Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Earthmen as PCs

In my mind, Athanor exists in the distant future of Earth, long after it has faded from glory. If humans survive, they do so beyond the scope of travel to Athanor. However, it is true that the alien nature of the campaign  or players’ desire for a familiar character type to run may make it hard for some players to get into playing an Athanoran character.

Earthmen on Athanor have arrived through some sort of temporal or dimensional portal. Most will be from some point in the 20th or early 21st century, arriving through strange portals such as are found in the Bermuda Triangle, by wormholes as astronauts, or by magical or weird-science accidents. They may want to return to Earth, but this would be a major story arc and will not be intended to be an easy goal! Earthmen are standard humans, just like Zamorans in all respects except as follows:

Class Advancement
    Earthmen will not begin trained as magic-users. Most will be Fighters. A few may be rogues with magical potential, but no training.

Skill with Ancient Technology
Earthmen, used to 20th century or 21st century technology are more familiar with technological items.  They gain a +2 to saving throws to use Ancient technology.

Earthmen begin play with a sidearm. This can be a six-shot revolver or a ten-shot automatic pistol. In any case, the weapon does 1d6+2 damage, range 50feet, RoF 1, and takes one round to reload. The character begins with a full weapon and 1d6 reloads of ammunition.

While this is a convenient weapon, it is up to the player to find a way to get more ammunition….
Miscellaneous Technological Items
    Earthmen begin with 1d3+1 other useful modern items such a lighters, flashlights, etc. These are likely to wear out over time.

Background Skills
Earthmen may choose from the following  type II skills in addition the usual background skill options: Archaeologist, Astronaut, Electronics, Mechanic, Pilot, Scientist, Soldier.

The Skills
    Archaeologists are adept at deciphering signs, symbols and languages, understanding cultures, and understanding traps and other dangers in old ruins. (+4 saves) They also have a sense of what items are of value among the ruins of ancient civilizations and are adept at appraising them.

    Astronauts know how to operate spacecraft and gain a +2 bonus to saves to use Ancient technology.

    This ability allows characters to repair and operate electronics devices (+4 saves). This grains a +2 to saves to use Ancient technology.

    This ability allows characters to repair and operate mechanical devices. This grains a +4 to saves to disarm traps, perform basic repairs, and to fix  non-electronic items.

    This is the ability to pilot, repair, and operate aircraft (+4 saves).  With practice, this can apply to Athanoran airships.

    Scientists are skilled in identifying and analyzing physical phenomena. Choose a field. Chemists can do the same tasks as characters with the Alchemy skill; Biologists can identify animals and plants and predict their behavior; etc. This gives a +4 bonus to appropriate saves. This grains a +2 to saves to use Ancient technology.

    Soldiers understand tactics, weaponry, and outdoor survival (+4 saves).

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Clone Pits

Life on Athanor can be nasty, brutish and short, and the lack of spells to raise the dead means that  the end of life can be pretty final. In Zamora,  Vog-Mur the Necromancer sells the services of his Clone Pits for a modest fee of 1000 gold and a pound of flesh. You can use the Clone Pits to either duplicate someone or to create a new, living body for them.

If the procedure works correctly, the character returns good as new, with even his or her memories intact. If not, then something happens, and the character comes back not quite right. Every time a character returns through the Clone Pits, roll on the Clone Pit Table:

3d6    Result
-----  ------------------------------------------------
3      Amnesia: the character comes back normally, but  
.      remembers nothing of his or her previous life.
4-5    Roll one drawback.
6-8    Lose 1 CON permanently. Visible deformity, scar, or 
.      superficial mutation.
9-12   No problems.
13-15  Gain +1 to a random ability score, but your skin, hair, 
.      or eyes are an unnatural color or texture from now on.
16-17  Roll one minor mutation.
18     Roll one major mutation.

Alternately, the player may choose to use the clone pit mutation as an excuse to re-roll his or her character’s abilities and hit points and shuffle around background skills, a result of the scrambling that sometimes happens in the Clone Pits….

Mutations can happen as a result of exposure to the Clone Pits, Ancient technology, or irradiated ruins. Such mutations may be beneficial or harmful, but will always mark the mutant and make it hard to be respected in proper company. Mutants in Zamora can be found in the Barrens, where they form small mutant communities, in the sewers, in the Undercity, and among the poorest of beggars.

Minor Mutations
D10 Result
--- ---------------------------------
1   Altered Height
.    1d6. 1-3, height is (66-3d6) inches; 4-6, height is (72+3d6) tall.
2   Claws
.    Sharp, horny claws give mutant +1 bonus to unarmed damage.
3   Enhanced Senses
.   Suprise: 1 in 6. +2 to saving throws for  actions that involve senses.
4   Fangs
.   Long fangs give the mutant a bite attack that does 1d6-1 damage.
5   Fur
.   Mutant is covered with thick fur that gives a +1 bonus to AC.
6   Horns
.   Head butt attack that does 1d6-1 damage.
7   Multiple Limbs
.   The mutant has 1d4 extra limbs. For each limb roll 1d6:
.   1-3, the limb is a leg, on a 4-6, an arm. Every extra leg gives 
.   a +1 to move rate; every 2 arms grants a +1 to attack rolls in 
.   melee combat.
8   Night Vision
.   The mutant can see in near complete darkness.
9   Scales
.   +2 bonus to Armor Class.
10  Scent
.   Allows the character to identify tracks and individuals by smell.

Major Mutations
D10 Results
--- ---------------------------------
1   Increased Physical Attribute
.   1d6, add 1d6 points to (1-2)  STR, (3-4) DEX, or (5-6) CON
2   Natural Armor
.    Armored hide or carapace grants +4 AC bonus.
3   Chameleon Skin
.   Surprise opponents on 1-4. May hide by making a save at +4.
4   Wall-climbing
.   Cling to walls, move at normal rate, but cannot wear gloves or shoes.
5   Gliding Membrane
.   Glide at normal move but may not wear armor. 
6   Spines
.   Opponents who grab or bite character take 1d3 damage.
.   +2 damage in unarmed combat. Cannot wear amor.
7   Venomous Attack
.   Opponent must save or take 2d6 damage from poison. Can be 
.   combined with existing natural attack muatation (bite, claws, etc.)
8   Musk Glands
.   15' radius area adjacent to mutant. All in area must save or be 
.   nauseated and unable to act for 1d4 rounds.
9   Choose one minor mutation
10  Roll two minor muations

Table 7. Drawbacks
D10 Results
--- ---------------------------------
1-2 Albino
.   Sensitive to sun, unusual appearance. -1 CHA.
3-4 Bizarre Appearance
.   Very freaky looking. -2 CHA.
5-6 Obese
.   Weight is 200+(3d6x20) pounds. This isn't muscle.
7-8 Physical Weakness
.   Roll 1d6, subtract 1d3 points from (1-2)  Strength, 
.   (3-4) Dexterity, or (5-6) Constitution
9+  Poor Senses
.   The mutant is surprised on 1-3  in 6. -2 saves for 
.   actions that involve senses.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Gods of Athanor

    My previous posts have given a very brief overview of religion and gods in Athanor. This is quite intentional. The Gods of Athanor are not common forces in the lives of the people of Athanor, as gods are often are in role-playing games. Rather, the gods do not grant magical power. Some gods are fictional or misinterpretations of historical figures. Others are powerful beings of supernatural power, but are not truly divine. Religion on Athanor is just another institution, corrupt and troublesome as any other.    I have treated religion as just a bit of background color, but with a little meat on its bones, the topic of religion can provide a little more structure to the game.

The Churches of Law
The churches of Law are highly revered throughout the Five Kingdoms. Part of this respect is the fact that the churches are highly conservative, institutionalized, and support the ideals of social order, rule of law, and polite society. While people follow such tenets wih varying degrees of devotion, these ideals tend to resonate strongly with the general populace, and have the ring of social truth in them.
Though they are closely allied, the Churches of Law consist of three separate churches, each with its own focus.

Fala the Lightbringer
    The Church of Fala the Lightbringer preaches the virtues of charity, social giving, sacred life and social justice. It runs several charities, and is devoted to running soup kitchens, hospitals, and schools throughout the Five Kingdoms. They teach the value of obedience, piety, self-discipline, and kindness, and are active missionaries in spreading the faith.
    The priests of Fala swear oaths of chastity and poverty, though they may carry and use the wealth of the church. Thus, they may have items on extended loan from the church, but may own nothing of their own. Thus, any appearance of wealth among the holy is just a misunderstanding, as the faithful own nothing and but use what is given them by Fala.
    They teach that it is a kindness to educate heathens in the Way, and thus support the Inquisition of the Serinites. They believe that virtue is hard work, and thus demand much work from penitents. They oppose moral weakness in the form of Chaos and heathen idolatry, and work to make sure that the State supports the churches of law only. They would love to convert Alemania from their heathen atheism to understanding the True Way.
    For its charity work, the Church controls much wealth, and collects it aggressively from the faithful. Such wealth grants great power, and the control much land in order to do their work. Many of the younger children of the ruling families of the Five Kingdoms are sent to the Church to learn and to form stronger ties to the church for their families. Some might see this as poltical manipulation or finding a way to divert vst church funds to the wealthy, but such a perspective would be bitter and jaded.

Malkut the Scholar
    The god Malkut and his church are dedicated to learning and scholarship, searching Ancient tomes not only for learning and facts, but for spiritual enlightenment on the nture of the universe. The Malkuti teach the value of keeping the mind focused on the Word and the Way, of studying and interpreing the Holy Word for insights into the world at large, and of properly educating the faithful.
    The priests and priestesses of Malkut swear vows of poverty. They focus on developing a demeanor that is detached, thoughtful, and driven by philosophical and intellectual devotion to the holy teachings of the Gods of Law. They are builders of schools and libraries, and use teaching as a form of missionary work.
    They teach the values of self-reflection, self-discipline, prayer, service, and obdedience to the Way of Malkut. Their teaching and spiritual work focus on mental discipline, devotiton of religious study, and finding ways to unite the Word with the World.
    The Church of Malkut controls most of the large collections of books and scholarship extant in the Five Kingdoms, including carefully guarded libraries of forbidden lore. They are always seeking ways to gain more knowledge, translate Ancient books, and learn more of the history and science of the past.

Serin of the Iron Fist
    Serin is the goddess of discipline and protector of the faithful. She is the Fist of Law, who teaches that strength of resolve is the highest system of belief, even beyond the evidence of reason or material evidence. Her followers form a small but fanatical order of fighting priests who act as defenders of caravans, protectors of religious missions, and hunters of abominations and witches. The Serinites form two orders: the Knights of the Temple, who defend churches of law and caravans of the faithful; the Knights of the Flame, who hunt monsters and witches, and act as the investigators for the church. They ae often called the Inquisition.
    Priests and priestesses of Serin swear oaths of poverty and chastity, and live ascetic lives that involve dedication to spiritual and physical warfare. Their order follow military lines, with brother- and sister-soldiers, and father- and mother- sergeants, lieutenants, and captains. These ranks are highly ordered and disciplined, with strict codes of obedience and procedure.
    The Serinites have the least to do with common folk, focusing on their war on spiritual evil in the world. This ofen makes them seem cold, distant, even cruel to outsiders who do not understand the need for strict dedication to the war against Evil in order to protect the innocent.

The Churches of Chaos
    In contrast to the the churches of Law, the disparate churches of Chaos promise practices that support individual freedoms of expression and behavior. While the churches of Law are socially sanctioned, institutionalized, and tied to the greater social order, the churches of Chaos present themselves as counter-cultural or revolutionary, even if this is only marginally true. There are dozens of Churches of Chaos, but in Zamora, six churches are currently active.

Asheba the Creator
    The Church of Asheba is devoted to artists, craftspeople, and magic-users. This means that it has lasting attentions to several guilds, noble families, and powerful individuals. This is the most mainstream of the chaos cults, and stresses the role of creation as a positive. As an outgrowth, the church is tied to charitable work in feeding the poor, opening schools, and providing alternative voices to those who wish to challenge the hegemony of the churches of Law.
    The priests and priestesses of Asheba have no single code of dress or conduct, but follow loose guidelines for kindness, ethical behavior, and respect for life. They stand for freedom and individuality as well. They do not take oaths of poverty or chastity, instead focusing on oaths of service.
    Due to the church’s followers, the Ashebans have a great deal of wealth and influence, making them a thorn in the side of the churches of Law. This is a position Ashebans relish, considering themselves social gadflies and potential change agents.

Bel the Liberator
    The church of Bel is devoted to serving the poor and downtrodden. They not only set up charities in the poorest communities, but serve as a voice of liberation and opposition to slavery, exploitation, and centralized government. As a result, the church of Bel is outlawed quite broadly, and its churches quickly razed.
    In Zamora, this church is underground, gathering its followers in the barrens on the edge of the city. Beggars and outcasts are its followers, and its leaders are trained insurgents who are generally from lesser families of wealth who have cast aside their former lives out of disillusionment.
    Bel’s followers are known to participate in resistance acts ranging from protests and heckling to vandalism to direct acts of violence. Different cells have different goals, but the authorities treat all of them as potential sites for resistance and violence.

Checkah the Trickster
    The god of trickery is the subject of many popular tales, and the worship of Checkah is popular among gamblers, the poor, and criminals. The Church of Checkah, however, is the precinct of a small group of criminals and anarchists, who practice their worship in the Undercity. Checkah followers believe that they can show their beliefs best through committing memorable crimes, practical jokes, or acts of sabotage that will make them legendary in renown. His followers have no church as such, but gather as cells to share tales, conspire together, and add adventure to the world.

Kesh the Destroyer
    The cult of Kesh is outlawed, since the worship of Kesh is the worship of death and destruction. Kesh worship is ecstatic, involving orgies of drugs and sex in which worshipers receive visions of the god, promising paradise eternal to those who unlease his blessings of violence on the world. His priests meet secretly with followers, seeking ways to bring turmoil and conflict to the world. Few would openly admit worship of this god.

Tala the Corruptor
    The cult of Tala is likewise outlawed, in many ways a more subtle counterpart to Kesh. Unlike Kesh, Tala’s cult believes the world is debased, and the only way to purify the soul is to cleanse it through experiencing its baseness without pretension. They believe cruelty, murder, violence, and decadence are steps on the path to enlightenment and that by expressing all the worst in you, you will reach a point where you are cleansed of evil, and become pure. They feel their goal is to guide all they can through the same process, tempting others to evil and exposing the corruption of mortal life so that all souls may find peace beyond their own mortality. Talans work in small cells of no more than 3 individuals, who meet in masks and hide their identities from one another. Their actions are criminal and dangerous, and Talans are hunted.

Vanya of the Silken Thighs
    The Temple of Vanya of the Silken Thighs has a high priestess and a body of priests and priestesses that worship the goddess of pleasure through carnal sacrifice, charging alms from worshippers for the privelege of blessed congress. This is a wealthy temple, despite its lack of political influence, with many worshippers coming through its doors every day.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Psychic Powers in Athanor

The following system is my answer to a psionics system, inspired by the random acts of psychic ability found in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels. At least early on in the series, John Carter mentions the Martians' natural psychic ability, as well as his own, and his resistance to same said powers. Other than that and Thuvia's later ability with animals, the psychic angle kind of fades away to other elements of Barsoom.

With that as my inspiration, I propose the following rules (in draft form) as an alternate system. I have stolen ideas here from what I have read of McKinney's systems in Carcosa, as well as from Goblinoid Games' Mutant Future. This system a variant of the Athanoran variant magic system I have posted earlier.

I'm not sure whether to recommend this as an added system, or as a replacement for magic. I certainly wrote it as the former.

Determining Psychic Powers

The chance of a character having psychic abilities is equal to 1% per point of Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma above 15. Thus, a character with 16 INT, 17 WIS, and 14 CHA has a 3% chance of having psychic powers. If using the gonzo races option, Zamorans get a 5% bonus to this chance.

If a character has psychic abilities, roll 1d6 on the Number of Psychic Powers Table to determine the number of psychic abilities the character has:

Table: Number of Psychic Abilities
1d6Number of Abilities

To determine psychic abilities, roll on the Psychic Abilities Table. Duplicate rolls will allow the character to avoid burnout more over the course of the day.

Table: Psychic Powers
1Animal Communication
2-3Body Control
6-7Know Direction
8Mental Illusions
10-11Mind Shield

The Powers

Animal Communication
The character can speak with and understand animals and try to charm them into doing his or her will. This has a range of 90 feet.

Body Control
The character may either boost a physical attribute by 2d6, heal him or herself of 2d6 damage, or enter a trance that mimics death for 2d6 hours.

The character can extend his sense of sight or hearing outside of his body by entering a trance. The character can project his or her senses past walls, doors or barriers, but only to a distance of 30 feet.

Know Direction
The character will not be able to be lost for 2d6 rounds, and will have a clear sense of the cardinal directions.

Mental Illusions
The character is able to create a mental reality for an opponent. If the opponent fails a saving throw, the illusion will seem real to every sense but touch. Once the victim touches the illusion, it will fade away.

The character is able to charm a single target if the target fails a saving throw. This effect will last 2d6 rounds.

Mind Shield
This ability permanently grants the character a +4 bonus to saves vs. psychic powers.

The character will be able to get psychic impressions off items he touches, learning who has held or possessed the item.

The character is able to manipulate objects at a distance of up to 50 feet weighing up to WIS x 10 pounds. The character cannot lift him or herself and thus fly or levitate. This is tiring, thus the power can only be maintained for 5 rounds. Using the power requires concentration, and takes the place of the character's attacks while it is used.

Using this power, the character can directly contact another's mind, removing the necessity for shared language. This has a range of 50 feet.

Using Psychic Powers

Whenever a character uses psychic powers, have the player roll on the Psychic Success Table. The table has three possible results: success, delayed and failure. On a success, the power works immediately. On a delayed, the power may be used in 1d2 rounds. On a fail, the power fails and burns out, leaving the character unable to use the power until he or she rests a full night. If a character has multiple results of the same power, he or she can still use the power until all instances are burned out.

Table: Psychic Success

Monday, September 21, 2009

Weirding Up the Intelligent Races, Part II: The Five Kingdoms

Following up on the idea of making the intelligent races less human and more weird, I have written up some early draft notes on the five kingdom. With this variation on the original idea of the Five Kingdoms, the Zamorans are human, and have the normal range of human coloration (rather being red with black hair.) The other races (including the barbarians in part I) represent aliens from the days of the Ancients, mutants from the aftermath of the Great Wars, and natives from before the terraforming of the planet. This is a bit more gonzo of an approach, and moves a little further away from my original idea of emulating Burrough' inclusion of red, white, black, yellow, etc. Martians who were essentially all human. I'm not sure that's a good or a bad thing, and the races here haven't been tweaked or even given a second read. This is just an early fling it at the wall and see what sticks draft.


Alemanians are blue-skinned, hairless, human-sized arthropods. They have
both an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton, have large complex eyes much like humans, and small, vestigial antennae resembling stubs of horns. Their mouths are complex, with multi-part mandibles. They have two arms and two legs with multiple articulations, with two-toed feet and hands with four fingers evenly spaced at the end of their wrists. They move with a jerky, inhuman gait and appear emotionless and cold at all times.

Alemanian national ideology focuses on the superiority and homogeneity of the Alemanian people. They support a strong sense of collectivism, a strong central governmental authority in order to protect the stability of the Motherland. Their society is divided into several castes: scholarly, military, merchant-industrial, and agrarian. Each of theses hase a place in the parliamentary structure of Alemania, serving the High Chancellor. Alemanians are athiest, devoting themselves to their nation and their people instead.

Class Advancement
Alemanians may advance in any of the three classes. They may advance to 6th level in Fighter or Rogue and to 10th level in Magic-user.
Weapon and Armor Restrictions
Per character class. Alemanians may not wear armor. Their naturally tough hide gives them +4 AC bonus.
Alien Mind
Alemanians gain a +2 bonus to saves vs. charm, illusion, sleep or mental effects.
Incredible Leap
Alemanians with a light load or less may jump up to their normal move distance in distance and half that in height.


The Duma are tall and lean, standing six to six and a half feet tall. Their ears are pointed, their eyes red, and their bodies covered with short, soft black fur. They are lithe and elegant, with sharp teeth and a deep, soothing voices. By tradition, they fight with long-bladed, short-hafted spears that can be used for cutting or thrusting, long, curved knives, three-bladed throwing knives, and bolas, though firearms are also common among them.

The warriors of Duma are distrustful of Ancient Technology. They live in walled towns guarded by their warrior caste and depending on their agricultural caste to breed and control their great dinosaur herds. They are renowned musicians, artists, historians, and metalworkers. They are matriarchal in times of peace and ruled by male warriors in times of war. They tend toward collectivism, distrust outsiders, and care little about outside nations.

Class Advancement
Duma may advance in any of the three classes to 10th level.
Weapon and Armor Restrictions
Per character class.
Swift Reflexes
Duma gain a +1 to initiative rolls.
Distaste for Technology
Duma suffer a -4 to any saving throws to decipher, use, or bypass Ancient technology.


The Khitai are short (4 - 5 foot tall), broad-bodied reptilian humanoids with fine yellow scales and solid black eyes. Their faces are heart-shaped, with large oval eyes with both eyelids and nictating membranes; broad, flat faces; and lack both noses and ears, though they have flat tympanic membranes on the sides of their heads. Their broad skink-like tongues can be used to help them smell, but they do not use them as constantly as snakes. They are warm-blooded and fast-moving and are strict carnivores.

The people of Khitai are insular and distrustful of outsiders. Foreigners only tend to interact with Khitai as merchants or ambassadors. Males wear long tunics, loose pants, slippers or boots, and broad sashes.They tend to wear silk robes with loose pants, slippers, and sashes.

Class Advancement
Khitai may advance in any of the three classes. They may advance to 5th level in Fighter or Rogue and to 10th level in Magic-user.
Weapon and Armor Restrictions
Per character class. Their naturally tough hide gives them +1 AC bonus.
Khitain gain a +2 to saves vs. any mental or emotional effect or spell.
Stalker's Instinct
Natural predators and carnivores, the Khitai are silent stalkers and keenly aware of their surroundings. Khitain gain +1 to all surprise rolls.


The people of Mal'akka have shiny green, leathery skin and bright brown eyes. They stand about seven feet tall, and are thin with graceful movement. Though generally human-like in appearance, they are mobile, intelligent cacti, and their skin is covered with long needles. The Mal'akkans lack needles on the palms of their hands and the bottoms of their feet, but are otherwise covered with needles. They are merchants and desert caravan masters known for their devotion to the desert god Shem.

Mal'akkans are grown in sandy soil before gaining their mobility. Unlike the Throon, the Mal'akkans never become sessile with age, and their bones are wooden rather than silicate. They do photosynthesize, and need very little water, but they also gain nutrients through eating plant and animal matter, much like humans.

Class Advancement
Mal'akkans may advance in any of the three classes. They may advance to 8th level in Fighter or Rogue and to 6th level in Magic-user.
Weapon and Armor Restrictions
Per character class. Mal'akkans may not wear armor unless they shave off their needles regularly. Their naturally tough hide gives them +2 AC bonus.
Fungal Body Chemistry
The Throon process poison differently. Throon gain +2 to saves vs. poisons and toxins.
Fungal Brain
Throon gain a +2 to saves vs. charming, holding, and dominating magic.
Fibrous Flesh
Piercing and blunt weapons automaticially do minimum possible damage.
Born Merchants
Mal'akkans gain the Merchant background skill automatically in addition to their usual skills.

Weirding Up the Intelligent Races, Part I: The Barbarian Races

Following the lead of Burroughs' Barsoom, I have made the intelligent races of Athanor essentially human, except for the weirdness of the Ghul, who are essentially Nehwon's Ghouls, as in Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series. After reading some posts about Cactus Men of Planet Algol, though, I thought that maybe I could make the barbarian races of Athanor, the Ghul and the Throon, a bit less ordinary. Here's a draft of an alternate version of the two races, including some minimal changes for the Ghul, and a very changed vision of the Throon....


The Ghuls are superstitious, cannibalistic savages who live in small, insular clans. They are ruthless raiders who are known for not taking prisoners. They regard non-Ghul as little more than semi- or fully-intelligent animals, and consider only other Ghuls as human. They worship chaos and believe that might in combat and glory in death are the highest ideals.

Ghuls have transparent flesh and blood, with only their bones and eyes clearly visible. This is a terrifying sight to most others, which the Ghuls take advantage of. Ghuls often fight wearing only a battle harness consisting of small armored portions connected by studded leather straps. In the hands of a trained Ghul, this armor provides protection equivalent to leather armor, with a similar cost. They prefer great, curved swords.
Class Advancement
Ghuls use either the Fighter or the Rogue advancement chart. They may advance as high as sixth level.
Weapon and Armor Restrictions
As noted for class. Ghuls prefer curved, slashing swords.
Ghuls wear ceremonial battle harness that functions identically to leather armor. Ghul warriors sometimes carry shields, but most carry two-handed weapons.
Combat Frenzy
Ghuls are brutal combatants. When in combat, they may add +2 to their attack rolls, but may not wear armor heavier than Ghul battle harness.


Throon are nomadic bariarian who live as a variety of tribes. The Throon tend to fight with each other as well as with the people of the Five Kingdoms. Some act as bandits, others raid civilized outposts regularly. Still others live at peace with the Five Kingdoms. They have their own martial code of honor, but are not beholden to the ways of the Five Kingdoms.

Throon are ochre-skinned and hairless, and stand some seven feet tall. Though they are human in general form, they are actually mobile and sentient fungi, with silicate bones and thick, fibrous flesh.

Though Throon eat and drink as humans do, they also are able to absorb nutrients from decaying matter and from rich soil. Their children are born from spores that they produce once per year. Few Throon children grow to adulthood. As Throon get older, their flesh gets tougher, and the elderly become unable to move, and are settled into sacred Elder Groves.

Throon Racial Abilities

Class Advancement
Throon use the Fighter advancement chart. They may advance as high as sixth level.
Weapon and Armor Restrictions
Throon favor slashing weapons, with a particular love for axes in combat. Like any warrior, they may use any weapons.
Throon disdain the use of armor, but are protected by their own tough, fibrous flesh. This gives them a +4 to Armor Class.
Fungal Body Chemistry
The Throon process poison differently. Throon gain +2 to saves vs. poisons and toxins.
Fungal Brain
Throon gain a +2 to saves vs. charming, holding, and dominating magic.
Fibrous Flesh
Piercing and blunt weapons automaticially do minimum possible damage.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Minor Update: updated Athanor PDFs on Scribd

I have deleted the old versions of the Athanor compiled rules and posted my current set of rules, designed for printing as digest sized books for your own little brown book box. Good luck finding an appropriate sized box to put them in!

Click on the Savage Swords of Athanor Players' Guide, Referee Guide and World Guide in the Links section on the left side of the page if you want to peruse copies of your own!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Traveling Between Campaigns

While I don't really see a lot of interplanetary or interdimensional travel happening in the Athanor campaign, Blair at Planet Algol asked about including a gate to Athanor in his campaign. My answer was an unqualified yes -- I don't see Athanor as exclusively mine. I put the campaign development up for people to see and use as they want because I feel like that's part of the essence of the hobby. It reminds me of something I read in the first issue of Fight On!

In his editorial "In the Time of the Broken Kingdom," Ignatius Umlaut recounts an article in New West magazine in 1980 that describes the hobby from an outsider's perspective, with gamers hopping from campaign to campaign and tributes and crossovers to other DMs games happening, and PCs going from table to table (and from system to system!) on a regular basis. Umlaut notes that "people played in different games and worlds, of course, but there was still a sense that we were all part of one big fantasy multiverse," and that in the original New West article, the author "also describes players mailing their characters halfway across the country to visit or defend or attack other worlds, and wonders if her son’s character surviving a run in Greg Stafford’s Snake Pipe Hollow might find himself mailed away to defend Mistigar."

When I was a lad, we often moved characters from campaign to campaign (or even from system to system) with little sense that this was going to be considered wrong. It was how things were done. Now, people treat campaigns and systems as sacrosanct, and that seems, if not a loss to the community, a change in how we conceive of the openness and options at the table.

Planetary Romance vs. Pulp Grit

The planetary romances, as typified by Burroughs' Barsoom novels and as copied by such later revisions of the genre as Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon strips, Gardner Fox's Adam Strange , or even the T.V. series Farscape play off a number of themes of strangers in a strange land who, usually because they are clever (white) Earth men, bring the benefits of their civilized minds and manners to a barbaric world. In addition to this, we see the development of damsels in distress, martial might, and heroic honor as central to this. Particularly in Burroughs and Raymond, the hero finds allies who are noble savages in a world of danger.

I don't see Athanor headed in that direction at all. Athanor is, in my head, more informed by the pulp tradition of sword and sorcery. My bias is to the idea that the player characters will be rogues and ne'er-do-wells caught up in intrigues and trouble, some of which may be of their own making. I personally prefer games wthere the PCs more resemble Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Cugel the Clever than Aragorn or Galahad. This isn't a jaded distaste for the heroic or epic in fantasy tradition, but a love of the picaresque tradition and of the worm's eye view of pulp -- whether it be fantasy, weird fiction, or even detective or crime novels of the pulp period or their descendants.

By pulp, I don't mean two-fisted Indiana Jones action. Pulp isn't a genre, but a medium. Pulp novels, the cheap novels and magazines of the mid-twentieth-century in the United States, included a lot of mass-marketed fiction often genre fiction churned out by small presses who made their profits on thin margins by using cheap paper stock and binding, garish or provocative covers, and by marketing some racy or lurid content. While I doubt that I'll move into the real of authors like Jim Thompson's gritty crime novels (not that I couldn't imagine a Jim Thompson based game), I think everything from two-fisted tough guy and crime novels to Howard's style of fantasy, to the weirdness of Clark Ashton Smith are all fair game. Which is more a matter of my state of mind.

Once you get past the pretention of that thinking, the question remains about what that means at the table top? I like the idea of a rag-tag bunch of misfits causing trouble and running across Athanor getting in and out of scrapes. While I will throw some larger plots and terrible monsters out there, and have secrets to uncover, I don't see the PCs saving the world, defeating the Dark Lord, and making nice-nice across the planet. They may find their own princesses to fall in love with and rescue (though I suspect they will end up either not such the princesses, or less in need of rescue than the heroes think), monsters to slay, and intrigues to get involved in, but the goal of the game is not to play out the Next Great Epic Trilogy. Rather, I want it to feel like the next adventure story magazine is publishing another crazy Athanor story, and we don't know how things might turn out or what weirdness will come up in the process.

While Barsoom, Pellucidar, and their ilk may be one of my major inspirations, I'm not really out to emulate them. Instead, I want them to be springboards for my imagination, and for the players', too.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Athanor and Earthmen

The one thing that Athanor is missing so far is Earth men. After all, my big influence here is from the thread of fiction known either as sword and planet or planetary romance. Earth men are big in the genre, whether it be John Carter, Esau Cairn or Tarl Cabot (bonus points if you know all three references.) But while the importance of Earth men as point of view characters is essential to the sort of travelogue style narratives of much of the genre, I'm not so in love with those elements in the context of a role-playing game.

Part of the issue is that Earth men almost always outshine everyone. John Carter is superhuman in almost every way; Flash Gordon unites a planet when no one else can; Adam Strange is a better scientist with his archaeology training than any Rannian science academy graduate; Esau Cairn is the tougher than anyone on Almuric... the pattern is pretty clear. Even if we include Earth men, this seems hard to include in the game. We also need to deal with the fact that Earth men become alien and as such attention hogs in the game. It's hard for Earth men not to become the center of plots, reactions, and activity. And despite the current logic that lack of game balance at the table disrupts fun, I find that the thing that really disrupts tabletop fun is not game balance issues, it's screen time balance issues. A game where a subset of PCs get all the good attention is riding the rails to disaster.

I also don't want Earth men because then I will probably need to firmly declare where Athanor is in human history: past or present. And I will need to deal with questions of brining in other humans, dealing with reinformcements, interactions and travel between Earth and Athanor, connections between Athanorans and humans, and deciding whether all these Earth analogs in language and culture are really there or just abstractions to make the language and tropes make sense. I like doing a lot of hand waiving right now. Earth makes me have to make some decisions and stick with them.

Finally, I don't want the plot of the game to be about the motion of the Earth humans among alien cultures and creatures. That narrative, while interesting, is (in my totally arrogant opinion) the player's journey in interacting with the culture. I think Barker understood this in Empire of the Petal Throne. While he suggested that characters begin as barbarians to facilitate the idea that players were going to be learning about the complex cultures of Tekumel in the process of play, he didn't suggest they be from lost Earth. That would muck with too much in the setting, and (in my mind), muck with immersion. The Earthling heroes of planetary romances are already too much like Mary Sue characters to begin with. Using this trope with RPG planetary romance would be, it seems to me, a bit too much.

Now all I have to do is figure out how to address the common trope of the Beautiful Space Princess in Danger. On the one hand, I feel like I really need my own Dejah Thoris for at least one of my Athanoran adventurers, but I also think I need to make my version an interesting and competent character in her own right....

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Draft Players' handout

My latest effort for the Athanor campaign is to work on a brief handout for players to discuss the campaign, the rules, and the expectations of the game in play. Here it is to bore you all.

Athanor Players' Handout (Draft)

Savage Swords of Athanor is a fantasy role-playing game that takes place on a dying alien world where technology has largely been forgotten, magic is real, and dinosaurs roam the planet. You are one of the privileged few to survive in one of the crumbling cities that survive, but for some reason, you are called to a life of adventure and danger.
The game will be a mix of swashbuckling action, horror, and weird fantasy. You may duel for honor, be caught up in romantic or political intrigues, or face unspeakable horrors from the ancient past. Science fiction and fantasy elements can be found side by side here -- you may find arcane tomes teaching you how to summon and bind powerful extra-planar spirits alongside ray guns; you may fight skeletons one day and robots the next. Death can come easily, as can glory as you claw your way up from the streets.

9 Things You Need To Know
1) Morality is grey, and intrigues common. Churches are corrupt, assassination and slavery are legal, and money can buy you anything. Don’t trust the authorities
2) The wilderness is a dangerous place. Plants are mostly lichen and fungi, most animals are dinosaurs or insects, and the water is scarce and valuable.
3) Ruins of the Ancient tend to hold items of great power, but also are very dangerous. Signs of the Ancients should be seen as a reason for caution.
4) Many monsters are unique and deadly, but they may have particular weaknesses to exploit.
5) Humans have very distinct skin coloration. Zamorans are red-skinned with black hair, Alemanians have blue skin, white hair and pale eyes, Dumans have black skin and red hair, Khitai have yellow skin and black hair, Mal-akkans have brown skin with green eyes and hair, Throon have ochre skin and brown hair and eyes, and the Ghuls have transparent flesh, no hair, and red eyes.
6) You will be starting play in Zamora, so most likely you will be a Zamoran. If not, remember that there is a lot of xenophobia in the world, and that Throon and Ghuls in particular will be seen as sub-human barbarians.
7) Zamorans take honor very seriously. Duels and vendettas occur over minor slights.
8) Zamoran nobles often wear masks as part of the social norms of their society. So do criminals, but with different intent.
9) Bearing these weapons is legal for any free person or licensed mercenary: swords, walking sticks, daggers, pistols, and quarterstaves. Wearing armor without a mercenary or bodyguard license is a criminal act of minor sedition. Throon and Ghul may only bear weapons or armor if they are licensed, which would be very odd.

Making a Character in 6 Easy Steps
1) Roll 3d6 six times to generate your character's Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. Note any bonuses and penalties for each.
2) Choose a character class from Fighter (relies on weapons and skills), Magic-user (relies primarily on magic) or Rogue (a mix of the two). If you are a magic-user, choose three first-level spells for your spell book.
3) Determine your background skill(s).
4) Roll for your hit points. For first level only, roll two dice and choose the higher one.
5) Roll 3d6 again. Multiply by 10 to figure out the number of gold pieces you start with, and use those to buy some equipment.
6) Note your armor class and saving throw on your character sheet with all the other stuff you just figured out.

Playing the Game
Don't fall into the trap of thinking about your actions by starting with the rules. Describe what you want to do, and I will set a chance of success. This may be negotiable based on other factors you may try to introduce into my decision-making process. My goal is not to be authoritarian, but fair.

The Social Contract
Any game is essentially a social event. And any social group remains its cohesion by developing some shared understandings about behavior and etiquette. Though our social contract will evolve over time, here are some things I want to put on the table right now:

Don’t be an ass
Consider this rule number one for gaming together and, for that matter, for civil life. Respect each other, treat each other well and honestly, and don’t act as if you are the only one who matters in the room. Do that, and the rest should be a piece of cake.

Let the dice fall where they may
I see plot as a thing that evolves in the random events at the table. Surprising things may happen in the middle of a game, and I think that’s a good thing, even if it’s a lucky shot that ends a villain’s life anticlimactically or results in a total party kill.

Open play
I will set some things in motion and bait some plot hooks, but you as a player have to be the one to do something, following your motivations and pursuing goals and interests. Adventure ain’t falling into your lap.

Real life is more important than the game. If you can't make it, it’s no big deal. However, common courtesy (and rule number 1) means that you should at least let the referee know you aren't coming. If you aren't at the table, I will generally ignore your character, but sometimes, you will have to deal with someone else running your character.

Food, snacks, and making yourself at home
Not only is it okay to bring your own food and drink, it's encouraged. Sharing is not required, but encouraged. What are not encouraged are drunkenness, smoking, or recreationals. Also, please help me by cleaning up after yourself. Toss out your fast food bags, recycle your bottles, clean up your spills, etc. No need to break out the vacuum, just be a mensch.

If we are playing at my house, we will be gaming with a dog around. A small one, mind you, but a dog nonetheless. If this bothers you due to allergies, phobias, or because you are made of rawhide and liver, we will need to talk.

Table talk and other distractions
Since gaming is a group activity, I want people to be part of the group dynamic. I may ask you to either get on task or take a break if chit-chat, texting, email, phone calls, web browsing, TV watching, or portable game systems become a distraction at the table. That said, if we are getting uncontrollably off-course as a group, it may be time to take five and declare a break.

Have fun
My expectation is that this game is going to be fun for all. I'll kill some of your characters, heap suffering on them, and often make your characters' lives hell. This is part of what I think is fun in a role-playing game. If you aren't having fun for any reason, we need to talk about it. There's no need for drama or resentment. If you think I'm picking on you, or if someone is making inconsiderate remarks, or the game is getting dull or uncomfortable, we need to talk, maybe even as a group.

Generally, I would prefer such discussions not occur in the middle of the action, so that both the game and the conversation get full attention when appropriate, but sometimes things just need to be talked about when the happen. The only thing I expect in such conversations are civility, and a willingness to accept the process of group consensus, including knowing when consensus just won't happen, and that compromises will usually need to be made.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Limits of GM Vision

When I first started playing D&D back in 1981, I didn't really give much thought to individual campaign or feel. We talked about individual GMs as tough or stingy, but not about individual campaign styles. Part of that was because we were what, 13? We didn't notice that kind of stuff. But also, we just kind of played, and mood, feel and style were things that evolved out of play.

Mind you, there was plenty of assumed and imposed mood and style based on the materials we used, but that's a different story. By the time we were moving into high school, though, things began moving into the direction of mood and style. I had read the Thieves' World anthology and several Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books, and wanted to have an urban campaign filled with intrigue, secrets, and pulpy moral abiguity. My friend Brian wanted to run a campaign set in a largely isolated island filled with magical faerie tale elements, powerful and mysterious forces at work, and a strongly mythical tone. Both games petered out with our game group, and as we re-formed game groups, I found myself running pre-made modules for a party that didn't want to pursue the urban adventure I wanted. I'm not sure what happened to Brian's game idea, but from what I can tell he started to step away from RPGs to focus on theatre.

Once I got to college, we all played around with mood and feel of our games. The GM vision became part of the whole play style, and was one of the things we talked about. Geoff runs a gritty game, Fred runs a political game, Tina runs a high-power hack-and-slash game. Our styles as GMs and players had changed.

As I put together Athanor, there is a lot of vision both implicit and explicit in the setting. With that comes the trap of being too caught up as a GM into your precious world and its trappings. It's easy, after investing so much time and energy into developing your world and your ideas into something playable to want to dictate what kinds of adventures, characters, and plots can develop in your world. To some extent that is, after all, your job as a GM. But the problem with that is that your players always get some say. They only play along if they want to. You need to give them some direction, some guidance, and some abiity to be the exceptions to the rules.

Back to high school: my game involved Brian and two others, Harry and Todd. Brian like the paladin types, and loved my previous campaign in which huge epic conflicts had come about. He had a hard time coming up with a character that fit his ideas of being a "hero" and fit into the mood of the campaign. What evolved was that his character sided with the law, while Todd and Harry became a Fafhrd and Grey Mouser style pair of rogues. Only more criminal and less charming. This set up a two-on-one conflict early on, with adventures being about Brian's pursuit of the criminals and their escapes. After a while, it was frustrating for everyone. Brian knew this was a criminal-centered campaign, right? He'd have to live with swimming upstream! But all it did was make it feel like he couldn't get involved in the game.

If this happened to me today, I would work with all three to adjust characters and the setting to allow for some sort of cooperation. Back then, I foolishly thought my vision would force it all to work. Everyone needed to compromise, most importantly I did, by opening up more options to play.

So with Savage Swords of Athanor, I need to find ways to be more open to interesting options. While I like the idea of unstoppable horror, swashbuckling, science fiction and fantasy living together in sin, I need to make sure that the style of game stays good for players. I need to switch things up and let them set agendas. I need to bait hooks, drop some rumors about, and see where things lead. I need to let this be their game, even if it is played on the backdrop I created.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Last Night's Dream

I can't remember more than being in a used book store and finding a huge cache of old RPGs: copies of the Fantasy Trip/Advanced Melee/Advanced Wizard, original Arduin books (including ones that never actually existed) and several 70s-era digest-sized RPGs and D&D supplements (that also never really existed), and trying to figure out how I could even begin to afford everything I wanted, especially since I knew I might never see them again!

Procrastinating with maps

Well, looking at and scanning the maps I made this last week, I felt a huge "meh" and have had my hand at more free-form mapping using Photoshop. I like the results so far. Here is one copy of a map without any accessories such as stairs, doors, numbering, etc. at about 50% scale:

I suspect the final product will have minimal keyed and set locations and some involved random encounter charts keyed by map themes.

Talkin' Theory Like I'm Posting at The Forge

Reading too much lately, and with more than a little academic theory on the brain, I found myself trying to apply what I'm studying to RPGs again. The first time that happened, I found myself trying to apply Yrjo Engeström's theories of mediated activity to the activity of RPGs, with the interaction between gamer and game world being mediated by the GM, the rules set, the context of the gaming group and gaming culture as communities, and the division of labor in the gaming activity between DM and players all mediating the gaming experience. Thus the structure of the whole gaming experience -- in which players, GM and the imagined world are shaped by the entire context of the gaming experience. But other than the general concept, I figured the whole exercise really accomplished nothing, and I didn't have any useful questions that the model answered, so I decided nothing more needed to be done with it. Maybe now that it's printed here, people will get on the Forge and debate it along the GNS model.

Figure 1. FRPG as a Mediated Activity.
. GM
. / \
. Player ----- Game World
. / | \
. ---------
. Rules Comm. Div.of Labor

My latest intrusion of social science theory into my gaming mind has been in the context of reading Pierre Bourdieu's theories of different types of capital. In many ways, Bourdieu's capital theories are a response to Marx, who (in a gross over-simplification) basically says that the dominant classes use capital and its production to control society, using other socioeconomic classes as pawns in a class struggle that maintains their status and power.

Bourdieu (in another gross over-simplification) argues that material capital is important producing and maintaining the social order, inequities included. But that material capital and its production are only part of that. Instead, he argues that thanks to control of capital and its production, the dominant class is able to create capital that has no direct monetary value in the form of cultural knowledge, titles, educational qualifications, ways of dress, ways of speech, physical bearing, etc. that set the true dominant classes apart from others and allow them to pass on their power to others by promoting and concealing these forms of capital as objective standards of qualifications for gaining power. This capital is unevenly distributed across different groups and socioeconomic classes, creating inequity in opportunity and access to power while helping to support the conditions that allow the status quo to continue with minimal need for change.

(Please forgive the bad synopsis of several books worth of theory, but I'm judiciously editing to get to an actual point. Promise.)

That said, it occured to me that most classic RPGs are about outsiders who break social rules in order to gain money and items of power. They are outside the social order (with minimal cultural capital), but gather a lot of money and items (material capital). Some characters may have religious titles (clerics, paladins, druids), education (magic-user types), or noble titles (high-level characters with strongholds), but overall they lack the connections, manner, professions -- the social capital -- to gain lasting power. Those that have cultural capital have it differentially distributed, and those that don't shouldn't have easy access to certain resources.

That seems to imply certain struggles within the party, and certain options for different kinds of reward systems that could be given in the game. I'm not calling for a different rule system, but a different mind set. How much do PCs value connections, education, titles, and the like in game as opposed to gold and magic items (not much)? But how much would they if they found that they were stymied no matter how much money they had by those who had better social and cultural resources?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mapping the Undercity

As I write this, I am finishing up my presentation day at the conference. I have breakfast tomorrow, then I'm back to the airport for a flight back to San Diego. By the time I post this, though, I'll probably either be in the airport or back home.

I'm a strange social animal. Put me in a defined role in a defined place (in front of a class, making a presentation, doing an orientation program, doing my job, DMing) and I'm outgoing and very social. When I'm done, I'm back to being an introvert. So when I'm at these conferences, I have a hard time sitting in the bar doing the networking other people do. I do my talk or go to the presentations I want, talk to my wife on the phone, and go to my room to read, write, or sketch.

This trip, I took some time to start sketching out old-school megadungeon maps. I have 4 done, and may have more done by the end of the weekend. I'm hoping to put together 9 of them. Keys will come much later. Hell, I still haven't put in doors and the like yet.

This has been an odd experience for me since I haven't really run a dungeon crawl since I was eighteen. That's almost twenty-four years. I stopped because I had decided at the time that dungeons were silly and illogical, and that I had better things to do with my GMing time. Diving into other games for quite some time, the dungeon never came up again.

As I started thinking about Athanor, I put mentions of the Undercity into my early notes because I decided that the dungeon allows for something I had wanted to do with Athanor -- include elements of the gratuitously bizarre and alien. Stange monsters, horrifying traps, and alien architecture would seem out of place in the middle of a city, even an ancient city filled with crumbling ruins of buildings like Zamora. Why would people allow them to continue to exist? Wouldn't someone just demolish them? Wall them off? Burn them down? But in a strange and dangerous underground, such weirdness takes on a mythical quality. Odd things are under the city, like baby alligators grown to huge proportions or C.H.U.D in the sewers. The dungeon transforms from a silly affectation to a weird mythical underground.

So I've started mapping it out, at least. Just need to figure out what to do with it....

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Airships and Athanor in the Airport.

Waiting at the airport, I am stuck thinking about airships in Athanor. I wrote them in as a tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom novels, though the flying ship has a long gaming tradition, from the "Voyage of the Princess Ark" articles in the Dragon, to Eberron, and including things like Final Fantasy games and World of Warcraft in between. I also credit an early childhood exposure to Captain Harlock and a teenage exposure to Epic Comics' Swords of the Swashbucklers may have inspired some of my desire to have flying ships battling in the skies above Athanor.

But my concept of airships remains vague, partially influenced by Burroughs and his very vague descriptions of airships in Barsoom. We know they have some sort of tanks holding a "ray" that keeps them aloft (how that works, I don't know) and are moved along by a screw that acts like a propeller.

I have two different ideas for airships in Barsoom:
  1. I see airships as having sails, rigging, and big ol' tanks of devices that provide anti-gravitational force help the ships stay airborne. These "lift engines" are rare, expensive, and only maintained by a powerful guild that knows the secrets of Ancient technology involved in lift engines. These airships are more maneuverable, are faster, and tend to be controlled by military or governmental organizations.
  2. I also see airships as essentially blimps or dirigibles with sails, with ship's hulls hanging below as gondolas. These will be more common, use an orichalcum gas to gain lift, but they lack the maneuverability and speed of true airships. They also need to be lighter, so are harder to make into armored battle ships like lift engines allow.
I can actually see both forms of airships in the skies of Barsoom as well as pteranodon-riders. I like open decks not because they make particular sense (because they don't), but because I like the idea of airship fights across the decks of airships.

All that said, airships are still only used by the wealthy and the priveleged. Airship travel is expensive and rare, and trade and travel still depends heavily on dangerous caravan trips overland.

Some Thoughts on Playing Fourth Edition, As If You Cared

We are several sessions into a mid-level D&D 4e campaign, and I don't hate it. Don't love it either, but I enjoy the group, and there are aspects of the game I do like and others that seem flat. None of it deeply offends me, though. But I do have some basic impressions that have developed with experience.

It is Both More and Less Complex Than 3.x
You heard me, I'm trying to have it both ways. The complexity of some combat rules are simpler to track (grappling, tripping, standing), the skill system is cleaner, the classes clearer and less easily turned into weird multiclass munchkin combos, and less likely to have one or two classes outshine other players in "screen time." There are fewer buffs and debuffs. But tracking marks and conditions takes a lot more work.

Combat is Long
I'm not convinced it's much longer than 3.x edition, and it sure isn't much worse than a typical Champions game, but none of those statements really does much to provide a good comparison. While increased hit points and slower, more steady increases in damage are part of the issue, so is the lack of save-or-die effects. While this does eliminate the anticlimactic 3.x dogpile on the one big monster tactic which will result in a one-quarter monster death, it can make simple fights drag out and do create less time for non-combat things.

Some of this is also DM encounter design. If I were running the game, there would probably be a bigger use of minions in large numbers with a few major monsters to create both interesting tactical dilemmas and opportunities for controllers and area affect attacks to shine. And to provide opportunities for badassery by PCs followed by having PCs handed their asses by non-minions. We seldom see minions, and often face big battles rather than several encounters over the course of a session.

Combat is Still Deadly
We have at least one person making death checks per game every game. As the party defender, that person is usually me.

Resource Management is Still There, It's Just Different
As a side note, this sort of encounter undermines the interesting but very different management issues of the game. Rather than managing spells, equipment and hit points as absolutes, play now involves managing per-encounter abilities and hit points; and daily powers, items, action points and healing surges. This makes a different tactical play style, but not alien to the earlier versions.

Teamwork is Key
And learning to synergize abilities, control and move across the battlefield, and use the team to set each other up to advantage is more closely integrated into the rules.

Defined Rules Lead to Ignoring the Really Cool Flexibility on DMG p. 42
The stunting rules and the page 42 table to figure out how to adjudicate them are one of the coolest things in the game. Getting my friends to see that is a challenge. It would be easy to blame them, but I think the very defined ruleset contributes a lot to the lack of desire to fudge things. This is very sad.

Hacking the Game isn't as Easy
Some parts are actually fairly easy to hack. New feats and races aren't so hard, though the tight balances assumed in the basic rules mean that finding mechanical ways to distinguish different races or feats may be hard to achieve. Coming up with new classes is downright hard. Coming up with a class means not only class abilities, but powers structured over 30 levels, including at least two paths in the class... which sounds more like work to me and less like fun.

In the end, it's a decent game. It's not crazy to see that it is an evolution of D&D: clearly so from 3.x, not so clearly so from the LBBs. It doesn't play like 2.x or later, but it plays well. All that said, I wouldn't run it without some major limits — it might be interesting to run a sword and sorcery game with only martial classes, a 10th level cap, humans only, and magic only in the form of rituals. But for now, I'll look elsewhere for games to DM.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Giving some props to other bloggers.

Right now, my creativity is low as I get ready spend a couple days in Texas to give a presentation at a conference. This is my third time presenting at some sort of conference, but the first where I am the sole presenter. This is definitely higher-stakes presentation. Until the presentation is done, thinking of gaming stuff is going to take work.

So consider this blog entry the equivalent to one of those flashback filler episodes of a show you like. You end up watching it because you like the show, but you feel a little cheated by the clip-episode format. Today, I want to push you to look at the people I steal from regularly when I think of ideas.

  • Akrasia's blog, Akratic Wizardry has a lot of stuff to steal if you are looking to house rule Swords and Wizardry. I'm planning to loot his skill rules, for example.
  • James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess is always interesting, never boring, and would get my respect just for putting together the Random Esoteric Creature Generator (which is now published by Goodman Games), but he is now walking the small-press walk with his
  • Taichara's blog, A Hamsterish Hoard of Dungeons and Dragons is chock full of ideas for magic items, monsters and miscellaneous cool stuff. Even given the generally weird tone I want for Athanor, I still see plenty to steal that fits in -- and Taichara has put together many times this for those with less peculiar campaign concepts. I'd gladly throw a few bucks Taichara's way for a print or PDF booklet of his posts compiled in one place (hint, hint), but given my recent penchant for putting together booklets on my own, I really could just do it myself, I suppose.
Air Jelly
Amber Jelly
Blood Slime
Brass Dragonfly
Dark Jelly
Earth Jelly
Fire Jelly
Hidden One
Ivory Scarab
Living Statue, Black Iron
Living Statue, Brass
Living Statue, Cinnabar
Living Statue, Glass
Living Statue, Marble
Shining Jelly
Verdant Mantid
Water Jelly

I swear I'm not dead.

Most of my time has been spent on preparing a presentation for the Council of Education annual conference on Friday (I'm leaving for San Antonio tomorrow morning), reading more Bourdieu for my dissertation literature review, and spending time with my wife. Less of it has been spent on Athanor, but I have done some stuff. The blog has been left to gather moss and cobwebs. Sorry, regular readers.

One of the Athanor related bits of work was reorganizing my house rules and setting information into three little brown books. Ill post those eventually. The other was retooling skills again to use Akrasia's skill system for Swords and Wizardry. Though eloquent words have been spoken by people like Jeff Rients on the reasons some folks dislike skill systems, I have found skill systems useful since I first discovered Runequest back in 1983.

On the other hand, using skills in a system like D&D or a simulacrum of it is always an odd fit, since some of the elements of a skill system are already inherent in the game itself in the form of classes, saves, and to hit roll progressions. Heck, even the skill system for thieves in Supplement I and beyond has seemed out of place. That's why I am avoiding either inherent penalties for characters trying to do things their characters aren't skilled at doing on paper and why I'm trying short lists of very broad skills.

Oddly, Athanor has slowly morphed into something resembling a version of Tunnels and Trolls using D&D mechanics. I have rearranged the classes in a way that mimics T&T's three main classes, have rethought the saving throw mechanic in ways similar to T&T's, but not adopted a magic point system or the combat system. I'm happy with it so far. Some day I need to post the updated PDFs.

Finding time to run a game is a bigger challenge. School starts up again soon, and for me that means work ramps up as at the same time as I return to classes. It also means that I need to push hard to get through some more literature so I can start working on a new and largely rewritten-from-scratch-after-all-my-work-last-year version of my literature review. On top of that, I am actually playing in one continuing 4e game and am going to play in a game that will be another friend's first time DMing (and he has only been playing D&D for a few months, so this may be interesting....) So time. Yeah, that'll be a challenge.

Once I get a sense of the pace of this quarter, things may get better. If not, it will be clearer, so I can make more clear commitments of my time, and cut some jetsam loose to streamline the ship.