Friday, December 19, 2014

Super-Monks Forge "Magic" Swords

Apparently, between 800 and 100 AD, at least about 170 swords were forged bearing the runic inscription "ULFBERHTS." These swords were better than ordinary swords, forged by a band of what are described as "super-monks." Very cool if you're into that sort of thing. Check this out.

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Fixing" Burning Wheel

From a message board conversation with my frequent game design collaborator Nathan Ellebracht, on how he'd change the Burning Wheel game to suit our particular group's style. Be warned! Highly technical content, understandable only by gamers who other gamers think are "too much."

"What I want to do is drop the lifepaths character creator, drop all their skills and all their traits. At character creation, we'll come up with character concepts, decide a bit of their backstory, and set their age. Their age sets their base stats, a character less than 30 will have 6 points to distribute between their mental stats (Will and Perception), and 14 points to distribute between their physical stats (Power, Speed, Forte and Agility). At 30, and every ten years thereafter, they'll gain a point for their mental stats, and lose 2 points from their physical stats, up to 60, where they lose a point in their mental stats and the 2 points in physical stats up to 100+. Depending on their backstory, players can lobby to have up to one additional mental point, or 2 additional physical points for every 10 years of backstory, but it has to justify the addition and I imagine that it'll be agreed to or denied by group consensus.

The derived attributes will be derived similarly to how they already are. Steel and Circles start with a base of B3, and like with stats, backstory may justify an increase up to B5. Health is still the average of Will and Forte. Mortal Wound is still the average of Forte and Power, plus 6. Superficial Wound is still half Forte rounded down plus 1. Hesitation is still 10 minus Will. I'm dropping Resources, Reflexes and Stride. I'd prefer to just use coins or other concrete currency to deal with money issues, the Speed stat will be used instead of Reflexes, and nobody uses Stride for anything anyway.

You get a number of trait points equal to 1/4 your character's age, rounded down. Make up the traits you want your character to have, funny accents, personality quirks, likes and dislikes, that sort of thing. Any trait like that, where it's just about how you'll play your character, costs 1 point. If you want a trait that can occasionally give you a mechanical advantage, like +1 dice to a roll, then that will cost up to two more points, depending on how "powerful" you want it to be. No more than two mechanically-modifying traits per character at creation. You can gain additional traits in play by roleplaying them, provided the group agrees. Additional traits are awarded at the end of the session when XP is awarded. You can also gain additional traits either temporarily or permanently as a result of disease or injury or a particularly traumatic experience. Such traits are awarded in play. Traits awarded in play usually decrease the exponent on a stat, attribute or skill.

You get a number of skill points equal to 1/2 your character's age. Skills are things your character can do that not everybody else can do. Reading might be a skill in a setting where not everybody is literate, but if the setting is such that everybody is expected to be able to read, it's just a general ability that can be handled with a Perception stat roll. Define your skills based on your character concept and the setting, and determine which stat or attribute works best as its root. If two or more stats work best as the root of the skill, use their average, rounded down. It costs 1 point to buy a skill, they open at 1/2 their root value rounded down. You can buy the first advance on a skill for 1 point, the second advance for 3 points, and the third for 6 points, but no character can advance a skill more than three times at character creation. We'll use the Beginner's Luck rules for getting new skills in play, more on that when I talk about XP and advancement.

Property, gear, relationships and starting cash are determined entirely by backstory, character concept and setting.

Mortal Wound, Superficial Wound, and Health all work differently. Your MW exponent is your max Hit Points, and the Hit Points you start with. Superficial Wound is your base soak value. When you take damage in combat, you subtract your SW from that damage, then subtract whatever's left from your Hit Points. There are penalties for being wounded, from +1ob, to -1d, up to -5d. Players can distribute those penalties anywhere within their HP range they wish, provided they are in order. Your character is incapacitated if any base stat roll would be out of dice due to penalties or when they run out of HPs, whichever comes first. A character that runs out of HPs is dead, unless a Persona Point is spent, in which case, they are incapacitated.

Recovering HPs is a matter of making a Health roll. You can make a Health roll to recover HPs once per "narrative day." The number of HPs you recover is equal to half the number of successes you roll, rounded up. The Health attribute is affected by wound penalties, but can never drop below B1. Recovery rolls can be aided by having someone else use a relevant skill; their Obstacle is equal to the number of dice the wounded character has lost, at least 1. Success means the wounded character gets an extra die with which to make their Recovery roll.

Beliefs are not determined at character concept, but are created and placed "in play" in play. Players can have one Belief "in play" at a time, and they should be addressed directly to what's at stake in the scene or scenario they are presently involved in. Beliefs can and should change as soon as the scene or scenario changes such that new things are at stake and previous issues are resolved. They are basically "This is my goal in this scene." If you can say, "I can't let X happen," or "I have to Y," you've stated your Belief. Beliefs should be specific to the scene or scenario, but not too specific. "I have to kill this sonofabitch" is a valid Belief. "I have to damage this guy with my sword" is not.

Rewards and advancement are also pretty significantly changed. You earn Fate points for playing to your traits, no more than one per trait per session. Those Fate points are awarded at the end of the session. It's basically a checklist, verified by the rest of the players; did you use your accent, did you play that limp, that sort of thing. You can also earn a Persona Point for playing traits, if you play those traits in a particularly interesting or impressive way; for example, substantially changing the story's direction or having everybody rolling on the floor laughing at it. Those Persona points are awarded when the impressive use of the trait occurs, and you can't nominate yourself for it.

You can also earn Fate points for playing your Belief, but to earn it, you have to play it in an interesting or surprising way, or in a way that the GM or other players particularly like. If you make someone say, "That's cool," or "I didn't expect that," or you play your Belief in a way that helps the GM open up new plot possibilities or create interesting future scenarios, you've earned your Fate; one per Belief, per scene or scenario. You can also earn a Persona point for playing Beliefs, but only if you succeed in your stated goal. If the stakes of the scenario (relevant to your Belief) remain unresolved, or if they're resolved in a way that's contrary to your character's stated Belief, you don't get that point. These points are awarded when these things occur.

Deeds points are plot or campaign rewards. When a major plot point is resolved, or something epic happens to substantially change the direction of the story, it will probably be worth a Deeds point. Like the other artha, it will be awarded when it happens.

Instead of tracking skills for advancement every time they're used, we'll distribute three kinds of XP at the end of the session. For convenience's sake, we'll use their names for the three kinds, Routine XP, Difficult XP and Challenging XP. The GM (probably me) will award these points based on what happened in the session. Generally, it'll be about 20 RXP, 5 DXP, and 2 CXP per session. You can distribute those points to your skills or stats how you wish. Skills, Stats and Attributes advance according to the normal advancement rules, so a B1 skill needs 1RXP and either 1 DXP or 1 CXP to advance, we'll just use their table. Figuring that up at the end of the session shouldn't be that bad.

When you want to learn a new skill, you have to open it up with a Beginner's Luck roll, and you have to use BL for those rolls until that skill is learned. To learn a skill after it's been opened, you have to spend a number of XP points on it (of any variety) equal to 10 minus the root stat(s) value of the skill. So if you want to learn Mycology or something, and it's rooted in your B3 Perception, you have to open it by rolling your Perception with a double obstacle (beginners luck), and then spend 7 XP points of any variety on it, and when you do, you no longer roll beginner's luck, and your skill is opened on your skill sheet with the same value it would have if you bought it at character creation.

I also intend to make combat a bit more traditional. We'll use Speed rolls to determine initiative and order. Damage will be just a straight number derived from your Power and the weapon's base value. Armor will add to your soak value."

Interesting food for thought. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Herkimer Battle Jitney

One of my favorite superhero movies is Mystery Men. In it, the team uses a vehicle called a "Herkimer Battle Jitney" to attack Casanova Frankenstein's mansion. It is, according to the team's resident mad scientist and creator of non-lethal weaponry, Dr. Heller, "the finest non-lethal military vehicle ever made!"). It's certainly cool-looking. and it makes the top of my list for best super-team vehicle ever. Whether the Herkimer Battle Jitney was real, or just created for the movie, I didn't know and never thought about until today, when I saw a picture of the GM Futurliner. I decided to learn once and for all about the origin of the Herkimer Battle Jitney. Thankfully, the internet is stuffed with tons of facts. Wading through the poop to find the gold, here are the prevailing theories. Which one sounds right to you?

1. The Herkimer Battle Jitney was a real vehicle, the Z17 Marauder. Contracted by the US government, the Zephyr manufacturing company built around 100 of these heavy combat troop transport vehicles. Built between 1948-1950, they were found to be impracticle for the changing type of warfare. The Z17 was named for the number of persons that could be accomidated (17), and Z for the Zephyr manufacturing company. The Zephyr manufacturing company was previously known for building fire engines.

2. The Herkimer Battle Jitney was a actual military vehicle produced in a US / UK co-op in the early to mid 1950s, there are only 5 remaining in the world and are in the hands of private collectors valued at roughly 30 million dollars each in running condition.

3. The Herkimer Battle Jitney was built for the movie. It's running gear was a 1979 ford semi truck, with the cab removed, and the body was a modified Airstream camper.

Which is true? The last. Kinka Usher, the movie's director, says as much on the DVD commentary, apparently. I've found a few references that it appeared on ebay several years ago, quite damaged, listed for $10,000 and received no bids, but I can't verify them. It's probably rusting away in a studio junkyard, or sold for scrap by now.

What's fascinating about the vehicle used in the film, however, is an arcane inscription on the vehicle: PAKAWALUP. If you search for that term, it's the name of two bombers (Pakawalup and Pakawalup II) used by the 751st Bomb Squadron in World War II. So the designers of the prop (or someone) did some research.

This is further evidence of the meticulously detailed alternate America depicted in Mystery Men (localized in the fictional Champion City). It's all background and detail, never part of the plot, but there are numerous neon signs in Russian and an Asian script, alternate technology such as the coin-operated televisions, and so on. The architecture is both familiar and exotic, comparable (maybe) to some of the more extreme versions of Gotham in some of the crappier Batman films.

The best alternate reality settings are fertilized by the real world. Throwing in the actual name of a military vehicle is one example of that. The other is that Herkimer is a real company established in New York in 1921 and still going strong, apparently. They built small engines for drones, and model engines for hobbyists. In an alternate world, they surely could have ended up with a military contract to produce a fleet of battle jitneys.

That's one mystery of the Mystery Men solved. Here's another one.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Crucifixions of 1982

In western culture, the image of a crucifixion carries a lot of weight. It's gotta be a bad way to go, especially for a guy like me, who, last time I checked, couldn't even do one pull-up. I came across a random image today that reminded me of two of my favorite childhood movies (neither of which are appropriate for children, but I was raised by permissive liberals) that featured crucifixion scenes. And while theologically, Jesus sort of had to die for that whole plan to make sense, other heroes were under no such obligations, and handled being crucified in a far more proactive way. 

First, let's look at the the 1982 John Milius movie Conan the Barbarian. I'm one of the few folks I know who actually considers this a good movie. As far as I'm concerned, it's a borderline art film, wisely stocked with athletes instead of actors, who would have just screwed it up (of course, James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow are brought in, much as Alec Guiness in Star Wars, to give it a little credibility). Our eponymous hero, after bungling his first attempt to infiltrate Thulsa Doom's Mountain of Power, is crucified on the "Tree of Woe." Like all good movie bad guys, they leave Conan alone on the tree, assuming he'll die (instead of posting a watch or something like that just to make sure...this is what I call the "Tie Up James Bond and Tell Him Your Evil Plan Then Leave Him Alone to Escape" mistake). While on the cross, Conan behaves in a very un-Christlike fashion. That is, as far as we know, Jesus was not attacked by vultures while he was on the cross. He didn't manage to bite one to death while crucified, either. But Conan did. Then again, Conan and Jesus had fairly different priorities. Conan hangs there for an unspecified amount of time, but we see the sun rise and set a few times. When he's almost dead, he sees his good buddy Subotai, the archer, who comes running over the dunes as the music (ripped off from Holst by Basil Polidouris) swells and Conan lapses into relieved, semi-maniacal laughter. Even so, Conan is still in danger of death and he must be taken to Akiro, the Wizard of the Mounds. He saves Conan's life in a bizarre ceremony, as Conan's girlfriend Valeria essentially makes a deal with the gods to trade her life for his. All in all, Conan handled his crucifixion fairly well, losing, in the end, only his girlfriend. Ultimately, this is not much of a loss for him, as a quick perusal of Conan book covers proves Conan is rarely without a girlfriend - and with few exceptions, they're cringing, naked, chained-up girlfriends. (In a related note, this also causes me to believe that artists Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo both have bondage fetishes that they expect Conan fans to share, because such scenes are actually featured very rarely in the original Robert E. Howard books.)

For our next crucifixion, we move to a much, much worse movie. That being said, it might be a bit more "fun" than Conan the Barbarian. I speak of another 1982 film, The Sword and the Sorcerer. Starring Lee Horsley (TV's "Matt Houston," who later became a writer of western novels) as a mercenary with the World's Most Ridiculous Sword (a sword that obliged a generation of Dungeon Masters to tell players, "no, your sword can't shoot blades like the one in that shitty movie"), the action centers around Talon, a former prince whose family was killed by the bad guy, Cromwell, at the beginning of the movie. He comes back home to help overthrow Cromwell, who has imprisoned the next-in-line to the throne. Talon agrees to help the fellow's sister, Alana, but only if she sleeps with him after the job is done (what a hero). Anyway, after a bunch of silliness featuring sexualized torture, gratuitous violence and nudity, and a plot that seems to consist mostly of aimless mercenaries chasing and being chased by soldiers down an endless sequence of dungeon corridors, Talon is captured and is - you guessed it - crucified as entertainment at Cromwell's feast. Not one to take such treatment lightly, Talon manages the feat of actually pulling his nailed hands off the cross and leaping into battle, causing the bad guys to leave their feast quite forgotten as they fumblingly charge into the fray. Nails still firmly plugged through his palms, Talon nevertheless manages to retrieve his sword, shoot some sword-blades, kill the bad guys, sleep with the girl, and cede his rightful place as king to Alana's brother (which leads me to believe Talon and Alana were related in the first place, though perhaps not as closely related as Cercei and Jaime - a nice little "ew" factor to end the film on). Like Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China, Talon can't stay with the girl once he's got her, leaves shortly after deflowering her, and goes off to fight in sequels that never came - the bones, muscles, and tendons of his hands perfectly intact after an extremely brief interval of healing.

There are other crucifixions from other films in other years. In 1989, John-Claude Van Damme is crucified in the gilded turd Cyborg, and of course, the hundreds of crucifixions in 1960's Spartacus go without saying. But the ones from Conan the Barbarian and The Sword and the Sorcerer are the ones that leap to my mind. What's your favorite non-Jesus crucifixion? 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why I'm Not a Cop.

Because I actually care about this blog, I try to keep it free of the knee-jerk political posts I sometimes make on Facebook. I don't know why I get involved in that stuff. It usually leaves me emotionally exhausted and pissed off at myself for either starting, or joining in, conversations that are sort of pointless (I mean, when is the last time you ever heard someone change his or her mind after a political conversation?). It's a bad habit, and you can usually tell when I'm in a bad mood from the tone of my Facebook posts.

Today I got a FB message from a friend and mentor that called me a bigot in the politest possible terms (that is, a bigot for the Left, as Woody Allen said). I had to admit it was true.

In an example of scathing self-reflection, let me admit this publicly: I am deeply offended on a personal level every time I hear about a case of police misconduct and/or corruption. And yet, on TV cop shows, when they start beating the crap out of a suspect in the interrogation room, my reaction is usually something like "Hell yeah! Kick his ass!"

Yes, I'd be a terrible cop.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Dodecahedron & The Tesseract

After watching Interstellar, I thought a lot about the tesseract or hypercube, which I first heard about as a kid reading A Wrinkle in Time, and later encountered on Carl Sagan's original Cosmos. The subject always fascinated me, and why not? I love that I can think about something without really being able to picture it. The three-dimensional "shadow" of the hypercube is the best way to approach understanding it, if you have no math (which I don't). In fact, almost everything on that Wikipedia page I linked to above is Greek to me (in some cases, literally).

The reason I bring this up will be utterly obscure to anyone who isn't in my gaming group: the relationship of the tesseract to the dodecahedron (sort of). If you're not into Gonen's World, you can stop reading now, because this won't mean much to you. The dodecahedron - known to gamers as the twelve-sided die or d12 - has always held a place of semi-mystical significance in the fictional Gonen's World, mainly because of a story I heard when I was in third grade that stuck with me over the years. In the original Cosmos, Carl Sagan talks about Pythagoras, the ancient Greek mystic/mathematician, attempting to suppress knowledge of the dodecahedron because, through some mathematical contemplations I can't understand, the dodecahedron led Pythagoras to the fact that the square root of two is irrational. That suggested to the Pythagoreans that math couldn't explain everything and that maybe their view of the perfectly ordered universe was a bit off. Even as a third grader, that fact disturbed me. It was, perhaps, the first time I had any indication that adults, scientists, preachers, authority figures in general, might actually lie about something. In my little mind, the dodecahedron morphed into a symbol of truth - particularly, a symbol of hidden truth and secret meanings. Much later, when I began working on Gonen's World in the mid-1990s, the dodecahedron crawled out of my subconscious and inserted itself into the fiction as a powerful cultural, religious, and mathematical symbol. So those who have gamed in Gonen's World know the dodecahedron well.

Now back to tesseracts. In reading the Wikipedia article, trying in vain to understand sentences I just don't have the math for, I came across what is, to me, a fascinating reference: "The rhombic dodecahedron forms the convex hull of the tesseract's vertex-first parallel-projection." I don't know what a rhombic dodecahedron is (I mean, I read the link, but I still don't get it). I'm not sure what a "vertex-first parallel-projection" is, either. As best as I can tell, the rhombic dodecahedron seems to frame a three-dimensional shadow of a four-dimensional tesseract. That's the important point for me. It was a moment of serendipity. Two things that have lurked in my mind since childhood now coalesce. It's not important that I understand the math, or appreciate that a rhombic dodecahedron isn't the same thing as the "perfect solid" dodecahedron with twelve identically-shaped faces. What matters is that in Gonen's World mythology (fictional though it may be), the dodecahedron just got more credibility as a mystical, quasi-magical (or, as we say in Gonen's World, mathemagical) object/concept. If any kind of dodecahedron and the tesseract are connected in any way, even theoretically, I feel like it justifies or legitimizes my fictional concept of the dodecahedron all along. If, in Gonen's World, the dodecahedron is the pathway to "magical" power, maybe it has something to do with it giving the practitioner of such arts a gateway or, better yet, a control panel of sorts to operate in higher dimensions, manipulate space, time and matter, and achieve "magical" effects.

It's not necessary that the "Laws of Nature" in a fictional world be in accord with the laws of the real world. But it is nice when they're somewhat self-consistent, and that's my big discovery here today: more evidence that the dodecahedron was and is the best choice for a mystical symbol of hidden meanings and ultimate truth in Gonen's World.