Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Goblin doesn't have a word for "friend."

One of the oft-neglected concepts in gaming is of the various languages spoken by player characters and monsters. At most, players who roll well for Intelligence write down a few languages out of the list and periodically remember that they have such a thing. This, of course, becomes an issue when the monsters surrender or the players attempt to parlay instead of fighting. Typically, it's handled relatively simply: PCs with the language get to talk with the monsters.

Personally, I like to have a bit more fun with the concept. The one I've run into most is goblin, which is a great stock humanoid type. The way I figure it, goblins are mostly a savage, uncivilized race who break down into small tribes unless actively enslaved by some higher force, like orcs or hobgoblins. This brings us to the question of what goblin language is actually like.

The first thing about goblin is the counting system. There's really no reason for goblins to have a significant counting system; the exact numbers aren't their concern as much as having a rough estimate. So they have words for one and two, which are pretty much universal, and for "some" (which may vary from goblin to goblin) and "many" (which also varies but is bigger than "some"). This is conveniently frustrating for their interrogators, for whom the difference between 5 and 9 goblins may be more significant. I would expect "some" to be based around the goblin's family or fighting unit, depending on the exact context.

Then there are other fun things. Goblins aren't nice folk. The way I figure it, they probably don't have a lot of words for making nice – as the title of this post says, there's no word for "friend." The closest would mean something more like "goblin of my tribe," with a different word for "goblin of another tribe." A human would mostly be referred to by whether they were a threat, or whether the goblin group could defeat them, or whether they were slavers. No concept of allies and alliances exists, and even attempts at diplomacy would involve threats or admission of weakness. Lofty concepts of "fairness," "equality," "justice" would be boiled down to a handful of ideas - "human nonsense" and "weakness."

Goblin language's richness is one that humans would not prefer - the word for what smells good probably includes a rat on a stick. Threats abound, as do vocabulary for hunting, killing, tunnelling and so on. War is present, but as a permanent condition of goblin society. There is no word for "peace" or even "truce." Likewise, what need is there for a distinction between "earn," "find," and "steal"? If goblins are primarily raiders, and secondarily scavengers, there is fundamentally no difference between them.

This is just a sketch; I think I'll write up a more complete (and definitive, possibly with "translations" for effect) article on goblin speech for the miscellany. Has anybody else done any work on this? Or have any input on what a goblin (or orc, or what you like) language should be like?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Why Old School Matters

Since there's a debate going on about "old school" again, here are some links to essays written so far.

Grognardia: More Than a Feeling

Wondrous Imaginations: My Response to the Grognardia essay "More Than a Feeling"

LotFP: RPG: What is Old School?

And people are asking, why does it matter? Why is it important that you're able to draw some line between "old school" and "new school" in gaming if everyone has fun?

The answer isn't that hard to find, and I think it falls in two places. One is related to the gaming community, and the other is related to products that are being released.

With the gaming community, what we're really doing is pushing back against decades of "new=better" and stating an active preference for play styles that are derived in part or in whole from the early days of the hobby. There are fairly specific things that are involved here: the twin concepts of the megadungeon and the hexcrawl as sandboxes; the idea that sometimes less is more, specifically in regard to "how much do you need in terms of rules depth?"; the idea of player skill lying more in the exploration part of the game rather than in working character generation or the combat system. There are more, none of which encapsulates "old school" but a group of which, taken together, push you over the border line into "old school" territory. A lot of people nowadays seem to have a hypersensitivity to polemical speech, where you basically go further down one direction because you badly need to correct from the other way; this is where we get the whole "rulings not rules" discussion from. It's not that "x is universally bad," it's that we need much more y and less x, so we're making the full-court press argument against x.

To this end, I think we've been somewhat successful. Some of these old school ideas have taken on a broader currency, and people are now legitimately interested in the whole sandbox idea coming from totally non-old school traditions of play. What's being missed is that they aren't playing old school games, just drawing ideas from the old school movement. If you're playing 4th edition with some ideas that you got from people who consciously play in older styles, and you enjoy doing so, that's great. But you're not playing an old school game, if the phrase is to have any meaning. There are big assumptions in between you and old school. This is only a problem because there's a certain cachet that now comes with the whole "old school" label, and people are trying to water it down to the point where it no longer matters.

And that brings me into the other side of why old school is important. Simply put, old school is a quality filter. Blogs, message boards, and commercial releases are still relatively well sorted into "old school" and "new school." Given the limited resources (time / money) I have for gaming, and the fact that my tastes run decidedly on the old school side, I am able to use the "old school" designation as a limit for where I will invest my resources. You can argue that I'm unfairly excluding "new school" material that I might enjoy, which is absolutely true, but I don't consider it worth my time to research and buy new school products in hope that some of them will have been worth checking out.

It's important for me, then, that "old school" stays in tact as a label that filters relatively well along the lines that it has so far. I haven't found every single old school module I've bought to be a revelation, but I've generally found them to be reasonably well written dungeons without an overbearing plotline, which is nice. The problem is that, as people find that there's a market for "old school," there is some necessary dilution of the label as something worth using to differentiate my stuff from other people's stuff. The more we can push back against that, say "it's a nice product but it's x where old school stuff tends to be y," the more we can preserve the old school label as a firewall. It'll never be foolproof, but it's good enough for my purposes now and I'd like to see it stay that way.

Really, it's the same thing for play. If I say "I want to run an old school game," that means I expect people to not mind that they will be rolling 3d6, quite possibly in order, for stats that aren't all-important and all-determining; that I will frequently be making judgment calls on what they are doing rather than referring to a rulebook; that we are playing a dungeon crawl and PCs are liable to die at any time if they're not careful (and it's never careful to engage in combat). Oh, and if you do die, your next PC will probably be in the next room with monsters, bound and gagged, and a first level shmuck. If you're lucky and careful, this shmuck may actually advance up to being a hero, but he or she certainly doesn't start off as one. If that kills the game for you, honestly, why would you want the old school label in the first place? It isn't useful for either side – the people who don't have old school gaming values don't enjoy it, and the people who do want to use it to find players who actually like the kind of games they play.

Everybody (except for Jim Raggi) is in this to have fun. But part of being mature means that you recognize that one size doesn't fit all. My fun isn't necessarily your fun, and these divisons exist for a reason. We're trying to get games, modules, supplements and discussions going for the kind of things we like here. And it's working, which is why I think the "old school is just a feeling" thing is actively harmful at this point.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Spellcraft & Swordplay and its Big Cool Idea

Like 29 other souls in the old-school gaming community, I recently received my "white box" of Jason Vey's Spellcraft & Swordplay. S&S is a reimagining of OD&D if, instead of fleshing out the "Alternate Combat Matrix," the creators had stuck through with a unified Chainmail-style combat system. Now, being a guy who worked out a matrix for weapon classes, I think that's pretty nifty, although I don't think I'd go with its specific interpretation.

The idea in S&S that I think is really remarkable is rolling for spells. Here's how it works: when a wizard tries to cast his spell, he rolls 2d6. It has three possible results: "Immediate," "Delayed," and failure. A failure indicates that the spell fizzles, except on a "2," when it's forgotten but still useable. Immediate means the spell goes off that round, Delayed means that it goes off the next round. The neat thing is that Immediate and Delayed results don't involve forgetting the spell until the next day. It's a very cool way to run wizards, especially so that first-level ones aren't necessarily one-shot ponies and high-level characters aren't indominable. It's a cool enough idea that I think it's worth adapting.

Of course, the S&S spell failure rates are a little high at low level, and I think it may need a broader "works but you forget it" option, as well as the possibility of an actual failure (and attendant "spell failure chart," natch). But when I finally get a miscellany written (see Jeff Rients's excellent Miscellanium of Cinder for an example of awesome in a can, will write more about this once I get it read) something inspired by Vey's spellcasting rules will probably work their way into it.