Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Tyranny of the Player

I've been thinking a bit about my post from yesterday about The Black Hack. Not so much about TBH itself, but about the fact that the game only wants the players to roll dice for success/failure. I get that TBH tries to merge some aspects of indie story games with traditional TTRPG play. This one, though, sorta bothers me.

In my post yesterday, I said:
The fact that the DM doesn't roll for very much is a bit annoying for me, though. I'm not the sort of gamer that thinks, "Man, I wish I was rolling the dice more often!" So maybe I'm not the target audience. But after over three decades of games where the GM rolls to hit and saves for the monsters, this seems a bit meh to me. I mean, it allows for your ability scores to replace a separate AC number, but why not just let the DM roll?
I probably should have worded that better and taken a bit more time to organize my thoughts.

Of course no one's playing RPGs thinking the main draw of play is rolling dice. Granted, I think I've read things from WotC before about wanting to give the players more chances to roll dice. That talk was related to their idea that every character should be a vital and integral part of combat in the game. Which is a whole different topic I've touched on before and I won't go into now. Suffice it to say, if rolling dice is your thing, pure dice games are what you should be playing. Craps. Yatzee. Race track board games.

No, the real reason someone would design a game where the game master rolls as little as possible is because there's a deep distrust of the game master to be a fair arbiter of the rules and even more so a failure of trust to be a fair arbiter of things that fall OUTSIDE the rules.

Again, I'm reminded of the stories of Dave Arneson's original Blackmoor campaign I read in Playing at the World. Coming from table-top war gaming, where a neutral referee would take spoken or written orders and then spend time consulting charts and rolling dice to find the results of the miniature battle taking place, Dave seemed to do most of the die rolling himself. Gary Gygax may have also done a lot more rolling for the players in the original Greyhawk campaign.

In a turn based war game, it's probably not a big problem to pause the game for however long it takes the ref to make all the moves and resolve all the attacks in a round. But in an RPG, it's a big burden to put on one person. Especially when it's not that hard to have the players make their own rolls. Add in several decades of play in which some people experience poor and/or arbitrary game mastering, it's not surprising that there is a push to put more of the onus on the players themselves to roll the dice and determine their own fates.

But it's a move that I reject. Maybe it's because I've mostly played under good game masters in my many years of gaming. I could have been lucky not to have had too many poor DMs. Or maybe it's that I don't have a problem dropping a game if I don't like the DM's style. People stuck with little or no choice of games to join have to put up with it, I guess.

Still, I find it odd that there's this push -- both at big companies like WotC (well, big being relative to the size of the hobby) and from the Indie crowd -- to try to neuter the game master. WotC does it by trying to spell out all the rules in lawyerly fashion so that players can litigate away a bad DM. Indie gamers seem to do it by trying to eliminate or divide the role of the referee to avoid concentration of power.

It's this second goal at play in The Black Hack. It's this idea that "to be fair" means the players must accept their own fates by rolling everything themselves. However, this very idea might lead to a deep distrust of the game master. And what good does that server? If you can't trust them to be fair at rolling the dice (and from personal experience, if I'm going to fudge die rolls, it's going to be in the players' favor), can you trust them to be fair at descriptions of the game world? Can you trust them to be fair with scenario/adventure/encounter design?

Yes, poor DMs may use things like quantum ogres or railroads or too much fudging of dice. And yes, it can suck for a player. But by taking away things like the ability to roll the dice from the referee, it won't help the problem ref to improve. Getting good at anything requires practice. It requires making mistakes. And if the game master is never directly testing the probabilities of the scenarios they run, they won't be getting as good a practice or making as many mistakes as they otherwise would. So their growth as a game master will be stunted. And I think that may be a bigger problem. Instead of a few spoiled sessions while the game master learns the ropes leading to fair to average sessions and eventually good sessions, you'll end up with a lifetime of mediocre sessions.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

First Impression of the Black Hack system

Yes, I realize I'm VERY late to the party on this. Before G+ went tits-up, there were ravening hordes of gamers talking about The Black Hack and the myriad of derivative games based on it. And I pretty much ignored all of that. But this afternoon, Jeremy messaged me asking if I wanted to game tonight, and I said sure. Dean played too. So I finally got a chance to try it out.

Jeremy was running The Rad Hack, which is obviously for post-apoc/Gamma World type stuff. I rolled up Cybersys 842, a robot with a laser gun and satellite uplink to a supercomputer. Dean rolled up Pompeo, a psychic with empathy and life leech. Our mission was to recover stolen property for the warlord of our enclave, but when we found the target we schmoozed with her and ended up traveling across the territory of mutant cannibal freaks to her enclave instead. We're still undecided if we want to stay with her bunch or return to our own.

Anyway, the Black Hack system is pretty simple and easy to run. It's got the standard six ability scores and every sort of check you make is to roll under one of the six. Many abilities and bits of gear have a resource die that you roll. If you get a 1 or 2, it goes down a step. If it's d4 and drops, it's depleted until you rest/resupply. Simple and easy.

The places that take getting used to are the rules for Armor and for NPC/monster rolls. For armor, it works as extra hit points and damage reduction at the same time. Just starting out, we didn't have the money to buy armor (as a robot, I have built in armor of 2) so it was hard to see just how effectively it works, but the rules are fairly simple. Armor reduces damage up to its value. Once damage goes above its value, it's depleted until you can repair it. The wording in the rule book was a bit confusing, but in actual play it was alright.

The fact that the DM doesn't roll for very much is a bit annoying for me, though. I'm not the sort of gamer that thinks, "Man, I wish I was rolling the dice more often!" So maybe I'm not the target audience. But after over three decades of games where the GM rolls to hit and saves for the monsters, this seems a bit meh to me. I mean, it allows for your ability scores to replace a separate AC number, but why not just let the DM roll?

So I have a few areas of dissatisfaction, but in general, the game went smoothly, character creation was easy and straightforward, and leveling up at the end of the session was no problem either. I can see now why so many people like the system. Maybe I'll give it a go as DM sometime. Or even make my own variant...

Friday, April 26, 2019

Using 5E to run OA themed games

I'm in a discussion on The Piazza forum (slow moving but still part of it) about what parts of 5E would work in an Oriental Adventures style game.

While others were posting about whatever explicitly Asian fantasy bits and bobs there were for 5E (samurai path for Fighters, kensei path for Monks, etc.) I posted my ideas for how to re-fluff the existing PHB classes to fit OA. I'll copy/paste that here for convenience:

Honestly, a lot of the "generic" options are just fine for OA style play. Just looking at the PHB options:

Berserker Barbarian -- works for a Zhang Fei (Three Kingdoms general) style wild and reckless warrior
Totem Warrior Barbarian -- just use more Asian themed animals names instead of the Euro/North American defaults, keep the abilities the same

Valor Bard -- works for a geisha/gisaeng sorceress type
Lore Bard -- wily strategists like Zhuge Liang/Kongming or Sima Yi (again from Three Kingdoms)

Clerics are a bit hard to squeeze in, but a Light or Tempest Cleric could be a Yang-themed magician while a Knowledge or Trickery Cleric could be a Yin magician. War Clerics might be one type of wandering Xia.

Druid -- either type could be an animist shaman: Shinto, Mongolian, etc.

Champion Fighter -- run of the mill samurai or stalwart warriors from other cultures
Battle Master Fighter -- kensei/weapon masters
Eldritch Knight Fighter -- wandering Xia with mystical kung fu

Monk -- the class is already OA themed, any subclass fits

Devotion Paladin -- samurai champions of bushido
Ancients Paladin -- maybe doesn't fit so well
Vengeance Paladin -- a warrior out for revenge against old enemies is a standard plot of many wuxia and manga stories

Hunter Ranger -- also fits really well for a wandering Xia warrior
Beast Master Ranger -- make sure the animal companion is an Asian animal and you're good

Thief Rogue -- a yakuza, ninja, or wandering Xia
Assassin Rogue -- another good choice for a ninja type
Arcane Trickster -- the more mystical ninja, or another wandering Xia type

Draconic Sorcerer -- ancestor is a lung dragon instead of a chromatic/metallic dragon
Wild Magic Sorcerer -- those kooky hermit/immortal magicians with their unreliable magic!

Warlock -- mix and match Patron and Boon to get a Xia warrior type or a crafty Taoist magician type

Wizard -- again any school can work with just a few tweaks to flavor to make a Wu Jen or other OA style magician.

Most of the Backgrounds are generic enough to work as is as well, I'd think.

The idea's been on my mind since then. As others later pointed out, that works for classes, but not really well for races. That's a whole other kettle of fish, but as you could probably guess from both Flying Swordsmen and Chanbara, I'm fine with a 'human only' OA style game. Nothing wrong with the various demi-human races in 1E and 3E OA, but since there aren't any official versions yet, they'd need to be homebrewed which can be tricky/time consuming to get right.

So not only have I been considering how to run a game of OA style fantasy with 5E, I've been considering doing just that. Exactly what I don't need as my players are clamoring for more Chanbara and I've been slow to get that going.

My latest train of thought on the 5E OA topic, though, has been to rework the Backgrounds and leave (as my quoted post above shows) the classes alone. Maybe disallow a few classes or subclasses. But most of the flavor needed could come from slight tweaks/renames of the Backgrounds available. Here's what I'm thinking now (new ideas in blue):

Acolyte: fine as is, change the name if you really want
Chalatan: also fine as is
Criminal: needs two types. Normal criminal (as in the PHB) for people who were arrested and have facial brands/tattoos, and Yakuza for organized gangster/Triad types. Yakuza would get Intimidation and Sleight of Hand for skills. Yakuza would also get an organizational feature similar to the acolyte's, only for their gang.
Entertainer: no mechanical changes, but call it Artist or Geisha or Gisaeng or what have you.
Folk Hero: no changes needed. The name could be changed to Ronin easily, to model all those wandering samurai do-gooders and ne'er-do-wells.
Guild Artisan: no changes mechanically, but make some edits to the list of guilds.
Hermit: no changes needed
Noble: normal nobles are just nobles. Knights (variant) become Samurai.
Outlander: again, not really needed to change this for characters from more barbaric neighboring lands or those who grew up in remote locations. A Foreigner option, for those in the mood to play the gaijin in a strange land would be good. You'd probably want to give two different skills than Animal Handling and Survival, but I'm not sure right now which two would be best.
Sage: Rename this as Scholar. For people who've taken, been studying for, have passed but not taken office, or have failed the Civil Service exams. It's a big deal in Confucian cultures.
Sailor: no real change needed.
Soldier: no real change needed. This should be for rank-and-file troops, mercenaries, or the like though. Officers get their own dealio below.
Urchin: as with many options, no real changes needed. An alternate version for Shinobi would be good, though, replacing Sleight of Hand with either Investigate or Perception.

New Backgrounds:
Civil Official: similar to the Sage but with a special feature more like the Noble. Persuasion and History as skills. Mandarins were the elite class of commoners in China.
Military Official: similar to the Soldier but again with a feature more like the Noble. Athletics and History as skills. This is for military officers, who had to go through an exam process similar to the Civil Officials to gain their posts.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Avengers Endgame Review (spoiler free)

I was back in the US over the Easter weekend because it's midterm week and I didn't have any classes (an advantage of my university using computer based testing). I got back yesterday (Wednesday night Korea time) and this morning I went out to see Endgame. Since it's a new release, I'll keep this review spoiler free (and short).

And as usual, since Google search results of parents wondering if there are curse words in the film tend to lead them to me, yes. There is more cursing than in previous MCU films. No F-bombs, but plenty more. Even Cap gets in on the "language" (subtle callback to Avengers: Age of Ultron I think).

So, we've got another big movie, and long. It's 3 hours. Luckily for me, I controlled my water intake in the morning and used the restroom right before the movie started. I didn't take a drink in. And I didn't have any bladder-related distress during the run-time. But others have, so be warned. I don't think this counts as a spoiler -- it may to some, so apologies if it does -- but there are no after-credit scenes in this one. I was the only person in the theater watching through the whole credit sequence (something I liked to do even before the MCU made it popular) and there's no tie-in to the upcoming Spider-Man Far From Home or any other movies.

And that's the big take-away from the film. It really wraps up the saga that's been going on since the first Thor movie started to work in hints of what was to come. The script is well done. I didn't notice any plot holes. It's complex, with multiple story lines and a huge cast. It takes what came before and makes it all feel like a complete narrative.

Visuals and sound? Great as usual. Lots of callbacks to previous films, and elements and threads woven into this story line. The GotG ship plays a big part in the film, which means it has some great Star Lord music. The orchestral score is good, too.

The tone of the film is bitter-sweet. Appropriate for a film that closes out an era of film-making 11 years long. It's got some really funny parts, some sad parts, some exciting parts. If you've come to care about these characters over the course of the films (or from years of reading comics before them), it will be a roller coaster ride of emotion. I was, to be honest, a bit stunned by the emotion as I left the theater and grabbed a burger for lunch.

There was a lot of fan theorizing. My son and I did a lot ourselves. Some of it was close, but nothing I'd read or viewed, or thought of myself, prepared me for this movie. And I'm glad.

Bravo, Marvel. Even if everything you do from here jumps the shark, you've created a wonderful multi-film narrative that will be a joy to re-watch in the future.

Friday, April 19, 2019

ZVP Fan-trailer

I'm off to the U.S.A. for a few days. While I'm gone, enjoy this awesome bit of inspiration for your Chanbara games.

Hat tip to Tedankhamen Bonnah for the link.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Evaluating Editions by their Spells

First off, this is not, despite the tag I'm sticking on the post, an "edition war" post. Those are dumb and a waste of time. Liking certain editions is an opinion. A matter of taste. Like whatever edition you like for whatever reasons you like. I'm done edition warring. I still may slag on 4E from time to time, but I won't slag on YOU for liking it, if you do.

A friend who's been running a 1E AD&D game on RPOL for the past many many years and I were chatting. He's spun off an OA game as a separate section of his main game, and I have characters in both. He wanted to attract more players to the OA part of the game, but someone else told him something to the effect that he should just be running 5E since that's where the players are. This person told him that the differences between 5E style games and AD&D 1E style games aren't that big.

My friend then asked someone else about the differences in 1E and 5E. That person gave him a long 5-point list but I'll condense each point rather than cut and paste since I don't know who was writing this originally.

1. 5E rules are streamlined, but feel less organic/streamlined than AD&D
2. 5E has a shallow power curve -- start more powerful, end up less powerful compared to 1E characters
3. Negative consequences are reduced in 5E (see my recent post on energy draining in my 5E converted to Classic post from the other day)
4. Constant choices and new abilities in leveling characters makes "how my PC develops" the story arc of the game in 5E, compared to 1E where most choices are made at char gen and development depends on in-game events
5. 5E's flavor is video game/CGI action movie where 1E's flavor is pulp/Tolkien

My response to my friend when he shared this with me was that the first guy was off base. You CAN play 5E in an old-school style. I was doing it (until I decided to just use an old school rule set after all). It takes some tweaking, but it's possible. But it's not as simple as the first guy seemed to think it was. This will be addressed below and is the "meat" of this post.

The second guy, I think, was overall correct. And he approaches discussion of different editions the right way. Say honestly what the strengths, weaknesses, and differences that are neither better/worse ARE, and leave it at that.

Then I added what I think is a 6th point of departure. By looking at the spells available in 5E, I get the impression that the designers intend for almost every combat in the game to be a hit point attrition slog. Seriously, there are how many spells that deal damage in 5E compared to other editions? Yes, many of them also have some nifty side effects. But the main point is to deal damage. How many save-or-die spells are there in 1E and other old school games? Lots. Very few (if any) in 5E. Instead, as point 3 above says, many effects are save-or-suffer-temporary-inconvenience.

Expanding this idea, I've got an idea that one can get an overall, impressionistic evaluation of how an edition of D&D will play by its spell lists.

OD&D has relatively few spells (LBBs only). The parameters of each spell are loosely defined. Not many do direct damage. Many are for non-combat purposes. Lots of higher level spells are save-or-die. Judging by this, the implication seems to be that Gygax and Arneson intended for spell casters to be creative problem solvers, applying spells in non-standard or unusual ways by using logic and creativity. From this, we can assume that magic is often going to be a trump card that allows a party to easily "defeat" an encounter. Casters don't get many spells per day, but the duration of spells are long enough that many spells will last for more than one encounter.

Classic D&D (Holmes, BX, BECMI, RC) over the course of time adds more details and qualifications to spells. Each spell is more defined. But the basic balance of direct damage, utility, and save-or-die spells is the same. The people making the rules are not letting you be quite as creative with your magic, but spells are still there to bypass the hit point slog or for clever solutions to problems.

OD&D with supplements leads into AD&D 1E, which has even more definition of spell effects and parameters than in Classic. But it also has a lot more spells, period. There are a lot more damage-dealing spells in the lists, but still the expectation of how spells are applied seems to assume that magic will often allow you to "win" or bypass encounters. There may be less creative use of spells, however, as many of the spells now are explicitly worded to disallow abusive tactics.

AD&D 2E has pretty much the same spell lists as AD&D 1E, although some UA spells make it into the basic PHB lists. This means that there are even more spells to choose from. Spell descriptions and parameters are now even more rigidly codified to prevent "abuse" (creative winning of encounters) but it's still possible. There are still save-or-die spells aplenty. And there are still plenty of spells without direct combat use.

3E/3.5E has a list of spells similar to 2E in number. However, spells can now be categorized as combat, utility, or buff spells. There are so many spells in 3E that exist to tweak the numbers on your character sheet. And plenty of direct damage dealers. There are also still save-or-die spells, but most of them have a handy counter-spell easily available. Suddenly, magic not just for winning encounters, it's for the PCs to win encounters. If the monsters/NPCs try that stuff on you, you often have a handy way to negate it. Spells are becoming just another tool to help win encounters, rather than the occasional "get out of jail free" card they had been in previous editions. And the increase in buffs and direct damage spells tell the spell caster that their job is to be an active participant in EVERY combat, not just waiting around to try and win key encounters. The duration of many spells is reduced from being counted in Turns (10 minutes) to being counted in Rounds (10 seconds) so that casters need to keep casting.

4E doesn't even really have spells. Either that, or EVERYTHING is a spell. At-Will/Encounter/Daily powers each class have mimic spell use. And even the ones labeled as "utility" powers are really most useful in combat, not out of combat. In this edition, spells are all about combat. I don't know/remember the edition well enough to say if there were a lot of save-or-die powers at high level, but I'm guessing there are not.

And finally, 5E. As mentioned above, I agree with the anonymous poster that 5E wants to eliminate permanent negative consequences from the game. Death is easy to avoid. What used to be encounter-winning spells now give the victims a saving throw every round to avoid the negatives. There are still a fair number of counter-spells, and in fact many have been condensed into a handful of spells so that players don't need to waste a lot of their spell capacity on a bunch of random heal/counter spells just in case. They've got one-stop shopping. But the biggest change is that (as I mentioned above) there are SO MANY damage dealers on the spell lists. Why get creative when you can just blast a creature or three for more hit point damage? Slog away!

Obviously, there are plenty of other differences in each edition. Some are deep differences in mechanics and philosophy of how the game should work. Others are fairly minor or cosmetic even. And again I'm not trying to say one is better than another. But the above impressionistic reading of the spells available and how spells are detailed in each edition does seem to give insight into how the designers expect play to go.

Gygax and Arneson were onto something new, so they had an anything goes attitude. Spells were there to win encounters, and often in creative/unexpected ways.

Later, probably after seeing the same exploits (creative uses of spells to 'win' encounters) used ad nauseam, Gary decided to better codify spells. This made it a bit more challenging for players, but it's still possible to find creative new uses for old spells.

When WotC got their hands on D&D, they fundamentally shifted the game. The expectation that all PCs pull equal weight in combat, experience with designing "balanced" play mechanics most likely brought over from Magic: The Gathering, and a mistrust of DM fiat in the game led to a sort of standardization and blandification (did I just coin that word?) of the magic system.

And that's why it's hard to get 5E to play the way old school games do. Or at least one of the reasons why it's hard. You can play 5E in a more old school fashion, but the spell lists are working against you. They demand hit point slogs. They disallow many creative uses of spells before they're even used. Yes, the mechanics are consistent and clear, but I'm not sure that makes up for what's lost in creative spell casting.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Player Expectations of Character Death and Disability

Just finished another session of my West Marches game. It was fun. We had a new player who has played a few RPGs before but never D&D. He rolled up a Human Fighter with 18 Strength and a halberd and off we went.

In the previous session, the party found a dungeon under a ruined temple, and explored part of it. They went back there. Last time, they had the 5th level Thief and Magic-User veterans, plus four brand-spanking new 1st level characters: Half-Elf Druid, Halfling Ranger, Human Fighter, and Dragonborn Cleric.

[Yes, I have house ruled Basic D&D to have race and class instead of race-as-class. And Dragonborn and Changelings (like Tieflings, but could be Infernal, Celestial or Fey ancestry) both because my son really likes Dragonborn and to make conversion easier since there were 3 Tieflings in the 5E version of West Marches. With race-and-class and race-as-class, I'm constantly a pendulum, liking one or other the other. Right now I'm on race-and-class, but starting to feel (again) that dedicated classes for demi-humans are better...]

The mother/daughter playing the Fighter and Cleric decided not to come anymore, but we had our new guy with a Fighter. But, this time, the Fairy Princess (Changeling Magic-User) player didn't come. And the dungeon they were in is really challenging. It's not designed for a 1st level party unless they are VERY clever. 2nd to 4th would be a better fit. But the treasures are right for that level range so...

Long story short, a wight killed the new Fighter in one hit, and the next round level drained the 5th level Thief down to a 4th level thief before they managed to kill it. The Fighter player was OK with that, actually. Like I say, he's played a few other RPGs before, and he'd just rolled the character up and wasn't attached. He rolled up another Fighter (with only 14 Str) and got back in the game.

Our Gnome Thief player (a really good friend outside of the game) had gotten up to 5th level in 5E before the conversion. And seeing all that XP drained, and taking the hit to HP, thief skills, and chances to hit was a shock to him. He got over it fairly quickly though, and after the session he was joking around about it. Not happy, of course, but able to take it in stride.

The player of the Druid, though, had this look on his face of controlling his anger during this encounter. He didn't say anything, but I could tell he was pissed that I'd throw something as dangerous as a wight into a low level dungeon. And later, in a room with a dozen skeletons, his druid died in the melee. I think he was probably considering if he should stay or quit the game. It took him a while before he accepted a new character sheet and started rolling a new PC.

I did say that he could have the XP earned from this adventure. It seemed only fair to me, as before his Druid died, he was having some good rolls and figuring out some of the puzzles and traps for the party. He accepted that, and in the end rolled up a new PC, but since we were near the end of our play time he didn't finish before we wrapped up the session.

He said he'll be on vacation during our next session, but will come back in May.

So, player expectations. The Druid player is used to playing 5E and Pathfinder. He's used to "tough but fair" encounter/adventure design. He's used to characters with lots of bells and whistles that help them manage encounters. And he doesn't have that now. Like I say, he's playing well and smartly. He just got unlucky (large room with skeletons laid out in a pattern on the floor, trying to go to the next room without the proper McGuffin animates them, so the skeletons could attack the whole party).

The Thief player has, like I mentioned, been playing since I was using 5E. His previous character was zapped away to imprisonment by the Deck of Many Things (and could still be rescued). Energy drain with no save was a bit of a shock to him though. In 5E, it's a temporary setback (3E/PF as well, and I don't remember if it was even a thing in 4E).

I'm thinking I should have been a bit more up front about what it would mean to switch to old school D&D with the players. I'm sure I mentioned that it's deadlier, but probably didn't impress just how deadly it can be. Death at 0hp. Lots of save or die effects, including most poisons. Ruthless energy drain rules.

Of course, the players need to pony up some responsibility as well. They could have run from the wight after the Fighter was drained. They could have mentioned taking defensive positions in the skeleton room (bothering the remains was also a trigger to animating them, but they could have done that with the squishy PCs out in the hall). Part of it was just bad luck. They didn't have a Cleric to Turn the undead, and the skeletons and the wight had initiative on the party in the first round both times. But the losses could have been better mitigated by clever play.

Well, everyone still seems keen to play, despite the setbacks. And if they do keep with it, the treasure they could collect will make it worth their while. We may find out in two weeks or so.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Creating original cultural features in OA settings

A semi-random thought hit me earlier today. Thinking about my original Zhongyang Dalu setting, I was considering ways to merge elements of various Asian cultures (and sometimes non-Asian cultural elements) into original cultures. That's basically what Gygax and Arneson did in their campaigns, just with mostly European historical cultures as the basis of their ideas.

In simpler terms, using discrete cultural elements as LEGO bricks and using them to construct a fantasy culture.

Then, something I'd thought about last year came back to me. In 1E OA (and in the 3E book's setting of Rokugan), social status is defined by the Japanese cultural caste system. Originally Confucian in origin (and possibly being influenced by the Indian caste system despite its differences), you get what I used in Chanbara. Nobles at the top, the "buke" (samurai caste) of warriors next, then commoners (in theory anyway), artisans, merchants (money for nothing [interest/mark-ups on goods] makes them rich but gets them no respect), and untouchables at the very bottom.

But in Korea, while there was a hereditary aristocracy, the Yangban, the real movers and shakers were people who could pass the Civil Service exam (in some eras of Chinese history this is also the case). Bureaucrats, functionaries, auditors, inspectors, governors, tax collectors, historians -- these were the influential members of society in Joseon Korea. Well, them along with the Military Service, which was also exam based.

It didn't matter how low-born you were (again, in theory), if you could pass the Civil or Military Service exam, you were made into an agent of the crown. In practice, low-born members like the Korean hero Yi Sun-shin, the admiral who helped defeat the Japanese invasions in the 16th century, faced discrimination and plotting by officials of aristocratic birth. But social mobility was possible.

I think this sort of social structure might be more conducive to an RPG setting than one where you're pretty much set in your social status at birth. Granted, in Japan's Warring States period, commoners who fought well could be granted samurai status. And in the same era and later in the Edo period after the wars were over, merchants with enough cash could purchase samurai status for themselves or more often for their children.

But in Korea, if you studied hard enough, you could rise easily through the ranks.

So, one thing to think about when designing fantasy OA cultures is to consider the social hierarchies and how people moved (or were prevented from moving) within them. The Mongolians had a more egalitarian society. Anyone who was a good warrior and leader could become khan, and you only remained khan as long as you were militarily successful or politically savvy. I'd need to study up a bit more on Philippine and SE Asian cultures, but I would bet the Thais, Burmese, and others may have had different structures as well.

Of course, in addition to politics and social structure, religion is important. And synchretism is the order of the day. There were many native animist practices in most regions of East Asia. There were Hinduism and Buddhism influences from India. There are Taoism and Confucianism (not originally religions, more just belief systems but made religious over time) from China. There is Bushido (again not really a religion but sometimes treated as one de facto) from Japan and Legalism from China. And in practice, they all blend together to some degree or other.

The Chinese conception of Buddhist Heaven isn't Nirvana, it's basically the Taoist conception of the realm of spirits and immortals, just with Buddha added in as the top boss. Shinto (animism) blends with Buddhism and Confucianism in Japan. In Korea, Buddhism was seen as an unwanted foreign influence by the government, who pushed a version of Neo-Confucianism as the primary philosophy for the people. Christian and Muslim missionaries were in China during the 8th or 9th century, maybe earlier.

Take elements from the above (and other belief systems, or made up elements that don't feel off) in various amounts, mix and match, and voila!

With the social/political system and religion of each culture spelled out, it's just a matter of adding some small, unique touches. And since this is fantasy, with magic and monsters and non-human people, adding in some unique touches helps make them feel different than humans. This is something I tried to do in the old 3E OA Zhongyang Dalu setting of mine, before I started retro-cloning Dragon Fist and needed a world with primarily Chinese influences.

As I said before, in most D&D settings, sometimes there are cultures that are very obviously drawn from one primary real world source -- the Known World setting has a lot of these, but other times the cultures don't handily map to a real world culture. And that 's a great thing for a game.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

How big is Zhongyang Dalu?

In my last post, poster Reason asked for an estimate of scale. And well, it's a big continent.

I never set an exact scale to it, but I did set a scale to the Yu Archipelago/Jade Islands. Here's that hex map, and the Flying Swordsman map of Zhongyang Dalu again for comparison.
Here are the Jade Islands, the portion of the setting I use for Chanbara. The hexes are 24 miles, which puts the map at about 1200 miles east to west, 800 miles north to south. And the Jade Islands are shorter lengthwise (from Uozu and Rindo Provinces in the south-east to Iida and Kosugi Provinces in the north-west) than actual Japan. I haven't tried to calculate land volume, but considering there's no massive main island like Honshu, and none of the smaller islands rival Hokkaido for size, it's a fair bit smaller.

Here again is the Zhongyang Dalu map from Flying Swordsmen. You'll see the Yu Archipelago (as the mainlanders in Flying Swordsmen call it) is the Jade Islands (as the natives of Chanbara call it...actually the same thing, since "yu" means "jade"). It's the northeast ninth of the map. Which puts the Zhongyang Dalu map at around 2400 miles north to south and 3600 miles east to west.

Pretty massive. And yet, actually a fair bit smaller than real world China. The Chen Empire (all the provinces in the red borders) has a more widely spread population than China, though, as much more of it makes for good agricultural land.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Flying Swordsmen Revisited?

There's been some talk of Flying Swordsmen over on The Piazza forums. I've read some threads there before, but never signed up to post there until just recently.

On the Oriental Adventures boards, there's sporadic discussion of Dragon Fist, and as would be expected, someone usually mentions Flying Swordsmen since the original Dragon Fist files are getting harder and harder to find these days.*

Someone else was mentioning that there should be a discussion of my campaign world of Zhongyang Dalu. There's not much there, mostly hints and suggestions. I've got a lot more information I created for the setting (which, in its first incarnation, predated Flying Swordsmen and was originally intended for a 3E OA campaign that never got off the ground). What I included in FS was intended to be like the fragments of inspiration about the Known World (Mystara) setting in X1 Isle of Dread.

I didn't include any setting information in Chanbara, but when I run it, the games take place in the Zhongyang Dalu setting (the Jade Islands, northeast corner of the map).

I'd been planning to put out a Chanbara campaign gazetteer using the setting info I came up with for that. Maybe I should do for both.

Of course, the problem is that FS is 100% fantasy China inspiration, while Chanbara is 100% fantasy Japan inspired. My original Zhongyang Dalu setting was much more of a melting pot/grab bag type setting, trying to do what standard D&D/Tolkienish settings do to Europe for OA settings.

Maybe I should dust THAT off? In my mind, a group of fantastic/fictional cultures and nations with decidedly East Asian FEEL makes for better grounds for a fantasy campaign than barely disguised analogs for the actual historical region, just with its mythology/legendary mixed in.

*I should find a good way to promote Chanbara over there, in a way that doesn't seem like the shameless money grab it is. Then again, by the looks of it, there are only a handful of regular posters on the OA section, and some of them may have already bought it!

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Ruined Keep on the Borderlands

I've had this idea in my head for a while now. I'm always looking through old modules for things to appropriate into my West Marches campaign. And the Caves of Chaos are one of the most popular so far. But looking through the module, and thinking of other blogs that have suggested there's more treasure to be had by sacking the Keep itself than in all of the Caves, why not use the map and key of the Keep as a dungeon in my West Marches?

Fairly simple idea. I can keep the map and most of the keyed entries' descriptions...just make them all run down and such. I can even keep the treasure distribution as it is. All I need to do is substitute monsters instead of the keep's normal inhabitants.
The layout of the keep is already sort of dungeon-y. The outer bailey has rooms and passages basically. And you need to penetrate the security systems of the keep (or bypass them with clever planning) to get to the good treasures in the inner bailey.

Now I just need to think of where to put it in the West Marches map, and what sorts of monsters I want to populate it with.