LS and the Fuzz Covered Vessel

Hogwarts, by Mary GrandPreYou know how any time there’s a new phenomenon popular with children, there’s always some group of nutjob adults who make a scene about how it’s corrupting the youth? They’re always kinda funny when they go on TV and rant about how “pokemon” is jap-talk for pocket monsters, and monsters are like demons, ergo the pokemons are subtle attempts by the devil to get into the pockets of our children. It’s less funny when you’re a child and those nutjobs are your parents.

A lot of stuff was verboten for me as a kid, ostensibly because of demonic influence. Sometimes I cared enough to subvert those bans, as I did when I started playing D&D in secret. But other times I didn’t want to risk it. And that’s how I made it to the venerable age of 26 without exploring a single piece of Harry Potter media. It’s really too bad, actually, since I was 11 years old when the first book was released in the U.S. Same age as the series’ eponymous protagonist.

Over the years I’ve seen enough parodies of it that I became thoroughly familiar with the source material, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I decided to sit down and marathon the films and see what I’d been missing. I’ll spare you any review, since I’m pretty sure I was the last person on earth who hadn’t seen them. I will say, though, that I was surprised that they actually lived up to the hype. After a lifetime of hearing about how great this story was, I honestly did not expect to like it very much. But 2 minutes into the movie I felt like a kid again. It was like watching Star Wars for the first time. I was captivated, and plowed my way through the first 3 films in a single day, and all 7 by the end of the week. I got my hands on the books 3 days ago, and I’m halfway through the second one already.

And because I’m me, discovering such an interesting world naturally led to thoughts of what a marvelous tabletop game it would make.

Hogwarts is basically a dungeon-hub. It’s a huge, intelligent castle with countless secrets to explore. In the Philosopher’s stone the children must sneak past a three headed dog, escape from a large entangling plant, find a door key in a room filled with hundreds of flying keys, play a deadly game of life-sized chess, solve a riddle to discover which potions will protect them and which will kill them, and finally confront an evil wizard, all in pursuit of a magical treasure. That sounds a lot like D&D to me. It’s the same in the second book, where the children must find a well-hidden secret passage, leading into a complex of caves, where they eventually encounter and fight a basilisk.

Illogical McGonnigalIt doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate from these starting points. If there is one chamber of secrets, why not twenty? Hogwarts is a megadungeon, and you need to escape from its depths by the end of every session, because otherwise you’ll miss class.

Here’s what I would propose. Players start as first year students. Every student is a magic user of course, but some class-like distinction could be made by allowing the players to sort themselves into one of the school’s four houses. A player in Gryffindor, for example, might have bonuses against fear effects. Whilst a kid in Ravenclaw might be allowed a bardic-lore style check for knowing any random piece of information the party needs. Perhaps further class distinctions could be gained by the choices the player makes in which classes they will take. At the start of the year they choose the classes they’ll attend between dungeon-delving sessions, and at the end of the year they’ve gained some bonus or ability from that course.

Magic would be particularly fun, since magic words are such a large part of the source material. Spells could be divided into “spell levels,” representing the years in which they would be taught to students. There is no limit on the number of spells which can be cast per day, or how many times a spell could be cast. HOWEVER, in order to cast a spell, the player must be able to recite the proper magic words. No magic notes would be allowed at the table, forcing the player to actually keep the spells in their head. (Functionally, a no-notes rule would be impossible to enforce. But in the spirit of fun, I think most players would acquiesce).

Rather than progressing according to experience, players would progress by years of education. In lieu of gold, magic items and “house points” would be awarded for successful adventures.

I can’t be the first person who thought of this, right?

Dear Pathfinder,

LS is Breaking up with PathfinderPathfinder and I have had a long and tumultuous relationship.

When I started Papers & Pencils, then called “Comma, Blank_,” I was still a D&D 3.5 player. I was aware of Pathfinder, but preferred to stick with the system I already had 30+ supplements for. About two years ago, by some happenstance, I was chatting with a fellow at my local comic book store, Fantasium. He was interested in starting a Pathfinder campaign, and he seemed cool, so I gave him my email address and purchased the Pathfinder Core Rulebook on an impulse. I never heard from that guy again, which didn’t matter much, because I was thoroughly impressed by Pathfinder’s improvements to 3.5. My initial reaction to the system was nothing but fawning praise, and I immediately started referring to this as a “Pathfinder Blog.”

Then I found Hack & Slash, and from there started to explore more of the OSR. I was exposed to a greater diversity of game design theories than I had known existed, and many of my fundamental ideas were challenged. My opinions began to shift. Issues which I had previously viewed as “the limitations of tabletop games,” became “the limitations of the tabletop games I’ve played.” As an example, I had long been frustrated by how difficult it was to get players to manage their characters on their own, the OSR made me realize that perhaps my game was asking them to manage too much shit.

In the last two years I’ve become increasingly dissatisfied with Pathfinder. One reader* recently told me they were surprised I still played, given how critical I am of it. And truth be told, I don’t. Not really. I do still have one Pathfinder game in progress, but I run it in such a modified form that there’s about as much Pathfinder left in that game as there is man left in Darth Vader. And when this campaign ends (presumably when I move away from the players) I doubt if I’ll ever start another game based on the Pathfinder rules.

Put plainly, Pathfinder and I have parted ways.

That doesn’t mean you’ll never see another Pathfinder post here. I’d like to finish my Pathfinder Class Analysis series, because I’ve found that project to be fertile grounds for game design inspiration. I’ve also got at least one pathfinder-specific project which I’ve wanted to finish for years now, but have been putting off because I’m lazy and dumb and lazy. What it does mean is that Colorful Characters, Merciless Monsters, and Magical Marvels won’t be posted with Pathfinder game rules any longer, which is a big relief for me, because fitting everything into the Pathfinder framework was exhausting work.

Since 90% of my readership is non-pathfinder players anyway (somehow I ended up as an honorary initiate in the OSR?) I presume this news is long overdue for most of you.

(*Hi Matt!)

Magical Marvels 12: Silvertongue Ink

Taken from Inkwell.za.net
Taken from Inkwell.za.net

When discovered, this item appears to be a moderately ornate inkwell, filled with a silvery liquid. The inkwell itself appears only slightly valuable, and the liquid inside can easily be mistaken for quicksilver. Altogether, a merchant would pay perhaps 50 gold pieces for it.

If the silvery liquid is used as ink (any quill will do) whatever is written with it takes on magical properties which affect whoever reads them.

A statement of fact, however ridiculous it may be, will be believed. A command, even a command to kill oneself, will be followed. And a question, no matter how personal, will be answered. A successful saving throw against magic can be made to negate this effect. However, unlike many similar effects, a successful save will not alert the subject to the fact that someone has attempted to affect their mind, unless they are a magic user of 10th level or higher.

It should be noted that addressing a note with something to the effect of “To the King of Gorpagop” will cause whoever reads it to immediately stop reading it, and make every effort to deliver the note to the king of Gorpagop.

When found, the inkwell contains enough ink for 100 words.

Picture Thursday 31: “Mage” by 88grzes

mage_by_88grzes-d2zz6p5

According to the artist of this piece, it took about an hour. Try not to feel as jealous as I do about that.

I normally don’t go in for character portrait type pictures, but I always love this kind of messy, speed painting style. And I love the red beneath the eyes. It’s such an interesting detail on an otherwise very stereotypical looking wizard. Is it blood from catching a glimpse of fundamental threads of reality, or is it the warpaint of a bush wizard preparing to slaughter the enemies of his people?

A Look at “On the Non-Player Character – Solving the Social Trap” by Courtney Campbell

I’m a little late mentioning it, but fellow Blogger Courtney of Hack & Slash recently released a book titled “On the Non-Player Character – Solving the Social Trap,” available both in print and pdf form. I’m going to try to convince you to buy it, because I think it’s more than worth the money it costs. However, in the interests of full disclosure, Courtney is both a friend of mine, and someone I admire as a game designer of superior skill. I don’t expect you to take me at my word that you should buy this book. So in order to convince you, I want to show you something.

LS' Book Shelf Above Desk

This is a photograph of the game shelf above my desk. I keep these books within arms reach of the place where I do 90% of my work. It’s a bit of a mixed bag up there. A few of these books are up there because I want to get around to reading them soon. Most of them, though, are books which I’ve read, liked, and continue to use. But I don’t really need any of them. My game mastering skills are in my head, and my campaigns are in my notes. These books are helpful, but if you took them away from me, I don’t think my players would really notice a degradation in the quality of my games.

LS' game shelf back room

This photograph, aside from exposing what a cluttered junk heap my home is, shows the game shelves in my back room. There’s some miscellaneous fiction in there, but you can see binders containing notes and printed blog posts, various sourcebooks, more D&D 3.x material than I think I could even lift all at once, and several large boxes of Dungeon and Dragon magazines stacked on the floor. These are books I’ve gone through and used in the past. Some of them are not great, but there’s some real gems in there! Books which have inspired me, articles which have given me house rules to work from. These books hold a lot of meaning for me, and I still return to them from time to time to search for new ideas. But again, if you took them away my games probably wouldn’t suffer.

This last picture is of all the books which humble me. The books which never caused me to think “I could have written that better.” Which isn’t a disparagement on those books I did think I could write better. We all have that arrogant little voice inside of us which thinks we’re better than successful people. It’s that little arrogance which emboldens us to try to be successful ourselves. But these books are are so good they make me question whether I’ll ever produce anything good enough to sit next to them on a shelf.

The Best Books I Have

“On the Non-Player Character” is divided roughly between methods for interacting with NPCs, and methods for creating NPCs.

The NPC interaction system is, as I described it to a friend, “such a huge leap forward that I feel as though every other crude attempt I’ve seen at NPC interaction doesn’t even count anymore. Skill checks for Diplomacy/Intimidate/Bluff/Sense Motive seem archaic by comparison.” Described simply, Courtney created a short list of <20 possible interactions with an NPC, which nearly any interaction can fit into. When the players say or do something to an NPC, the GM merely needs to determine which category of interaction it best fits into, make some simple rolls, and produce an impartial, interesting result. (There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s what I would call the core mechanic.)

The NPC creation system, while nowhere near as revolutionary, is none the less a big step forward from anything I’ve encountered before. It focuses on being a tool for the GM’s own imagination, rather than being a tool for creating something mechanical and then relying on the GM’s imagination to give it life. I don’t know about other GMs, but I consider myself quite good at improvisation, and my imagination has limits to the number of unique characters I can come up with on my own!

I feel as though there’s no way to read my fawning praise of this book without believing it is hyperbole. But I mean what I say. And while it’s almost a certainty that some blogger or obscure game supplement has produced a really great system for handling NPCs–one which is better than any I’d heard of before I read this book–I honestly don’t think anything quite this good exists anywhere else. Because if it did, by rights, it would be on every GM’s must-own list. As this book should be.

If I were to offer one criticism of this book, it would be one which Courtney has pointed out himself. His writing is not always the most clear, because he tends to pack information very densely. I had to read page 24 no less than three times before I understood what it was about. And once I understood it, I realized I probably would have used 3-4 pages to explain the same concept. Personally I prefer my way of doing things, but stylistic differences are really just a nitpick on a nearly perfect game tool.

Page 24 has some really cool ideas on it, actually. You should check it out when you buy the book.

The Return of the Blogger

GoofyShitHey guys! Its been awhile. I’ve missed you, and I know this is never fun to hear, but we need to talk about our relationship. Because I’m a melodramatic blogger who takes his electronic word page far too seriously. There’s a TL;DR at the bottom if you need it.

When I started my little break, I ostensibly did so because I wanted to improve my life by looking for a less miserable job in a much better city. Then I got the news that my grandfather’s health was failing, which sucked. Then I had a fun little adventure in dentistry, which also sucked. Stuff sucked and I figured it was as good a time as any to take a break from P&P. Truthfully, I’d wanted to take a break for a long while, and bad stuff happening was a convenient excuse. Not to pacify you, good reader, but to convince myself I wasn’t just being lazy.

My writing here has always been more important to me than it probably ought to be. I do that; I take things too seriously. Failure to meet my self-imposed update deadlines would ruin my whole week. It’s an unhealthy way to view a project like this one, I know. But Papers & Pencils made me feel as though my life had some forward momentum when I was severely depressed from lack thereof. But it was stressing me out, and draining my creativity, and the moment I gave myself permission to be more lax about updating, I stopped updating completely.

In case I haven’t made it painfully obvious with my whining, I’m not fond of my current life situation. Things took a wrong turn for me at some point a long time ago, and I’ve felt lost and out of control for years now. I want to make a better life for myself as a working writer and game designer. It’s not a profitable life goal, but it’s a life I think I can be happy with. Papers & Pencils has been an expression of that goal. My attempt to discipline myself as a writer, to teach myself about tabletop games, and to practice my craft day after day. In these goals I think I have been relatively successful, but I passed the point of diminishing returns some time ago and I failed to notice. I need to push myself in different ways if I want to continue to improve.

What needs to come next for me, I think, is focusing on and completing larger projects. The Hidden Tomb of Slaggoth is a step in the right direction, and I want to keep that momentum going. I’m already working on a new tabletop project, which I’ll discuss in an upcoming post. And when that’s done I want to do another. A module, or a gaming supplement, or a collection of short stories, or a novel, or a complete sourcebook. Some of them will be free, (like Slaggoth), others will be for monies because at some point I have to gather up my balls and proclaim to the world that I think I’ve made something which I deserve to be compensated for.

So what does all of this livejournal nonsense mean for Papers & Pencils? Hopefully it pleases you to know that Papers & Pencils isn’t going away. But up to now, I’ve treated P&P like the most important thing in my life*. This will no longer be the case. Whatever major project(s) I’m working on will take on that role. So while I am aiming to maintain a rough M/T/Th/F update schedule here, I’m resolving not to stress about it if I miss a day.

*Yes. This is the best I could do with something I thought was that important to me. I’ve got a real future as a writer, amirite?

I’m also aiming to write shorter posts in general. I’ve always aimed for a sort of “informal essay” style while writing for this site, but that’s hard to keep up with day after day. So while an informal essay will still pop up if I’ve got a topic I really want to dig into, I suspect things will get quite a bit more “blog-ish” around here. Not to say that’s a bad thing, just a different thing than I’ve been doing.

I like Papers and Pencils. I like sharing what’s on my mind, I like the great friends I’ve made, and I like YOU. I’ve received more emails from readers in the last month and a half than I think I received in the year prior to that. It has been so encouraging to chat with the people who enjoy reading what I think, and to hear what they think. I hope I can continue to entertain you with my scribblings.

TL;DR I’m gonna spend more time working on books. P&P will get less attention, but it’s not going away. I still love you. Hope you still love me. XOXOXXXOOO

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