Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Done with high fantasy

I'm done with high fantasy.

I've never been much of a reader of high fantasy. All the big guys, Tolkein, Eddings, kind of put me to sleep. I read stuff that has elements of modernity in it... largely because I feel I can relate to the ethical choices better. But I like myth and magic, which I look at as recombinant whimsy, taking pieces of biology and physics and fantasy and smooshing them all together into something cool. So, I'm always reading fantasy of some kind.

On the other hand, I've always run and played high fantasy games, via Dugeons and Dragons. Oh, yeah, I dabbled in Vampire and Superhero games. I ran some Gamma World and played some Boot Hill. But they were always hard for me to get ahold of for some reason. Went back to DND. A couple of years ago, though, I picked up DND 4e and tried to run a couple of sessions, and it just left me cold. So I left the running to the very capable hands of one of the players at my table. And I played. Just, done with it.

There's a lot of other things mixed in to that "event". DND 3.0 was a very high maintenance game. Between career and trying to write and family andandandandand, it's just become hard to sit down for the blocks of time I need to make a story out some numbers and strategy. The story is never a problem. That practically comes vomiting out of my head in a fuge state... but the numbers and strategies to make it feel a little real, make the other players at the table feel like there was a little resistance in the world, that was harder.

Sometimes, I think part of my disconnect with high fantasy novels is how narrowly they view the genre. It's all dwarves and orcs and Mary Sue humans with no compunction about killing at all. Then again, add some guns and cool pets to that recipie, as per WOW, and I'm all over it. How shallow am I?

But games, man... it didn't matter how limited the sourcebooks were, there was another one around the corner. And a good GM was willing to let you make that sorcerer chick in a chainmail bikini YOURs. "Yeah, my wizard rides around in a giant metal dragon...'cause I'm that kind of badass." You could add a colorful skin to the goofy mechanics. My first DND character ever was a centaur wizard, badassery incarnate.

And it's not that I don't like the 4.0 game, it's just that I feel alienated from it. Part of the disconnect there is training. Monster stats don't look like a stat block to me. I've never really read game books. The prose is atrocious, and I'd rather play in my own mental gardens anyway. But now, I scan the rulebooks and don't really see the tools that I habitually looked at all my life. The exciting parts of the game. The bits of rules that made the fantastic graspable for me.

4.0 just doesn't feel skinnable.

I like the whimsy of fantasy. The speculative ecosystems and cultures. But I like to tell stories that are personal and consequential. Unepic fantasy. Fairy tales about personal choice.

I'd like to say I'm not done with gaming. Certainly not playing, but not running, either. But I only have so much more apetite for DND. I'd like to pursue the 4.0 Gamma World. I'm thinking of reskinning GW as a Singularity Apocalypse game, with nanotechnology mutations and shit. I've even thought about picking up...gasp... World of Darkness.

But probably not high fantasy again, unless Pathfinder really impresses me at Gen Con. Even then, I might rather wait for Pathfinder Modern.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Chaositech - a review

Chaositech by Monte Cook (d20 Supplement)
Disclaimer A: If you aren't a role playing gamer or biiiig geek, the following review will probably mean nothing to you.
Disclaimer B: This is for an old, old product. It was on my old website, it probably still has applicability to them what still plays 3e, and I thought it was a nice piece of writing. But it is so totally marginal to your understanding of anything.
After reading various pieces of Monte Cooks's game writing and prose (Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, The Book of Vile Darkness, Ghostwalk, Of Aged Angels, Requiem for a God, and Book of Eldritch Might II), I've decided that what I like most about his writing are his set pieces: Like Gary Gygax's classic adventures or a Stephen King novel, he leaves interesting facts and details for you to discover and use or chew over.
I also like to use elements of randomness in my games, especially things like mutation, mostly because the story value of maiming a protagonist can never be underestimated. It adds a sense of risk to the proceedings without actually killing a valued PC. One game that I ran had characters running around using demon ichor to create random mutations in themselves and others. We had a giant blue elf, a six foot jackelope, and a headless angel by the end of it. It was grandly phantasmagorical, and gave interesting back story for the characters to chew on as they tried to reverse their transformations or learn to use them to the fullest.
I figured Chaositech would address both of those interests nicely, and wasn't disappointed.
Chaositech is rewarding to anyone who wants to add a layer of the outrageous to their campaign.
What is Chaositech? It's the title of a 112 page sourcebook describing an eponymous suite of FX. According to Malhavoc's web site, Chaositech "Introduces chaos-powered items that resemble both technology and magic, but are truly neither."
In a flavor sense, what this translates into is a sort of Cthulhu-Punk. This impression is reinforced by the octopoidal, mi-go and tsotheguish illustrations of the Galchutt, ancient outsiders who wish to destroy the universe. They encourage human cultists to do vile things to their bodies and souls in exchange for chaositech.
In a game sense, what this translates into is an a-magical suite of FX rules. The Galchutt can give you ray guns, or cybernetics, or mutation powers so that you can serve them better. Much like psionics, chaositech is doesn't interact with magic. Dispel magic and anti-magic fields don't work against it.
Although not labeled as such, Chaositech is essentially an event book: it adds a set of rules for gaming in a specific context, that of opposing the technologically enhanced servants of chaos. It's a little different from Malhavoc's other event books in that, unlike Dogs of War or Requiem for a God, it adds a brand new genre element to heroic fantasy: techno-fantasy or Cthulhu-punk.
What this means at it's most shallow level is that you have to decide if your game needs another flavor of FX or another timeless evil. However, I think Chaositech can used in lots of ways: out of the box to add a specific set of elements to your game, by mining it for rules subsets, or by converting what's there to more standard DND fare.
The first chapter gives a framework to fully integrate chaositech and the Galchutt into an ongoing game. I think the product works best in parts as opposed to as a suite. For all of its flavor, I wouldn't dump chaositech whole hog into my DND game.
Why? Well, the law-chaos axis is going to be extremely important in my next campaign. Chaositech is consistently represented as evil of the vile stripe. I prefer chaos to be represented more in its freewheeling aspect of complexity than it's destructive guise. However, the templates for mutants may come in handy.
And I don't want to tie the pseudo-science in my game to chaos. I want it to have a less disposable, more steampunk feel. As if it is a permanent, evolving part of the world. But some of the individual chaositech devices are very inspirational.
I also wouldn't include chaositech in any campaign that already uses psionics, with one caveat which I will mention later. Two non-magic FX sets in a heroic fantasy game seems like kitchen sinking to me, but that's a matter of taste.
Chaositech's greatest strength is in introducing new rules subsets. There are rules for items that have a short lifespan (non-intrinsic chaositech devices, which blow up on a critical miss) damage the user (intrinsic devices, which plug into the user and do ability damage on a critical miss), and items that damage or change the owner or their surroundings (all chaositech items can cause mutations, change alignment, and rot other items through long exposure). What use are these kinds of rules? Who wants a magic weapon that decays after it's been used, or that damages them?
Well, nobody wants them. But they make for good story elements. Taken together, they add a flavor that compliments a very specific type of foe: The Galchutt, fickle abominations who maim or discard their servants on a whim. Taken separately, they emulate concepts common in the fantasy and science fiction genre: unstable devices that fall apart after awhile, magic items that eat a little bit of your soul every time you use them, or change you through long exposure to evil forces. These rules would also be a tidy way to handle the failure of old technology in a gamma world style campaign. Although they are very intertwined with chaositech, it would be easy to untangle them. There's no reason non-intrinsic (extrinsic?) devices have to be unstable. There's no reason a cursed weapon shouldn't eat it's bearer's charisma on a critical miss.
There are also rules sets that could mimic cybernetics fairly well. Called the betrayal of flesh, Chaositech presents organic or non-organic devices that become a part of you. Mutations are represented as a monster template, making it useful for characters by giving them an experience point cost (much like monster classes). And mutation implicitly, if not explicitly, change the character's ECL.
Each of these rulesets seem balanced for play. Mr. Cook's guidelines for pricing chaositech objects uses a formula very similar to magic items: level and caster level of the FX effect (a similar spell) multiplied by 1500, which is midway between the multiplier for command word and use operated devices. Using the devices without chaotic backlash or symbiotic damage essentially means that you need to add 25% to the value of them.
"The final price takes into account the fact that most chaositech items are effectively use activated, that they have 20 charges or uses before they need refueling, and that they are not subject to things like spell resistance or antimagic." Mr. Cook says in a sidebar about pricing chaositech on pg 21.
The twenty charges before refueling is overshadowed by the fact that they have about the same chance (1 in 20 chance) of self-destructing. That's really twenty charges, but luck could be with a character. I'm guessing pricing also takes into account things like the damage caused by, and the in game time eaten by, surgery.
A shallow comparison of the items's cost looks fairly balanced. Disease mucor, for example, costs 600 gp as opposed 750 GP for a potion of remove disease. It also wipes you out, bestowing a -4 penalty to attack rolls and saving throws. Hence the discount.
Ear and eye serum are the two halves of cure blindness/deafness, and do ability damage (I especially like the description given for ear serum: "For a brief moment during the repair process the creature hears the cacophonous sounds of the music of true chaos, which jars her sanity."). They cost 200 GP, 1/3 the cost of a third level potion for splitting up the effect.
The shock sheath, a new flesh graft, is priced at 18,000 GP Considering 18,000 GP for electricity resistance 10, 2000 GP for adding 1d6 electrical damage to unarmed attacks (probably doubled for being a multiple effect), and then 25% off for being chaositech brings it back to about 18,000 GP all right.
Some items look idiosyncratically priced. The steam ax, for instance, deals an extra 1d6 heat damage. It is otherwise mundane, so it's fair to think of this as a +1 bonus, which would cost 2000 GP and the cost of a masterwork item. Priced at 3000, the steam ax seems like a bad buy, and the fact that it would work against anti-magic doesn't seem to outweigh it's inevitable self destruction.
Muscle lacing seems hella overpriced. This process gives you +4 to strenght and +2 to constitution for 165,000. At a cost of 16,000 for the strength, 4000 for the constitution, even doubled for taking up no slots, this seems too expensive, much less for a benefit that has the drawbacks (and advantages) of chaositech.
The telepathic receiver is spot on for a use operated detect thoughts spell, not higher or lower.
And I have no idea why an infestation bomb, which gives minor negatives to attack and skill rolls, costs more than a nausea bomb, which prohibits most actions.
I know, pricing magic items is an art, not a science. I'm not sure what other assumptions went into pricing those. But most items seem like they're in the ballpark, anyways. Tinkering could be left up to individual GM's.
It seems pretty obvious that if you wanted to add instability or soul eating to a regular magic item: say, for instance, a wand that blows up if the user rolls a 1 on a d20, or scrolls that curse the reader if they roll a critical failure on their attempt to understand it, you could comfortably lower it's value by 25%.
As for the chaositech devices themselves, there are some that are quite interesting and some that are sort of ho-hum. Perhaps there was nothing really original that could be done to make weapon FX original. A flaming axe is a flaming axe whether or not you put a battery in it and call it steaming. A chainsword is a chainsaw is a Texas butter knife. I found the intrinsic devices, where biology and FX meet, uninspiring as well. Most of them are analogs of DND spells exported over to Chaositech.
I thought the malefic haunt devices were interesting. Chaositech items with ghosts attached to them, they essentially imbue items with properties because the ghosts are forced to contemplate these properties. This is not just an interesting idea to me, it's an interesting rules-wise because they have a limited lifespan and increase in value over time.
I thought the disk blades were a fun weapon, a single use random damage buzz saw. I liked thought armor. I like the simple fact that much of this equipment can be used to equip mass numbers of NPCs and still not throw the party's treasure values off, because the PCs can't or won't use it.
There are only a few other gaps in the neatness of the rules: the preservation tank is inspired, keeping a character at -10 alive indefinitely, but it significantly weakens a creature because if the relatively fragile tank is broken, its immobilized occupant dies. The head crawler replaces a perfectly good body with a mediocre construct. Though both a very cool set-pieces, I'm betting they lower the CR of their hosts. And the familiar graft is also rules light, with no physical stats.
A great deal of Chaositech can be exported directly over to DND in various ways (besides just stripping out the chaositech elements of the devices and changing their prices).
The whole feel of the ruleset, with its reference to ability damage and its incompatibility with magical effects, reminds me of psionics. Especially some of the devices, like the new flesh grafts, which are essentially heavy-duty psychoactive skins. I think a great number of the items could be given a psionic origin, maybe powering them with psi points instead of raw chaos, and they would meld very well. Not to mention biocrystal.
Also, this book would work perfectly with a campaign that uses the Book of Vile Darkness. The FX are all very chaosy and evil in flavor, and could be attributed to demons instead of the Galchutt. In fact, Mr. Cook almost seems to be emulating some of his set pieces from the Book of Vile Darkness here, with devices like the arachnid covey implant (a mechanical substitution for a Vermin Lord prestige class), and the deadly carrier (ditto the Cancer Mage).
The spells are negligible. They mostly solidify the chaositech framework by supplying detection, identification, and resistance mechanisms. Chaos knife and bell tolls for thee could easily transfer to a non-chaositech game, and are interesting to boot. Chaositech enslavement and chaotic possession actually give an interesting spell based mechanic for possession that would be just as handy for demons and devils and ghosts. It would be simple to use chaos possession and a lawful alternate as spell-like abilities for any outsider over, say, ten hit dice. As spells, they are much less nebulous than the possession rules provided in the Book of Vile Darkness.
The chaos technician prestige class requires chaositech to work in any campaign, but the machine mage could be ported over to any DND campaign if you wanted a biomechanical or bioarcanical flavor in your game. And the Galchutt are fun monsters that would make wonderful demons on their own, with no alteration. I especially like the direct damage aura that most of them carry around with them. However, very few of them are suitable foes for low or even mid level campaigns.
What else could I see Chaositech being useful for? Well, add some guns and you could use it for a steampunk campaign if you strip out the damaging side-effects. Retool the prestige classes, and I think chaositech has tons of uses in d20 gaming, especially with a pulp flavor. Like maybe an Iron Lords of Jupiter game.
Lets be honest: every ruleset can be used as any kind of genre item. A wand of fireballs, as long as the price is right, can be a bazooka in an SF game. A d20 Modern pistol could serve just as well as a flintlock, all things being equal. A shocking longsword can be an electrified longsword. Rules wise, exposure to raw chaos is pretty identical to exposure to hot lava (except for the chance of a mutation). The Craft: Chaositech skill is simply a variation of craft applied to FX items.
So chaositech could be fantasy technology, or space opera technology, or pulp technology, or psionic devices, or genetic engineering... or whatever the GM wishes. Most of the devices in here are simply analogues for magic items in the DMG.
And it looks good. The cover art by rk post is beautiful enough to put on your wall. The interiors are all very good, my favorites being the prestige class illustrations.
So, if I quibble, I still see a lot of great stuff in here. Though a product for very specific tastes, I found it very inspiring and I think anyone who likes to play a range of genres should pick this up and mine it for everything it's worth.