Ghulhunds, and other dungeoneering breeds

Today, as I was unsuccessfully trying to get my dog Finn’s attention to get him out from underfoot, my wife tried to observe that Finn “was interested only in leash”, but it came out “was interested only in lich.” It made me wonder what sort of specialized monster-hunting dog breeds exist in heroic fantasy worlds.

Does the city watch descend into the sewers with a pack of ghulhunds, bred to root out undead in close spaces? Are there wyvern-tolling retrievers? Are dungeoneers perilously close to a TPK ever unexpectedly rescued by a St. Bernard/blink dog hybrid with a cask of healing potion around its neck? Do some parties bring along specialized trap-sniffing dogs?  (If for no other reason than to be able to say “What do you mean we didn’t say we check for traps?  The f&$(%ing dog always checks for &#)(%ing traps, it’s literally the meaning of its existence!”)

Inquiring minds want to know.

Originally published on Google Plus

Experiences That Have Shaped My Thinking: The National Security Decision Making Game

Back in 1994, I went to the Origins game convention, which was in San Jose that year. One of the things I did was to play a game called the National Security Decision Making game, which was a simulation run by a couple of guys who had taught at the Naval War College. It was intended to model, in abstract form, most of the major players in international politics and their important interactions. I was all set to mix it up international relations style. However, upon drawing my role, I got to be a region of the United States.

This was 13 years ago, so I don’t remember the game’s details terribly well. I do, however, remember the basic dynamics of the US’s domestic politics in the game, because that was what I mostly had to deal with. There were, I believe, five regions of the US — New England and the Mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest, the Plains States, and the West Coast. I was New England. The main objective of the regions was to secure national resources for themselves, in the form of a share of the national budget, which was refigured regularly. A region could accomplish this by lobbying the President, who determined the budget.

There were also three politicians, whose base condition was to be a Senator, but one of whom would be elected President by the regions every so often. I don’t remember the politicians’ names, but let’s call them Senator Gravitas, Senator Unctuous, and Senator Nonentity.

At the beginning of the game, we had a choice to make, and the senators made their pitches. Senator Gravitas seemed intelligent, trustworthy, and possessed of good plans for the nation. Senator Unctuous, meanwhile, mostly seemed ambitious. He said the right things, but his eyes were a little too clearly on the prize, and he just seemed a little sleazy. Senator Nonentity I don’t remember at all; I merely assume he must have existed because I’m pretty sure there were three senators, and we shall not speak of him again. Instead, let us assume he retreated to the ranks of those elder statesmen who are always discussed as potential presidential candidates, and whose chances always seem quite good except for their inability to excite either donors or voters. Needless to say, President Gravitas was elected, and it was morning in America.

The Gravitas administration was probably quite successful; he threw himself into foreign affairs with a will, and things seemed to be mostly going his way. I, however, was not paying that much attention, because I wasn’t allowed into some of the most important stuff, and I was mostly concerned with the fact that my share of the federal budget was not what it could be.  I managed to wheedle some concessions out of the President, but the other regions were pushing hard too, and he had a lot to do.

Shortly before the election rolled around, Senator Unctuous asked if he could have a word with me, the Midwest, and the West Coast. “I have a proposition,” he said. “If you three vote for me, I will give you the entire federal budget.” We were startled. We were a little scandalized. We could do the math. Thus began the Unctuous Administration.

Sen. Gravitas was really pissed off. Here he’d been doing a good job, getting things done, treating everyone fairly, and we had straight up stabbed him in the back. I felt a little bad about it, but I was getting a much bigger slice of the pie, and pie is a wonderful cure for guilt. The South and the Plains States were pretty ticked off too, but there wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it. Unctuous wasn’t about to throw them a bone, because if he annoyed one of the regions in his coalition enough to lose it, he was going down for good.

I don’t remember how the game went from there; it had been running a long time, it was late, and I think I went to bed before we got through another term. Still, I think about that experience a lot when I think about national politics.

originally published on LiveJournal

Review: Sovereign Stone

Sovereign Stone is a solidly designed fantasy game with a well-executed setting behind it. Unfortunately, competence alone isn’t quite enough to distinguish it from the hordes of fantasy games on the market, nor to bring it out from the shadow of the 800-pound gorilla of fantasy gaming, Dungeons & Dragons.

The game comes from a consortium of former TSR heavy hitters–Larry Elmore, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Don Perrin, Lester Smith…the list goes on. These are people who made D&D what it is today, and with Sovereign Stone, they’ve done more of what they do best. That’s both good and bad: these folks’ craftsmanship is evident, but the result has trouble getting away from the feel of a D&D setting, and I wonder if the game’s world was really best served by being presented as a standalone game.

The rules that Perrin and Smith have dished up are pleasingly simple, perhaps the most attractive thing about the system. Attributes and Skills are rated in dice, with d4 at the low end of the scale and d20 at the high end (a rating of d30 is possible for NPCs). For almost any task, you roll the appropriate Attribute die and Skill die, comparing the sum either to a fixed difficulty number or to the sum rolled by your opponent. You can also accept Stun damage in exchange for an extra exertion die. It’s a good mechanic if you like using polyhedra, but want to avoid complicated rules and handfuls of dice.

Character generation is point-based, though a semi-random system for generating attributes is provided. Each stage of character generation is balanced separately; attributes are paid for out of one pool, skills out of another, and advantages and disadvantages must be paired up to balance one another. Further skills, advantages, and disadvantages go along with your character’s race or nation. Advantages and disadvantages can add or subtract from certain task rolls, or can provide more intangible benefits like speaking to animals or being able to detect magic. Like the core mechanic, it’s simple, but players might chafe at its limitations.

The combat system is elegant; one attribute+skill roll determines both initiative and success. All combatants declare actions, then roll. Then each character performs his action in descending order of the sum rolled. If attacked, a character may choose to abort her action and defend, opposing the attacker’s roll with her full combat roll, or to persist with her original action and oppose with only a reduced defense roll. Damage is equal to the amount by which the attacker wins the opposed roll, and is divided into Stun and Wound points; when the total of Stun and Wound exceeds a character’s Life Points, she passes out, and when Wound exceeds a character’s Life Points, she dies. There’s a mechanic called Second Wind whereby a character can shake off in a single combat round Stun damage that would ordinarily take hours to recuperate from; I’m a little dubious about this one, but I suppose it reflects a heroic view of combat.

Magic is organized along the four classical elements–air, earth, fire, and water, as well as the element of Void, which is primarily the domain of evil. Magic is a skill, resolved with a normal attribute+skill+exertion roll. Different spells have different difficulty numbers. Magic use also inflicts Stun damage on the caster above and beyond any taken to gain an exertion die. I like the magic system; I think it’s one of the game’s strongest points. It’s simple and elegant, and the spells are interesting and flavorful. It makes me want to play a mage.

Elegant mechanics aside, however, a fantasy game lives or dies on the strength of its setting. I’m of two minds about Sovereign Stone in this regard. There’s great potential here, but the book needs more detail in important places, and the world of Loerem (which, for the record, I would take more seriously if it weren’t an anagram of Elmore) feels like a D&D setting.

By that, I mean that while the authors have created a setting with multi-layered action and intricate political interplay, it’s a world populated with humans, elves, dwarves, orks, and critters suspiciously like halflings. It works, but I can’t help but wonder why they chose to stay within traditional D&D tropes when they weren’t writing for D&D. Add in the distant gods, the evil reptilian race bent on world conquest, and the magic item that can save the world, and it seems like Weis and Hickman are returning to familiar ground (and the first person to say “universal mythic themes” gets the back of my hand). Again, it works, but I wish they’d broken the mold a little bit more.

Within this traditional framework, though, Loerem does novel things with its races. The Elves are a clan-based society deeply concerned with honor and restraint. The Dwarves are a nomadic horse-riding people who believe themselves destined to rule the entire world. I particularly like Loerem’s Orks, a superstitious bunch of seafarers with an abundance of odd customs. Finally, we have the Pecwae, a diminutive, retiring race with an unusual empathy for animals and a talent for magic. The book also describes the Taan, dreaded reptilian menace from the West, but they aren’t presented as a player character option, and they’re pretty much your typical evil warrior race anyway. I’m disappointed that while humans are divided into multiple cultures and nations, each nonhuman race gets only a single culture and nation. However, many fantasy worlds maintain that humanity is an unusually culturally diverse race, so I can’t be too harsh on Sovereign Stone in that regard.

A larger problem with Loerem’s cultures, to my mind, is the face that most of them are pretty strong analogues of Earth cultures. The Elves, for example, are clearly modeled on the feudal Japanese, to the point that the Elven political system, with its dual seats of power, almost exactly duplicates the feudal Japanese shogun-and-Emperor system. The Dwarves are Mongols, the human Karnuans are Arabs, and so on. The cultures are well-implemented, but they’re not exciting; we’ve seen these before. The most interesting human nation is Nimorea, a pseudo-African matriarchy warped by generations of exposure to the pseudo-Japanese Elves. That’s how I’d like to see more fantasy nations done–start with real-world cultures and ideas so the reader has a touchstone, but mix them up a little. This is another reason I like the Orks–they aren’t a direct analogue of a real-world culture.

Quibble though I may at Loerem’s cultures, however, its geopolitics is first-rate. The world situation is ripe for adventure on a variety of scales. On the epic scale, the evil mastermind Dagnarus and his Taan army have just appeared, their intentions unknown. They are ripe for the intervention of some meddling kids. On a less epic scale, tensions and conflicts between and within the different nations abound, from the near civil war of the Elves to the standoff between the two human superpowers to the struggle of the Orcs to win back their holy mountain. And on a still smaller scale, the game provides a variety of interesting assortments of creatures and places to discover and explore.

Some of the smaller-scale elements could stand a little better integration. I thought Loerem’s dragons were really interesting, and I liked the gigantic, magic-hoarding Bahk, but where they fit into the setting as a whole was unclear. Similarly, there are plenty of monsters, but their role in the world, other than making it more dangerous, is vague.

I also wish the book provided more detail on some elements of the setting. Take the Sovereign Stone of the title, for example. It’s a holy relic, split into one part for each major race which permits the races to create supercharged paladins called Dominion Lords. It may be Dagnarus’ ultimate goal; it may be the key to defeating him. We don’t know. Indeed, we know very little about Dagnarus, his goals, or his resources, at all. More discussion of these issues, which are important to any game using the Taan invasion as a major plot element, would be really helpful. Obviously, individual gamemasters can answer these questions to their own satisfaction, but while elsewhere the setting is full of unresolved issues that seem ripe for development, Dagnarus and the Sovereign Stone just feel…unaddressed.

I wonder whether Sovereign Stone’s future includes a metaplot. I hope not; I think a setting with as many and as diverse possibilities as Loerem is not well served by the tendency for metaplots to fix in stone what a world’s focus is. I’m pleased that Weis and Hickman set their trilogy of Sovereign Stone novels two hundred years before the current game date. However, the aura of mystery surrounding Dagnarus and the Sovereign Stone smells of a tease. On the other hand, the supplements released to date don’t seem very metaplot-oriented. We’ll see.

Another welcome addition would be some detail on daily life in Loerem; there’s excellent material on politics, military matters, and general cultural traditions, but not so much on, say, the day-to-day life of an Elf. The few exceptions, like the Trevenici barbarians, were really compelling and created a much fuller picture of the situation in Trevenici lands than of the situation in other parts of Loerem. I hope Sovereign Press chooses to detail the different cultures further in sourcebooks.

Physically, the book is very nice. It’s an attractive hardback, and seems sturdy (though I haven’t had a chance to put it to the test). The interior design is excellent: the layout is clear and readable, the text is divided into manageable chunks, and there’s just about the right amount of interior art for my tastes. One touch I particularly like is the fact that the ink seems to be a very dark brown rather than actually black, which gives the book a distinctive look–sort of antique without resorting to illegible design effects. The downside is that one of the interior artists has a watercolor-oriented style which, when combined with the brown ink, gives their pieces a somewhat washed-out look.

I’m a little less enthused about the editorial layout. The book’s organization is a little haphazard. The chapter order makes sense, and individual topics are reasonably well organized, but it’s unclear how the editors made the decision to put any particular topic after any other. Perhaps as a result of this, the authors repeatedly refer to things that have not yet been introduced. In the world section, we get repeated references to characters, people, and places which won’t be introduced for several pages. The combat section has detailed discussions of turn order and lost actions before it introduces the basic combat mechanic. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it makes you wonder if you missed something. I often flipped back looking for things I should have been flipping forward for. Finally, the book divides player and gamemaster information oddly. Instead of a general player section and a general gamemaster section, there are player and gamemaster sections for each individual topic. This makes it necessary to repeatedly flip from player stance to gamemaster stance, which can be confusing.

In the end, I think Sovereign Stone is promising, but incomplete. With the right supplements, Sovereign Press could have a really excellent game; specifically, the game would benefit from a more in-depth treatment of the different cultures in the setting, and it needs a more explicit treatment of Dagnarus’ goals and capabilities. It seems that the sourcebook The Taan may cover some of the latter problem, but a really full treatment of Loerem’s cultures is yet to appear on the horizon.

Originally published on Gamers.com