June 9, 2015

S&S Worldbuilding: Staying Away from Species

There’s a thin and easily crossable line between what I feel is true swords and sorcery, and what starts shading into high fantasy. This is specially true with the creatures one decides to place in an S&S setting.

As I’ve started writing a new S&S story – perhaps the start of a new series – I find that I’ve painted myself into an even tighter corner by choosing a historically based setting. It’s an interesting challenging, getting a good S&S feel out of that corner, so I gave myself some guidelines for it. The main one, as my post’s title suggests, is to stay away from making species out of my monsters.

Huh?

Well, consider the standard D&D foes: every kind of foe is typically a species. Orcs. Goblins. The different kinds of dragons and giants. Beholders. Etc. etc. etc.

Now I personally hold that the more an S&S story or game feels like a typical D&D adventure, the farther it is from what I consider as the core flavor of swords and sorcery, which is a grittier, lower-key form of fantasy.

Moreover, establishing a monster’s identity explicitly as an existing species takes away a vital chunk of its mystique. It becomes an accepted part of your world. But part of the appeal of the best sword and sorcery monsters is the feeling that they shouldn’t be there.

Consider some of Robert E. Howard’s best monsters. In The Devil in Iron, the monster is an iron eidolon animated by a formless creature from beyond the abyss. It is one of a kind, and by existing it breaks all the known rules of nature to the minds of those who encounter it. In Worms of the Earth, the baddies are a lost race of humans who have mutated into something monstrous. In Beyond the Black River, Conan is horrified to face a saber-toothed tiger, because he knows the species is extinct.

So to sum up, I can use the following filters in creating my monsters:

  • Solitary unique beings from somewhere else
  • Mutated versions of known creatures
  • Artificially augmented versions of known creatures, e.g. apes trained to use weapons
  • Creatures that should’ve been extinct, e.g. dinosaurs or early hominids
  • Creatures that shouldn’t be alive, i.e. undead
  • It could exist in the world, but is unknown and unknowable by normal means, e.g. a deep-sea monster, or a lost-world inhabitant

A word about the undead, though. Since D&D/high fantasy has coopted the trope, how can a sword and sorcery undead be differentiated? I think I can play more with the sheer unnaturalness of the state of un-life.

It should be a temporary thing, held in unnatural tension vs. the natural tendency to die and rot away, by unnatural forces. It should have impact on the world of the living as a palpable taint; quite simply, you can’t have ghouls and zombies in green forest glades, but they can exist in areas of devastation or desolation.

June 2, 2015

Heroes of the Falling Star Preview

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Fatherhood does interesting things to gamers. Some fathers are left to answer the dreaded question, ‘Dad, what’s a murderhobo?’ My friend Jay Anyong of Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer is proudly Tsinoy, and in thinking of how he was going up to bring his new son the Tsinoy way, came up with a great gaming solution.

The result is Heroes of the Falling Star. This writeup is based on the latest preview copy Jay furnished me. I often use Jay as a sounding board for development on Hari Ragat, so now it’s my turn to give feedback. :-)

Basics
In HOTFS, you play heroes in a fantasy Chinese-inspired world who are tasked with missions to help the needy by the goddess of mercy. To aid you, the goddess has granted you a special magic item that arrives on a shooting star – thus the title.

There are quite a few cool features in this game. First of all is the game’s clear vision of what it wants to do – to teach the virtues of kindness, loyalty, courage, respect and honesty – via magical adventures and trials of character that a kid can understand.

This is supported by a very rules-lite system that focuses only the essentials. Your character sheet can fit on a 3x5 inch index card with lots of room to spare. Here’s a sample I created in two minutes:

Stone Ox
Loyal Hero

I am Really Strong (+2), Sort of Friendly (+1), and Not So Smart (0)*

*Yes, I’m channeling Number Ten Ox from Bridge of Birds.

My kung fu is Lifting, Pushing and Holding.

Rolls are made with a single six-sided die, with a bonus if your stronger traits are applicable. Stone Ox for example would get +2 to feats of strength. If your Kung Fu applies, you get to reroll your die once if you fail a related roll. Simple!

Kung Fu
Jay’s gone back to the Chinese etymology of the term kung fu for this game, which is basically a generic for any deep discipline, not just martial arts. This fits very well with HOTFS branding as a non-violent or deprecated-violence game. Your kung fu in HOTFS can be cooking, painting, even pathfinding or animal taming. I like this way that the game encourages kids’ creativity. (Of course, you could also go the Ranma way and treat everything as a martial art!)

Falling Star Treasures
At the start of every adventure, the Lady of Love and Mercy gives the heroes their mission and, like a Buddhist version of James Bond’s Q, gives them wondrous magic items to help them out.

Again, the mechanic of these treasures points up the game’s nonviolent and ingenuity-encouraging stance, because these treasures are almost never weapons. Instead, they each have one wondrous property that never fails to work. They’re meant to be used as tools to help get through an adventure, but shouldn’t be powerful enough to solve the adventure by themselves.

This is also works as a challenge to the game master, who will have to make sure that the treasures he hands out cannot be used as obvious solutions to the core mission. For example, the Immortal Uncle’s Robes allows its wearer to assume any guise desired. I really like the absence of an artillery function in HOTFS’ magic system, as for me this makes magic feel much more wondrous.

One question yet to be addressed is what happens to your Falling Star Treasure after each adventure. Do you get to keep it, and get a new one, or do you keep it as your permanent gimmick, or is it replaced with a new one every adventure?

Harmony Bonus
I’ve never made a secret of my preference for mechanics that drive the desired style of play, and this is one of those. It came about during a discussion with Jay on chat, where we came up with the idea of encouraging players to find win-win solutions.

The ability to compromise is a key social skill, so it’s great that this game helps to teach it. When a conflict is resolved in such a way that even the heroes’ opponents end up happy (or at least satisfied), the heroes get an extra Star (XP) each.

Every ten Stars won gets you a Constellation thematically commemorating your feats. From then on, you get +2 for any rolls involving the theme of your Constellation.

Conclusion
I don’t have kids. I’m still one at heart in some ways though, so when I say I like this game, I’m saying it resonates with my inner kid. Aside from my designer’s appreciation for the craft of this game, there’s an earnest innocence to Heroes of the Falling Star that just makes this jaded old coot want to play.

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