Of Fantasy and Fitness

IMG_0015Tolkien’s hobbits, with their mills and postal service and gardeners, are “historically” anachronistic, and as such even the hobbit heroes prefer their adventures tucked safely away in books where they belong while the hobbits themselves stay snug in their holes with their pipes and their beer and their warming fires. I’m going to use this as a model of modernity, and yet the hobbits’ culture is not entirely our own. It can be assumed that their prodigious amounts of comfort food are grown by themselves, organically, which requires hard work; their children roam the fields and forests in search of physical entertainments, and, again, their more specifically “escapist” entertainments are in books, not in video screens and headsets and speakers as they are for so many in our current generation.

There is much psychological ore to be mined out of this need — even for those of us lucky enough to be living in periods and places of relative safety and prosperity — to yearn for and fantasize for difficult, violent, even horrific times and situations. This little essay makes no attempt to address such a difficult dichotomy. Instead I want to address the apparent disparity between what so many moderns appear to value in their fantasies vs their behaviors in “reality.”

With what I’m about to say, I do not intend to perpetuate the stereotype that gamers are sugar-addicted, fat and lazy (or thin and hyperactive, for that matter). Indeed, I’m not sure if the health problems and lifestyle choices that assail the gamer community are significantly larger in proportion than those within any sub-community within the developed western and westernized nations. What I’m addressing is the disparity between the health of many gamers vs what I’m assuming must be their idealized selves.

A close friend has shared with me that, in his 20s, he struck upon a profound and transformative insight. He had been spending hours of his “real” life exercising his Grand Theft Auto character to improve that character’s abilities. And then he thought, “I can do this to myself. For real.” And he did. He became a lean and muscular man.

I didn’t pay much attention to my own health during high school and in my 20s. Perhaps it had something to do with that legendary sense of invulnerability or that belief that one has all the time in the world (or too little of it, conversely, for the apocalyptically minded who believe they are fated to die like a rockstar at 27). Or perhaps it has something to do with the stereotypical apathy of youth. But I had been raised by a mother who had put good stuff into me — she had been ahead of the curve from everything from healthy, organic eating to avoiding all things artificial such as synthetic clothes and carpeting and perfumes. I had a genetic reserve from which, during my coming-of-age, I made extensive withdrawals. However, as it says in the Bible, raise a child in the ways of the Lord and, when he is older, he will not depart from it: as an adult, I returned to my mother’s “faith.”

Still, though I try to follow a correct diet now, though I get plenty of exercise by walking, whenever possible, to my destinations, and though I get even more exercise through gardening and added benefits from eating organic fruits grown by my own hands, I still don’t exercise enough to reach my fantasy ideal. This is because exercise–real exercise–is just so boring. In a very real way modernity has turned much of humanity into caged hamsters. No longer do humans grow to heroic statures by adhering to the evolutionary tradition of farming by hand, by hunting and tracking and fishing and yes, I suppose, by warring, but instead they run, indoors, on a moving track, or they pull on weighted pulleys, all the while surrounded by glowing screens and inspirational rock or metal music.

So, as I’ve said, I get it. Modern difficulty with diet is one thing, because of addictions to sugars and fats and even more nefarious substances such as artificial colors and sweeteners, but the sheer act of physical activity, without any apparent purpose outside of the act itself, is boring. We try to make this second more entertaining by, as I said, listening to music (I myself listen to Wardruna while on the rowing machine) or watching something on a screen, but, for many of us, this is not enough.

For awhile there I thought our fantasy entertainment itself might save us from our sedentary disasters. It’s no secret that many of us seek greater and greater immersion in our fantasy entertainment. Hence the Oculus Rift. But before I gave up playing video games, after completing the beautiful Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I would have thought gamers would want more than mere 3D surround. I was waiting for full interaction. You know what I’m talking about, right? If a player desires to swing a sword, she would have to actually swing a virtual weapon, not press a button. If he wants to run to or from enemies, he would have to actually run, not toggle a joystick. In this way, I had dreamed, one would be able to fully immerse oneself in the fantasy. As a fortunate side effect, one could get physically fit, getting all that closer to being the actual ideal rather than just dreaming about it.

Innovations slightly like this, I understand, have been attempted. But I hear that they haven’t worked so well. First, shortcuts around the fully intended effect have been found (flicking the wrist, for example, rather than fully swinging the arm). Second, anecdotally I have heard that many gamers have pushed back at the notion of true physicality in their games. In other words, they would rather that the experience remain wholly in the realm of idealized fantasy in the mind rather than it actually intrude onto their physical bodies in the form of sweating pores and racing hearts.

One reader of the current Dark Horse run of Conan comics, in criticizing a leaner representation of a youthful Conan, said he read and looked at Conan for workout inspiration. I can relate. When I read Conan, and feel his savage heart burning inside my own, and look at all those beautiful bodies that Conan gets to enjoy, I am motivated to do the same. So I’m surprised that this doesn’t happen more often. It seems like the marriage of the ideal forms to real action in a video game should be the answer.

But I suppose that some people — perhaps even most of us — just don’t like physical activity. Moreover, maybe people aren’t motivated by fantasy because the nature of their favorite fantasies themselves might be different from what I’ve been talking about. Both Tolkien’s and Howard’s fantasies, after all, were more grounded in reality than not. Off hand, I can think of no better articulation of this than what is described in ACKS’s recent Kickstarter. These days, however, our heroes don’t need to work for it. They receive or are born with these “powers” and bam wammo! (In fact, many characters receive their powers through victimization of some sort — what might this say about our psychological zeitgeist?) No need to work out, no need to eat right, no need to do much at all unless one is drawn into a situation or happens to have a sense of moral uprightness or social responsibility. Even properties that are allegedly backward-looking towards premodernity, such as the furthest iterations of D&D and Pathfinder and World of Warcraft and (possibly?) League of Legends, have lightning blasting out of people’s fingers and atomic-blast magic swords so large no figure that slight possibly should be able to lift them and spells that give the powers of speed and flight and even teleportation. When these figures are the ideals it’s clear why actual physical activity is, at least in the popular imagination, so devalued.

To reiterate, I’m not sure what all of this means for our psychological zeitgeist, but I hope to use my gaming to inform my active life and, conversely, my active life (through endorphins and actual experience and inspiration — exercise has been proven to increase creativity and intelligence, after all!) to inform my gaming life. Skol!

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Simplified Mass Combat Rules

IMG_0014I get the impression that, in the gaming community, Grappling rules are the bane of many. I don’t disagree. I’ll say, though, that I find the recommendations in Swords & Wizardry Complete to be fairly serviceable. I’ll withhold ultimate judgment until I see how they run in my Beowulf campaign. (Hint: the SW grappling rules might be the only tool players might have to overcome a certain creature who is entirely immune to natural weapons!)

Another component of the rpg world that I often have problems with is Mass Combat. The foundations of the industry are fascinating in this respect, considering that, though roleplaying appears to have arisen out of the culture of large-scale wargaming, in most rpgs a truly serviceable mass combat rules set (at least for me) is difficult to come by. I myself have not read the Original Game, but I believe that, at that time, if combat were to break out during a session, the players were directed to refer to the Chain Mail rules also published by TSR.

Anyway, it’s no secret anymore why mass combat might feel out of alignment in a roleplaying game: roleplaying is about the small scale, the individual, the single against the one, or against the many, or against the room or wilderness. Roleplaying games are designed to tell stories about discrete characters; they’re less interested in platoons. What’s more, roleplaying games are supposed to be exciting. They’re supposed to be about the threats against the players’ single (or handfuls of) characters. They’re supposed to be about these individuals surviving, about consequences that matter, not about nameless troop numbers lost over a series of military engagements. Roleplaying games are about managing an individual’s resources, not about managing a war (and consequently a kingdom).

Aha, you say. Yes, I admit it. You have got me there. True, at high enough levels, the OSR is too about managing kingdoms. Unfortunately, however, my games have yet to reach those levels. My Pathfinder game died, I suppose, at the time when PCs were supposed to be thinking about settling down and raising their kingdoms. I hope that, in the future, I can experience kingdom building within a more manageable rules set. I understand that the Adventurer Conqueror King System has excellent rules for every stage of the hero’s journey (that journey, incidentally, is described right there in the game’s title), but I foolishly ignored an opportunity to get every PDF in that system during a Bundle of Holding drive, and now I’m stubbornly waiting for that sale to come around again. (Another important drive I missed was The One Ring — arggh!)

Old Norse Old School Roleplaying presents a challenge for a creator who does not appreciate nor particularly care for the minutiae of most Mass Combat rules. This is because, obviously, Norsepersons (yes, usually Norsemen, but I’m being inclusive here) went to war. Swords & Wizardry Complete again presents a pretty serviceable vehicle for mass combat resolution. Still, it’s a mite too finicky for me. The tracking of individual units seems cumbersome. My philosophy for roleplaying, I suppose, is that a mass combat situation is supposed to be a backdrop for the continuing adventures of the player characters. This does not mean that the mass combat situation is unimportant. It should be important, and it should be important enough that player actions should influence the outcome of the combat. But I also believe that, during a large scale battle, neither the players nor the Referee need to pay close attention to what is going on outside of the players actions.

The inspiration that came to me, then, was to allow the outcome of the battle — the backdrop for the PCs — to be determined by probabilities, probabilities that could be affected by PC actions. I decided on a 6-sided die as a suitable range of probabilities, this choice reinforced by the further inspiration of using a traditional Random Encounter roll (usually a 1 in 6) to add dynamism to a mechanic that could, quite quickly, become a few tedious minutes of rolling dice in pursuit of an inevitable conclusion. Here’s what I came up with:

Simplified Mass Combat

For mass combat rules, it can be assumed that the forces are equally matched (otherwise why would the lighter force even risk an engagement). For unequal conflicts, the Referee should rule whatever outcome is most probable. The outcome of roughly equal mass combat is resolved through a series of rolls of a single d6. Simple mass combat, as suggested in Swords & Wizardry Complete, is timed in Turns.

During the first Turn of mass combat, each side has a 3 in 6 chance to begin to gain the ascendency. The force opposing the PCs’ side wins a Turn on a roll of 1 to 3; the PCs’ side wins a Turn on a roll of 4 to 6. This probability is modified with terrain and the usual effects. Usually a single effect is a .5 modification with no group of modifications typically exceeding 1.5 on either side.

The die is rolled at the conclusion of a single Turn, after PCs have attempted their individual actions (see below) and after the Referee has rolled and resolved a Random Encounter.

If either side wins a Turn, its probability of winning the next Turn is increased by one.

PCs in Mass Combat

Each Turn the PCs decide with the Referee what they are going to do to turn the tide of battle to their side’s favor. Together they decide if these collective actions will be worth a modifier of .5-1.5 on the die roll. Once everyone is agreed, the PCs perform their actions. These actions could be engaging in melee combat with the opposing force’s leader, sniping the standard bearer from afar, leading a special force against the opposing force’s flank, etc. If the PCs succeed in these actions, using up as many Rounds in the Turn that these actions might require, the bonuses to the next die roll might be gained. Alternatively, depending on how drastic their failures were, the PCs might suffer a penalty to their side’s die roll.

The winner of the die roll raises the odds in that side’s favor by a whole point, and the process begins again with the beginning of the next Turn.

Random Encounter

Moreover, near the end of each Turn, after the PCs have decided upon and begun their independent actions, the Referee makes a d6 roll per the typical Random Encounter check. On a roll of 1 (or more, depending on the situation), some unforeseen circumstance occurs to shift the battle away from the favor of the PCs. This might be surprise enemy reinforcements, a landslide, a sudden betrayal, etc., and should directly complicate the PCs’ actions. If the PCs are not able to deal with this development, or if it nullifies the PCs’ intended actions, that Turn’s die roll favors the other side by 1.

The side that wins is the side that eventually gains enough modifiers to remove the necessity of a die roll per Turn. This is below 1 for the PCs and above 6 for the opponents.

Swords & Wizardry Light for my Beowulf Campaign?

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So Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day comes along, and I finally get to “go live” with my announcement of Old Norse Old School Roleplaying (thanks, everyone, who celebrated or noted my contributions on social media). On that day, after joining the Swords & Wizardry Legion on Facebook, I started paying more attention to this Swords & Wizardry Light (SWL) stuff. I’m unsure of exactly when and how this “Fast-Play Fantasy” first caught my eye. I’m deciding that it was at Gamehole Con 2015 (I have the four-page pamphlet in my stuff). I’m guessing that I looked at it, thought, “What would I do with this?” and then tucked it away in my “big” books of Swords & Wizardry Complete and sundries.

At the end of August there will be a gaming convention right next door to me, and, if everything works out, that will be the first convention at which I will run my Beowulf campaign. So I got to thinking if, so as better to meet the mission of the Legion to expand awareness of SWL in particular, the campaign might be adapted to SWL. As a result, I spent a very happy couple hours on Appreciation Day doing just that.

Introducing SWL to my ONOSR/Beowulf game was an inspiration. In the game’s first formation, my Beowulf campaign was going to make ample use of pregens. But SWL, by limiting and streamlining options, paradoxically empowers players to create their own characters before a session, which in all likelihood, at a convention, will be a one-shot. Of course, characters can be rolled up before nearly any traditional Swords & Wizardry (SW) event, but I suspect that ONOSR presents some innovations and alterations that might present a learning curve for even the most experienced SW gamers. After looking at SWL, it appeared to be a wise move to minimize the Aspect options of ONOSR and to use the time saved to clearly and carefully present the other ONOSR innovations. To do this, I used Tenkar’s template and order of rules of SWL. I was able even to shorten the document by outright deleting Races (I chose not to use the ONOSR Race options) and a lot of unnecessary items such as Equipment and Monster lists, which I know, at a moment, I can draw out of many other materials at my table.

All of this was proceeding easily enough until I encountered two snags, the first of which, Tenkar’s formulation of the Fighter, was fairly easily avoided. Here was the apparent snare: the Fighter in SWL enjoys a Base Attack Bonus of +1 at 2nd Level and +2 at 3rd Level. All characters in ONOSR are Fighters. Moreover, the Beowulf campaign had been designed for ONOSR characters (Fighters) of 8th Level. Now, SWL only provides rules for up to 3rd level. For groups who want to play beyond third level, SWL says, consult Swords & Wizardry Complete. I suppose this would mean, then, that Fighters moving onto Complete would remain at BAB +2 for two more levels per the normal rules. No problem then: my 8th level PCs would enjoy the +5 BAB as usual. (After thinking this through, I’m really looking forward to what Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is going to do with this; the apparent pattern, according to SWL, is for Fighters to receive a +1 BAB at every level!)

Now that I think of it, the second SWL innovation didn’t give me much trouble either, but it incited a fair degree of thought about game design. This second innovation, of course, is the limiting of dice to just 20s and 6s. I began my Beowulf conversion by keeping true to the vision of SWL (otherwise it wouldn’t really be SWL, right?). Okay, I said to myself, working my way through a copied version of my Beowulf campaign, that damage roll can be 1d6-1, that one a 1d6. But when I started coming across my homebrewed percentile charts and Encounter Tables that, in the time of original composition, I had made to use dice that are not 20s and 6s because, well, because I own dice like that and I might as well make use of them, that I decided to give the thing up. Well, okay, to clarify, I decided at first that I would allow those dice when required for my charts and tables. But then, I thought, if I was going to allow those dice on one side of the screen, why not on the other, as well?

Yes, it came around to me, why? The desire for even smaller rules I understand. As I started asking these questions, I investigated what others were saying on social media. People are asking a lot of questions about SWL, and it seems that the best answer to the overall question of why a micro-game like SWL is because it is conducive for convention play. And this is precisely the reason why I experimented with the Beowulf conversion and am very thankful for it. In fact, I think my Beowulf game is going to be better for this! But what I still don’t understand is what benefit is received by leaving out those other dice in the dice bag. I mean, who doesn’t have those dice? If someone can own a 20, it’s likely that that same person can own the rest. This is not the 90s wherein I can still relate to the writer of the Hero System who says go pillage Yahtzee and those Monopoly sets in the family game closet so that you can play a roleplaying game you out-of-money kid; aren’t you glad my system eschews polyhedrals? But polyhedrals are cool! Who doesn’t enjoy a vast variety of polyhedrals? For a while I was enamored with systems that used only one kind of die. For some reason I had the idea that those systems were cleaner, more elegant. But this isn’t true. I’ve found it’s much more useful to have every tool at hand when one needs a number between, say, one and four rather than to make do with something formulated out of a d6 and a d10 for no other reason than that those are the dice that that particular game uses.

Anyway, what I ended up doing was to use the SWL idea but to key characters to Swords & Wizardry Complete level advancement and to a full dice bag. I hope this still will qualify my game for the Legion. And in the meantime, I wonder why Tenkar made the choices that he did.

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day 2017: Intoducing Old Norse Old School Roleplaying!

SWHere is my small contribution to Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day 2017: Old Norse Old School Roleplaying.

I suppose this project began last October when I designed a one-shot using the Yggdrasill system for Gamehole Con 2016. Before the con I playtested the game once and fretted that I still was not prepared for the event. It was one measure of relief, therefore, but also another measure of disappointment, when, at the time of my game, not a single person showed up.

I developed some theories about why no one came. These aren’t mutually exclusive theories, of course, and they’re listed here in no particular order:

  1. No one knows who I am. I know that when I joined games at that con they were being run by creators such as Jeff Talanian (for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea) and Matt Finch (for Swords & Wizardry).
  2. No one knew what the event really was. Ultimately I titled the adventure “The Boon of Barrow-Isle,” but the quick pitch I sent to Gamehole Con was the pulpy-sounding “Island of Death.” Yggdrasill is a particular and esoteric system, a game designed by the French company Le 7eme Cercle and translated and republished by the English company Cubicle 7 (better known for its One Ring and Doctor Who properties). Yggdrasill emulates specifically an Old Norse milieu.
  3. No one cared about the system. Or they didn’t want to bother learning something new, particularly for a one shot. Now, many at cons might seek out new game experiences (I know I do), but I couldn’t help but notice that the D&D Adventurer’s League room was filled to bursting and that the overwhelming majority of smaller tables had running on them, if not a recent version of D&D, in most cases some earlier iteration of it.

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