Showing posts with label Paizo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Paizo. Show all posts

Monday, July 07, 2014

Dungeons and Dragons: 5th Edition and "Zones of Control"

Back in 2012, I wrote a blog post discussing how every edition of Dungeons & Dragons had miniature use as a part of its default mechanics assumptions.

Let me repeat that in clearer language. Every edition of Dungeons & Dragons is a miniatures based tactical role playing game.

As I wrote in the earlier post, this doesn't mean that those playing without miniatures were "playing the game wrong." I've played in at least one adventure in every edition of D&D and there are plenty of rules my gaming groups have either ignored or added to make our own experience more fun. Here are just a few ways my groups have modified game play:

1) None of the 1st Edition AD&D campaigns I've played in has ever used the Weapon Speed Factors or the Modifications for Armor Class.
2) I've played in 1st Edition games that used "Spell Points" for spell casters.
3) As a Game Master, I've disallowed non-Lawful Good Paladins in 3.x and 4e.
4) I had a DM who used Arduin's Damage System in his AD&D Campaign.
5) I've never used the initiative system from Eldritch Wizardry.
6) I give every race a second wind as a minor action (Dwarves get it as a free action) to speed up play.
7) One campaign I played in had us set our miniatures on the play mat in "Marching Order." No matter the shape of the room our characters were attacked based on that formation in Bard's Tale-esque fashion. We could have been in the center of a room 100' x 100' and all of the melee attacks would have been targeted at either the front row or the back row without anyone attacking our Magic Users in the middle.

Every one of the games I played with these groups was fun and thus none of these groups was playing "wrong." None of these groups played games to the rules as written either. No one - with the exception of organized play - should play to the rules as written. Role playing games are written to be adapted to play for your local gaming group. There are two key elements that allow for this without "breaking" the game. First, there are no winners and losers in D&D. The only way to win is to have fun and changing the rules for your local group is one way to create fun. Some changes are fun for a short time before they create more boredom than fun - in general - so there is room for advice regarding power scaling and Monte Haul campaigns, but the aim is to maximize fun. Second, most role playing games - excepting a couple of innovative Indie games - have a Game Master who moderates the game and who has absolute authority in rules interpretation in the local gaming group. So long as the Game Master is fair and focuses on keeping the game entertaining for the players in his or her group, then what rules are included or left out don't matter much.

Man...that's a lot of prefatory information. You can read the older post to see how each edition of D&D has implemented the use of what are called "Zones of Control" or "ZoCs" in great detail in the older post. The short version is this:

Original Edition (Chainmail): Once engaged in melee a unit was stuck until death or a failed morale check.

Original Edition (Alternate Combat): Not locked in combat, but adds "flanking" rules in Greyhawk Supplement. Swords & Spells supplement adds attacks of opportunity.

D&D Basic (Holmes): Attack of Opportunity against those leaving combat.

D&D Basic (Moldvay): Adds "Defensive Withdrawal" similar to "5 foot move" or "shift" in later editions.

1st Edition AD&D: Attack of Opportunity for withdrawal and Rear Attack Rules (Page 69 & 70 of DMG)

2nd Edition AD&D: Similar to 1st (Pages 81 to 84 of Revised DMG)

3rd Edition D&D: See image below.

3.5 Edition D&D: See image below.

Pathfinder: See image below.

4th Edition D&D: See image below.

Each of these editions demonstrates the influence of tactical wargames on the combat systems of each edition. It should also be noted that each edition of the game adds new layers of complexity regarding what affects whether you are in a Zone of Control and whether you are flanking an opponent. Pathfinder, 3rd Edition, 3.x, and 4th edition all have creatures with reach that expands their Zones of Control and each of those games has specific rules regarding how conditions influence your ability to flank other combatants. If you read the earlier article and examine the pages of the 1st Edition DMG you will see that there are rules similar to those implemented by later editions, but you will also wish that the earlier edition had created cool graphic representations like those of later editions.

5th edition (in the Basic Rules) takes a big step away from the trend and is even more abstract than the earliest editions of the game with regard to flanking. I would argue that 5th edition is the first edition with takes "no position" with regard to miniatures and carefully crafts descriptions so that combat can be run either way without house rules or dropping rules -- though it does still refer to "squares" from time to time. The new edition still includes Opportunity Attacks - a firm Zone of Control concept - as described on page 74. But instead of listing a specific amount of distance moved as in Moldvay, 1st AD&D, and later editions it merely lists the need to use the "Disengage" action. The Disengage action can be used with a tactical map, but doesn't require one as it is more narrative in its description than the older "Defensive Withdrawal."  The Rogue class on page 27 hints at the flanking rules for 5th edition which does not seem to entail a good deal of examining to see if combatants align properly on opposite sides of an opponent in a way that require illustration. Under Sneak Attack, the Basic rules state that you can deal extra damage if you have advantage OR "if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn't incapacitated, and you don't have disadvantage on the die roll." That's a pretty big shift toward simplicity and away from map use. While it could be argued that the 5 foot rule implies the use of maps, one could easily assume that a creature engaged in melee has an enemy within  feet. If this replaces needing opposite sides for advantage, this is a boon for mapless gaming. It is easily adaptable regardless. So what does this make 5th edition's Zone of Control rules based on the Basic Set?

5th Edition D&D: Attacks of Opportunity (strong ZoC) and potentially with Flanking if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it. 

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

[Gaming History] Starleader: Assault! and Publisher vs. Creator Squabbles

Gamers who have only experienced the "edition wars" of the modern era might believe that the story of how Paizo Publishing became successful as a role playing game company is a unique occurrence.  After all, it isn't every day that a major role playing game publisher decides to make some internal changes and those changes provide a perfect opportunity for a new game publisher to secure a market segment releasing a revised version of the older company's game.

In the case of Wizards of the Coast, their creation of the Open Gaming License, combined with their decision to abandon Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 in order to produce a 4th edition of the game, provided a perfect opportunity for Paizo Publishing to release the Pathfinder Role Playing Game.  Those who played 3.5 know that Pathfinder is an update of the earlier Wizards of the Coast game, that features various improvements based on playtesting, an update that was much demanded by fans who felt abandoned by Wizards of the Coast for a variety of reasons.  Not only was Paizo filled with talented game designers who understood the 3.5 edition of D&D, many of those same designers worked for Wizards at one time or another.  In fact, many of Wizards most talented former game designers worked on the Pathfinder game.  To state what happened in a very reductive manner (that isn't exactly true but is useful for illustrative purposes), Paizo effectively secured a market segment by releasing a product that a competitor had abandoned or improperly developed.

Paizo's rise as a major publisher in the industry is very interesting.  I'm a big fan of their products, I was a first wave "Superscriber" of their merchandise, and I am a fan of Wizards of the Coast's 4th edition game.  As a fan, I didn't pick sides in the fight.  Many did.  I am also a long time gamer who has been playing role playing games for over 20 years, and who has an obsessive desire to study the hobby and learn its history.

This is how I know that Paizo's story isn't as unique as one might think.  In fact, Paizo's rise to fame parallels nicely with the rise of a little game company called Steve Jackson Games.  Steve Jackson Games emerged out of the very successful gaming company Metagaming Concepts when game designer Steve Jackson left Metagaming to form his own company.  Steve Jackson had designed many of Metagaming's most popular games including Ogre, GEV, Melee, and Wizard.  The last two were part of a line of games that came to be called The Fantasy Trip.  Metagaming was a company that exploded to success through the publication of "microgames."  They built upon the success smartly using the microgame format to release modules of what was to become a full fledged role playing game -- The Fantasy Trip.  When Steve Jackson left the Metagaming in 1980, the company unraveled fairly quickly and closed their doors in April of 1982.  There is a lot to the story, and Shannon Appelcline does a good job of covering it in the book Designers and Dragons.  Needless to say, looking at Metagaming's history one can see that the brain drain of losing Jackson was a death knell for the company.  Lucky for Wizards, they seem to be able to recruit and rehire talented desingers.

Unlike Paizo's ability to modify D&D, Jackson wasn't able to take The Fantasy Trip with him when he created his own company.  He was able to take Ogre, GEV, and One-Page Bulge (three classic microgames) with him.  Instead, Steve Jackson eventually designed his own role playing game called GURPS.  Though one can clearly see that GURPS is a descendant of the old The Fantasy Trip rules.

Though Metagaming went out of business, they did release a number of excellent products for The Fantasy Trip.  It remains to this day a highly playable and entertaining role playing game.  If one owns the Melee, Wizard, Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and In The Labyrinth rules, one has enough material to run fantasy role playing game campaigns forever.  All of these game products list Steve Jackson as their designer, and though Metagaming claimed ownership of the game it is interesting to note that the text is "copyright Steve Jackson" for Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and In the Labyrinth.  It is also interesting to note that my 1981edition of Melee published after Steve Jackson's departure lists Guy W. McLimore Jr. and Howard Thompson as the designers with Metagaming holding the copyright.  One can see the acrimony between Steve Jackson and Metagaming publisher Howard Thompson in those copyright listings alone, but letters like this one to Andy Windes help reinforce the opinion.

In the post Jackson era, Metagaming released a new series of The Fantasy Trip related games including Lords of the Underearth, Dragons of the Underearth, and a science fiction adaptation of the rules called Starleader: Assault!  There was even a super hero version of the TFT rules slated for publication.

When Starleader: Assault! was published, it was clearly designed to be the first in a series of science fiction themed microgames that would evolve into a full role playing system based on a TFT foundation.  Like Melee before it, Starleader: Assault! provides players with an introductory combat system.  The statistics used in the game are clearly rooted in the earlier game's mechanics, but there are some distinct differences.  Differences that are strong enough that the William Barton's review of the game in The Space Gamer #61 states, "It is a combat module...what Melee was to TFT.  And that is where the resemblance almost ends."

Character creation in Starleader: Assault! is similar to TFT.  Players are given a certain number of points to divide between three statistics (IQ, Prowess, and Emotion) and each statistic must have a minimum score of 8.  Interestingly enough, two of the three statistics play little role in the game play of this "combat module."  Where IQ determines the number of skill points a player receives in TFT, it merely determines the tech level of weapons that can be used by a character in Starleader: Assault!  Emotion is of even less use in the game and is only used for an optional rule regarding panic checks.  One imagines that Emotion might be used as the basis for a psionics system, but no such system was ever designed.

Where TFT was built starting with the assumption of hand to hand combat being the most common form of engagement, Starleader: Assault! combat begins with targeting assisted missile weapons as the basis for combat.  In fact, Prowess -- which one might think determines a person's skill in combat -- isn't used to determine whether someone is hit with a missile weapon at all in the game.  Even though Prowess is described as "the physical capacity of a character, including agility, strength, dexterity and endurance," to hit roles with missile weapons are determined by rolling 4d6 and seeing if that roll is under a target number equal to or less than the weapon's "Density" + Target Size - Size of Obstacles between shooter and opponent.  Interestingly, this makes shooting anyone at all a very difficult task.

For example:  a TL 6 "Ghazi" has a Density of 8 and your average person has a size of 2.  This means that firing at an average sized opponent who is standing in the open requires a roll of 10 or less on 4d6 -- a less than 50% chance.  While it is true that this might be a fairly accurate portrayal of real life odds of shooting someone in a hectic situation, it makes for some frustrating combat rounds.  Weapon fire can be fairly lethal in Starleader: Assault!  The average hit -- assuming same TL for attacker and defender -- does 7 points of damage.  That pretty much means that even the stoutest fellow is down after a second shot.  Once again a decently realistic result, but not necessarily a good narrative one.

Melee combat in Starleader: Assault!?  Um...'ll need to own Melee and it uses a slightly different system.  It is definitely a game that says, "once you've got blasters, you don't need any stinkin' swords."

Funny thing is...I played a couple of battles portraying various assaults on the ship Trek Heaven.  Yes, you read that right, the Trek Heaven.  Get it.  Ugh.  Anyway, I played through a couple of battles and as a microgame of a shootout on a space ship, the game is pretty fun.  I don't know how it would do as the foundation for a full blown role playing game.  Even if one were to incorporate rules from TFT -- for which there are "conversion" rules -- it doesn't quite seem to work that way.  I don't know though, I might just try it out.  The skill system from TFT seems like it would overlap easily.  It's only the combat system that would require a little work.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

[Blogging Northwest Smith] -- Shambleau (A Reprise)

Almost two years ago, Cinerati featured a post discussing the differences between Sword and Sorcery tales and stories of Planetary Romance. According to the post, a couple of the key differences were the moral clarity of Planetary Romance tales and the inclusion of "Weird Supernatural" elements in Sword and Sorcery tales. In response to the post, Blue Tyson, posited that I had left a "Northwest Smith" sized hole in my argument. The implication being that these tales contained "Weird Supernatural" while falling squarely into the Planetary Romance genre.

At the time I had only read Catherine Lucille Moore's Jirel of Joiry tales, and not her Northwest Smith stories. Blue Tyson's comment deeply intrigued me, and I decided to read C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories and to do one blog entry per story as I read them. For the exercise, I used Paizo Publishing's excellent Planet Stories edition of Northwest of Earth, which contains the complete stories of Northwest Smith (including "Nymph of Darkness" a collaboration with Forrest J Ackerman and "Quest for the Starstone" a collaboration with Henry Kuttner), as my reference during the discussion.

Eventually, life caught up with my ambitious attempt -- in the form of twin daughters, graduate school, and work related stresses -- and I was unable to complete the experiment.

I think of it as one of my failings as a blogger. I think of it as my biggest failure, just above not being able to continue my Geekerati podcast with Bill Cunningham and Shawna Benson -- a podcast that I still think is among the best done. Just skip the last couple of episodes, which were recorded as the podcast was in its twilight.

Now that it is summer, and Gen Con approaches rapidly, I would like to re-ignite my series. To that end, I will be re-posting the earlier blog posts for the next few days, after which I will complete my Northwest Smith journey. If you want to skip ahead, you can read the originals by going to the Blogging SF/F page, but I'd rather you stuck around for the ride and commented on the new pages.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Northwest Smith, he is often discussed as the fictional character who is the inspiration for George Lucas' character Han Solo. Any need to point out similarities between Northwest Smith and Indiana Jones seems unnecessary, as the names themselves speak volumes about that connection. According to John Clute's Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Through Smith, CLM helped revamp the formulae of both space opera and heroic fantasy. Smith's introspection and fallibility give him a more human dimension than his predecessors in heroic fantasy, and the depiction of his sexual vulnerability represented a psychological maturity uncommon in the field."

I think it bears mentioning that Stephan Dziemianowicz, who wrote the entry in the Encyclopedia, makes no mention of Planetary Romance in the Northwest Smith section and focuses on Smith's importance in space opera and heroic fantasy. I mentioned in the prior post that Planetary Romance was a sub-genre of heroic fantasy, but then again so is a great deal of fiction that no one would ever imagine being classified as Planetary Romance.

If "Shambleau" is any indication of the direction that future Northwest Smith tales will wander, Moore's tales of Smith belong firmly in the genre of space opera and completely outside the bounds of Planetary Romance. Though the Smith tales' inclusion of imagery associated with "Weird Fiction" marks them as stories that extend the boundaries of the traditional space opera tale.

In support of the Smith stories falling into the sub-genre of space opera -- a genre that some argue includes the Planet Stories tales of Leigh Brackett, though I believe that classification lacks specificity and makes space opera too broad a category -- I looked to David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's The Space Opera Renaissance for a working definition of space opera. They offer two early definitions of the genre. These early definitions are most useful given the publication dates of the Smith tales, newer definitions bring to mind epic tales like Iain Bank's "Culture" stories or Asimov's "Foundation" due to the expansion of the use of the term space opera.

According to Hartwell and Cramer, the Fancyclopedia II had the following definition:
Space Opera ([coined by Wilson] Tucker) A hack science-fiction story, a dressed-up Western; so called by analogy with "horse opera" for Western bangbangshootemup movies and "soap opera" for radio and video yellowdrama.

Hartwell and Cramer are quick to point out that this definition is actually a watered-down version of what Tucker actually said in his fanzine, which wasn't to actually equate Westerns and Space Opera as telling similar tales. But the connection had been made and by the early 1950s, Galaxy magazine was firm in its use of space opera as "any hackneyed SF filled with stereotypes borrowed from Westerns." The definition of what constitutes space opera has since expanded significantly since the 50s -- it has come to be so broad as to include both Planetary Romance and the "Culture" stories which is almost too broad -- but the connection between the Western and space opera seems particularly significant in the case of Northwest Smith. I would not call Moore's writing hackneyed, but "Shambleau" could easily be rewritten as a Western with only minor cosmetic changes.

"Shambleau," which was Moore's first published story, was published in 1933 during the height of the pulp era. The shelves were filled with a wide array of writing of various qualities, but it is easy to see why Moore's piece was selected for publication in the November 1933 edition of Weird Tales. The piece could also be used as a demonstration for how to mold a work of writing to suit a particular publication. It isn't hard to believe that Moore actually started this as a Western and then adapted it to better suit the tastes of Weird Tales.

"Shambleau" opens with a prefatory paragraph which sets the tone of the tale, establishes a sense of history and place, and gives readers some foreshadowing regarding the turn the tale will take. The paragraph is reminiscent of the paragraphs Robert E. Howard used to open his Conan tales. Where his paragraphs represented excerpts from the fictional Nemedian Chronicles, Moore's resemble the careful tone of a campfire tale. The paragraph is different in tone from Howard's, but serves much the same purpose.

It begins:
MAN HAS CONQUERED Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half-mythical names -- Atlantis, Mu -- somewhere back of history's first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues--

One might believe after reading this paragraph -- especially since the place names for Mars and Venus used later in the story are those used in this paragraph -- that he or she is about to read about Space travel in this time before time. This is not the case. References to "New York roast beef" and a "Chino-Aryan war" leave any speculation that this tale takes place in a forgotten time behind. No...this tale takes place in our future, after mankind has once again conquered Space. The sense of the mythical is used in order to make the twist of the story plausible and ensures that the twist falls well within a reader's suspension of disbelief.

We know that our tale take place at some time during mankind's Space conquering future, but what kind of future is it and what kind of man is our protagonist? Apparently, the Mars of the future is a lot like Virginia City.

"Shambleau! Ha...Shambleau!" The wild hysteria of the mob rocketed from wall to wall of Lakkdarol's narrow streets and the storming of heavy boots over the slag-red pavement made an ominous undertone to that swelling bay...

Northwest Smith heard it coming and stepped into the nearest doorway, laying a wary hand on his heat-gun's grip, and his colorless eyes narrowed. Strange sounds were common enough in the streets of Earth's latest colony on Mars -- a raw, red little down where anything might happen, and very often did.

Moore gets us into the action quickly. After a prefatory paragraph that sets the tone and place, she launches us straight into a dangerous situation. It's like reading the scrolling preface before a Star Wars film and then being thrust right into the action. In this case, the action of the tale is simple enough. A wild mob is shouting for the death of a woman, whether "Shambleau" is her name or the name of her people has not yet been made clear, and Northwest Smith takes it upon himself to calm the mob and save the girl. It is only after saving the girl that Northwest Smith comes to understand why the mob was after the woman in the first place -- to tell you more about the girl would be spoiling the fun, but it would also be unfair to leave out further discussion of our protagonist.

We know by his introduction, and his hand on his heat gun, that Northwest Smith is a dangerous man. We come to find out that his saving of the woman probably had little to do with chivalry, but more to do with "that chord of sympathy for the underdog that stirs in every Earthman." This chord of sympathy must stir strong in Smith, because the mob is pretty persistent and Smith -- like Han Solo after him -- isn't the kind who wants to get too involved in this kind of action. Smith's business is usually of a different sort:
Smith's errand in Lakkdarol, like most of his errands, is better not spoken of. Man lives as he must, and Smith's living was a perilous affair outside the law and ruled by the ray-gun only. It is enough to say that the shipping-port and its cargoes outbound interested him deeply just now...

Apparently, Smith is a blaggard whose day to day business is so unseemly that Moore refrains from sharing it, likely because the audience would lose sympathy with our protagonist. It is easy to see how Smith became the archetype that anti-heroes would be based upon for decades to come. He's a cautious man, who pulls for the underdog, but who participates in business best left unspoken. Sounds like Han Solo to me...or Wolverine.

"Shambleau" is a fun tale with a nice twist, a twist that is fairly obvious after the prefatory paragraph. One can see illustrations of "Shambleau" by Barbarella creator Jean-Claude Forest at this fairly NSFW link if you don't want to wait to find out the surprise. I recommend waiting. Read Moore's prose first. Moore incorporates classic mythology into the Science Fiction narrative smoothly and dramatically. Her writing is addictive and she manages to take a classic monster and turn it into something really weird.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Combat Maneuvers in 4th Edition D&D

One of the chief innovations of the 3rd Edition of the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game was the incorporation of robust mechanics for combat maneuvers. Earlier editions of D&D had vague rules for parrying blows, but little to no guidance with regard to how your character could disarm an opponent or trip a foe. To be fair, some products featured what I would call "patchwork" fixes that allowed for these activities (case in point the D&D "Master's Set" for the Mentzer edition), but the mechanics didn't seem organic to the system. With 3rd edition, this changed. The maneuvers weren't always easy to accomplish for all characters, and often contained a "feat tax" to perform them without consequences, but they were clearly defined and articulated.

Paizo's Pathfinder role playing game took the basic mechanics of the combat maneuvers in 3.5 and expanded them, clarified them, and aided Gamemasters by adding listings for "Combat Maneuver Defense" and "Combat Maneuver Bonus" which helped to speed up calculations during play. They also made some small adjustments to the system.

The combat maneuvers -- other than basic strikes -- that 3.x and Pathfinder presented mechanics for include: Bull Rush, Disarm, Grapple, Overrun, Sunder, Trip, and Feint. Each of these can add some narrative dynamics to combat that empower players to control the "story" of how combat takes place and they add to the excitement of the combat experience.

A chief complaint is that 4th Edition is that the system lacks a robust system like that presented in 3.x -- in fact it is one of the complaints I hear most frequently about 4e. The typical response to those who make this complaint is that the "basic combat maneuvers" of 3.x and Pathfinder are difficult to achieve without appropriate feats and that 4e "solved this" by incorporating the effects of most of these maneuvers into the "powers/maneuvers" of the classes for which these maneuvers are appropriate. After all, the line of argument goes, making a grappling mage in 3.x/Pathfinder isn't an easy thing to do -- the feat tax "trap" and the method of calculating basic attacks -- meant that it was primarily Fighters who were good at these maneuvers.

Both the complaint and the answer are deeply flawed and don't accurately represent the problem or solution. The problem isn't that the system lacks a robust system for using these maneuvers, nor is the solution that they've incorporated the maneuvers into powers/exploits of the various classes. The problem is that 4e does have the mechanics, and they even show you how to use them on page 42 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, but that they only clearly articulate the rules for a couple of them and expect that DMs will follow the advice on page 42 for the remaining maneuvers -- or extrapolate them from the information contained in the rule books.

This is a problem of rule book drafting philosophy. As role playing games have grown as a hobby, many rules systems have become more specific in how combat maneuvers and abilities are expressed. In a manner of speaking, the mechanics of the game systems have become more like computer program subroutines and have become less subject to "DM interpretations" that may differ from group to group. The pinnacle of this style of mechanical subroutine presentation are the Hero System and GURPS, but 3.5 wasn't far behind. A key advantage to these systems is that groups can do narrative combat actions using the Rules As Written (RAW) rather than the Rules As Intended or even the Rules As Interpreted. This kind of design doesn't end rules arguments at gaming tables, but it does lessen them from the days of "rulings rather than rules." Neither the "rulings instead of rules" or "rules instead of rulings" philosophies are superior to the other, but each has its advocates and 3.x was pretty heavily on the "rules instead of rulings" side.

Surprisingly, to those who might think otherwise, 4e has a heavy "rules instead of rulings" philosophy. So much so that some gamers think of 4e as a board game or miniatures war game more than a role playing game. But the game also has a heavy -- and deep -- "rulings instead of rules" philosophy. The game tried to have the best of both worlds. It wanted the rules stability, balance, and statistical predictability of a game like Feng Shui -- where the "average" result of a character's action against a difficulty number is equal to their skill/ability score -- but they also wanted the narrative flow of a game like The Burning Wheel or Savage Worlds. In fact, once you understand the underlying math of the game it can be played entirely using the "Skill Challenge" system without ever using the combat rules -- but that is another post entirely.

The 4th Edition of D&D has a great deal of advice for playing with RAW, but they have moved beyond "Rules as Intended" or "Rules as Interpreted" and have many "Rules as Possible" which are a combination of written and interpreted rules that allow for DMs to recreate the maneuvers from the prior edition without ever creating new rules systems. To do it well, a DM does need to understand the underlying math of combat, but 4e has a pretty simple and a very static (from level to level) system. This is the game's greatest strength -- it makes designing balanced encounters easy -- and its greatest weakness.

The game provides specific examples for how Bull Rush and Grapple work in 4e, and they provide the mechanics for the rest -- but they never construct those remaining maneuvers. Page 42 of the Dungeon Master's Guide gives specific guidance on how to construct the maneuvers, but the specifics are left to the DM to construct.

The basic 4e combat math is as follows. Monsters will have an Armor Class equal to approximately 14 + level -- 15 for a Level 1 monster -- with some slight variation for the monster's "role." Monsters will have a base to hit bonus vs. Armor Class of 5 + Level -- +6 for a Level 1 monster -- and will attack other defenses at 3 + Level -- +4 for a Level 1 Monster. A Player Character will have between a 16 + Level and 20 + Level Armor Class -- depending on "role" -- and will have between a 5 + Level to 8 + bonus to hit an opponent's AC (2 less versus NADs). There is some variation of this, but these are fairly good baseline assumptions.

This means that a Monster -- attacking AC -- will be +6 vs. an AC of 17 to 21 thus hitting 30% to 50% of the time, while players will hit between 60% to 75% of the time. Tactics will modify both of these numbers upward with some roles ("Strikers") hitting 90% of the time. These percentages remain the same -- with very little variation -- throughout a character's "career." The game's progression is relatively level so that challenges have a similar character risk regardless of level, though the growth of Encounter and Daily Powers make the dynamics of combat change as the levels progress.

These assumptions are quite different than the underlying mathematical assumptions of 3.x/Pathfinder. 3.x combats are a little harder to balance, as the combat atop the Belltower in Paizo's first Adventure Path can attest, but they can be quite exciting. While high level threats in 4e might be as challenging to characters as threats were at low levels, they are still relatively narrow in tactical options -- each monster is only expected to live a certain number of rounds so there are only so many attack options given to each opponent -- whereas 3.x/Pathfinder opponents can become quite complex in their tactical offerings in later levels. Anyone who has stated up high level NPC or Dragons knows how detailed these characters can be. This level of granularity is refreshing to many players, and as an old Hero grognard I have a deep appreciation of it. This difference of granularity could be a post in and of itself, just let it be said that 4e characters are always at the same risk of death as they were at low levels and that 3.x characters encounter more tactically diverse (within a single opponent) challenges.

What is key here is that 3.x/Pathfinder is slightly harder to balance for as its combat system is looser. I'm going to use 3.x as a reference for constructing 4e versions of

So how do we bring Bull Rush, Disarm, Grapple, Overrun, Sunder, Trip, and Feint to the 4e table without actually creating new rules? How do we use the existing rules set to bring in more tactical options? Will it break the balance of the game?

I'll answer the last question first. Adding these maneuvers as powers will not break the game. There are already a number of classes, the two Essentials Rangers for example, who have "trip" effects as part of damaging powers, and the Essentials Knight has a Bull Rush capability added to one of its powers. Additionally, 4e does allow anyone to use Bull Rush and Grapple as maneuvers. We'll be using those mechanics to establish our guidelines. This leaves only Disarm, Overrun, Sunder, Trip, and Feint for us to create maneuvers for.

First, let's take Trip. Given that there are currently classes that -- at 1st level -- can Trip as a part of a normal attack action, it isn't game breaking to create a Trip Maneuver. Additionally, being knocked prone in 4e -- while bad -- isn't as horrible as being knocked prone in 3.x/Pathfinder.

Essentially, Trip is an attack based on your combatant's Strength against your opponent's Reflex defense. If you hit, then you knock the opponent prone. No damage, just a prone opponent.

You might add a "Trip Training" feat that allows characters to use other statistics as the basis for tripping, just as the game has Combat Training to allow Basic Attacks to be based on alternate stats. I recommend doing so, and making it an Heroic feat.

I also recommend creating a "Sweeping Trip" power that can only be used by those who have the feat -- which I recommend be a Paragon level feat. This feat will allow a combatant to Trip anyone in a Blast 1.

It might also be wise to create feats that allow characters to used certain weapons with Trip attacks, thus gaining the proficiency bonus for those attacks. Weapons like Pole Arms and Staffs should have a "Trip Weapon Proficiency" feat, that lets you use their "Trip Weapon" feature.

Disarm is a little trickier, but not much. Given that damage for monsters is based on level, and not on weapon, a disarm attack's effect isn't just the removal of the weapon it also has an impact on damage dealt.

I would represent this through the Weakened condition, which halves the damage done by character, that can be ended by spending a move action to pick up a weapon. In essence, the monster must choose between spending an action to pick up a weapon -- or doing less damage. I would also make the attack a little more difficult than a normal melee attack and give a -2 penalty to attack rolls. Given 4e's tendency to have Non-AC Defenses 2 lower than AC, and most weapons provide a Proficiency bonus of +2, this works nicely.

Feint could easily be represented as a Weapon Attack using Strength - 2 vs. Reflex attack that grants the next attack Combat Advantage. Given that there are feats that grant Combat Advantage in easy situations, and that Doppelgangers have a Minor Action that does just this effect, it seems in line with the game's intent.

Sunder would be a Strength vs. Reflex -2 attack that specifically targeted the opponent's weapon or shield. I will give this its own post, as calculating the HP and DC of the attack requires me to look through the Essential DM's book.

Overrun is also easy, but I'd like to give it its own post as well.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Origins RPG Submissions?

Have Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight Games, and Paizo submitted RPG entries for the Origins Awards? If not, why not?

Are they boycotting the Oscars of the gaming community in favor of the Ennies in order to promote their products at GenCon rather than at Origins?

What is the status of their submissions?

I ask, but don't know.

What I do know is that it would be a travesty if none of these companies submitted their excellent products from last year for consideration.

D&D Essentials was remarkable, Deathwatch is great, and Paizo's Advanced Player's Guide is inspiring.

What's going on here?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Paizo's Policies Not Always Awesome

Just a little rant today.

I am a big fan of Paizo Publications. I have been a fan of theirs since the days when they published Dragon and Dungeon magazines. I have been a fan of Erik Mona's even longer, dating back to the days of the Oerth Journal and the AOL Greyhawk sub-culture. Until recently, I cannot recall anything that they have done that I would be hyper critical of with regard to their corporate practices/behavior.

I would have liked for them to moderate the anti-WotC venom on their boards a little more, but I didn't/don't view this as a business failing.

Since they first announced the creation of the Pathfinder series of products, beginning with the monthly Pathfinder publication and other D&D products, I have been what is termed a "superscriber." In fact, I am a "charter superscriber." This means that I have been, and will continue, to be a consumer who subscribes to all of their Pathfinder products. With one small exception. I don't want to subscribe to the new Pathfinder RPG "rules subscription." At least not yet. My love of the Pathfinder product line has been its backward compatibility with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. I'm still running my gaming group through the first Pathfinder series of adventures -- and the Falcon's Hollow series of modules.

While I think their public beta-testing of products is admirable. Heck, it's AWESOME! I'm playing their modules because I own thousands of dollars of 3.5 books and not to commit to playing their new update of the 3.5 rules -- which is an excellent product, I just want to buy it at my own pace and not commit to a subscription.

That said. I recently purchased the existing hardbound books for the Pathfinder rpg. I know that flies in the face of what I said earlier, but I'm just not ready to subscribe. I still believe in the products and want to read them.

When I ordered them I knew that I would have to wait a few days, possibly more than a week, before the products came to my house. In fact, it took exactly one week. With every other printed Paizo product I purchase, I immediately get PDF access. I expected the same with the online purchase of the Core Book, the Bestiary, and the DM Screen. This is especially true given that Paizo took advantage, as they should have, when WotC pulled the pdfs from the market. They bragged about how they were pdf advocates.

Sadly, there were no pdfs of the products for me to download. There was a wonderful 15% off that I received for being a superscriber, but no pdfs. Of the 140 Paizo products I have available for download, not one of them is these books. I was shocked. Since 2003, I have ordered $3424.29 worth of merchandise from Paizo -- combining magazine subscriptions, Pathfinder subscriptions, and pdf orders (of WotC stuff that I can no longer download if I lose my digital copy).

Think about it for a second. If Paizo has only 1,000 customers like me, they will have received $3,424,290.00 in gross revenue over the past 7 years -- minus the amount of our orders that are sales tax. They likely have more than that.

Here is the company who stresses the value of pdfs and customer relations, not giving me a download of my recently purchased physical copy.

My subscription to the other titles had led me to believe that pdf versions of print products was standard Paizo practice.

Sadly, this is not the case for the Pathfinder rulebooks. As customer service notified me today:

The Corebook, Bestiary and GM Screen are part of the Pathfinder RPG subscription. In order to qualify for the free PDF, the items need to be received as part of the subscription at the time we release the item. As a Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber, you did receive a discount of 15% on the items in this order.

Wow. Really? Given that the pdf is a very reasonably priced $9.99, and the book I purchased has an srp (that I got a 15% discount from) of $39.99 -- which is a bargain given the massiveness of the tome. I don't think it would be too much to give a superscriber the pdf free. I guess I could become a Pathfinder rulebook subscriber -- they get the pdf for free, but they also pay full cover price for the book.

Does my 15% count on my rule book subscription? If so, I might just subscribe. If not, this doesn't seem like a great deal.

I'm not sure that pdfs for subscribers only is the best business policy when it comes to reducing piracy, but that's just me.


Paizo isn't releasing a tidal wave of rulebooks. They are paced out nicely, and are excellent products. Maybe I'll subscribe anyway, but I cannot help but feel slighted.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

[Blogging Northwest Smith] "Julhi"

The March 1935 issue of Weird Tales featured "Julhi," the fifth of Catherine Lucille Moore's Northwest Smith tales. That same issue also featured Robert E. Howard's "Jewels of Gwahlur," a classic Conan tale.

After a year of writing Northwest Smith tales, Moore's "Julhi" manages to integrate what are now the "old stand-by's" of the Smith series with an energy that keeps the repeating narrative devices feeling fresh -- and to be fair, some of what is going on in this tale is quite fresh. Like in the first Northwest Smith tale, Moore gives us a brief introductory paragraph reminiscent of a campfire story. It's a device that Moore had abandoned in the prior three stories, but it helps to set the tone here and notify the audience that we are going to be reading an event that transpired in Smith's past.

The tale of Smith's scars would make a saga. From head to foot his brown and sunburnt hide was scored with the marks of battle...But one or two scars he carried would have baffled the most discerning eye. That curious, convoluted red circlet, for instance, like some bloody rose on the left side of his chest just where the beating of is heart stirred the sun-darkened flesh..."

The "campfire" paragraph provides Moore with a couple of advantages, and one major challenge, as the story unfolds. First and foremost, this preamble let's us know a little bit about the story we are about to read, we will be learning just how Smith acquired that "bloody rose" scar. Fans of Smith will be getting a glimpse into his, as yet, largely unrevealed past. Second, our curiosity as readers is piqued as we wonder just what kind of beast or device would leave such a wound. As mentioned earlier though, these advantages don't come without a price. By revealing to the audience that the story takes place at some point in Smith's past, any fear that Smith will fail to overcome the challenges within the tale can be easily cast aside. We know he survives because we know he bears the scar.

It's harder to create an aura of mystery and weird terror when the audience knows the outcome, but Moore knows what she is doing. She immediately disorients the reader, by inserting them in media res -- along with Smith -- into an unknown environment. As the story begins we find Smith literally in the dark without "the faintest idea of where he was or how he had come there." Adding to his mysterious surroundings, Smith is immediately attacked by some unknown and unseen foe and falls unconscious. The reader may know that Smith will find a way out of the situation, but the reader also feels the urgency of the situation in which Smith has found himself.

As a side note, as in other Moore tales, much could be made in this story about the use of light and dark and how she uses them to create discomfort for the reader. Much of this story takes place in the dark and the majority of the references to light are referring to one character's ability to open a portal between worlds.

When Smith awakens from his unconscious state, he finds once more that he is not alone. Moore's descriptions of movement are identical to the ones she used to describe the unseen assailant, maintaining the uncomfortable anxieties she created earlier as long as possible. This time, Smith takes action and finds -- much to his pleasure -- that this time it is a fellow prisoner and not an unknown horror who has joined him in this mysterious place. Smith's new companion, the fair Apri, knows where Smith is and why he is here and quickly shares what information she has with Smith and the audience.

Here Moore exhibits one of the least appreciated skills in writing. She deftly provides the audience with much needed exposition in the form of natural dialog. When Apri is discussing the "haunters of Vonng," who are the slaves of "Julhi," it is conversational rather than expository, yet it fills in all of the necessary information to inform the audience how dire the circumstances are and how mysterious the place Smith has found himself in is. One of the ways Moore accomplishes this is to have Smith's thoughts interact with Apri's dialog to fill in the blanks.

For example, when Apri mentions that Smith is in Vonng the reader is immediately granted access to Smith's thoughts, rather than having to read Apri explain what and where Vonng is. And it is a place reminiscent of sunken R'lyeh, "The stone had been quarried with unnamable [sic] rites, and the buildings were queerly shaped, for mysterious purposes. Some of its lines ran counter-wise to the understanding even of the men who laid them out, and at intervals in the streets, following patterns certainly not of their own world, medallions had bedn set, for reasons known to none..." Like many of the locations in H.P. Lovecraft's fiction, Vonng is a city that exists at a nexus of worlds, where the geometry of the universes allow one universe to affect others...if they have the proper means of communication. We quickly find out that Apri is a vessel through which Julhi, a horrifying being from another world, can bring people into her own "Vonng" to serve as food.

As I wrote earlier, Moore is using many of the narrative elements from prior Smith stories in this piece. In "Scarlet Dream," Smith found himself transported to another universe. In "Black Thirst," Smith found himself in a vast and unending castle/city whose ruler could manipulate the geography to make it a prison. In all the prior tales, save "Dust of the Gods," the villain was some form of vampiric inspiration for a creature of classical myth. Shambleau was the vampiric origin of the Gorgon, the Alendar was the elemental horror version of Dracula, and the very planet in "Scarlet Dream" was a blood feeding terror. In "Julhi," the eponymous villain seems to be the vampiric inspiration for the Siren or Lorelei.

Like most of Moore's vampires, Julhi feeds on something other than blood -- in this case in addition to blood. The Alendar fed on beauty, Shambleau fed on sexual pleasure and desire, and Julhi feeds on emotion, "but to experience the emotions we crave we must have physical contact, a temporary physical union through the drinking of blood." Julhi is a traditional vampire, in that she drinks blood, but a non-traditional one in that she feeds on the experiences, sensations, and emotions of the victim -- all kinds of emotion, save possibly one.

Of all of Moore's creatures, the Julhi is the most interesting to date and quite unique. I was taken aback by Moore's description of the creature and how she managed to bring horrifying imagery to my mind while describing the creature as one of beauty.

He caught his breath at the sleek and shining loveliness of her, lying on her black couch and facing him with a level, unwinking stare. Then he realized her unhumanity, and a tiny prickling ran down his back -- for she was one of that very ancient race of one-eyed beings about which whispers persist so unescapably in folklore and legend, though history has forgotten them for ages. One-eyed. A clear eye, uncolored, centered in the midst of a fair, broad forehead. Her features arranged in a diamond-shaped pattern instead of humanity's triangle, for the slanting nostrils of her low-bridged nose were set so far apart that they might have been separate features, tilting and exquisitely modeled. Her mouth was perhaps the queerest feature of her strange yet lovely face. It was perfectly heartshaped, in an exaggerated cupid's-bow, but it was not a human mouth. It did not close, ever. It was a beautifully arched orifice, the red lip that rimmed it compellingly crimson, but fixed and moveless in an unhinged jaw. Behind the bowed opening he could see the red, fluted tissue of flesh within.

Sexual imagery aside, this description is highly disconcerting. When added to the slightly serpentine arms, indescribable lower half, and feather crest above the head, we have a truly haunting creature. In fact, the imagery in my mind was a kind of combination of the monster from The Man Trap, a serpent (diamond shaped head and all), a lamprey, and a peacock. Not something I would want to meet while trapped in an alternate dimension. It's also a creature I would love to see illustrated.

Though Julhi cannot speak she can, like the Lorelei, sing, and her song creates a hypnotic state that manipulates the emotions of the listener. Smith is run through the gamut of emotions and the ride only stops on two occasions. Once, it is stopped because Julhi has experienced more powerful experiences than she has ever experienced before. The other time Julhi withdraws, without comment I might add, is when Smith remembers his first (and likely only) true love -- a love that hints at horrible loss in this tale. This love is a place where it seems Julhi will not go, and is evidence of another recurring theme in Moore's tales. She often places love in a favored, though typically tragic, position over sexuality. Sexuality and sexual desires are more base than the love she often presents, as was evidenced in the earlier discussion of beauty in "Black Thirst."

While Julhi herself may be the inspiration for the Siren or Lorelei, she is not representative of her eerily beautiful race. As the story unfolds, we learn that she is an aberration among her people...a corruption if you will. This makes her markedly different from Shambleau and the Alendar who were representative of their respective species. Here Moore might be commenting on humanity itself and how those who live vicariously through others, and to the destruction of those others, are a kind of leech to be shunned by society.

Previous Blogging Northwest Smith Entries:

4)[Blogging Northwest Smith] "Dust of the Gods"
3)Blogging Northwest Smith: "Scarlet Dream"
2) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Black Thirst"
1) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Shambleau"

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blogging Northwest Smith: "Scarlet Dream"

Published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales, "Scarlet Dream" is the third of C. L. Moore's tales of the interplanetary rogue trader Northwest Smith. It is also the third story in Paizo's Northwest of Earth collection. With this tale one can really see C. L. Moore developing her voice as an author of the weird supernatural horror story. Of the three Smith tales I have read for this series of blog posts, this is the best of the bunch so far.

Like in her previous Smith stories, there is little within the narrative itself that signifies that this is a science fiction story. Other than the fact that Smith eventually uses his magic wa... err ... "gun" against a foe, this story fits firmly within the narrative tropes of the "faerie" tale. Like Christina Rossetti's wonderfully frightening Goblin Market the tale demonstrates the consequences of tasting the "fruit" of Faerie. Like Dunsany's King of Elfland's Daughter, this tale has time in the land of magic move at a different pace than that of the real world. Unlike either of those tales, morality offers no salvation for our hero.

"Scarlet Dream" begins with Northwest Smith wandering the streets of a vibrant bazaar where he purchases a shawl made of an unbelievably light textile and bearing a mysterious glyph. The shawl, "clung to his hands like a live thing, softer and lighter than Martian 'lamb's-wool.' He felt sure it was woven from the hair of some beast rather than from vegetable fiber, for the electric clinging of it sparked with life. And the crazy pattern dazzled him with its utter strangeness."

In describing the physical properties of the shawl, Moore provides foreshadowing to the events that are about to unfold as the tale progresses. It is masterful foreshadowing as it occurs in a description where one does not assume the author is providing a map to the structure of the tale. Who would guess that the shawl clinging "to his hands like a live thing" hinted at darker things to come? Not darker things from the shawl itself, that would be obvious, but darker things that come as a result of the unnatural properties of another world. The use of strange patterns and objects of alien make would be used again by Moore in her section of Challenge from Beyond -- a shared universe tale she wrote in 1935 with H.P. Lovecraft, A. Merritt, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long. Each of those authors adding their own characteristic touches to the story. In Moore's case, that touch is an artifact -- a shawl in "Scarlet Dream" and a crystal in "Challenge."

The market where Smith buys the shawl is in the city of Lakkmanda on Mars, but the description of the market is similar to one that might be given to the bazaar of Baghdad. It is not until Smith returns to his hotel room, a small cubicle of polished steel, that one gets any visual sense of the science fictional (sfnal). It doesn't detract from the story that it isn't a "hard science" tale, it adds to the mystery and sense of wonder as the tale unfolds.

Smith falls asleep covered in the shawl and is overtaken by a disturbing dream. He awakens, only to fall back asleep into another dream. It is in the second dream that Smith's consciousness is transported into a fantastic land. When he arrives he meets a young woman who is fleeing a horrible beast. She is covered in blood and frantic. Smith calms her and soon discovers that he is in an eerie bucolic paradise. The weather is pleasant and the lakeside landscape is beautiful. The temple building where he arrived in the world is the only large man made structure. There are no books, no worldly distractions, and as he soon food.

He is initially puzzled by the lack of food, but the beauty of the land -- and of the woman (whose name is never revealed) -- intrigue Smith and he follows the young woman to her house. The next day Smith finds himself overcome with hunger and asks the young woman to take him to the temple to acquire sustenance. When he arrives, he sees people kneeling before spigots docilely consuming the liquid being dispensed. He himself begins to partake when he realizes that the people, and now he himself, are feeding on blood! No mention is made of where the blood comes from, and Smith recoils in horror at the thought of feeding on blood. Yet...he has found it satisfying. As the days pass, he eventually partakes in a routine of idyllic days and nights with the young woman interrupted only by regular feedings at the temple. Smith has completely overcome any moral objections to the feeding, satisfied that it sustains him.

Throughout the story, there are references to a beast of some sort that was responsible for the murder of the young woman's sister -- beast that eventually comes for everyone when their time has come. Smith is unworried, and the girl is fatalistically accepting of her mortality. Life in this world is idyllic, yet the routine of it eventually over comes Smith. He needs adventure and discovery, not a dull routine in a beautiful setting. Unable to return home, he decides that he must journey within this realm to find adventure, but this is to be denied him. The planet has no food to sustain him, save for the temple's blood spigots, and Smith learns another terrifying fact. It seems that the entire planet, plants and all, are alive and feed on the blood of living things. If you stand too long in one place, the grass will drain you of your blood. You cannot sleep if you aren't on stone as the plants will eat you. This is a world where all the denizens are sustained by blood.

Smith is not shocked or terrified by the prospect, he is resigned to satisfy his sense of adventure. His spirit cannot be sentenced to a life of dull routine. It is his Fredrick Jackson Turnerian frontiersman spirit that saves him from a fate worse than death.

How? That's for you to find out when you read the story.

What is particularly interesting in this story is the way that Moore uses the traditional elements of the faerie story, that of entering a beautiful but dangerous world, while demonstrating how a non-moral actor would react to the environment. What use has the adventurer for bucolic paradise? Apparently, not much. It would be unfair to leave out that the girl, like the sister in Goblin Market, sacrifices herself in order to save a beloved, but in Goblin Market the spirit of curiosity is the culprit and not the savior. Also interesting was Smith's reaction to the feeding process in the world. He is initially revolted, as I imagine any one would be, but he quickly overcomes his moral rejection and feeds like everyone else. This is the moment where the audience, though not the character, get to feel a sense of cosmic horror. We look into the abyss with Smith, horrified, but he allows the abyss to look back into him and is largely unaffected. This is a disturbing thing to read. How does one react to a protagonist who so quickly, Smith does not resist eating for days nobly suffering before succumbing, to temptation?

Smith may never have discovered the name of the young woman, but the audience never discovers the origin of the blood the people feast upon. Is it the blood of those killed by the beast? Is it the blood of those killed by the planet? Is it the blood of the planet? If it is the blood of those killed by the beast, is some of it the young woman's sister's blood? Creepy...and wonderful.

Previous Blogging Northwest Smith Entries:

2) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Black Thirst"
1) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Shambleau"

Monday, October 12, 2009

Blogging Northwest Smith: "Black Thirst"

In the last installment of "Blogging Northwest Smith," I discussed how C L Moore's tales of Northwest Smith included elements of Space Opera and Weird Horror and pushed the envelope of what constituted a Science Fiction tale. By Space Opera I am referring to the earlier "Space Opera equals Space Westerns" description often used during the early days of the genre.

I am far from the first to notice that Moore incorporated elements of Weird Horror into the tales of her space faring anti-hero, Lin Carter noticed her inclusion of these elements and thought it likely they were added to garner publication in Weird Tales. Whatever Moore's reasons for including Weird Horror elements, as she did with her adaptation of the Medusa into "pleasure vampire" in "Shambleau," she was deeply enough tied to the Lovecraftian circle that she was one of the co-authors (in fact she was the jump start author) of a Lovecraftian "shared world" tale entitled The Challenge from Beyond (more on this in a later post).

For the modern fan of Science Fiction, the incorporation of horror elements into a Science Fiction narrative seems perfectly natural. Everything from the Atomic Horror films of the 50s and 60s to Ridley Scott's masterpiece Alien (based on A.E. van Vogt's 1939 Astounding story "Black Destroyer" which was included as chapters 1-6 of The Voyage of the Space Beagle) to Joss Whedon's Firefly demonstrate how deeply saturated film and television are with the SF horror story. But for fans of "Space Westerns," Foundation, or modern Space Opera, the shift in suspension of disbelief from hard SF to Weird Horror SF isn't guaranteed.

When I read "Shambleau," I was struck by how much the narrative followed the format of a classic Western and by how the monster/alien of the tale was Lovecraftian in nature -- tentacles and all. "Black Thirst" takes the combination of Science Fiction and horror a different direction than "Shambleau." Where in "Shambleau" the tale was one of Weird Horror overlaying a Western, "Black Thirst" is a tale of Gothic Horror that contains no small elements of the Western and Weird Horror genre.

Our tale begins with our protagonist, Northwest Smith, leaning against a warehouse wall in some unfriendly waterfront street on Venus. He soon encounters a woman, immediately recognizable as a Minga maid, who begs Northwest to visit her in the Minga stronghold in order to provide her some sort of aid.

Moore spends some time describing the Minga palace as a building that pre-existed the majority of civilization on Venus, describing how the stronghold was already built by the time some great Venusian explorer had sailed the seas in search of new land. The Minga maids themselves are as mysterious as the palace from which they are sold, they are "those beauties that from the beginning of history have been bred in the Minga stronghold for loveliness and grace, as race-horses are bred on Earth, and reared from earliest infancy in the art of charming men. Scarcely a court on the three planets lacks at least one of these exquisite creatures..."

Establishing the mysterious origins of the stronghold and the maids, Moore quickly establishes the dangers associated with attempting to "lay a finger" on a Minga maid. It is a danger with no appeal as "The chastity of Minga girls was proverbial, a trade boast." The purpose of these beauty slaves seems not to be a sexual one, and this is reinforced later when the real purpose of the breeding of the maids is reveals, but a purely aesthetic one. The women are bred for their beauty, in form and manner, and the price paid is for these things alone.

The concept of a stronghold of courtesans, trained in the art of charming men, combined with the similarities between Malcolm Reynolds and Northwest Smith leave one wondering if Joss Whedon had read this tale before creating Firefly. Not to imply with any certainty that Whedon was directly influenced by Moore, but it is hard for me to visualize anyone other than Nathan Fillion playing Northwest Smith in a movie -- and if he did Whedon fans would cry foul that Northwest is a direct Mal ripoff.

As the Minga maid, named Vaudir, leaves Smith she does so with a warning. She warns Northwest about the evil that is the Alendar and hints at his origins when she discusses there are "elemental" things that don't sink back into the darkness from which they came if a civilization develops too swiftly. "Life rises out of dark and mystery and things too strange and terrible to be looked upon." Here she hints at the history of the Minga and the Alendar and Moore incorporates imagery from Weird Horror. The concept of elemental evil is one of Weird Horror and it is the type of horror that is used to describe the Alendar.

Smith agrees to help the maid and approaches the stronghold as she told him he should. What follows is a series of scenes reminiscent of Bram Stoker's Dracula in which our hero plays, a much braver version, of Jonathan Harker. Smith wanders the hallways of the palace sensing, but not seeing, the great evil that awaits him. He arrives at Vaudir's room, but it is not long before he encounters the Alendar him/itself. The Alendar is a manlike creature possessed of great psychic powers, powers which overwhelm our protagonist and could kill him in an instant. But a quick death is not to be for Smith as he possesses something of value that the Alendar desires.

The Alendar, it seems, is -- like the Shambleau -- a kind of vampire. Unlike the Shambleau the Alendar does not feed on sexual/physical pleasure, instead he/it feeds on beauty. For the Alendar beauty is a tangible thing, an objective thing that provides real nourishment. The only way in which beauty is subjective regarding the Alendar's hunger is in its "form." What is beauty for a human female isn't beauty in a human male, which is why the Alendar has spared Smith. Smith possesses the quality of male beauty which must be fully developed before the Alendar can feed on him. As the Alendar describes his method of nourishment, Smith is given glimpses of unimaginable beauty -- beauty that can cause madness.

How the tale unfolds from here I will leave for you to discover on you own, but I would like to spend some time discussing some of the interesting concepts Moore threw into this story.

She is quite obviously writing a tale about slavery and presents human trafficking as a horrible affair, but she is also presenting a discussion of beauty and what constitutes true beauty. The Alendar describes beauty as follows:

"Beauty is as tangible as blood, in a way. It is a separate distinct force that inhabits the bodies of men and women. You must have noticed the vacuity that accompanies perfect beauty in so many women... the force so strong that it drives out all other forces and lives vampirishly at the expense of intelligence and goodness and conscience and all else...

For beauty, as I have said, eats up all other qualities but beauty."

The beauty that Moore has the Alendar describe is in itself horrifying, yet it is also an interesting spark for discussion. Vaudir -- who has asked Smith for assistance and led to his current state of danger -- is beautiful, but she possesses something more. She possesses and intelligence and free will that make her more desirable to the Alendar than her beauty alone would demand. Smith too possesses this combination of independence and beauty, a combination that the Alendar seeks to use in order to overcome the boredom which results from the consumption of his current fare of pure beauty. Moore is simultaneously critiquing the "cult of beauty" and proffering an alternative -- a beauty that combines intelligence, independence, and appearance. There is a strong feminist spirit underlying the story and it is this spirit that separates this tale from a run of the mill narrative.

As before, Moore combines elements from a variety of literature in this piece in a manner that is fluid. The discussion of elemental evil has ties to Weird Horror. The Alendar, his stronghold, and the equation of beauty itself with the horrific echo Gothic Horror. The manner in which Smith is encountered and the stories resolution are straight from a Western, one could easily see "Black Thirst" as an episode of Wild, Wild, West. With all that Moore combines genre elements one might expect to become lost in some residual narrative clutter, yet that never occurs. Moore has a story she wants to tell, of a vampire who consumes beauty yet seeks something more, and it makes for quite an entertaining ride.

Previous Blogging Northwest Smith Entries:

1) Blogging Northwest Smith: "Shambleau"

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

John Carter of Mars and The Queen of the Iron Sands

The 90s were a decade of either no news, or bad news, for fans of Planetary Romance, but during the 00's these fans have been experiencing a roller coaster ride of positive news and worrisome news.

For the uninitiated, Planetary Romance stories are a kind of speculative fiction that straddles the line somewhere between fantasy and science fiction. The stories are fantasy in that they often incorporate magic systems, princesses, and mystical experiences. They are science fiction in that they often take place on other worlds.

The genre was largely created by the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars featuring Burroughs' second most famous character John Carter of Mars. In story, readers encounter the Civil War veteran -- who is of indeterminate age and possibly unaging -- John Carter as he mystically transports himself to Mars (or as the Martian natives call it, Barsoom) after being near fatally injured. While on Barsoom, encounters alien races, falls in love with the most beautiful woman in the universe, and participates in large scale war. The book established the basic tropes for the genre, tropes which have been used to great success in literature and film in everything from Leigh Brackett's John Eric Stark stories to George Lucas' Star Wars films. There is a reason that Brackett was selected to write a draft of Empire Strikes Back and that reason is that Star Wars sits firmly in the genre of Planetary Romance -- as does Flash Gordon.

Planetary Romance stories are more about adventure, romance, and the unknown than they are about science or political commentary -- though there are exceptions. There are many wonderfully written novels and stories within the genre, but there is also material some consider to be offensive drivel. I can remember stumbling upon the Gor novels of John Norman because of some basic underlying similarities between it and Burroughs' Martian novels. Traditional Planetary Romance novels advocate Victorian sensibilities about virtue and heroism, much like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (an interesting experiment is to read The Lost World and The Heart of Darkness back to back), and love is presented as an ideal akin to Courtly Love. The heroes of Burroughs' novels nearly swoon with affection for their beloved, a beloved who is perfect beyond compare. The Gor novels turned this on their head as Norman's novels were erotica disguised as Planetary Romance. Let's just say that this came as quite a shock to my 8th grade self, and to this day I don't have an appreciation for the Gor novels.

Needless to say, Planetary Romance is a rich and important sub-genre of fiction and one that I highly recommend.

Some of the roller coaster peaks in recent years have included:
  • The University of Nebraska Press editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian Stories, Moon Stories, and Venus Stories.
  • The Planet Stories line of books by Paizo Press.
  • Chris Roberson's Paragaea
  • Jon Favreau being selected to direct the John Carter movie. Even though he seemed overly influenced by the art of Frank Frazetta, and not enough influenced by the art of Michael Whelan or Frank Schoonover, Favreau was a great choice...before he had to leave the project and make an awesome version of Iron Man.

Some of the roller coaster valleys have included:
  • The selection of Robert Rodriguez to direct the John Carter of Mars movie. I'm a Rodriguez fan, but the thought of his "lowest budget possible" mentality underlying a John Carter film just rubbed me the wrong way. Sure his Harryhausen homage was fun, but...John Carter in DV Cam isn't my idea of cool.
  • The recent three Star Wars films which hinted at how good Planetary Romance can be, while simultaneously showing us how bad it can be.
  • The recent Flash Gordon series. Seriously, WTF?!

As noted above, a lot of the news -- good and bad -- for Planetary Romance fans centers around a John Carter project. One is still slated for production by Disney with Andrew Stanton at the helm, and Michael Chabon attached to the screenplay. So far that seems like good news for the Planetary Romance fan...but there is news about the project that should make fans worry too.

One can easily overlook that Stanton hasn't done a project like this before, Doug Liman hadn't directed a spy movie before Bourne Identity, because Stanton's other film work has been extraordinary. That's not what is worrisome. What is worrisome is the casting.

Taylor Kitsch (Gambit from Wolverine) has been selected to play the title role. Unless his performance in Wolverine was atypical, I cannot imagine him as remotely capable of capturing the charm and power of the Carter character.

I am less worried, but only cautiously optimistic, regarding the casting of Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. After all, who can play "the most beautiful woman in the universe?" That's a pretty tough title to live up to, but I like the fact that the casting director didn't equate beauty with "ultra-voluptuous" and try for Scarlett Johansson or someone similar.

Then there's the casting of Willem Defoe -- who has recently become a parody of himself -- and Dominic West -- who I loved in The Wire but who was ridiculous in Punisher: War Zone.

It's gotten to the point that every piece of news I read regarding the upcoming Disney film version of John Carter of Mars has made my inner geek want to run away and hide. Will it be good or will it be awful? The inner 8th grader cannot stand the pressure and needs some new Planetary Romance distraction -- a quality one.

Thankfully, Fantasy author Scott Lynch has recently released a free web-book (at least the first few chapters) of exactly the kind my inner geek needs. A few weeks ago, Lynch began e-publishing Queen of the Iron Sands. He's releasing the story as a "serial novel" and simultaneously paying homage to the classic of Planetary Romance and the serials of the early 20th century.

My inner geek now refuses to hide no matter how bad the news regarding the John Carter film gets and it's all to Scott Lynch's credit. No matter how bad the John Carter film ends up, I know that planetary romance as a genre will live on because talented people are still applying their skills to the genre.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Paizo vs. RPGNOW (aka DriveThruRPG): Two Different Ways to Satisfy Consumers

When Wizards of the Coast decided to remove all availability to purchase their gaming products (past, present, and future) as PDF files, the decision left ripples throughout the gaming industry. Wizards left due to rampant piracy of their products and the effects that piracy was having on physical (and digital) sales. Last week, I wrote that I thought this was both a good and bad decision by Wizards -- good on the new products and bad on back catalog.

I also argued that this would be a good thing for the gaming industry overall. It was my belief that gaming companies would look to take advantage of the void left in the wake of Wizards leaving the market. This occurred rather quickly with several publisher joining in a Celebration of PDFs, where they offer their current PDF products at a significant discount. This has had mixed reviews from the brick and mortar retailers, but I think it is a smart move. You can read some of the brick and mortar reactions here, here, and here.

What I didn't expect, and maybe should have, was the different ways that different online stores would respond.

Stewart Wieck and Sean Patrick Fannon of RpgNow (and DriveThruRpg), who shut down access to Wizards pdfs instantly (earlier than he was requested), went quick to work negotiating limited access for his customers who had previously purchased products from the Wizards catalog from his sites. He notified his customers that starting tomorrow customers will be able to download previously purchased Wizards pdfs for a 24 hour period. After that period, all the material will be gone for good. Stewart was seeking to both satisfy his customers, who had previously paid for access to material, while adhering to Wizards' wishes. Kudos to you Stewart and Sean.

Paizo, on the other hand, appears to have made no such offering to their customers and it looks unlikely that they will do so. Where RpgNow left dead links of my former products, so that I could at least see what I had purchased -- and so they could negotiate the deal they negotiated, Paizo removed all references to Wizards products I purchased from their website. This not only demonstrates that it is unlikely that Paizo is negotiating a deal with Wizards, it exhibits three weaknesses in Paizo's customer service.

First, it hinders my attempts to draft a letter to Wizards demonstrating how they have benefited from my digital consumership (I will have to go through my files to manually figure out which I purchased from Paizo and which from RpgNow). Second, it demonstrates a lack of foresight that Wizards might be up for some negotiations. Third, it demonstrates that Paizo cares more about its own publisher business than it does about any business revenue it acquires as a digital game store -- a short sighted view in my opinion.

Paizo is a very successful publisher, but I have found that they are a poor retailer. Physical orders from their site take inordinate amounts of time to be fulfilled as they seem to carry very little inventory. Rather it appears that they use your order as the basis for an order from a distributor. This causes delays in fulfillment and exhibits poor command supply chain dynamics. Their pdf response seems to exhibit this same poor command.

Their response to Wizards removal of pdf was two fold. First, they discounted their "in house" pdfs by 35% (all of the products they publish are discounted). This is a smart move by a smart publisher. Second, they removed the Wizards pdf -- apparently without negotiating with Wizards to have an "Download Recovery Day." This is a bad move by an online retailer.

The problem here is that where RpgNow (and DriveThruRPG) are viewing me as a consumer of all the products they offer, Paizo seems to be viewing me primarily as a consumer of their in house products and not of their store in general. This is a mistake that runs the risk of alienating me as a customer, since it appears they only want my business when it directly benefits them and not when they only receive a percentage of the proceeds.

Paizo should offer a recovery day as well. Failure to do so will not cost them my business, I am a loyal Superscriber, but it might cost them other consumers who are on the fence.