19 October 2014

Alignments are still stupid

Just in case anyone had forgotten, alignments are still stupid and valueless.

We get along in daily life just fine without alignments. We know that ISIS are a pretty bad lot, and we don't need a know alignment spell for that. Thing is, nothing is as simple as an alignment makes it out to be. They don't think they're evil. They think they're good, and we're evil. They're not, like a demon, out to cause suffering - they're out to *right wrongs* and *fight evildoers* and *do god's work*. They're the *good guys* - to them.

Contrast that with something unambiguous, like a demon. It lives to cause suffering, sow confusion, turn brother against brother. It feeds on discord and disharmony. It has one goal: harm. It is *evil*. But that's not an alignment, that's its *nature*.

Was Donald Rumsfeld chaotic evil? He certainly seems like it, but a more probable explanation than the apparent one (he just wants to cause mayhem and suffering) is that he's on a deeply misguided quest to help himself and his friends and maybe his country. So, is he lawful good? Chaotic good?

He's not evil or good or lawful or chaotic - he's just a person, like anyone else.

Sure, you could assign an alignment to him, argue your case, and I could assign another one, and argue my case, and at the end of the day - how has that helped us understand him? How does that help us in any way?
Assigning an alignment to Rumsfeld doesn't help us at all.

Another example: was Gaddafi chaotic evil? He did some twisted shit, to be sure, but he also eradicated homelessness in Libya, fought for the rights of women and blacks (elements of society traditionally crushed underfoot in North African/Arab/Muslim society), worked to reduce income inequality, sought pan-Arab and then pan-African solidarity - creating the African Union. He worked within the law when it suited him, and outside the law when it suited him. Sometimes he did good, sometimes he did evil.

Was he Chaotic Good? Was he Lawful Evil? You could make a convincing case for both. You could make a strong case for Chaotic Neutral.

The point is, the alignment system doesn't actually work. Everybody is all of the alignments some of the time. We're people, we're complex. We can't be reduced to a two-axis chart.

I should hope your PCs and NPCs are the same.

10 October 2014

More about Poleaxes

I am happy to see that my old post about my favourite medieval weapon, the poleaxe, has been generating some discussion lately. It is a weapon sadly neglected in RPGs, which is odd given its ubiquity on the high medieval battlefield.

T. Woolley wrote a lengthy post on the poleaxe with some cool ideas for modular magic weapons down towards the bottom. T. Woolley is also noteworthy as someone with some experience with medieval weapons; something of a rarity in RPG circles!

And JB wrote this great post, to which the rest of this post addressed. I was going to post this as a comment, but it got rather long. He provides some interesting historical perspective on poleaxes in RPGs, and the absence of the polearm from Gygax's radar - I didn't realize that they were omitted from AD&D 1e (I only have the DMG)! I figured since Gygax was obsessed with polearms, they would be front and centre, so I was interested to learn he was completely ignorant of them!

My response to JB:

Glad to see the poleaxe getting some love!

While interesting for historical reasons, I would take basically everything Gygax said or wrote about weapons and armour and throw it in the trash. It's unfortunate (for a medieval weapons buff such as myself) that he's been so influential in defining the discourse on these matters since the game's beginnings, as he really didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about.

I also wouldn't put much stock in stuff written before WWII, especially Victorian and Edwardian stuff (i.e. the sources Gygax used). Useful for descriptions of artifacts, mostly. Their interpretation is largely bunk. It is from them that we get such execrable ideas as "banded mail", whatever the hell that was supposed to be.

He's not *entirely* to blame for his ignorance, as AFAIK there were very few historical fighting manuals available in English in the seventies. I think Fiore's work was first translated in the eighties, for instance. George Silver's work would have been available to him, as it is in English (well, the kind of English Shakespeare wrote, so not the clearest to a modern audience, but totally intelligible). There were also some important historical works out, perhaps most notably European Armour, by Claude Blaire. So there's really not any good reason why he relied so heavily on that old stuff.

I would also point out that the defining feature of the poleaxe is not the axe head or the hammer head or the beak, but the langets and the fashion of attaching the implements to the head. Whereas a halberd is superficially similar, a halberd head is forged out of a single piece, with a cone that fits over the shaft to attach it.

A poleaxe, on the other hand, has each piece forged separately, and held down by langets - metal plates - that also serve to strengthen the end. This makes the poleaxe much tougher and heavier duty, and better suited to attacking armour. The tip generally lacks an edge, and is typically square in cross-section, which again, makes it much tougher than a spearhead or halberd tip.

Bec de corbin, lucern hammer, etc. are all really just poleaxes - poleaxe is definitely not reserved only for weapons with an axe head. In fact, the reference for the Bec de Corbin and Lucern Hammer wiki pages is the MyArmoury page on poleaxes!

Fiore, in his 15th century manual, uses the term "adza" azza or aça (I typoed before and wrote adza, and neglected to mention the alternate spelling), or axe to describe what we would call the poleaxe, and it is depicted with a hammer and a beak - no axe head. So the use of "axe" to refer to poleaxes without axe heads is not a neologism, but dates back to at least the late 14th century (in Italian, anyway).

5 October 2014

Things I'm Thinking About

Mostly just posting for my own benefit. These are the things I'm thinking about these days. Mostly things that have come up during play.

Alternative casting rules

I'm finding that using a d6 dice pool is resulting in spells either being more or less automatic (for easy spells) or more or less impossible (for hard spells). I had thought there would be a tension in rolling each round to cast spells, but it turns out that currently most spellcasting is outside of combat.

And spamming of low-level spells (especially detect magic type things) annoys me. It makes magic very mundane.

So, a new system is required for that.

New Spells

I'm finding that magicians, especially, are not enjoying combat as much as perhaps they could, as they currently don't really have any combat-applicable spells.

So, I'm thinking about what spells I can add that keep the flavour I want for magicians, but that can be used in combat. Illusions are something I'm leaning towards.

Descriptive damage rules for large creatures

The descriptive damage system I outlined a while back (in this post) is working swimmingly for humans and humanoids.

It does not currently have anything to say about large creatures. The couple times I've had to run large creatures since implementing descriptive damage, I simply used a basic hit point system. And that worked ok, but I'd like to be able to include the grit and interest of the descriptive damage system into fights with giant creatures.

Making Burglars more interesting

Both in combat and out. The main thought I'm having at the moment regarding this is making them a little better at combat than they currently are, and including some social abilities, persuasion-type stuff. We shall see how that plays out.

XP and Advancement

For want of a better system, we're currently just using a negotiated level up system. When the party has done a remarkable feat (or a few), we chat about it, and decide if they're deserving of a level up. This is working fine, and is essentially what most systems boil down to in any case, but perhaps a little more guidance would be good for a published game.

Something sort of similar to Paolo's system in Adventure Fantasy Game sounds plausible, but instead of treasure being the driving force, using great deeds (which he also supports, actually). His advancement system is worth checking out, as is his game.

While I've been a defender of XP for Gold, and while that is a perfectly workable system, I'm not sure it's right for Spells and Steel. For one thing, cash is scarce in my world, and I don't have the kind of economic system in place yet that Alexis does, so I'd have to be coming up with cash equivalents for all the treasure...

So what I'm thinking at the moment is guidelines for the kinds of feats and challenges are appropriate to trigger a level up. More thought is required.

Things that are working well

Descriptive damage is great. I've also got some rules on hand for infections and disease, which I'll get around to putting up when I feel like it.

Combat in general, and the Fighter class are working very well. Which makes sense, since that's where a lot of my effort has gone to date.

Classes are strongly differentiated, which is something I wanted, but I'm starting to wonder if that's such a good thing.

I've been avoiding "+X" magic weapons, and am loving it (something I talked about before, as have others). The players actually have yet to identify any of their magic items, but they are using them and benefiting nonetheless.