Monday, October 31, 2011

Magic Is "Scary" and Showing vs. Telling 101

...with a side of alternate rules. 

Heads up, this is kind of going to be a meandering ride through my skull. I'm only functioning on three hours of sleep at the moment. A lot of this post is stuff I hashed out with Fred last night at like four in the morning while also watching Vampire Hunter D and imbibing copious amounts of caffeine, red vines, and also quietly talking about DnD as a method of lulling Martel to sleep. Other chunks are things that have been on my mind for some time.

Hekinoe is changing. With the intermittent work on the campaign book I find myself altering and tweaking rules that have been writ in stone for an entire campaign now. As I see how the game operates and how my players interact with the characters and NPCs, I see spots where I need to tone down or upgrade or just eliminate. One example of this is stats, currently we build stats with the twenty-five point point-buy method, called epic fantasy in the book, and we use the ability score increase system from 4th Edition. This leads to heavily overblown stats. Looking at some of the NPCs I've posted, you can see this. They have no deficiencies. Kethranmeer's twenty-two in strength is on par with an ogre or flesh golem in DnD, which is not totally unrealistic for a Soulless, as they are golems of sorts. Looking at Traith, you see he has a twenty-two in Dexterity. Traith Harris, a cop and gunslinger and fairly mundane race is more agile than creatures like wraiths, blink dogs, angels and some air elementals. Air elementals. Traith Harris is quicker and more acrobatic than creatures composed of air. What this boils down to is that it creates generally strong characters that never ever have to make any hard choices about stats and deficiencies, they don't have any deficiencies. Supermen, not Batmen. Blech.

To continue, sorcery is the main point of this post. I have spoken many times about the unreliable and flesh warping nature of sorcery in Hekinoe. It is unreliable and occasionally disastrous and generally mistrusted in the pitchfork and torches sense. I keep telling the guys that, but I don't show them. They haven't seen it. When a spell misfires, they are curious and excited. When sorcery warps their flesh, they gain a bonus. The few times that sorcery has misfired, it has been to the detriment of their enemies. Case and point, Nakmander knocked himself out in the final battle of last campaign. I don't feel like they have a healthy respect or fear of sorcery, and they should, because their characters are denizens of Hekinoe. Xein literally uses sorcerous rituals to bleed the magical energy that allows him to live out of his blood and imbue it into chemical concoctions. D'alton, with his freezing blood and shadow powers, has never been warm in all his years of life. Granted, he is resistant to cold, so it doesn't harm him per se, but he has spent his life perpetually chilled, his breath forever misting even as the sun beats down on his flesh and sweat runs from his pores. No blanket or fire can truly warm him, he is cold and can never escape that. That shit is fucking terrifying, or at the very least discomforting to think too hard about. Even as creatures only of Fell Human descent and not true scaled and tailed hell-kin, they are perpetually confronted on a daily basis with their own unnatural natures.

The nature of sorcery is spoken of, but not displayed in a way that has meaning. I have made the classic writer's mistake, I've told and not shown. The few times I have shown them the warped nature of sorcery, it hasn't hit them hard. Nakmander's spell misfired, to their benefit. Xein's healing potion misfired, but nothing drastic happened, just some damage. There are all those warped flesh feats, but how much mutation do they really show? Xein has these big fat bulbous eyes and has a bonus on Perception checks. So, foul sorcery has warped his flesh and infused it with mutant traits...that benefit him. The logic there is that the game is a game and mutations convey the mutating power of sorcery, but I can't just penalize them constantly, so the horrible mutations provide strange and bizarre bonuses. 

I feel like the players don't respect/fear sorcery enough. I feel like it is still just magic to them, just with weird colors. Fireballs are purplish and yellow and green fire with smoke that smells of rot, rather than being more typical red orange burny fire. So that conveys a flavor of sorts, but it is like a picture of the setting's flavor, it isn't actually interacting with them beyond the fancy description. Another part of the problem is the sorcery misfire chart itself. Some of the effects are simple, you or your target gain the Sickened condition. Some are a pain in the ass, you grow another tongue that makes spellcasting much more difficult till it fades. Others are devastating, like being bent and broken and transmuted into a three foot cube of iron over the course of six rounds, save negates. The majority of them though are nonsense, butterflies stream from your mouth, you grow leaves, or you grow leaves that heal you when in direct sunlight. So again, it boils down to me telling them that sorcery is dark and evil and unnatural, not showing them through the  misfires and the nature of other sorcerers.

So I guess what I need to do is truly show the grimdark nature of sorcery in this world, the misfire tables get fucking dark, permanent or lingering effects, no more funny nonsense like turning blue. So I am going to revamp the misfire tables prior to our next session. I'm going to depart from the sorcery talk for a moment, but still keep with the showing vs. telling thing, and then I'll head back around to talk more about some alternate rules and goals for sorcery in the setting.. 

Showing vs. telling in the campaign becomes more and more of a problem for me. The world is heavily industrialized, I've said that many a time. I don't think steampunk is entirely accurate, but there is definite industrialization, at least to the point that we use the Guns Everywhere firearms rule (firearms are simple weapons, not martial or exotic). I envision the world as being grubby and dirty, greasy and stained by smoke. There aren't white collar workers, aside from bankers and lawyers and such. The workforce of Kusseth is a collection of rough and tumble workers with calloused hands and busted noses and thick arms built to hoist heavy tools and heft welding torches to repair house sized analytical engines. Again, I feel like I paint the picture of industrialization well, but again, I feel it is like a picture that the guys don't interact with. Aside from a few nods to industrialization, such as plate armor being more expensive than normal because Kusseth is hot and guns somewhat make plate mail of limited use so it isn't as commonly produced, and therefore more expensive. 

What do I need to do to interactively show them that the world is industrialized, to make it real to them? (And just as an aside, this isn't necessarily me complaining about them not paying attention, it is more of a complaint about feeling like I need to be true to my vision of the setting.) I need to bite the bullet and arm gangs and thugs with pistols instead of knives and short swords, I need to make cover as important as dodging and wearing armor. I can talk about smokestacks and steam wagons and Brasscoats with lightning guns and massive steampowered armor suits, I can even shoot them with a lightning bolt from a lightning gun (which likely just felt like magic), and it doesn't seem to faze them at all. The first time one of them gets dropped by a revolver that does 4d8 on a critical hit, I think it will alter their perceptions of firearms and combat. They still fight like we are in Krynn or Faerun, no one seeks cover and just charges forward to do melee combat. Xein and D'alton stand out in the open slinging bombs and bullets waiting for melee guys to walk up to them and hit them and don't seek to take cover or flip a table to make obstacles to get at them. 

Bouncing back to sorcery. For a while I have been considering adding a component to the casting of spells that add lingering effects to the casting of spells that negatively impact the caster. For instance, when a spell misfires, I roll on a fairly simple table: spell operates normally, spell misfires, operates normally but affects the caster with a lingering effect, spell misfires and affects the caster with a lingering effect, etc, and then move on to another appropriate table of misfires, lingering effects, and so on. Now, this is a lot of tables and accounting work, but it is all accounting work on my part. The players never get to see the misfire tables, it preserves the mystery of the unreliable nature of sorcery and also keeps them from having to learn a new subsystem. Additionally, because the misfires represent a humanoid's inability to truly control the wild chaotic power of sorcery, a spellcaster could opt to willingly accept the lingering effect of a spell to bleed off some of the power of a spell and allow it to be cast without risking the randomness of what will end up being a truly excessive amount of randomness. 

To show an example of what I mean by lingering effects, each school of magic or type of spell has a type of lingering effect that affects the caster. For instance, fire spells might draw heat away from the caster's body and send him into hypothermia, electricity based spells might affect the bioelectric output of a humanoid's body, shadow spells such as darkness or shadow conjuration might dim light in the area or remove the caster's ability to see light, and transmutation spells might weaken the bonds that hold flesh and bone into their appropriate shape. These effects would be lingering, not permanent, their severity and duration dependent upon the level of the spell. 

Fred raised a point that the game is a game and some people might feel penalized by this subsystem, a fair point, an entirely reasonable point. However, I have always, from the get go, spoken of how fucked up sorcery is in Hekinoe, and no one chose to play a caster and then I just surprised them with these rules. I am merely intensifying the in game representation of sorcery's nature, and this isn't something I'm planning for the next scenario. The normal misfire table will be altered to be less "haha" and more "oh shit fuck" but the lingering effects (and other modifications to the rules that I want to implement) will be entered into the campaign book and will not be utilized until the next campaign in The Known World, should one occur and this current campaign not trail off or end due to TPKs or people having other commitments that trump gaming.

The argument could be made that this subsystem I want to use is entirely unfair, as it specifically penalizes spellcasters, but non-spellcasters and psionic characters are left untouched. A fair assessment of the situation. Fighters will always possess their muscles and agility and be able to swing their weapons, there is no misfire chance for hitting a dude with an axe or manifesting metaphysical claw. To be honest, I do not care. This is my vision or arcane casters in The Known World, if this vision is incompatible with your vision of an arcane spellcaster, it is my advice to not play an arcane spellcaster and instead play a psychic or martial style class. Additionally, even if a sorcerer goes into hypothermia induced shock or a coma due to casting meteor swarm, he was still able to cast meteor swarm, which can easily obliterate a platoon of soldiers or a small town (if not with direct damage output, at least with the after effects of explosive blasts of blame and stone). If a rogue or fighter were to attempt to do the same, it would take many many swings of his sword or axe and many many attempts to sunder the walls of a city. There is a reason it is hella expensive and time consuming to be a wizard, you get to alter the fabric of reality. Fighters can get fancy and creative and have a lot of interesting options, but meteor swarm deals four instances of 8d6 damage. 8d6 bludgeoning and 24d6 of fire, and you can direct each of the four explosive meteors to different targets and overlap their fields of explosion. That is serious output. I love the Fighter class, but even with four attacks a round and using a 2d6 greatsword with feats to appropriately complement that weapon, it is still hard to compete with the output, especially considering that it is nigh impossible to get your hands on a +5 vorpal fiery burst keen greatsword in Hekinoe. 

Anyway, that is a pile of stuff about my vision of The Known World as we move forward. As I said, the rules will be changing, should we ever start a new campaign in The Known World. Guns are going to be more present, as is right for the world, and the misfire tables are going to become nastier and scarier with less silliness and zaniness. The lingering effects will be explored and added to the campaign book. If anyone has any thoughts or opinions on these topics I would love to hear them, preferably via email or text if they are lengthy or there is heavy disagreement with my vision of the world. 

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