general. Today, unfortunately, the only thing these settings have in common is that fact that I never ran any of them.


I'm at a weird place today when I discuss Ravenloft because I think what we wanted Ravenloft to be when I was coming up is what +Scott Mathis's Transylvanian Adventures is: a rollicking, Hammer Horror-inspired ass-kicking vampire stake-fest. Well, you know what I mean. The thing is, we've all been exposed to the horror tropes so many times over and over through the past decades, nay, centuries, that when TSR announced that it was taking its unreasonably-popular I6: Castle Ravenloft module and expanding it into a full-blown setting, we should have known it wasn't going to do what it claimed on the box. How many vampires, wolf-men, Frankensteins and mummies can we possibly see rehashed and believe that a gaming company who was making its money by playing it safe (at the time) and not innovating was likely to bring something new and interesting to horror gaming?

[I'll clear this up right now by saying that I believe that, yes, it is possible to innovate in horror gaming, even when using traditional horror tropes. It's just really freaking hard. Much harder than TSR was capable of back in the late 80's & early 90's.]

Why we can't have nice things
That having been said, Ravenloft the setting managed a few things that I enjoyed. From a certain point of view, Ravenloft is a sort of prison where the prisoners are the "big bad evil guys" of various campaigns (or horror tropes) and the prisons are shaped to fit their particular idioms. Sure, Count Strahd gets to run rampant over the hills of Barovia, but he's trapped there. Completely unlike Camus's Myth of Sisyphus, we have to assume that this does not make Strahd happy. The revoltingly-poor novels written about Strahd (thanks to +Jack Shear, I'll never have to read another one; here's the link) constantly place him at odds with his imprisonment, focus on his attempts at escape or self-satisfaction, and even touch on his attempts to become one of Ravenloft's "Dark Powers."

Sure, that sounds kind of cool. Or, nearly so. It has its toe dipping into "No Exit" waters, which I should be happy about, but the whole concept of this particular prison introduces an unfortunate moralistic dimension: there are people trapped in the domains of dread with the big bad evil guys. Because we as players (or DMs) tend to think of these poor saps as "innocent bystanders" (or at least that they have the potential to be innocent bystanders, even if they're jerks), and because of the very existence of big bad evil guys in the same inescapable locations as the bystanders, we're forceably shoehorned into that classic 2e-era trope of having to be to good guys. The monster hunters. The saviors of the village. The VanHelsings or, if you prefer, VanRichtens.


This setting might have been interesting if it focused on (and thereby rewarded) the sort of stories that make sense in the dark domains. I'd vast prefer playing both sides -- which are probably a werewolf and a hag -- against the middle to get the vampire slain. Don't burn down Castle Frankenstein, you blackmail the Baron into giving you the alchemical/arcane knowledge you need to make your escape from Ravenloft. Why settle for the lesser evil, especially when that way lies eternal imprisonment in the domains of dread? That's what I want to see out of Ravenloft, but we were given the same treatment that TSR gave everything back then and that was especially reinforced by Hammer horror. Not scary, not interesting, nor fun.


The next setting I want to talk about wasn't technically a TSR setting, but rather was a WotC-era 2e setting that came out near the end of 2e's run (1998). The idea behind Jakandor was that two cultures inhabited the island of Jakandor: the savage, magic-hating, barbaric Knorr (which felt like a cross between Native Americans and Vikings, which is pretty cool) and the decadent, civilized, magic-using Charonti (which, again to me, felt like they fit somewhere between the Aztec and the Sumerians which, again, I think is awesome). The Knorr were newcomers to Jakandor and inhabited its eastern side while the Charonti were the native culture and dominated the west. Knowing that players tend to identify strongly with whatever side of a game-related conflict they encounter first, WotC very carefully released both the Charonti & Knorr books at the same time, ensuring that the choice of faction really amounted to player choice and not exposure bias. Further, neither side was painted as "the good guys;" both had features that weren't objectively good and others that weren't objectively evil. Set all that in a far more swords & sorcery background than high fantasy and it starts to sound like the sort of thing I should really be sold on, doesn't it?

You, dear reader, I'm sure are keenly aware of the "except" or "but" or other interjection that looms large before whatever I say next. At this point, I think we know each other well enough to take it as read, don't we?

So here's my problem: the faction books for this setting spend way too much time demonstrating that their side is the good side. And not by showing you how evil the other side is, either (remember, this was written in the 90's and bipartisanship still had a chance in the US back then), but by showing you remarkably dull and utterly banal the factions are. I expected to love the Charonti, particularly with their CA Smith-style embrace of Necromancy as a solution to their society's woes. I was hoping for a twisted form of Nietzschean nihilism writ large across society and instead was given a zombified Rosie the Riveter and a "we can do it!" speech. The Knorr were kind of haughty at least, and self-righteous in most of the right places, but all in all this setting was too kindly and, frankly, not nearly brutal enough. Add to this extensive support of WotC's "2.5e" supplements and reliance on more kits and proficiencies than are healthy and you've turned an exciting Skraeling/Vikings vs. Aztec/Sumerians cross-cultural, morally-void slugfest into an option-clogged round of one-upsmanship, each faction one-upping the other on the ladder of tedious self-affirmation. It's not really a wonder that Jakandor never received more than 3 books, nor that WotC, after killing the setting, released those three for free on their website at the turn of the edition.

Whew. Well, thanks for joining me for another slog through the settings of yester-edition. I'm only planning on one more of these, then we'll start looking at what I would do with them. Next up is the setting so good, TSR had to steal it from itself: Mystara & the Hollow World.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Rediscovering TSR's Later Settings, Part II: Planescape & Birthright

Last time, I picked apart Dark Sun and Spelljammer and how they ultimately fell short of their particular brands of promise. I felt odd writing the "promise" so many times, but really, that's what I felt that Dark Sun and Spelljammer had in common: they fell short of the promises they'd made. Today's settings share something in common as well: they're settings that drew me in with a central feature, but then pushed me away with another. 


I will admit to a previous career as a power gamer. Thankfully, this was back in my youth, but I'm afraid I would have been the type of gamer who used the Deities & Demigods as a Monster Manual had I been born about 8 years prior, so it's a good thing I wasn't. I became fascinated with things like the Manual of the Planes and the biggest bad guys that Uncle Gary & crew could come up with and figuring out how to involve my PCs with them, only to find them chronically underpowered to do so, and the whole thing would end in a stupid exercise in futility and practice at rolling up new characters or in an even worse, ridiculous contrivance that saved the players' collective bacon while making little to no sense, all played off as part of some "grand scheme" that players might never understand or see evidence of again because I was 15 or 16 and stupid.

And so, Planescape seemed like a great idea to me. Planar travel was right up my alley, as well as allowing players to muck up the schemes of transcosmic badasses at level one. Never before had there been much ability to screw around on the Outer or Inner Planes at that low of a level, and I was excited about the opportunity for a departure from the traditional AD&D fare. At the time, games with more of a focus on role playing and gaming-up social interaction (games like Vampire) were taking off; even back then I recognized that rules for social interaction weren't exactly necessary, particularly when players have enough agency to make decisions about how their own PCs behave (which should be always). The idea of standing against the agents of Demogorgon and Orcus, much less the schemes of lesser extraplanar beings, from the lowest of levels with their wits as the players' chief weapon appealed to the tiny sliver of story gamer in me, as well as that swiftly-dying ember of a power gamer.

My core disappointment with Planescape, however, comes from the fact that it never felt like it adequately rewarded the activity that the players were expected to undertake. Though I didn't know it at the time, I seem to always have had a working concept that games reward experience for the sorts of behavior they want to encourage. Classic editions of D&D reward experience for defeating monsters and collecting loot, but that's not the sort of thing that Planescape deals with. Sure, there are guidelines in the Planescape setting box for awarding XP for non-combat activities, but they rarely seems as rewarding as "traditional" D&D murderhoboism. And so, the focus of Planescape games always seemed to drift away from what they felt like they should be about and more and more toward the standard D&D "beat up the bad guys and take their stuff" tack that I had already gotten bored of. Obviously, this could have been made to work for me back then, but there wasn't as much of a point in that for me; instead, I just moved on to something else and spent many years enjoying WEG d6 Star Wars and getting stuck with the World of Darkness. 


It's going to be very hard to write about Birthright without using the word "promise" again, but I'll try. I always wanted to get a character to "name level" (despite the fact that most games I played didn't have "name level" anymore) so I could build my keep, rule my barony and build a kingdom. I always want to do new stuff in gaming, especially things I've never had the chance to do. As a result, the Domain Game idea always appealed to me if only because I've still never gotten to play it. Birthright opened up the idea of the Domain Game to all players (rather than just the ones who could have a character survive to level 9) by detaching rulership from level and instead attaching it to campaign elements. Add to this a very streamlined Domain Game with a built in mass combat engine that didn't threaten to get bogged down with too much fiddling with troops and you've got a winner! (It might have helped that I was a huge RISK player at the time and had just gotten into Axis & Allies as well.)

Well, almost a winner. The problem with Birthright was not the rules (well, parts of the rules; the Domain Game was solid, but the whole "you've got the blood of a dead god in you" system was wonky and felt like a backhanded attempt to make psionic wild talents work in the campaign by giving them a different coat of paint), but the incredibly lame, boring setting they were given, full of terrible and hackneyed D&D and Anglocentric tropes. Instead of nations arraying themselves against each other in vainglorious struggle for supremacy, the by-then-old-hat themes of "these are the good guys, these are the bad guys" reared its head yet again (in many ways, this is the defining characteristic of the 2e days and why I think it's too tepid or "vanilla"). It was obvious who was good and who was bad, who your PC-king should ally with and who he should war against if only because the book told you their alignment. Add in the vaguely-Tolkeinian lineage of horrific nightmare beasts that no one could spell (seriously, I get that you're going for a Celtic flavor but Celtocentrism is really just another shade of Anglocentrism, a cardinal sin as far as I'm concerned) and your "ooooh, Domain Game... this could be interesting" becomes a "good guys vs. bad guys" playground-style snoozefest.

Curiously, I think that Birthright might have been a much more interesting game (and Cerilia a much more interesting setting) had it been used for BECMI D&D (by then RC D&D), if only because the lack of a "good and evil" axis to alignment would have added a lot of depth, uneasy alliances and a great deal more of a moral gray area to the game. That might even have made the setting more palatable: if the good guys and bad guys were less clear-cut or, even better, didn't exist as a distinction at all, Birthright would have been a much more interesting setting. For a setting that vaguely emulated Europe (or really, Europe-ness), does it make sense for there to even be clear-cut heroes & villains other than from a nationalistic stand point? You'd really have to have some history-blinders on to be able to answer that question in the affirmative. And so, I have to consign Birthright as written to the dustbin of good ideas that could have been but that smothered themselves beneath their own weight. 

Man, writing these feels really negative; I assure you that's not the intent. If anything, I love these systems and settings and wish a few things had been done differently to rescue them from their design faults. The fascinating thing about these two settings is that both offer typically higher-level activities (planar travel, running a domain) to low-level characters and, in this, I'd say they're to be commended. It's when those settings fail to follow through on what they'd need to thrive (often by watering-down contentious -- thereby awesome -- elements) that the settings lose their luster. 

Think I'm done? Not quite! Next time, I'll tackle two settings that are heavy on moral relativism with both Ravenloft and Jakandor

Thursday, September 25, 2014

DCC Donnerstag: "I Refute It Thus," Fear of the Funnel Edition

I'd really like to just jump in and refute the objection that people raise to the funnel: "But why should I have to play a 0-level? I want to play a real character!" The problem is that the answer to this objection is actually tied to another: "Why's it gotta be so lethal? I don't want to have to make another character so soon!" Unfortunately, we have to deal with these objections in reverse order.

Lethality vs. Character Generation

I really feel sorry for the folks who grew up playing 3.xe. Never did they know the green pastures of "roll 3d6 in order." Forever, their conceptions of RPGs have been clogged and clotted with feats, backgrounds, "themes" and other unnecessary nonsense. Their entire gaming career, staring with 3.xe, on into 4e and probably Mathfinder as well, has had as its horrid preamble a lengthy, deliberative session of so-called "character generation" which resembles nothing less than "character life path planning." It's a sad, sad state of affairs.

Nonetheless, I can't blame these new school players for getting invested in their PCs. I can't blame them for not wanting them to die, not wanting to start all over again because, brother, that's some serious work. They spent so much time coming up with their own special snowflake and they really don't want anyone to come and melt it. I get it. I understand. I just think it's a damn shame and a missed opportunity.

First, allow me to ask the following: Has anyone's game been seriously more enriched by a lengthy, drawn-out character creation process than it would be from, say, the threat of character death? The introduction of powers, feats, etc., may allow for precise character customization, but that customization comes at the price of never wanting to have to fucking customize a PC in the same way again. Lethality, however, adds an element of suspense. Success is not a foregone conclusion when survival is in question, and when success is not a foregone conclusion, are we all not more invested in making it happen? What point is there in having a character that took hours to create if he does not do things that are interesting, in which you the player are invested and when, ultimately, the things he accomplishes are devoid of meaning because, put simply, he could not have not accomplished them?

DCC RPG player characters are generated quickly and easily. 3d6 in order, down the row. Roll percentiles for occupation, roll d30 for Birth Augur, roll d4 for hit points then do a little math. Done. 5 minutes tops. Do that four times, you've got 20 minutes at most (there's an economy of scale here, too) and you're ready for your first funnel. Or, go to Purple Sorcerer and hit "generate" (do yourself a favor and make sure you're using "option awesome" while you're at it). Done. Kind of hard to be mad about the time you spent when one of those dudes bites it, isn't it?

Training Wheels & the Badass Bicycle 

So, you've spent a small amount of time making these characters, now it's time to send them into danger. In many ways, lethality and the funnel are training wheels for new school players to learn how to ride the super-bitchin', banana-seated bicycle of doom that is old school-style gaming. The lives of PCs who took only moments to create really aren't worth that much. What's more, you've got several of them. It's only a matter of moments -- an encounter or two, perhaps -- before at least one of them meets his maker. Celebrate this death; to the player, it probably means very little. To the group, it might mean a lot. He might have demonstrated where a trap lay, saved another PC from death at the hands of a fiend or in some other way died that others may live. But wait, dear player, it gets better! Not only did your death have meaning and make an impact, but you've got another character or three right over there ready to be played! You don't have to sit out the rest of the night while you roll up your next character!

And so the funnel progresses. These throw-away level zero characters that our first objector thought were beneath his notice (see way back at the top where I call out the first of the two objections this post is confronting) die because, of course, as that player rightly predicted, level zero characters are nobodies. But what happens when most of your nobodies are dead? When there's less and less of a cushion insulating the player from the very real possibility of failure and the dreaded TPK?

It's simple: things start to matter more.

Each attack roll. Each saving throw. Each description in minute detail of the process of checking for traps (Metal Gods & Hyperbarbaria players know what I'm talking about here). Soon, your players are left with one or two zeroes and have to figure out how best to risk them... or not. Caution, care, cleverness, these things come to the forefront and begin to win the day for the players as the ranks thin. This is the badass bicycle and once you learn how to ride, you'll never forget.

Final Word

Let's recap: "Why's it gotta be so lethal? I don't want to have to make another character so soon!" When you've got four characters to start with, you won't have to make another character when one dies unless you kill off all four. Giving you three or four zeroes to kill off gives you a taste of character death without the necessity of choosing the bazillion options of the "later editions." Next: "But why should I have to play a 0-level? I want to play a real character!" The thing is, disposability and replaceability aside, DCC zeroes are very much real characters. Sure, you don't get the super-cool benefits that first-level DCC characters get (spells, Lay on Hands, Mighty Deeds, Luck benefits, etc.). In most regards, they're pretty much the same as first level characters in other systems. Playing a clutch of zeroes really gives you the opportunity to get used to, and even enjoy, the higher degree of lethality in DCC while still giving you the numbers necessary for one or two to survive. When learning a new system (because really, if you're not already playing DCC, it is a new system), how often do you actually remember to use all the options you have for your character anyway? In DCC,
your zeroes don't have anything you won't use, and by the time you've learned to use what you've got, you'll need to use what you've learned to make sure (at least) one of your zeroes survives the funnel.

I feel like I rambled more, here, than I have in previous refutations. Hopefully, between my ramblings, there's something here to help more of those "discussions" with DCC nay-sayers.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rediscovering TSR's Later Settings, Part I: Dark Sun & Spelljammer

A little while ago, I was talking to +Ray Case & +Donn Stroud about some of our favorite TSR settings of the AD&D 2e era and was struck by a bout of nostalgia. Previous to 2e, all of TSR's settings seemed to be different variations on the same flavor of vanilla: Greyhawk, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms never seemed to stray too far from one another (please don't hate; it's only in my later years as a gamer that I've come to realize how actually interesting Greyhawk is). 2e started an explosion of settings that often held no resemblance to these (largely vanilla) settings, instead each taking on a strongly different character. Some of these 2e-era settings are stronger than others, some were more promise than delivery, and some were great in some places and not in others. The big thing they have in common, though, was that they didn't resemble each other at all, much less the settings that came before them.

Here are the thoughts that have been swirling around in my brain about the 2e era settings.

Dark Sun

I always thought the initial release of Dark Sun was really, really cool. The stuff that got added over time, however, was junk. The second, revised DS box looked like crap, reflected changes that the players hadn't had a direct hand in and was overall a toning-down of the extreme tenor of the original box. To be honest, I hadn't paid much attention to that box until I read the 4e DS campaign book, which surprised the hell out of me with all this prehistory that I had never been aware of before: a touchy-feely, politically-correct history that looked more or less like what our own history might look like if global warming is allowed to run rampant. All of that, however, was a weakening of what made Dark Sun awesome.

Dark Sun, during its development, was originally called "War World" at TSR, and was designed as a setting as much for TSR's BATTLESYSTEM as for AD&D, which, to me, seems to hearken back to another, earlier TSR product: their Chainmail supplement, Warriors of Mars. Because, and here's the thing that makes Dark Sun badass, Athas is Barsoom. Think about it: Thri-Kreen are Tharks. Here's the other thing that makes Dark Sun badass: Athas is Arrakis. Desert-dwelling elves are Fremen(ish). No water. Just like Arrakis and Barsoom, the prevailing morality on Athas is at best "enlightened self-interest" and "selfish greed" at worst. Now that's my kind of setting.

In the end, it's really quite sad that TSR (and later WOTC) took Dark Sun in the traditional D&D vein of players playing the good guys, working for the benefit of the world. BOOOOOOORING. And with so much potential left behind on the drawing table, a lot of the promise of Dark Sun went unfulfilled.


Somehow, I missed the memo that Spelljammer wasn't cool. I missed out on why I was supposed to hate SJ. Because I missed that memo back in the early 90's, I don't think I'll ever understand what isn't awesome about Spelljammer. D&D in space? Hell yes! Is it the space part that people don't like? Maybe. Is it that it's too sci fi? Was it the incongruity of the Jeff Easly art on the box (with its "high fantasy" feel) and the grittier, sword & planet promise of the setting? Was it the Jim Holloway art in the set itself with its attendant goofiness? The world (and I) may never know.

I think that a common, Appendix N thread runs through these 2e campaign settings. In many ways, they feel like TSR was trying to move closer and closer to the literary inspirations for D&D in the first place, perhaps in an effort to combat the "vanilla-fication" endemic to 2e with some serious Appendix N flavor. Unfortunately, every time TSR tried to inject flavor back into 2e, somewhere along the line it got this awful, disrespectful treatment where any grittiness or questionable morality (and therefore real drama) got washed out and replaced with tepid Care Bear morality.

And so, as I suggested in the first paragraph of this bit, the real badassery of Spelljammer was that it promised to finally provide AD&D players with a straight up sword & planet setting. Ray guns. Rockets. Crazy flying contraptions. Bizarre humanoid aliens. JETPACKS! But, despite all that great promise, what did it provide? A lumbering, goofy setting that often contradicted itself and kept inexplicably veering back toward vanilla D&D despite the fact that it was D&D in motherfucking space! Why do we have to keep rehashing the same old D&D tropes when we're given the opportunity to do something else? Sure, it's probably a safer bet to take, given the success of TSR's "vanillafication" model, but what do you gain? Even as a fan of these funky settings, I found myself turning away from TSR's blanding up of the crazy flavorful settings in favor of newer, interesting games that didn't make that same mistake.

In the end, I wouldn't be surprised if TSR's "let's play it safe" strategy of blunting their sharpest edges was what ruined the company.

On that note, I'm out. Next time we come back to this topic, we'll look at two of 2e's other major settings of the era: Planescape and Birthright.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Pawnbroker's Trade: How Long Does It Take To Sell Loot?

One of the conceptual issues that I take with rampant murderhoboism is treasure. We can solve the "how're you carrying all that stuff?" problem by introducing encumbrance rules. That makes folks have to make tough decisions about what's more valuable and what to do with the leftover loot. I've seen parties bury it (which is awesome when they remember to draw a map to it because treasure maps are always cool) and the Iron Coast group recently left several chests of gold coin in a lizard-man village in the "World Below" (my version of the Underdark which owes more to the OSR concept of "mythic underworld") along with an injured henchman who was convalescing (and blind; did I mention that he'd been blinded?). For me, this sorts of thoughts only take care of one part of the problem of treasure. A far more important question looms large for me: once they've gotten all their loot back to town, how long does it take to convert that loot into coin?

Some folks don't worry about this and just handwave it; if you can get it back to town, you can sell it right away and use your loot for carousing/improving your armory/building your castle, whatever. For me that causes two huge problems. The first is a conceptual one: How did they suddenly flood the market with objet d'art? Who bought the stuff? With the amount of coin we're talking, doesn't it seem like pretty much all the money in circulation would be needed to pay for all that stuff, too? I won't even get into the old "OMG BOOMTOWN INFLATION!" arguments we used to see alongside these concerns. But, you get the point: Who bought all this stuff and how did they do it? That's a conceptual problem for me, especially if I'm supposed to provide my players with a sense of relative verisimilitude.

My second problem with this kind of logic is that of time. I take issue with the possibility that an adventurer could be first level at breakfast and 3rd level by dinner. Oh sure, there are admonitions against allowing players to gain more than one level in a single session (or adventure or whatever), but for me the real issue is the compression of time; I'm constantly trying to draw things out, to make stuff take more time not in an effort to be a fun-killer, but rather because time should be of the essence and, quite frankly, I like to see time pass. Being an adventurer is not a summer job that you do once, get rich quick, then get to retire at level 9 in September to go rule that new barony your level dictatest that you get. These things need to take time. One of the ways that I use up that time is to put a brake on the runaway loot-to-cash train.

I set an amount in my campaigns that represents the maximum amount of treasure that can be converted to gold in a single week. This time represents finding the right buyers, negotiating the right price, moving valuable items from place A to place B, all while minimizing the risk of theft and being swindled. Most campaigns have a 1,000 gp per week limit, though I do make some exceptions. In ACKS, for example, I tie the weekly limit to market size; larger markets allow for swifter conversion of treasure to coin, smaller ones take longer. For me, this solves both the conceptual problem of "who's buying this stuff and how are they doing it" by distributing the loot over time, giving the market the time to recover the lost coin, and my need to use up some time.

In ACKS, I use the following market sized-based rates of exchange:

  • Class VI Market: 500 gp per week
  • Class V Market: 750 gp per week 
  • Class IV Market: 1,000 gp per week
  • Class III Market: 1,500 gp per week
  • Class II Market: 3,000 gp per week [2,275 gp per week]*
  • Class I Market: 5,000 gp per week [3,375 gp per week]*
*The rates in brackets are less forgiving and fit the progression a little more tightly. Use these if you want things to take more time (of course, if you want things to take more time, you could always just use a flat rate of 1,000 gp per week). 

So far, this system does not take into account ACKS's very detailed market demand modifiers. Perhaps the next iteration of these rules will. Further, I'm considering adding an option to allow players to open themselves up to more risk in this matter with the trade off being a better rate of exchange. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Guide To Kickass Names: Fixing Bad Names With Letter Shifts.

Last week, I talked about coming up with kickass names for your monsters. Some of my ideas were well received, some were contentious. This week, I'd like to show you some of the tricks that I use to fix bad names.

Trick One: The Consonant Shift

Ever notice how some languages use a "v" in one place where a similar language uses a "b?" That's an example of consonant shift, the propensity of certain sounds to get substituted for each other within different languages. Strictly speaking, consonant shift refers to the substition of certain consonants for others within the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages, which follows a series of specific changes ("shifts") at different points in time. We won't worry about when specific changes happen, but here're the basics: consonants will change from one sound to another similar one, similar based on where the sounds occur in the mouth.

When attempting to apply consonant shift, the most common shifts occur along the following lines:

  • N <=> M <=> B
  • B <=> V <=> F
  • Th <=> D ,<=> B
  • G <=> K 
  • S <=> Sh <=> Ch
  • W <=> L <=> R
  • P <=> B
Personally, I apply a few additional shift possiblities as well (but then, I really get into non-English phonics), particularly those based on common shifts of Slavonic and Semitic root, and here's what some of those look like:
  • K <=> Kh <=> Q 
  • S <=> Sz <=> Sh <=> Ch <=> Cz
  • L <=> W <=> V
  • Z <=> Sz <=> Ts <=> S
Of course, there are some sounds there that might not make immediate sense to the English monoglot, but I assure you, they are distinct sounds that don't often pop up in English usage (the "Sz" sound -- as I write it -- is a soft "Sh"-like sound, as in the "s" in the word "pleasure"). 

Now that we know what parts correspond to what, let's see consonant shift in action. Thinking he was being a smartass, +Bryan Meadows suggested via a hangout conversation last week that a race of bear-men could be "Balogians," tracing the root to the Jungle Book's character "Baloo the bear." I have no idea where he got the "g" from in that name. There were a couple of ways I saw to immediately save this name from inanity: 
I really hope this is not a valok or barukh
  • Shift the "b" to a "v," the "g" to a "k" and drop the "ians" (because it was pointless). Result: "valok." Which is a fine name. I imagine bear-men being able to make all those sounds.
  • Keep the "b," but shift the "l" to an "r," the "g" to a "kh" and -- wait for it, because this one is a bit of a curve ball -- shift the "o" to a "oo" or "u" sound for "barukh." Again, this sounds bear-man-like and I'm happy with it.
It turns out that the folks in the discussion liked "valok" better than "barukh," but I'm kind of partial to the latter (it just starts with a "b," which I'd rather not have since they're Bear-men). Here's a look at how vowel shifts can be used, just like I did with "barukh." I've spelled these a little more phonetically since most folks don't seem to understand how classical pronunciation works. 
  • EE <=> AY <=> AI
  • Ah <=> Uh <=> Oh <=> OO
  • Ih <=> Eh <=> Uh
I think vowel shifts are more obvious (since shifting vowel-sounds is pretty much where languages get differences in accents from), but harder to explain than consonant shifts until you've seen a consonant shift do its thing. 

Each time I write one of these posts, I get ideas for a bunch more because language, to be frank, is fucking amazing. Next time, I might talk about what suffixes mean and how to use them. Or something else. We'll all find out next week together. 

Also, please don't get the idea that I think I'm some sort of linguistic genius or scholar or anything. Largely, this is stuff that I've absorbed over years of just listening to how other languages work because language, as I've said before, is fucking amazing. I'm sure that there are real linguists in my circles who can (and just might) talk circles around me on this topic. Go ahead and do so. I'll treat it like a spectator sport and bask in your superior knowledge. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

DCC Donnerstag: "I Refute It Thus," Funky Dice Edition

I know that yesterday I posted a relatively contentious post about naming monsters, ending with the thought that I'd dive back into the topic soon. Well, now is not soon enough, since it's DCC Donnerstag and I've got some bad arguments against the DCC RPG to chop to ribbons. 

Today, we're talking about funky dice, obviously.

You know the argument by now, right? "I don't want to have to buy all new dice just to play DCC. I've had all the dice I've needed to game since the 80's and shouldn't have to buy more for just one game!"

I'm sure that the serious grognards out there have heard something like this before. "Why would we need new polyhedrals? I've got all these six-sided dice, and that's good enough! Who needs icosohedra? Tetraheda? Octahedra? Dodecahedra? Madness, I tell you!"

Hopping in our own gamer Wayback Machine, we know that in the dawn times wargames, at least in the US, were all played with d6s. That was the way of things because those were the dice available. Gradually, German wargamers (unlesss I'm mistaken) started to introduce the d20 (really a d10, numbered 0-9 twice), which eventually made its way to American shores along with d4s, d8s and d12s. These dice were slowly adopted by the wargaming community to one degree or another, but their greatest acceptance was in the nascent field of rpgs.
Image not related, just neat

But not everybody felt that way.

In fact, if you played D&D the way it was written without any "optional rules," using CHAINMAIL's combat resolution system, you could get away with playing D&D with just d6s. Really, the then-funky dice were optional. D&D's first real competitor, Tunnels & Trolls, only used d6s. Many systems afterward (GURPS, WEG's Star Wars, Ghostbusters and d6 Systems, HERO, etc) all eschewed the by-that-time ubiquitous polyhedra and went with the d6. So yes, this has been an issue in gaming for a long time and some modern gamers might be surprised to know that there was ever any bad sentiment toward their beloved d12s.

Not that I empathize with that sentiment, but I understand it.

And so, I can understand the folks who are against the funky dice.

In fact, I'll let you all in on a little secret: I used to be one of them.

That's right, when I first became aware of the DCC RPG, I was very much dead-set against the use of the d14, the d5, the d24, the d16 and even my favorite, the d7, and for no reason other than the fact that I didn't think I should have to buy new dice just to play a new RPG.

Not-So-Secret #1: You Don't Need Funky Dice

In the DCC Core Book (and it's right there on page 17), +Joseph Goodman gives us the ultimate "try before you buy" method for approximating the funky dice using your standard polyhedrals without -- and this is the important bit -- without skewing the probabilities. Want a d5 result? You can just roll a d6 and ignore the 6. Want a d16? Roll a d20 and ignore 17 and above. There are slightly more sophisticated methods for determining the d24 & d30 roll that I'm a little shakier on in my understanding, but it roundly satisfies the funky dice critics: You don't need to buy the funky dice to get the funky dice results.

This measure sold me on giving the DCC RPG a shot, since I didn't need to invest in more dice if I just did things a particular way. Right, sold, I'll try it. I actually played DCC for a few months without the funky dice, just using Goodman's approximations. As time went on, I found myself wanting the funky dice themselves, if only for the fetishistic reasons that one collects crazy amounts of dice in the first place. And then, the day my first GameScience 12-dice set came, I faced a glory unlike any I had seen since my first Red Box.

Not-So-Secret #2: Dice Nostalgia?

Disclaimer: Yes, I'm going to talk about gaming nostalgia for a moment. This is not an invitation to new school gamers to start throwing around accusations of "you only like old school stuff because of nostalgia" or other such nonsense. I love old school gaming for many reasons, one of which is nostalgia, but there are many others. Screw you if you can't figure that out. I also like many new school games (fuck yeah, Dungeon World!), despite the lack of a nostalgia collection, so take your head out of your ass there, dude. Anyway, on to the meat of this thing.

Remember that first set of dice you bought/received as a gift/found inside your first BX or BECMI box? That was a magical feeling, wasn't it? What are these small plastic objects and how do they work? Remember when you learned how to read a d4 or how to sort out percentile dice? It was exciting. It was new. What strange shapes those dice were. I'm looking at the bottom edge of the die rather than the top. The blue die is the "tens place," the red die is the "ones place." I think most of my youthful fumblings with game design were really just reasons to roll more and different types of dice all at once because, quite simply, dice are freaking cool.

Eventually, though, the shine wears off. Polyhedra become the standard. It's now noteworthy if a game doesn't use them or uses only one type of dice. We've seen it all before, done it all before.

When I got my first set of GameScience funky dice, I got that old "just cracked open the Red Box" gleam in my eye. +Kathryn Muszkiewicz saw it, she can confirm. I want to use d5s and d7s for everything, just like I used to want to use my d4s and d12s. I am now on the hunt for a precision d30 (I have a few of the strange Armory ones numbered 0-9, -0 - -9 and +0 - +9). There is something to be said for recapturing that same old feeling as back in the day when I bought my first set of polys (white pearlized Chessex dice) from Ryder's Hobby on 28th St. in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

So yeah, there's some nostalgia that, at some point will fade, but for now? It's still badass to have funky dice that I'm still finding new and fun things to do with.

It's Just A Money-Grab

Apparently, some folks suspect Goodman Games of colluding with dice manufacturers and that requiring people to buy new dice just to play DCC RPG (which they don't have to do, see Not-So-Secret #1) is an attempt to grab as much of that sweet, sweet gamer loot as they can. There are two major moron moments with this line of thought.

(A) Goodman Games does not sell dice (yet), and when the DCC RPG was released you had to get your dice from either GameScience or Koplow. Now, you can get them from Impact! Miniatures. None of these companies are subsidiaries of Goodman Games or are a parent company over Goodman Games. Nobody's giving any kickbacks here. Yes, Goodman Games will soon have some specially-packaged DCC dice available (made by Impact! Miniatures), but until that time, Goodman makes no money off of dice.

(B) If Joseph Goodman really were trying to make as much money off of gamers as he could, would his game have as remarkably high a production value as it does? Look at that thing. The DCC RPG is a huge tome that is filled with illustrations from the leading contemporary rpg artists and legenary figures. Art costs a lot of money, and even then it costs less than it probably should. There is no way that the "money-grubbing bastard" argument stands up in the face of the DCC RPG core book alone. For what you get, you pay $40. What you're buying is worth way more than $40 in art alone.

I'm glad we shot that idea dead where it stands. Frankly, it's remarkably short-sighted and not very logical.

I hope these "I Refute It Thus" articles are worthwhile to you, dear DCC enthusiast, as you steadily work to face the game's critics. If there are any specific criticisms you're having trouble countering, please, let me know. All those years of being a Philosophy major have to come in handy for something.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Guide To Kickass Monster Names

Like so many of my posts do, this post had its genesis in a G+ hangout conversation between members of one of my gaming groups. I'm not sure what my Tuesday night DCC group was discussing, but the conversation quickly turned from its old topic to that of names for monsters and humanoid races in RPGs. Apparently, my very strong feelings on the matter were not (at least initially) shared by the group, but seemed welcome. Also apparently, my chagrin at reading yet another crappy monster name isn't experienced by other people.

Core Concept: Descriptive Names Are Best

As in many other articles here on Dispatches, I'd like to give a core rubric, an example of the best possible sort of monster name that will serve as a guide as we move forward for what to do when naming your monsters. I can think of no single better monster name in the history of D&D than the carrion crawler; this name is completely chock-full of description. We know what it eats, we know what it does, from knowing what it eats and does, we might even begin to figure out a bit what it looks like and why we might not want to meet it in a dark dungeon. Classic D&D doesn't stop there, either. The rust monster. The hook horror. Hell, even the stair stalker is a prime exampe of an awesome, descriptive name. The best name for a monster is one that describes what it is, what it does or what it looks like. Pure and simple. This concept assumes (I believe rightly) that monsters should not be of a common, dime-a-dozen sort but rather unique, interesting encounters that challenge the players mentally as well as from a game standpoint.

Is that to say that monsters can't or shouldn't have names that are unique to them? A species name? Is that to say that the venerable gorgon or chimera has a crappy name? Perhaps those are bad examples since they're drawn from real-world mythology. What about the ankheg and otyugh? Here's the deal: giving a monster a specific species name assumes a great deal of familiarity with it. Sometimes this can be okay. Perhaps the term "otyugh" comes from the tribe of sewer halflings that routinely encounter the filthy things in their sub-urban delvings. That makes sense. However, a more descriptive name for a creature that most adventurers aren't likely to encounter frequently would almost always be better in a case like this. Imagine if the otyugh was a filth beast or something of the sort. Much better. And no one has to talk to dirty sewer halflings to find out the name.

I'll admit that one of the reasons that I'll readily claim that descriptive names are better is the power we ascribe to names. A description isn't really a name, right? It's just a string of adjectives and probably a noun or two that allows us to organize and make sense of sensory data. A name, however, is a place holder for all sort of other information. A descriptive name you can let slip in the middle of describing the action of a combat encounter and it wouldn't feel like as much of a reveal as if you name-drop a named monster. It is my firm belief that we as a species use names as placeholders for more information, much like computer file names. When you use an exact species name ("otyugh"), your brain can go to its "otyugh" file and bring up what it knows about "otyughs." When you describe a "filth beast," how does your brain "look that up?" Only by an examination of the description, which draws the players in to how the thing is being described more closely; rather than look under "filth beast" or "beast, filth," the brain struggles to make sense out of the sensory data its being given. In my mind, describing what a thing is like will always be far better than telling me what it is.

Core Concept: He's Not An "Avarian"

When dealing with humanoid species, we're left with a tricky situation: humanoids, being a people, should have a name that refers to them as a group that is unique. Well, maybe not "should." More like "can, and would have with good reason." That works better. What's most important when naming a humanoid species is that the name makes sense for them. But what does "makes sense" mean?

Consider that we have a species to provide a name for. They're a race of bird people who live in the mountains. Out of the gate, we know we could call them "bird men" or even "eagle men" if we were feeling daring (we will avoid the terrible "bird folk," for reasons demonstrated below). One temptation that I see a lot of writers fall to is give the bird-men a name that, in effect, means "bird-men," often in a language where the writer is aware of some common root words. How many of such bird-men have we seen whose name have their root in the Latin "aves?"

If we're applying a name to a race of bird-men, then one of two things should be true of the name: either (a) it should be what the bird-men call themselves (or related to it) or (b) it should be what most folks call them. In the "Avarian" case, if we assume either of these things is true than either (a) the "Avarians" speak Latin and, for some reason identified themselves with birds (you know, exactly the way that we don't identify ourselves with apes and haven't done for the entirety of our history and call ourselves "homo simians") or (b) everybody else speaks Latin in your fantasy world that has nothing to do with Rome, the Roman Empire or any sort of Romance linguistic derivation. Clearly, they don't get to be Avarians because both of these options are really very stupid. Latin and Greek root words are the most commonly abused in this manner, but it's possible to abuse others, too. If your fantasy millieu has a decidedly Indian flair, you'd be throwing off either of the qualifications for a good species name if, say, the name used German roots unless the species had some sort of claim to a German or German-like culture. An Ermoerdervoegel wouldn't quite fit into an intrigue involving the avatars of Krishna and Vishnu, you dig? The dissonance there is pretty grating and often makes watching anime difficult for me. It can be made to work, however, if the Ermoerdervoegeln have their own specific call out German culture and a reason to call themselves "murder birds" like no one would ever do to themselves.

What would be a valid name for our bird-men? Well, if we use our qualifiers we mentioned last paragraph, the name should be either something the common folk call them or something similar to what they call themselves. Other than bird-men or eagle-men, what sort of name would common folk have for our race of mountain-dwelling avians? Maybe they would name them after where they live or what they sound like or what they do; take that, shorten it as best you can (because, again, we're talking about common exposure to the thing being named), and you've got a name. Maybe humans call our bird-men "caws" or "skrees" (related to the sounds they make), "the White Mountain tribe"(where they live) or "lambthieves" (because they steal cattle). What might this race call themselves? Think about what sorts of sounds they themselves might make. You don't need to develop a rich linguistic tapestry for them to have enough breadth that this makes sense, remembering that nearly every culture's name for themselves translates into "the people" in their own language. Thus, we might assume that our bird-men, in their language of bird-like sounds, might have a name that sounds like, I don't know, maybe "Aarakocra?" Yeah, that's it.

Of course, they can always be just bird-men.

At first, I thought I could wrap this whole topic up in one post. I must have forgotten how verbose I am. I'll come back to this when I've had time to reflect on some noteworthy exception to these guidelines and other details. And maybe I'll respond to your heckles.

In the meantime, remember: It's always better to describe what a thing is than to tell your players what it is. Thus, descriptive names trump other names.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

DCC Donnerstag: "I Refute It Thus," Random Magic Edition

To the cognoscenti who get the reference, I've always considered myself more of a Bishop Berkeley than a Samuel Johnson, but the crux of the matter remains. Much like Johnson's refutation of Berkeley's concepts of Idealism, this is me kicking a rock: I look at a common criticism of DCC and refute it with things I think are remarkably obvious but don't get the press time that the criticism do. 

Magic Is Too Random

The most common objection I hear to the DCC RPG (well, it's between this and the funky dice) is that the spellcasting check necessary to cast any spell in DCC makes spellcasting far too random. I think there's another piece of this puzzle that the "too random-ers" leave out: Spellburn. I've noticed that players new to the DCC wizard and elf often don't Spellburn and just trust to the randomness of the dice roll. This trust, I feel is why they get let down and is the genesis of the opinion that casting is too random. The unwritten rule of spellcasting in DCC is that if you absolutely, positively want that spell to produce the effect you want it to have, you've gotta Sepllburn to get it. Even if you manage to roll an awesome success, Spellburning can almost never make a situation worse (unless you roll a "1"), opening up those upper tiers of the casting chart for the particular spell in question. Spellburn turns your physical Ability Scores into a power reservoir that becomes the both the fuel for and the limitation to the greatest heights of magery. Want to be a badass wizard? You've got to pay for it.

And then of course there are the spell tables. The better you roll, the better your spell result. While this seems to put wizards on par with warriors and other combat-y types, rolling for their success, I get that most folks who are used to playing wizards are used to the "point and shoot" nature of spells in old school editions. I shouldn't have to roll for a spell. I'm just using up a spell slot. Some spells scale up with the caster (Magic missile comes to mind with its ever-increasing number of missiles) but some do not (Sleep for instance). There's nothing to differentiate a 20th-level Magic User's Sleep from a 1st-level nobody's. DCC takes a very different view, making the 10th-level wizard's spell potentially much stronger than the 1st-level wizard's because of his Spell check modifier and the application of the spell tables. However, should he channel enough power through Spellburn, that lowly apprentice might be able to rival the master! And you're not burning through spell slots, but instead your own vitality! In my opinion, that shit had better count and better have a damn good chance of an awesome result. Thus, spell tables. You get better at magic as you go up in level (having to burn less for lower-level spells at higher levels) to introduce greater levels of choice in how you tackle spell casting at lower levels.

Even if one concedes the addition of spell tables, why do we need Mercurial Magic? In short, we don't. In full, Mercurial Magic isn't expressly needed for magic to function in DCC and could effectively be ignored, BUT doing so ignores a huge source of flavor that you roll once per spell (preferably at the game table, not beforehand; that "but I should know my Mercurial effect before I cast" thing is way too boring) and informs the choices that you make as a player when you start thinking about casting a spell. For example, +Donn Stroud rolled a "97" for his Flaming Hands spell (or, as he calls it "Phoenix Phingers"). That result reads as:
Necrotic drain. The spell is powered by the energies of the living. The nearest creature (other than the caster) takes 1d6 hp of damage per spell level. For every 2 hp lost, the spell check result is increased by +1.
You had better believe that Donn thinks and plans before he chooses to cast that spell, especially after he killed a party member by standing too close while trying to start a fire (no joke).

Much of what I've written here is about choice. You choose to Spellburn to get a result. Or to get a better result. Or to burn Luck to bump that spell up just a little bit more. You have a more interesting choice when you have to bear in mind a spell's Mercurial Magic effect than without. The "too random-ers" seem to ignore the fact that, rather than just relying on randomness, magic in DCC is about making important choices and risky decisions; the more you're willing to gamble, the better the pay off is. If anything, these choices are about mitigating randomness and the existance of the randomness in the rules is to make choices more meaningful.

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.


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.