Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Friday, August 30, 2019

Whence the Labyrinth?

Dungeons are probably the most common adventure locale in role playing games; they were the cornerstone of every adventure in the early days, and remain popular today.  Sprawling expansive underground complexes filled with terrifying monsters and fabulous treasures exert a powerful draw upon our imaginations, and a call to adventure that is impossible to ignore.  Dungeons often serve not just as the locale for an adventure, but for the entire campaign, with huge mega-dungeon complexes taking novice characters to the giddy heights of power, as they delve ever further into its depths.

But where do these ubiquitous underground complexes come from?  This is a question that has plagued many of us, I'm sure.  I recall debating this topic ad nauseam with my friends back in high school, railing against the absurdity that such huge underground complexes could reasonably exist, and straining to provide credible rationale for them.  Indeed, this need for rationalization has caused many gamers to eschew dungeons altogether.

Another school of thought is that dungeons represent the mythic underworld, which requires no rationale, and follows its own rules and logic.  This very old-school view hearkens back to the earliest days of the hobby.  This mindset is explained in a thorough essay by Jason Cone in Philotomy's Musings, and is summed up nicely in this post by DM David: The Dungeon Comes Alive in the Mythic Underworld.  The beauty of dungeons as mythic underworld is that it does away with any need to rationalize them: they just are.

I really like the notion of the Mythic Underworld, but I'm the kind of guy who prefers a naturalistic explanation for things; not out of  a pedantic need to rationalize everything, but because doing so adds to the constructed history and culture of my game world, and it helps to fuel my imagination and come up with exciting adventure ideas.  It's easy to come up with a logical explanation for a single dungeon, but how do you account for the large numbers of such complexes that dot the landscape and support the cottage industry of adventuring parties upon which most fantasy roleplaying games are predicated?

One answer lies in early twentieth century history, because it turns out that mega-dungeon complexes are real and not as laborious or time-consuming to construct as my teenage self used to believe.  Ever since the hundredth anniversary of the armistice last year, I've been reading about the history of the 1st World War, focusing most of my reading on the western front with its trenches extending from the North Sea to the Swiss border.  Pierre Berton, in his book, Vimy describes in great detail, the underground network that housed hundreds of thousands of soldiers, including a map illustrating passage ways connecting officer's quarters, kitchens, sleeping quarters that looks exactly like every dungeon map I've ever seen.

The bedrock throughout much of France is composed of chalk, and the trenches, dugouts, and holding areas incorporate huge natural karst caverns into their labyrinthine networks, which extended tens of meters below ground.  Because the bedrock is so soft it was easy to dig the tunnel networks, and sappers dug mines and listening posts into no-man's land using nothing more than vinegar and bayonets.  Many of the caverns housed 500 men or more apiece, and Berton claimed that it was possible to walk 10 km from the Canadian trenches at Vimy to the Spanish trenches at Arras without ever seeing the light of day.  These complexes were, in effect, vast underground cities, and the Canadian complex at Vimy housed a population greater than any city in Canada at that time, barring Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg.  These tunnel networks were so vast that soldiers often got lost in them, so that specialist guides were designated to escort units to where they needed to go.  So by any account the underground complexes supporting the trenches of the western front are bigger by far than any fantasy mega-dungeon I've ever seen.

Entrance to a German dugout (creepy clown with free balloons not included)

So how do I incorporate the dungeon complexes of the 1st World War into a fantasy setting?  Trench warfare was a response to the devastating might of modern artillery and the advent of the machine gun, which made the infantry lines and cavalry charges of the 19th century obsolete - a fact that escaped many old generals in the early days of the war.

In a fantasy milieu artillery is called wizards, at least in campaigns where wizards are common enough to be included in the ranks of the army.  TFT is just such a game; wizards are so commonplace that seven of the sixteen listed wizarding occupations on the jobs table are with army or mercenary units, so clearly battles on Cidri are waged with wizards on both sides of the conflict, a situation similar to that depicted in Steven Erikson's fantasy series, Malazan Book of the Fallen (probably not coincidental, as the series was based on the author's GURPS campaign).  Parallel evolution suggests that since mages of Cidri are analogous to artillery on the western front of Europe, similar defensive networks would be built to protect soldiers from near certain death on the open ground.

This inspires lots of cool ideas for a campaign set in the aftermath of a great war.  Perhaps an invading empire laid siege to fortresses along the borderlands of its neighbors as it slowly advanced.  One by one keeps and castles fell to the besieging army that entrenched itself around the defenders, sappers extending tunnels to breach the defenses, defenders digging counter mines. The aftermath of each siege leaves behind a dungeon complex radiating from the hub of a ruined castle upon a field littered with the dead and saturated with magic.  What treasures and artifacts lay forgotten in the ruins?  How many thousands of dead men lie where they fell in the killing ground?  What manner of vermin have grown large gorging themselves on rotting corpses, and warped by magic?  Imagine the number of such dungeons that would lie in the wake of such a war.  Perhaps a necromancer has laid claim to one such castle drawn by the huge number of corpses upon which to practice his art.  Such places also make excellent refuges for bandits, orcs, goblins and other unsavory creatures that come to inhabit the ruins.

I also like the idea of injecting a bit of the 'mythic underworld' into this setting.  Might not such sites of mass killing and magical maelstrom leave an indelible imprint, perhaps tainting the land with the touch of Chaos?  The dead might rise of their own accord, animated by pockets of magic that linger and drift like clouds of chaos through the area, and the dungeons themselves might become semi sentient, like haunted houses, hungry to claim more souls upon which to glut themselves.

So this naturalistic rationale has given me lots of ideas for adventures, as well as provided an historical backbone upon which to build the campaign.  A land littered with dungeons - artifacts of the last great war.  They present a persistent threat to the surrounding countryside, as well as a source of riches that reward those brave enough to dare explore them.  This is why I like to have a logical explanation for dungeons in my game - such rationales help me to build an internally consistent world, and fuel my imagination.  To quote Ray Bradbury on story ideas: "I'll never starve here."

Friday, July 19, 2019

Constructing a World: speculations on the nature of Cidri

I've been giving a lot of thought lately to the nature of TFT's default game world, Cidri.  For those unfamiliar with TFT, Cidri is a huge artificial world constructed by an enigmatic people called the Mnoren, and populated with creatures from various worlds and dimensions.  The details of Cidri are deliberately vague; it is meant to be a shared game world at least thousands of Earths in size.  Big enough for every game master to locate his or her home-brewed setting there without overlapping or contradicting the settings of other game masters.  It's a world big enough to contain everyone's various campaigns.

Cidri is a pretty cool idea.  It's a non-setting setting; a place so lacking in details that nearly anyone's game can take place there.  And as far as shared worlds go it appeals to me more than others because I'm the kind of guy who likes to design his own worlds.  I've never much cared for playing in other people's sandboxes, be they published game settings such as  Greyhawk, or The Forgotten Realms, or fantasy locales from literature, such as Middle Earth, or Westeros.  What I love most about being a game master is creating my own settings, and it's really attractive to be able to do that while still having my campaign set on the same world as everyone else's.

So what would Cidri actually look like as an artificially constructed world that is at least thousands of times bigger than Earth, if not more?  This is an important consideration, because the nature of the world will determine it's what the world is like, the length of its days and years, the environment - everything.  It's easy to imagine Cidri as just a really, really big planet.  But is it?  Is that even practical?

Consider the mass and amount of material required to build a solid sphere the size of Cidri.  Jupiter, the largest planet in our system, is 1,300 times larger than Earth and has a mass of 1.898 x 10^27 kg.  That's a lot of mass, but Jupiter is a jovian planet and is composed mostly of gas and liquid.  Cidri is a terrestrial planet composed of siliciclastics and metal, so it will be much heavier.  If Jupiter were terrestrial its mass would be about 1,300 hundred times that of Earth, so about 7.763 x 10^27 kg.  And since Cidri is said to be thousands of times larger than Earth, it's probably even bigger than Jupiter.  Say at least twice as large, and maybe even larger.

That much material would strain the resources of even the fantastically advanced Mnoren architects, and it isn't really necessary or economical for Cidri to be a solid sphere.

A more practical structure for an artificial world would be a Dyson strip, such as Larry Niven described in his 1970 science fiction classic, Ringworld.  It is based on a Dyson sphere, which was a thought experiment proposed by physicist, Freeman Dyson; a sphere built around the sun to capture 100% of its energy.  Dyson never intended his sphere to be a habitable structure, but the idea of it being so is compelling.  Niven made his fictional world a ring because the angular momentum of a sphere's rotation would generate gravity only around the equator, so there's no point in building anything wider than a narrow strip, if people are to inhabit the inner surface.

Let's imagine a Dyson strip with a radius of 1 astronomical unit (the distance from the Earth to the Sun), and a width of 1 million km.  A ring this size would have a surface area of 9.4 x 10^14 square kilometers.  Earth's surface area is 510 million square kilometers, so our Dyson strip has a surface area that is 1.84 million times greater than Earth's.  If we build 500 km high walls around the perimeter of the ring, they will contain the world's atmosphere thanks to the gravity generated by the ring's rotation.  If a second ring of linked strips were built with a faster period of rotation we would have hours of light and darkness to simulate day and night.

What's that you say?  A world with only 1.84 million times more surface area than Earth simply isn't big enough for your needs?  Very well, let's consider a full-blown Dyson sphere.

A sphere around the sun with the same 1 AU radius would have a surface area of 2.81 x 10^17 square kilometers (550 million times more surface area than Earth).  In this case though, we'd need some sort of artificial gravity generator since any gravity resulting from the rotation of the sphere would pool at the equator.  Also there would be no simple way to create day/night cycles as we can with a ring, so it would perpetually be high noon on this world, and there would be no way to tell time or to navigate.

But what if the inner surface of a Dyson sphere still isn't big enough?  What if you want the world to be really roomy.  How about we build the sphere around one of the stars in a binary system and construct gravity generators in the middle of the crust so that gravity is exerted on both the inner and out surfaces of the sphere?  Now we have a world very similar to Pellucidar of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Hollow World series, but on a much more massive scale.  Both the inner and outer surfaces of the world would be habitable, each heated and lit by its own star.  The combined surface area of the two surfaces would be 5.62 x 10^17 square kilometers (1.1 billion times the surface area of Earth).

Does an artificial sphere really need to be this ridiculously big?  Couldn't the Mnoren simply build a Jupiter-sized sphere that behaves like a normal planet?  They could, but there would be some problems with this model.  The first is that because there is no solid core, the crust would need gravity generators to prevent everyone from floating off towards the sun, and these need some source of power.  The second is that there would be no plate tectonics on such a world, and hence no way to recirculate carbon.  In a normal system atmospheric carbon dioxide is dissolved in rain water and precipitated as weak carbonic acid, which eventually makes its way to the oceans.  Oceanic carbon is precipitated as calcium carbonate and sequestered as limestone on the sea floor.  Eventually tectonic activity subducts one plate underneath another, causing it to melt and release gaseous carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.  Without this cycle the world's atmosphere would eventually become too thin to support life.  This is exactly what happened on Mars.  Originally Mars had an atmosphere much like Earth's, but because it is a smaller planet and further from the sun, its core cooled off quickly and plate tectonics ceased.  The carbon dioxide in Mars' atmosphere was slowly drained away, and is sequestered below ground with no way to reintroduce it to the atmosphere.  So in order for life to be sustainable on a sphere or ring world it would need mechanisms to regulate the carbon cycle.  These would also require a lot of power, as would the undoubtedly large number of other machines needed to maintain the environment of an artificial world.  The beauty of the Dyson sphere or strip is that they can function as Freeman Dyson originally intended: as super efficient collectors of solar energy.  The diurnal shade strips of a ring world could have giant solar panels on the sunward side; all that would be needed is a way to transmit the energy to the world's surface.  Similarly, a portion of the surface of a Dyson sphere could be dedicated to energy collection, and would received enough to meet all the the energy needs that world would ever require.

So the artificial world of Cidri is unimaginably huge because it needs to be.  A sphere or ring built around the sun is the best way to obtain the massive amounts of energy required to sustain the world's life support systems.  Whether Cidri is a ring or a sphere isn't really important; either one offers infinite adventure, and far more territory than any adventurers will ever be able to explore.  Constructing such a world is a big undertaking, but surely not beyond a people who possess the technological advancements of the entire multiverse.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Paint the Town Red! A Fantasy Tripper's Guide to Carousing

Who doesn't like a good drunken bacchanal?  Carousing is an intrinsic element of the sword & sorcery genre, and no mishap can befall our favourite Cimmerian that can't be put right with a flagon of wine and a winsome wench.  TFT even has a Carousing talent, so let's tap that keg and get the party started!

The most obvious benefit of the Carousing talent is a +1 bonus to reaction rolls in taverns.  This can be used for everything from securing companionship for the night, to talking your way out of a bar fight.  It could also be used as a +1 bonus to IQ on contested rolls when gambling, or as a +1 bonus to DX to cheat at gambling (slipping an ace out of your sleeve or surreptitiously producing your 'lucky' dice).  It could even provide a +1 bonus to initiative in bar fights that you were unable or uninterested in talking your way out of.  Carousing can also play a role in how characters gain at least some of their experience points.

There are many different ways of awarding experience points to characters in role playing games.  Awards are often made for killing monsters, or for completing quests, or, as in old school D&D, for acquiring treasure. How we choose to award experience dictates what the game, or your campaign, is all about, and it guides the behaviour and actions of the players.  If the bulk of the experience is awarded for the successful completion of quests, then players are going to be very mission-oriented.  If experience is largely awarded for killing monsters, then the players will sweep through dungeons like angels of death, exterminating everything in their path in the service of character advancement.

TFT's role playing rules, In the Labyrinth, present a rough guideline for awarding experience that is purposely vague to allow GMs to tailor experience awards to suit their own campaigns.  In general, the bulk of the experience comes as a group award at the end of each play session, while individuals can earn small bonus awards for skillful or amusing play.

Personally, I'm not fond of ad hoc experience awards, as it may put too much pressure on players to stand out.  Players contribute to the game in different ways, and while it's easy to single out dominant players or ones who are especially clever and funny, the contributions of quieter, introverted players may go unnoticed.  Sure, GMs can use ad hoc experience awards to reward the less obvious contributions of quiet players, but that puts the onus on the game master to be constantly looking for opportunities to make experience awards, and some game masters might be okay with that, but I feel I have enough on my plate just running the adventure.  I'm also not entirely fond of arbitrary group awards.  There's certainly nothing wrong with this method, but I prefer having a yardstick to measure the group's success each session rather than just spit-balling a group award, and for that I like to use treasure.

By linking experience to treasure I'm letting the players know how they should be tackling the adventures.  As anyone who has played it can attest, combat in TFT is deadly - more so than in most rpgs - and by awarding XP for treasure you let the players know that the only really important thing is coming home with the swag, no matter how they obtained it.  So they're free to explore alternative avenues of wealth acquisition that doesn't necessarily force them through the gauntlet of combat.  If they can use cunning or stealth to obtain a treasure horde, that's just as good as fighting their way through - better, actually, since they're more likely to make it out alive.  It also influences the types of characters that players make.  In my campaign you're going to see a lot of self-interested characters cut from the same mold as Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Han Solo, or Snake Plissken, and far fewer inspired by the likes of Sir Lancelot or Prince Valiant.  Sure, characters in my games will still end up saving the world, but more due to circumstance than design, and because it's where they keep all their stuff.

Of course one problem common to all fantasy rpgs is how to keep characters motivated once they have accumulated more treasure than they can ever possibly spend.  There's only so much stuff you can buy, and a lot of campaigns end up foundering when characters are swimming in money and magic items.  The challenge is to keep them hungry, and I do this by awarding XP not for treasure found, but for treasure squandered.  You ever notice that no matter how big a score pulled in by pulp sword & sorcery heroes of fiction, they're always flat-broke at the beginning of the next story?  The reason they're always broke is that they blow their score on women, booze, and gambling.

The idea of exchanging treasure for XP by carousing came from a post Jeff Rients wrote over on Jeff's Gameblog back in 2008.  It's a brilliant notion, and it inspired me to create my own carousing table, which I've been using in my home-brewed system ever since, and now I'm adapting it to TFT.

Carousing Tables
Characters may carouse at the end of each session that ends in a town or city where they can squander large sums of money and stir up trouble.  Carousing characters choose how much money they wish to spend, subject to the upper limit of their locale.  Gain 5 experience points for every $100 spent on revelry, and roll on the results table corresponding to the amount spent.  A character may spend any amount of silver they wish up to the maximum amount for size of the town or city they are in; after all, there’s only so much trouble you can get into in a small town with only one tavern, whereas a city-state offers far greater opportunities for debauchery.

Town or Keep: $300 max       Small City: $600 max      Large City: $1,000 max

Revels (Up to $300)          Boisterous Carouse ($301 - $600)    Drink the City Dry ($601 - $1,000)

1. Accused of Cheating     2.     Brutal hangover                            3.  Blackout
2. My shirt too?                 3.     Accused of cheating                     4.  I was just looking for a good time
3. Cut your losses              4.     My shirt too?                                 5.  Apparently you had a VERY good time
4. Who are you?                5-6.  Tattoo                                             6.  Brutal hangover
5. Interesting rumour       7-8.  Cut your losses                             7.  Give mortal offense
6. Win an item                    9.     Who are you?                               8.  My shirt too?
                                              10.    Your new best friend                  9-10.  What fresh Hell is this?
                                              11.     Win an item                                 11-12. Drunken vow
                                              12.    Tyche's favour                              13. Cut your losses
                                                                                                               14.  Who are you?
                                                                                                               15.  Your new best friend
                                                                                                               16. Tattoo
                                                                                                               17.  Win an item
                                                                                                               18.  Tyche's favour

Accused of cheating. Rightly or wrongly, you have been accused of cheating at dice or cards.  You: 1-3) get into a brawl, trash the establishment, and get banned from the premises; 4) are beaten and robbed by your accuser and his/her friends; 5) make an enemy; 6) get arrested.

Apparently you had a VERY good time. You have been arrested and charged with: 1) vandalism; 2) public debauchery; 3) theft; 4) assault; 5) grave robbing; 6) murder.

Blackout. You have no recollection of your bacchanal, but you wake up missing: 1) d% of all your money; 2) your armour; 3) your main weapon; 4) a miscellaneous item or spell book;  5) your clothes; 6) several important teeth.  Gain no XP from your revelry.

Brutal hangover. You’re afraid you might die, and even more afraid you won’t.  Suffer a -2 penalty on all ability checks the next day.

Cut your losses. You've spent your limit, and it's time to quit while the quitting's good.

Give mortal offence. You have gravely offended: 1) an influential priest; 2) a powerful sorcerer; 3) a captain of the guard; 4) a scion of a noble house; 5) a wealthy merchant; 6) a bureaucrat of the court.

Drunken vow. You’ve made an oath before the gods and they intend to hold you to it.  You are now under a Geis.

I was just looking for a good time! You wake up naked in: 1) a public garden; 2) a temple; 3) jail; 4) a nobleman’s harem; 5) an opium den; 6) deep trouble, bound to a sacrificial altar.

Interesting rumour. You overhear some juicy and potentially lucrative gossip.

My shirt, too? You suffer a run of bad luck, lose double your money.  If you don't have enough money to cover your losses, you will need to make arrangements for payment or expect a visit from hired goons.

What fresh Hell is this?  You are awakened by 1) painful sores on your nether region (get thee to a physicker!); 2) your new spouse; 3) your bed mate's angry husband, who demands satisfaction in the arena; 4) a summons to Thorsz's court; 5) a prophetic dream of imminent peril; 6) the galley slave with whom you now share an oar.

Who are you?. You wake up the next morning with: 1) the goats in an animal pen, and a reputation that's difficult to dispel; 2) the innkeeper's son or daughter; 3) the spouse of a powerful noble; 4) a slave whom you now seem to own; 5) an impatient prostitute demanding payment; 6) Thorsz's favourite concubine.

Tattoo. You get inked.  Your tattoo is: 1-3) bad-ass (owning player chooses what and where); 4) Lame and embarrassing (player to your left chooses what and where); 5) The name of the person with whom you spent the night - a proclamation undying love; 6) a spell, ritual, or ancient prophecy in arcane script.

Tyche’s favour. Luck is your mistress.  You: 1-4) win your money back; 5) win your money back plus 1d6 x $10; 6) win back double your money and make a dangerous enemy.

Win an item. Due to your luck at the gaming table you have come into possession of 1) a weapon; 2) a valuable gem; 3) jewelry; 4) a scroll; 5) a treasure map; 6) a religious relic.

Your new best friend. During your night of drunken revelry, you swore undying friendship to one of the following, and have become entangled in their sordid affairs: 1) the scion of a noble house; 2) a revolutionary; 3) a guild thief; 4) a priest of a proscribed religion; 5) a barbarian vagabond; 6) a wanted felon.

Of course it goes without saying that no one should feel beholden to the randomly rolled result if it is deemed to be inappropriate to the circumstances or preferences of the group; feel free to use the results for inspiration or make up something else altogether.  These are meant to be fun and to serve as a springboard for character sub-plots or even the focus of the next session's adventure.  I found that the end-of-session carousing was often one of the most popular activities with my players, who always seemed to enjoy a little random mayhem and hilarity to wrap up the evening's play and serve as a lead-in to the next session.

I've set the experience award for carousing to be a substantial supplement to experience gained during the course of an adventure, but this can easily be decreased if you prefer carousing to give a small xp bonus, or increased to make it the main source of xp gained.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Spider Men of Leng

In caverns far below the surface of the land of Leng dwell the favoured disciples of Atlach-Nacha, upon whom the spider god has bestowed its blessing - or curse.  These once-human cultists, the Spider Men, are now twisted abominations cast out from human society and doomed to dwell in the shadows, spending their lives in service to their god.

Interlopers into the subterranean realm may find themselves taken unawares by the Spider Men, subdued and carried off into the darkness never to be heard from again.  The fate of such unfortunates is unknown, but whether they are used as food, or sacrifice, or as hosts for broodlings, most agree that they would be better off dead than in the multi-armed hands of the Spider Men.

Horrific parodies of humans, the Spider Men possess eight arms, each terminating in a five-fingered hand, with which they can scuttle across rough terrain without impediment, and climb faster than the most agile of primates.  With their five eyes they can see as well in the absolute darkness of the abyss as in the light of day.  They lurk in their webs spun on cavern ceilings, waiting to drop upon unsuspecting prey, which they prefer to take alive for purposes known only to themselves.

Average Spider Man: ST 12, DX 14, IQ 10, MA 12
Talents and special abilities: Climbing; Dark Vision; paralytic venom (as per Freeze spell);  Unarmed Combat II; webbing (as per Rope spell)
Tactics: Spider Men will try to engage foes in HTH combat whenever possible, often dropping upon them from above, which counts as entering from a rear hex.  Because they can employ many hands, Spider Men may punch twice per turn at no penalty, and they receive a +4 DX bonus when attempting to pin an opponent.  They will then bite pinned victims to paralyze them (the bite itself does no damage).

Spider Men rarely use weapons, preferring to attack bare-handed, but those who were priests of the spider cult will be wizards and will attack with spells appropriate to their IQ score.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Release the Cephalophants!

Within the dank grottos of their gene-sculpters, the octopuses have bred a fearsome new amphibious war mount for raids-in-force on the coastal villages of the surface world. 

For generations, octopus raids have been small-scale incursions of a few dozen raiders scuttling from their tide pools to steal weapons and supplies.  But the creation of cephalophants - monstrous amphibious war beasts - have elevated the octopus threat from nuisance to a genuine menace capable of razing a small town in a matter of hours.

Unlike their masters, the thick leathery hide of the cephalophant protects it from desiccation, allowing it to remain on land for long periods of time, requiring only periodic submersion in a pond or stream to re-hydrate.

It is not unlikely that some cephalophants may be cut off or abandoned after battle, and left to roam wild.  Over time they may migrate along water ways and spread inland to form herds.  It is not known whether cephalophants are able to mate with normal elephants.

Cephalophant - ST 60, DX 13, IQ 8, MA 15, may attack with up to four trunkacles per turn striking single or multiple targets at range of 2 hexes, dealing 2 dice damage each; charge attack deals 4 dice damage to all targets in its front hexes; when trampling smaller foes (ITL pg. 126) the cephalophant has no chance of falling down; leathery hide stops 2 hits of damage.  Cephalophants are 9-hex creatures.

Optional Equipment - the battle regalia of the cephalophant includes bronze plates that have a 50% chance (roll 1-3 on 1 dice) of stopping an additional 5 hits from attacks against its frontal hexes, and incur a -1 DX penalty; if equipped with full barding. the normal rules apply (ITL pg. 132).  A howdah carrying up to three octopus riders may be equipped, incurring a -1 DX penalty.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Why Play TFT?

I've seen this question posed a number of times on message boards and social media pages, and of course it's impossible to tell someone you don't know why they should play a certain game.  But I think what is really being asked is what makes TFT different from every other game out there, and that's a fair question.  TFT is an old game, dating back to the early years of the hobby.  How does it stack up against all the other games out there today?  Does it offer something unique, or is it just one more RPG amongst many, of nostalgic interest only to aging gamers who played it 'back in the day?'

The short answer is that TFT offers a game experience and style of play that is as unique today as it was when Melee first hit the scene back in 1977.  But you didn't come here for the short answer.  Like the old lady in the Wendy's commercial, you want the beef.

As far as I know there is no other game like it, not even GURPS, which is descended from TFT and arose like a phoenix from the ashes of its forebear.  Although there are some superficial similarities to TFT, GURPS has an almost diametrically opposed ethos and offers a completely different style of play, as I discovered back in the '90's when I turned to GURPS as an alternative to my long-lost TFT (check out my previous post for that tragic tale of loss and regret).  Where GURPS is a highly detailed, complex, simulationist rule set with a heavy focus on realism, TFT goes in almost the exact opposite direction: a fast-paced, easy to learn system that eschews realism for playability.  In other words it is a highly gameist system, by which I mean that it is first and foremost a game, where playability and balance trump realism, as opposed to a simulationist system, where balance is downplayed in favour of simulating realistic situations.

Most games lie somewhere in the middle of the gameist/simulationist spectrum.  D&D, for example, has both gameist and simulationist mechanics. It awards experience for treasure as a way of keeping score in the game, reinforcing the idea that the way to 'win' the game is to acquire as much treasure as possible.  But AD&D also has a detailed weapon vs. armour class modifier table that assigns a bonus or penalty to hit for every weapon in the game to represent the reality that some weapons are better than others against certain types of armour.  TFT skews heavily to the gameist side of the spectrum, while GURPS skews heavily to the simulationist side.

TFT characters have only three attributes representing Strength (ST), Dexterity (DX), and Intelligence (IQ).  Human characters begin with a score of 8 in each attribute, with a further 8 points to distribute between the three.  The attributes are balanced so that creating your character is an exercise in trade-offs.  Do you want a high ST/ low DX character, or one with high DX and low ST?  Or maybe a balanced character with all attributes near the norm?  Every single point you assign to one attribute over another changes how the character performs and makes your decisions meaningful.  In order to hit in combat you must roll your DX score or less on 3d6.  Your ST determines not only your hit points but how much damage you dish out.  Your IQ determines the number and level of talents and spells your character can know and use.  The beauty of TFT is that no character build is obviously superior to another.  Each is equally valid, and requires you to develop tactics to exploit your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

Herein lies the gameist element of the system; the mechanics of TFT are not grounded in realism, but in balance and playability.  You must have a minimum IQ score to be able to learn certain spells or certain talents; they are grouped by IQ level, so you can't learn a talent or a spell of an IQ level higher than your own.  Weapons are grouped by ST; light weapons, such as daggers or rapiers have a low ST minimum, but deal little damage.  Heavy weapons such as great swords have high ST minimums and deal a large amount of damage.  This is, of course, completely unrealistic, and the weapon weights and the strengths required to wield them do not reflect the real world.  For example a great sword weighs 15 lbs (about twice as much as a real great sword) and requires a ST of 16 or more to wield.  The ST of an average human is 10, so you need to be extraordinarily strong to use a great sword in TFT (in reality even the feeblest among us could easily wield a great sword).

Armour in TFT acts to mitigate damage.  The heavier the armour you wear, the more damage it stops, and the greater the DX penalty you incur for wearing it.  Plate armour and a large shield stops 7 hits of damage per attack, but also confers a -6 penalty to DX, so an average person with 10 DX would have an adjusted DX of only 4!  This makes it really hard to hit enemies in combat, although you always hit on a roll of 5 or less regardless of your adj DX.  The DX penalty confered by armour also makes going without it a valid choice; suicidal in real life, but fully in line with the tropes of the sword & sorcery genre, making loincloth-wearing barbarians, and amazons in chain mail bikinis viable characters.   Again there is a trade-off between protection offered by armour and the penalty to your DX.  This is all very unrealistic; in truth a person in plate armour is not much less spry than an unarmoured person, and the benefit of extra protection makes armour mandatory in any realistic combat simulation.  This doesn't matter though, because the system works so well; the ST/DX/IQ trade-offs are why the choices you make during character creation are so meaningful.  There are no dump-stats in TFT, and every choice you make has pros and cons.  So if you want to run buck naked like Dejah Thoris across the martian landscape have at; you'll hit more often in combat, but one critical hit could end you.

Another unique feature of TFT is that, because it is an elaboration of Melee and Wizard, it is a more tactical game than most other rpgs.  Rather than simply running up to your enemies and taking turns hitting each other until one side dies, there are many movement and attack options that significantly influence the outcome of a battle.  The tactical nature of the game does not make it complicated or rules-heavy though; it remains fast-paced and easy to learn.  It's sort of like chess; you can learn to play in just a few minutes, but tactical mastery may take you years to achieve, making the game endlessly engaging and fun.

The third feature of TFT is how easy it is, not just to play, but also to game master.  I recounted in my last post the story of how bad a game master I was when I first started playing D&D in my early teens.  I suffered performance anxiety and stage fright during every session, and it was not until I tried TFT that I actually started enjoying myself.  With only three attributes and a dead simple mechanic, running adventures on the fly is a breeze, more so with this game than any other I have ever played.

So to sum up the prominent features of TFT:
1) Very easy to learn, but challenging to master.  Combat will hold your interest for years.
2) A player's choices, both during character creation and advancement, and during combat have a very real impact on the game and on the tactics you adopt to fight a battle.
3) There is no right or wrong way to make a character; however you choose to build them they will have strengths and weaknesses.
4) Incredibly easy on the game master.  NPCs can be created on the fly by jotting down three attributes on a scrap of paper.

If lack of realism really bothers you, then TFT might not be to your taste, but if you're okay with playing a game that revels in its gaminess then maybe you should play TFT.  Likewise if you're a 'theater of the mind' type who abhors the idea of playing with miniatures or counters on a battle map, maybe you need to look elsewhere.  But if you love miniatures as I do, then this may be the game for you.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Back in the Labyrinth

Hello, my friends.  It's been three years since my last post and I very much doubt anyone is still following this blog, but on the off chance that any of my old school gaming and blogging friends are still tuning in I want to explain my prolonged absence. 

Not long after my last post I was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer and the shock of it, and the subsequent depression, sucked away my motivation to do much of anything.  I stopped writing, stopped gaming, stopped blogging.  I stopped doing just about everything that gave me joy.  I didn't want to give these things up, but I just couldn't muster the enthusiasm or energy to carry on with them, or even to care about what I was giving up.

Now here I am, three years later, still alive and now out of that funk of depression I'd fallen into.  I'm still living with cancer, but I'm used to it now; humans are amazingly adaptable and we can adjust to nearly any change in circumstances and make it our new normal.  Also, my current prognosis is much more encouraging than when I was first diagnosed, and I expect to be around for many years to come.

The thing that has inspired me to resurrect this dusty old blog is the return of The Fantasy Trip.  As most of you have probably heard, a couple of years ago Steve Jackson reacquired the rights to his first role-playing game, long held by Howard Thompson, publisher of Metagaming.  Last summer, Steve Jackson Games launched a Kickstarter campaign to republish TFT in all its glory.  I jumped on board the moment I heard about it, and a few days ago my TFT Legacy Edition boxed set arrived in the mail, almost exactly 39 years after first being introduced to TFT at the age of fourteen.

TFT holds a very special place in my heart.  Like many of us, I entered the gaming hobby with the Holmes edition D&D Basic set, and my previous gaming experience was limited to the usual suite of Parker Brothers board games like Monopoly and Payday.  The closest thing to an rpg I'd ever played was Clue.  As such, I found myself quite overwhelmed trying to figure D&D out, and my first session as a game master, running Keep on the Borderlands, was an unmitigated disaster.  I had no clue what I was doing, and my inadequacies were exacerbated by a serious case of stage fright.  Nonetheless I was hooked, as were most of my friends who played in that first session cluster-fuck, and they kept coming back for more instead of finding something better to do with their Saturday afternoons.  There is a magical allure to role-playing games that no amount of incompetence can quash.

I'd like to say that I quickly got the hang of things and became a great game master, but I didn't.  I continued to suck.  Hard.  And I couldn't shake that stage fright; the paralyzing fear of getting everything wrong just got worse with every mistake I made, and I made a lot of them.  Game sessions bogged down as I searched the rule book to figure out how things were supposed to work, I read aloud text from adventure modules that shouldn't have been read aloud, giving away surprises and ruining the fun, I was challenged on nearly every ruling, and felt the icy cold lump of fear settle into my stomach and make me want to slink down behind my GM screen and not come out.  On the bright side, my doctoral defense two decades later was a piece of cake by comparison; the committee members who attacked my thesis had nothing on a group of fourteen-year-old gamers.

The turning point in my game master experience came after I discovered TFT.  I started out buying Melee and Wizard, played some games with friends, and spent the better part of a summer playing arena matches by myself while my friends were away on family vacations.  I ran many a character through the solitaire adventure, Death Test, and by the time I finally picked up the role-playing rule book, In the Labyrinth, I had already mastered the game's combat and magic systems.  When I ran my first ITL adventure for my friends that old stage fright faded away.  There was very little to look up, and I didn't use any published adventures; the system was so elegantly simple I just ad-libbed the adventure as I went along.  And for the first time in my life I enjoyed being a game master.  I just let the players determine the course of the adventure and responded to their actions instead of forcing them down the railroad tracks of the prepared module; I made up quirky NPCs and spoke with funny voices; I had fun.  My group's favourite antagonist was Malcolm Brinebester, the local tax collector who had an uncanny knack for sensing when the characters were just back from an adventure with overladen swag sacks in need of redistribution to the crown.  I suspect my players devoted nearly as much time giving Malcolm the slip as they did fighting orcs.

Throughout my high school years I played many different games from a variety of genres: Traveller, Top Secret, Gamma World, Call of Cthulhu, Ysgarth, The Morrow Project, Champions, and on and on.  But TFT has always been special to me; it was the game that taught me how to be a game master.

And then disaster struck.  Shortly after high school I joined the navy and left home with naught but a duffle bag, and while I was away my mother cleared out my room and threw away most of my gaming stuff.  Including all my TFT books.  For decades I've desperately wanted to reacquire TFT, but I was never able to find used copies for a reasonable price.  So naturally, when the opportunity arose to support the campaign to relaunch the game I was all in, and I'm finally reunited with this wonderful game after far too many years.  I'm playing Melee and Wizard arena battles by myself again, and soon I'll be pitting myself against the challenge of the Death Test once again.  Will fifty-three-year-old Sean be any more successful than my fourteen-year-old-self?  Stay tuned.  I'm back in the labyrinth.