Friday, April 25, 2008

Just felt like sharing this. . .

Okay. 4chan, for the half of the readers who didn't come from that site in the first place (You guys can just hit the link and skip this next part), is terrible place. Terrible! Half their humor is oriented around being as offensive as possible. Abandon hope all ye who enter there, for you witness the anonymous online community in its concentrated form and the truth may be too terrible for you to bear.

That having been said, I myself am a part of said community- specifically, I spend my time on /tg/, the sub-board dedicated to traditional games. One of the purposes behind this blog is to let me post a link to a post I've made here rather than writing it all up again every time someone asks for campaign ideas or advice on zombie games. In the past I've likened /tg/ to a cool, breezy section of hell with lots of interesting people to talk to. Because it is a very creative place, with all sorts of interesting often-humorous ideas being bounced around. It just all happens to be very warped. For example, in one case the discussion topic was this charming fellow:

D&D veterans will recognize this as an Atropal, one of D&D's most inspired and macabre monsters; the undead fetus of a stillborn god. The /tg/ thread began as an exploration of some sort of horror story, with an atropal wailing across the cosmos for its mother. Then, as is to be expected for the board, the discussion took an unexpected turn.

"Atropals need a placenta attack"
"A placenta lasso and a little cowboy hat? Requesting shop of this plz."

At which point I just had to write the following:

"Evenin', Frank."
"Evenin', Doc."
"Heard you got yourself a new hired hand."
"Yup. Jake's boy been helpin me with the cattle for a week now."
"Well, ain't that something. Seems like just yesterday Jake's missus found the poor child out in the cold. Been what, fifteen years?"
"Real curly wolf, that lady. You know she always wanted a child of her own."
"Jake's plenty game himself, standing by her like that even though everyone knows they was split on it in private."
"Well, the boy seems to have turned out right enough. Here he comes now."

The two men fell silent as the rider came up to the front porch.

"The cATtle'RE ALl penNED UP, Mr. ThompSOn."
"How many times I have to tell you boy, call me Frank."
"yESsIr. HoWDy, Doc."
"Howdy, son. Give my regards to your mother."
"I'LL do thAT."
"The cattle give you any trouble today?"
"nO SIr, tHEy was wELl behaVED as alwAys."
"Yep, you never do have trouble keepin'em in line. Well, I reckon that's enough for today. You can go on home."
"ThANk you, sIR."

Together they watched the figure retreat into the distance. Doc Worthington scratched his head.
"That's, ah, that's quite a steed he's got there."
"Strange how it seems to radiate a pure darkness deeper than any shadow."
"Still, nice gait to it though."
"He likes to feed it apples."
"Don't surprise me. He's a good kid."

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008


A while back I was watching someone play through Devil May Cry 4, and there was an interesting bit of dialog that ocurred after a battle between the half-demon Dante and a mad scientist villain who'd come up with a way to attain massive amounts of power by turning yourself into a demon. I'm paraphrasing, but basically the lines went something like this:

Glasses McStuttery: Impossible! How can there still be such a gap between your abilities and mine?
Dante: You sacrificed your humanity. It's that simple.

Now, the scene goes on to basically imply that "humanity"=having a heart, caring about people, fighting for Twoo Wuv, etc. and that it'll always win out in the end. But Dante's blunt reprimand had already sent me off on my own mental tangent. See, it's always bugged me that the soul had so little meaning in Dungeons and Dragons- it could be a huge part of the fluff, but crunch-wise it's no more than an explanation for things like Level Drain. The only time it really comes up is when you're trying to rule about whether someone can be raised and so on. And it's not just D&D- selling your soul is a classic concept at the core of western supernatural fiction. So why is it always left so vague? Here's how I would approach it. . .

In this. . ."cosmology" seems the best word. In this cosmology your soul is the source of your humanity and mortality- when you grow as a person, develop in a way that goes beyond memorizing trivia or lifting weights to bulk up, your soul is the key. Your experiences are the paint, your soul is an infinite canvas and you are the picture.

The forces of heaven and hell, demons and angels- these beings are not created with souls. They are immortal, and many attain incredible power, but most do not "train" or "learn" even though they are completely sentient. The only way for such a being to develop on their own is to get their hands on a mortal soul, and that is something one can only relinquish willingly. This is why the forces of hell are so willing to bestow untold pleasures upon someone who would sell their soul, particularly a heroic character who has proved their soul's strength- to them the forces of hell will gladly give power. Think of it from a player-character's perspective; snap your fingers and bam, you've got the half fiend template, no further obligations or mandatory alignment change. The forces of hell will give you even more power- more ability score increases and supernatural abilities- as payment for additional services, but that's only if you're interested. Tempting, no?

To speak plainly: Without a soul, you stop gaining experience points. Simple as that. You usually don't feel any different at first- you're just as strong and smart as you would be otherwise. But your skills, personality, maturity, alignment- those things will now remain unchanging, like a blooming flower that you pluck and press. You no longer age, though you can still be killed or die of disease- and that's the end of the story. There is no "what happens after you die", because in every sense that matters there is no "you"- just a brain and a body, going through the motions.

And of course, the forces of evil aren't the only ones who can use souls. An angel can make the exact same bargain. In several good-aligned religions this is seen as an ultimate act of devotion; not something that all should aspire too, but rather an act that goes even further (Some would say too far). Several times, different factions and good-aligned deities have clashed over when (if ever) it is right to accept such a gift and whether they have the right to ask it of their mortal devotees.

So a demon or celestial who gets a soul can now gain class levels. Just another sort of power to give their side an edge in the eternal war, right? Most outsiders think so- now they can acquire new skills mortals can- but its not quite so simple. See, as soon as they acquire a soul, their fundamental nature is no longer static. The "Always" preceding their alignment disappears, and they even begin to age (albeit slowly). Fallen angels and redeemed devils- normally such a deed is done artificially, by warping their nature with magic. Such methods won't work on an outsider with a soul, which quickly reverts to its true nature; but these outsiders are now fully capable of 'deserting' on their own. A soul is a dangerous thing; a wise outsider never takes such things lightly.

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Elysium Nebula: Magic Breakdown

Again, just as a reminder: Unlike just about every other thing on this blog, Elysium Nebula is neither my own setting, a group effort I'm involved in, or a project aboandoned by the original creators that I'm now trying to complete myself. All I'm doing is offering my take on the setting's crunch as a test of d20 Rethought's flexibility- though while the background fluff is largely set, dictating the nuts and bolts of people's abilities means I'm also dictating some of the nitty-gritty fluff aspects as well. But that's a topic for another post, assuming I ever do revisit my vague "fluff*crunch=optimal rpg experience" philosophy.

In this case, I'm working on using the d20 Rethought magic system to represent Elysium Nebula's eldritch arts. EN has only one source of supernatural power: The ley lines, subdimensional networks of energy that run throughout the cosmos and wrap themselves around all but the most barren of planetoids. My personal take has been to orient the different casting classes around different methods of channeling that power in order to cast spells. The default d20 Rethought magic system works very well here, because we can simply say that each ley line corresponds to single skill.

So here's a breakdown- going off the rough descriptions given to me by the creator (Skrittiblak), I've come up with ten separate ley lines to cover the variety of things magic can do in EN, plus a pair of "schools" for each one. Schools are just three-feat chains that (as a few of you might recall) let your character wield more advanced sets of effects. But enough talk; have at you!
  • Mind (Telepathic communication, restore resolve points, read surface thoughts); Manipulation (Charm, confuse, put to sleep) and Mentalism (Mind Blast, read memories, plant false memories or commands)
  • Growth (Restore vitality points, accelerate healing rate, enhance physical ability); Healing (Heal wounds, cure disease, regenerate limbs) and Shapeshifting (Change features, grow wings, change size)
  • Force (Move object, kinetic blast, arrest motion); Forceshaping (Magic Missile, wall of force, grasping hand) and Telekinesis (Wield weapon, levitate, fly)
  • Matter (Mold object, shatter, alter composition); Transmuting (Reinforce or weaken object, enhance item, craft object) and Shaping (Conjure and control material, duplicate object)
  • Sense (Fool sense, augment sense); Illusion (Conjure illusion, baffle sense) and Perception (True sight, detect)
  • Fire (Conjure and control fire); Flameshaping (Fireball, wall of fire, conjure fire elemental) and Heat Control (Heat or chill target, endure elements, absorb heat)
  • Space (Remote viewing, locate target, fate manipulation); Timetwisting (augury, slow/hasten target) and Teleportation (Call item, group teleport, create portal).
  • Machine (Animate, control or dismantle device); Energy (Drain, store andprovide power, lightning bolt) and Technomancy (Baffle sensors, read or erase data, control or disrupt robot)
  • Entropy (Disrupt life, accelerate decay); Necromancy (Create and control undead) and Demonology (Conjure demon, extract spirit)
  • Void (Dispel magic, suppress spellcasting); Voidshaping (Antimagic field, antispell shield) and Banishment (Disrupt undead, dispel conjuration, smite)

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Dead Zone: Setting Preview

Okay, where to begin. I could discuss how I think this can serve as a new take on the zombie genre (more techno-thriller than apocalyptic), I could talk about how this is my extrapolation of the core canon of the Resident Evil series but can stand on its own, I could skip right to the part where this ties into my previous post about "non-fantastic superpower" action. . .I think I'll start with a description of how life is different in this setting, which until ten years ago was identical to our own.

You see, ten years ago- 1998- was the first zombie outbreak. A small midwestern city was lost after a pharmaceutical company's secret attempts to create a biological weapon were more succesful than they could have ever imagined. The zombie virus was a combination of two other viruses; a bacteriophage aimed at increasing the subject's physique and a highly lethal strain of ebola. The former was the result of an older research project that had been deemed a faliure because the growth was always uncontrolled and led to mutation and death on the part of the subject, while the latter was proving impractical as a biological weapon because the modifications that had increased the virus's lethality also virtually eliminated the incubation period, meaning that subjects died without having any chance to pass the infection on. It was theorized that the physical enchancements provided by the former virus would keep the subject "alive" for at least a day. In some ways, you could say that the results were an unprecendented success- after all, the result was an amazing biological weapon.

Now, you have to understand- there was no "apocalypse". The release of the virus (actually a deliberate act of corporate sabotage) may have wiped out most of a single town's population, but even in the face of such an unprecedented threat the government was able to set up a quarantine and then heavily bombed the region. The outbreak was contained, and while at first the corporation was able to persuade the goverment that the zombie-creating virus had been a prototype for the physique-enhancing bacteriophage and nothing more eventually the truth was uncovered and the corporation shut down. But the virus remained.

The next outbreaks occurred in the third world. Attempts were being made to create additional samples of the virus from existing ones, and not everyone had the sense or resources to take adequate precautions. In some cases these too were contained, but in others they went unnoticed by higher authorities for far, far too long. And not all attempts to produce additional samples of the virus were so unsuccesful. The threat of bioterrorism was now a far, far greater threat than before.

In the wake of the September 11th attacks, viral outbreaks occurred in multiple first-world cities. Before the end of the year the use of the virus as a biological weapon was confirmed in multiple third-world conflicts. The world was quickly approaching a state of panic, and things were changing as a result. It was about this time that the term "Dead Zone" began to be used.

A Dead Zone is an area that has seen a zombie outbreak. In a first-world nation a dead zone tends to be several miles across, its borders rigidly patrolled by a military personnel; meanwhile, the majority of several african nations is considered to qualify as a dead zone. These regions often retain an active zombie population and in a portion of cases are also affected by nuclear fallout. Not only that, dead zones are rumored to contain populations of what the media refers to as Bio-Organic Weapons; cases where the victim has survived both the more immediately lethal aspects of the virus and the ensuing mutations, often resulting in a warped monstrosity. B.O.W.s, while rare, are much less so among animals, who can be infected even if the results are not usually in turn infectious.

While only a small percentage of the world's total population has perished, the general mood is still one of extreme paranoia and isolation. Politicians are elected on the basis of how well the public feels they can protect them, and nations dedicate their military to securing the boundaries of dead zones and the borders of nations against hypothetical incursion.

Of course, the rush to quarantine dead zones means that there's still going to be some people inside. But sending in military forces will inevitably lead to huge losses and has proven to severely hamper enlistment efforts. That's why, as the next post will delve into, it's a good time for PMCs.

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d20 Rethought: Balancing Magic

Magic in d20 rethought is already dependent on multiple ability scores and faces limitations parallel to those mundane combatants must deal with. The topic of this post is the raw number-crunching needed to make sure a system of skill-based magic is balanced. I've got not surefire approach in mind, so this will be done in a more stream-of-consciousness manner. (Note: this is a snapshot/transcript of the process, it doesn't really get into the numbers I eventually settle on. If those are what you're after then you'll want to wait a few more posts.

I'll start by theorizing that the three levels of a talent chain give a character to cast spells of that type at the same level as a D&D class's low, medium, or high spellcasting progression. Or, to put it differently: Take Healing Magic I and I can cast cure spells on par with a paladin of my level. Healing Magic II puts me on par with a bard and III on par with a Druid. Still confused? Here's the level at which each level of spell (from 1 up) can be cast by the three spellcasting progressions:

Low: 4/8/11/14/-
Medium: 2/4/7/10/13/16/-
High: 1/3/5/7/9/11/13/15/17

Note that this is giving us varying rates of progression, something that wound up being a problem with D&D 3.X. Let's keep this potential dilemma in mind while we go back and approach this from a more directly mathematical angle. For reference, all variables hailing from the start of the alphabet correspond to d20 results/modifiers/etc while variables hailing from the end of the alphabet will refer to non-d20 roll numbers like spell level. So:

A is the check result needed to cast a spell of level X. B is the amount A goes up by when X increases by one. C is the amount the second and third talent increases your check modifier by (assuming we keep the straight increase model). Using these variables, I can ask myself a few important questions.
-When a character can take 10 to cast a certain level of spell, how much higher level should he be *able* to cast? (Answer=10/B=Y, barring extraordinary circumstances involving crit successes and/or action points. I'd be fine with a Y between 1.5 and 4, therefore I want a B between 2.5 and about 7.
-At what level should a beginner (level 6, only the first talent, +1 mod for relevant ability) be able to cast? (Level 2 spells shouldn't be too far past the 50% mark, highest level possible barring crits/APs should be a max of 5. That means B can't be less than 3 and should probably be more like 4 or 5.

Now, this is giving us a problem. Because if we're going to make magic a skill like any others, then B's got be lower than 4 or 5. In fact, it might be ideal for it to be more like 1, since that means you can cast a new level of spell every two levels like in D&D. But with a d20's probability range that means he who can cast burning hands 50% of the time can cast Meteor Storm 5% of the time, and that's not acceptable.

Since magic's working differently already, we can make it something other than a skill and thus have it increase at a different rate- say ability+your full character level (instead of half). Combining that with a B of 3 and an A of 11 when X=1 means the low-level caster (Talent I, ability mod +1) has a 50% chance of casting an 8th-level spell and a 35% chance of casting a 9th-level one at 20th level. That's much too high-level for me, so let's adjust B to 5. Now that same level 20 character's got a 55% chance of casting a 5th-level spell and a 5% chance of casting a 7th-level one. The range is about right but the spell level isn't. Let's bump A up by 9- a level 1 spell's DC 20, level 2 is DC 25, etc. That means our level 20 character with a small knack for magic that he never really pursued is now capable of casting 5th-level spells with a 10% success rate and succeeds with level 2 spells 85% of the time. Range still strikes me as being too extensive- but then, this is the benefit of just a single talent. On the other hand, what if higher talents reduce B by one each but gave little or no extra bonus? The same level 20 character, with no changes except the other two talents (in other words, he'd still have invested three talents and nothing else- applied to other areas like lying or grappling, this would let him be as good as a focused mid-level character or a broken low-level one) would now cast a level 5 spell with a 50% success rate and level 8 at 5%. Meanwhile, they'd be casting 2nd-level spells at 95%. Throwing in a decent ability score (+4 instead of +1) and a feat (+3?) and you repeat all the previous statements while moving the spell levels up two notches. If the character's really invested in this area- supportive class features, some other ability that manages to stack- then you should be able to double that increase, at which point you're casting 6th-level spells with ease and have a 50% chance of pulling of a level 9. Considering we're talking one and only one school of magic (plus high-level spells will still cost you about 20% of your resolve points in a single go), that sounds about right to me.

So, now we've got a passable spread at high levels by saying that B=5-1 for each of the second two talents, while A=15+5X. How does it look at low levels, though? Will further tweaks be needed?

Well, let's say we've got a broken character meant to be as good with a particular talent chain as possible. He puts an 18 into the relevant score and gets another +2 bonus from his race. He selects a Skill Focus-type feat at 1st level that gives him another +3. And he plays a talent-oriented caster class that gives him the 3 relevant talents at 1st, 3rd and 5th level. At level 1 we're looking at a caster check modifier of 1 level +5 ability+3 feat, or +8 total. Whichever entry talent he selects, he can cast the fundamentals of magic from that school at a 45% success rate for level 1 spells and 20% for level 2. Flash forwards four levels and he'll have both the talents (meaning that the major difference between him at this level and at 20th level will just be the level bonus on caster checks). At this point, our level 5 character's +12 bonus on checks will let him cast 1st level spells with a 75% success rate and has a 15% chance of pulling off a 5th-level spell. Again, this seems pretty close to what I'm after.

For the record, this is not how I normally operate- extensive documentation like this has never been my thing, this would have likely been a half-page of scribbled tables and data sets with testing possibly being handled by an excel spreadsheet. Also, the math of the matter has since been altered (and improved) by my intention to include a max Result Cap on checks that can be temporarily increased but rarely bypassed. Either way, I hope this has been interesting and/or informative- and as always I'd love to hear your thoughts. Would you have approached this differently? Do you disagree with my judgment of the current system's odds as being balanced? Did I screw up my math? I'd love to hear what you have to say.

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