Monday, March 31, 2014

Homebrew Rules for Certamen Experimentation in Ars Magica 5th Edition

After years of longing to play in an Ars Magica campaign for decades, I finally got my chance.  I've been playing in one for the past six months and running another for the past three.  Playing the game (in its 5th Edition) has revealed a lot of cool and a few not-so-cool things about the mechanics, but it's a ton of fun overall.  I especially like how downtime is used and how characters can experiment with magic both in adventure sessions and during their off seasons (the unit used for downtime).

I've been playing a few characters in our saga, most notably Venzi Lüin of Tremere, a disputant who fights in certamen, magical duels, for his covenant, Mont-Mercure, in the Normandy Tribunal.  Based on our experiences and what I've seen online, certamen is not something comes up often in many Ars Magica sagas.  The core rules can be likened to grappling rules in most editions of A/D&D: seldom used and often dreaded.  However, that didn't stop Atlas Games from expanding the basic certamen rules in Houses of Hermes: True Lineages.  As my character is a disputant, I often play him as someone who is looking for an opportunity to duel.

Recently, I realized that my development of Venzi as a disputant would probably trail off sometime in the character's late 40s (he just surpassed me in age -- 39).  He can master two special styles (found in HoH:TL) but otherwise he will continue to develop his arts and forsake the things that drive other magi: spell research, item research, apprentices, and familiars.  These things add little to nothing to the disputant's dedicated dueling arsenal, which is defined primarily by his arts and three arcane abilities: Finesse, Penetration, and Parma Magica.  Spending time on spells and apprentices means time not spent on keeping the dueling arsenal at peak power.

When choosing arts for a duel, there is a small bit of psychological strategizing that goes on.  The duelists want to pick arts they are strong in that their opponents are not strong in.  Learning about your opponents through the use of Order of Hermes Lore can help discern what their strong and weak arts are.  Knowing that your opponent can veto one of your choices, you may "throw" an initial choice out with the intention of seeing it vetoed.  Still, once the arts are chosen, the process of moving from round-to-round is largely a matter of attrition.  If you fight in the "style" of a school rather than as a master, you have the option of switching from round to round.  You also have the ability to spend vis, a resource of raw magical power, in the course of the duel, but there are not many more choices to make.

Because Venzi will be focused on dueling for his entire wizardly career, I wanted to extend the rules to develop more oddball aspects and give dedicated duelists the ability to develop new styles on their own.  HoH:TL describes how to achieve Breakthrough Points through original research in the Bonisagus chapter.  Similarly, Ancient Magic describes how to integrate non-Hermetic magical concepts into Hermetic theory using a similar system that works in parallel.  Despite the description of the Harenarius virtue in HoH:TL, which states that the harenarii are the most likely magi to develop new certamen styles, there are no rules present for doing so.

To fill in the gaps and extend my interest in Venzi's development, I have created a system that hybridizes the rules from original research and non-Hermetic integration.  These rules should give advanced duelists goals to work toward as well as the dangerous, chaotic thrill that other magi feel when fooling around with arcane experimentation and the Extraordinary Results chart.  These rules haven't been playtested, but I hope you may find them of some use.  Thanks for reading.


Developing New Certamen Styles

Magi can develop new certamen styles by applying Lessons they learn from fighting duels.  Each duel they fight is like a tiny artifact they can obsess over for new techniques and applications.  Experimenting with these Lessons is risky and time-consuming, but over time can allow duelists to develop Breakthroughs for certamen just as a maga may develop Breakthroughs in original research and Hermetic integration.  Once the maga achieves a basic Breakthrough, the research coalesces into a new style. After years of continued work dueling with the new style, the maga can become a rare and celebrated figure in Hermetic circles: a Magistra Certamenis, the master of her own new style.

Dueling Lessons - From the Ring to the Lab

In any season following one or more certamen duels, a maga can spend a season attempting to gain a Lesson.  Lessons can be used to augment study of the arts and arcane abilities in the short term, but are more valuable for their ability to help develop entirely new styles of certamen over a longer period of time.

It doesn't matter if the maga won or lost, but she must have dueled "on stage" as a meaningful part of the story (as determined by the storyguide).  The maga may initiate this study in the season immediately following the duel or later, but once a new season has passed in which the maga dueled on stage, she can no longer attempt to gain a Lesson from the earlier season of duels.  To gain a Lesson, the maga must make a stress roll of Intelligence + Magic Theory against an ease factor of 18.  The Harenarius virtue adds three to this roll and the troupe may rule that some seasons of duels grant additional bonuses.  An ordinary or uneventful duel adds no bonus, but a truly extraordinary duel may add as much as +3.  Note that the maga does not roll for each duel, but for the season of duels and the troupe should consider all of the duels together.

On a botch, the maga thinks she has gained a Lesson, but does not.  She realizes this after she attempts to apply the Lesson, which always results in an additional wasted season.

Nature of the Lesson

The nature of the Lesson is judged by the troupe and should be connected to the nature of the duels but in all cases relate to at least one form, one technique, and one arcane ability used in certamen (finesse, penetration, and parma magica).  The troupe's determination defines how the lesson may be applied.  E.g. in a season with one duel involving Creo and Herbam that was resolved with lightning-fast initiative, the troupe may decide the lesson may be applied to Creo, Herbam, or Finesse.  In a season with multiple duels involving various forms combined with Perdo, and in which the duels lasted a long time due to high resistance totals, the troupe may determine that the Lesson may be applied to Perdo or Parma Magica. The most notable duel involved the use of Ignem, so that is the form the troupe agrees can also be applied to the Lesson.

Applying the Lesson

Once the troupe has agreed upon the nature of the Lesson, the maga may choose to apply it in any future season.  It may only be applied once, but there is no time limit on when it may be applied.  When a lesson is applied, the maga must apply it while learning an art or arcane ability connected to the nature of the lesson.  The normal source rules apply, but the maga cannot apply the lesson while receiving instruction from a teacher.  She must have time to experiment while incorporating the lesson.  The experimentation also always requires a lab (even if the maga is studying vis).

Roll a stress die on the Certamen Experimentation: Extraordinary Results chart for the results.  As with normal arcane experimentation, the maga may add from +1 to +3 worth of risk bonus before the die is rolled.  However, this bonus is also the additional number of botch dice that must be rolled.

In all circumstances other than disaster and complete failure, for every 5 experience points (rounded up) you gain using this method you gain 1 Breakthrough Point.  This also applies to experience gained in Magic Theory and shifted arts on the discovery or modified study tables.

The Seed Is Planted: A New Goal

Once the maga achieves a Breakthrough Point, you should declare what the Lesson and subsequent Breakthrough have motivated the maga to discover.  In certamen research, the end goal is always a new style, but you must define what that style is going to accomplish that the other existing styles do not.  Over time, your research may shift how your style develops, but it's good for the troupe to know what you're going for in the long run.

A New Style: The First Breakthrough

When the maga has acquired 30 Breakthrough points, she has developed a new style of certamen.  This new style is gained as soon as the final Breakthrough point is acquired.  The player and the troupe decide what the nature of the style is based on the maga's earliest stated goals, the duels the maga has participated in, and the types of results that appeared during her experimentation.  Like other certamen styles, this can be taught to other Hermetic magi, but there is no "master" level in existence.  A maga who uses their new style in at least 5 duels and/or teaches their style to 5 students will earn 15 experience points in the Hermetic Reputation: Magistra/Magister Certamenis (magistra in this sense indicating their role as an academic master).

Developing the Style: Working Toward Mastery

Once the maga has developed a new style, she can only progress in it by repeating the initial process, but she must use her new style in duels "on stage" to devote Lessons toward another Breakthrough.  If the maga does this and moves from 30 Breakthrough points to 45, she will have become a master -- the first master -- of her new style.  This mastery applies even if the maga has already mastered a school of certamen (or two, in the case of a Harenarius).

At this point, the maga may determine (with the troupe) what mastery entails and if it has changed even the basics of the style.  If the style has changed since its inception, any magi who already knew the "old" version can be updated to the new way if they learn mastery -- or if they simply take another season of studying with a "corrected" disciple of the style.

A maga who uses her mastered style in at least 5 duels and/or teaches mastery of their style to 5 students will earn another 15 experience points in the Hermetic Reputation: Magistra/Magister Certamenis.

Defending the Style

Certamen, being binding in "all matters", is a sensitive subject for many magi.  Depending on how successful the new style is, it may draw attention from bitter disputants, curious quaesitores, and other sources of criticism.  This may provide even more opportunities for the new "Magistra Certamenis" to defend her style both at tribunals and through continued dueling.  Peripheral Code rulings dealing with certamen are not common, but the possibility is always there.

Certamen Experimentation: Extraordinary Results

Extraordinary Results Chart
Roll Result
Botch Disaster
0-4 No extraordinary effects
5-6 Cicatrix Certamenis
7 No benefit
8 Complete failure
9 Special or story event
10 Discovery
11 Modified study
12 Roll twice more on this chart

Disaster: You fail miserably.  Roll a simple die + risk modifier - Perception, and compare to the following chart:

Roll Result
<=0 You spot the disaster before it occurs. Your season is still wasted; see "Complete Failure."

1-2 Lab accident.  Your lab takes one season of damage (reverting to -3 if a standard lab, or complete ruin if a half-established lab)

3-4 Personal injury.  You injure yourself, taking damage equal to a simple die + the source quality of your study material (yes, even with Parma Magica).

5-6 Explosion!  Your lab is ruined and you must roll a simple die for each valuable possession you keep in your lab.  On a 0, it is destroyed.  You take an amount of damage equal to a simple die + (2 * the source quality of your study material).

7-8 Your experiment backfires in such a way that the entire covenant is threatened, either through fire, the summoning of a major threat, or some other calamity the storyguide makes up.

9–10 You gain Warping Points equal to the number of zeroes on the botch roll. Roll for Twilight if you gain two or more.

11+ Roll twice more on this chart.

No Extraordinary Effects: Your experiment does produce any exceptional results but still counts toward your certamen Breakthrough.

Cicatrix Certamenis: You develop a dueling "scar" -- not a physical mark, but an ingrained habit in your certamen technique connected to the art or arcane ability you are studying. Some scars are beneficial and reflect that you have mastered a powerful tactic  or gained confidence from your experience. Other scars are detrimental and represent either the incorporation of a bad habit or the development of a psychological block connected to your duels.

Roll a simple die and add your risk modifier and compare to the appropriate chart.  If you roll a result you already have for the same art, you gain no special insight and no Breakthrough Points.  Cicatrices certamenis should be tracked for each type of Breakthrough. They can help shape the direction the new style takes.


Roll Result
1 Transformed Image - Your half of the shared illusion is transformed or exaggerated in an unusual way when this art is used in certamen. The nature of the transformation is determined by the troupe, based on the nature of the lesson.

2 Weak Response - When you use this art for defense, any successful hit on you (whether or not it does damage) reduces your next attack total by 1.

3 Overcompensation - When you use this art for defense, a successful hit on you will reduce your next attack total by 1 and increase your next defense total by 1.  If you score a successful hit while using this art to attack, it increases your next attack total by 1 and decreases your next defense total by 1.  Both events could potentially occur in sequence, canceling each other out.

4 Strong Response - When you use this art for defense, any successful hit on you (whether or not it does damage) increases your next attack total by 1.

5 Gloriola Desperationis - Your experimentation has caused you to become careless with vis in duels.  When you use vis in certamen to boost this art, you run a risk of causing actual damage to yourself.  For each pawn you use on a roll, make a stress die + Stamina + Concentration roll against an Ease Factor equal to the number of pawns used x 3.  If you make the check, nothing unusual happens.  If you fail the check, you take +2 damage for every pawn spent and mometarily gain the so-called "halo of desperation" from energy coursing over you.

6 Powerful Momentum - Immediately following a successful attack with this art, you gain +3 to your defense for the next round.

7 Sloppy Aggression - After you successfully land an attack with this art, you suffer -3 to your defense for the next round.

8 Urna Volubilis - You have developed a precariously-balanced use of this art.  The chaotic "rolling jug" grants boons and horrible misfortunes in extreme circumstances. When this art is used for attack or defense and a 1 is rolled, the final die is always assumed to be a 10 regardless of what the re-rolls are.  Conversely, any botch roll always has an additional botch die added.

9 Pars Imaginis - You have figured out a way to trick onlookers into believing you have used -- or not used -- vis with this art by masking reality through the shared illusion.  You must commit to the ruse before rolling and suffer -1 to your final result for every three pawns of vis (or part thereof) that is being masked or faked in the process.  Separately from the attack or defense rolls, you then make a stress die + Presence (if attack)/Perception (if defense) + Guile roll to determine the effectiveness of the trick.  Subtract 1 from the total for every pawn of vis being masked or faked.  The opponent and onlookers can detect what's happening with a stress die + Perception + Awareness.  Tricks of this sort are not against any ruling of the code, though serious sticklers frown at them.

10 Flinch - When you suffer the loss of a fatigue level from a successful attack while defending with this art, you must make a stress die + Stamina + Concentration roll against an Ease Factor of 9.  If you fail the roll, you suffer -3 to attack and defense on the following round.  If you botch, you immediately cease concentration on certamen and drop your half of the shared illusion.

11 Warping Surge - When you roll a 1 when using this art for attack or defense, before re-rolling you may choose to add +10 to the final result at a cost of 2 points of warping (meaning an immediate check for Wizard's Twilight).  The warping takes effect concurrently with the action, meaning the maga could win or lose the duel and immediately enter Twilight.

12 Ars Vicaria - You have accidentally discovered how to surreptitiously substitute other arts for this art during certamen.  However, it is by no means foolproof.  You must decide to make the substitution (only forms for forms, techniques for techniques) before you roll and must describe to the troupe what art is being is being substituted and how this is disguised in the shared illusion.  A stress die + Perception + Awareness vs. an Ease Factor arbitrated by the storyguide determines whether or not the opponent or any onlookers notice what has happened.  Though this phenomenon has not been seen frequently enough to receive any tribunal rulings -- and thus is not explicitly covered by any Peripheral Code -- maintaining a stance of victory when caught employing a "proxy art" is broadly condemned by magi.

13 New Side Effect - You learn something else about using this art in certamen.  The effect is either of no mechanical benefit or has equal benefits and drawbacks as arbitrated by the troupe.

Finesse + Art

Roll Result
1-2 Confident Start - If you win initiative at the beginning of a duel, you may apply +3 to the total generated by the related art in the first round (only). You may not gain this bonus in circumstances where you decline initiative, but you may take it in circumstances where it is declined to you (e.g. when dueling against a master of Hoplomachus).

3-4 Nervous Start - When this art is one of the two used in a duel, you may not apply Confidence to your initiative roll.

5-6 Rising Tempo - When this art is involved in certamen, you gain +1 to your initiative on every round following the first, up to a total of +3.  This has no benefit in circumstances where you win initiative, but it may allow you to eventually reverse the combat order.

7-8 Falling Tempo - When this art is involved in certamen, you lose 1 on your initiative on every round following the first, up to a total of -3.  This causes no problems in circumstances where you already lost or declined initiative, but in cases where you win initiative, you may eventually drop behind your opponent.

9 Seize Advantage - When your opponent botches while you are using this art (actively, on the contested roll), you both re-roll initiative.  It does not replace your current initiative total, but if you win the roll, your opponent loses his or her next turn.

10 Stumble - When you botch while you are using this art (actively, on the contested roll), you both re-roll initiative.  It does not replace your current initiative total, but if you lose the roll, you lose your next turn.

11 Calculated Opening - When rolling for initiative at the beginning of the duel, you may take a penalty equal to your Finesse score and apply it to the associated art on the first round.  This bonus applies regardless of whether you win or lose, but cannot be used in situations where either party declines initiative.

12 Nictus Infelix - When using this art in certamen, you must make a stress die + Perception + Concentration roll against the opponent's stress die + Presence + Concentration or lose your first attack (even if postponed).

13 New Side Effect - You learn something else about using Finesse with this art in certamen.  The effect is either of no mechanical benefit or has equal benefits and drawbacks as arbitrated by the troupe.

Penetration + Art

Roll Result
1-2 Probing Attunement - While attuning your shared illusion in a duel where this art is used, you can attempt to discern the opponent's score in this art before initiative is rolled. You roll a stress die + Perception + Penetration against their stress die + Presence + Parma Magica to determine success. The opponent will become aware of your attempt, but will not know whether you are successful or not.

3-4 Exposed Offense - While attuning your shared illusion in a duel where this art is used, roll a stress die + Presence + Guile against your opponent's stress die + Perception + Awareness. If you fail, your opponent learns your Intelligence + Penetration total.

5-6 Rising Offense - After you first hit with this art, you accumulate +1 to your Weakening Total on subsequent hits with this art in the same duel, up to a total of +3.

7-8 Falling Offense - After you first hit with this art, you accumulate -1 to your Weakening Total on subsequent hits with this art in the same duel, up to a total of -3.

9 Prensa Parmam - When you attack with this art and exactly match your opponent's defense, you may choose to re-roll your attack.  However, you must accept the second result.

10 Pilum Curvum - When you attack with this art and exactly match your opponent's defense, your Weakening Total is halved for the next round.

11 Sundering Blow - If you score a hit with this art, you may decline to in inflict one or more Fatigue Levels in exchange for -4 to the opponent's Resistance Total for the rest of the duel.

12 Impetus Malus - Each time you use this art to successfully hit an opponent in a duel, you must roll a stress die + Stamina + Concentration against an East Factor of 9 or lose your next attack (intentionally going full defense with Hoplomachus does not count).

13 New Side Effect - You learn something else about using Penetration with this art in certamen.  The effect is either of no mechanical benefit or has equal benefits and drawbacks as arbitrated by the troupe.

Parma Magica + Art

Roll Result
1-2 Sensitive Attunement - While attuning your shared illusion in a duel where this art is used, you can attempt to discern the opponent's score in this art before initiative is rolled. You roll a stress die + Perception + Parma Magica against their stress die + Presence + Penetration to determine success. The opponent will become aware of your attempt, but will not know whether you are successful or not.

3-4 Exposed Defense - While attuning your shared illusion in a duel where this art is used, roll a stress die + Presence + Guile against your opponent's stress die + Perception + Awareness. If you fail, your opponent learns your Stamina + Parma Magica total.

5-6 Rising Defense - After you first defend with this art, you accumulate +1 to your Resistance Total on subsequent defense rolls with this art in the same duel, up to a total of +3.

7-8 Falling Defense - After you first defend with this art, you accumulate -1 to your Resistance Total on subsequent defense rolls with this art in the same duel, up to a total of -3.

9 Prensa Gladium - When you defend with this art and exactly match your opponent's attack, you may choose to re-roll your defense.  However, you must accept the second result.

10 Manus Prava - When you defend with this art and exactly match your opponent's attack, your Resistance Total is halved for the next round.

11 Blunting Deflection - If you defend with this art and are hit but your opponent fails to exceed your Resistance Total with their Weakening Total, your Resistance Total gains +3 for the rest of the duel. This may only occur once per duel.

12 Praesidium Inconstans - Each time you use this art to defend against an opponent in a duel, you must roll a stress die + Stamina + Concentration against an East Factor of 9 or you are unable to use this art for defense on the following round.

13 New Side Effect - You learn something else about using Parma Magica with this art in certamen.  The effect is either of no mechanical benefit or has equal benefits and drawbacks as arbitrated by the troupe.

No Benefit: Your experimentation produces no unusual results.  However, your Lesson does generate progress toward your Breakthrough.

Complete Failure: You get nothing from your efforts, and your season is wasted. Roll a simple die. On a 0, you lose your Dueling Lesson and cannot re-apply it. Otherwise, you may attempt to apply it again in a subsequent season.

Special or Story Event: Either some effect not covered elsewhere occurs, or, at the storyguide’s option, an event unfolds as a result of your work which involves the entire covenant.

Discovery: Roll a simple die and add your risk modifier.

Roll Result
1–4 You gain 15 experience points in Magic Theory.

5–6 You gain 15 experience points in Finesse, Penetration, or Parma Magica.

7–8 You gain three experience points in one of the Arts that is part of the Lesson.

9 You gain enough experience points to bring one of the Arts that is part of the Lesson to the next level (or three experience points, whichever is greater).

10+ Roll twice, and reroll this result if it is generated again.
Modified Study: Roll a simple die and add your risk modifier.

Roll Result
1–3 You receive half the expected experience points for your study.

4–6 You receive double the expected experience points for your study.

7–8 Half of the experience gained does not go to the original study topic, but to Magic Theory.

9–10 Experience granted by the study is applied to a different form, technique, or arcane ability used in certamen, but always with a like type (forms for forms, techniques for techniques, arcane abilities for arcane abilities).  This is not chosen by you, but by the troupe.

11+ Experience granted by the study is applied to an entirely different art or arcane ability used in certamen and not even within the same category.  I.e. a form grants experience to a technique, an arcane ability grants experience to a form, etc.  This is not chosen by you, but by the troupe.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Queen Needs No Advocate

In my career, I've been fortunate to spend a great deal of time involved in system design.  Much of that time has been spent implementing or modifying established systems (e.g. Dungeons & Dragons and Fallout's SPECIAL system).  Before I was employed in the industry, I spent a lot of time developing my own tabletop systems and modifying the systems of others, so this has always been something I've enjoyed doing.

There are many pitfalls to system design and I believe most designers trip those pitfalls by moving into implementation details too quickly.  I believe some keys to success in system design (and for design in general) are to establish clear goals, to frame what those goals will accomplish in terms of player experience, and to continually return to those goals and player experiences to ensure that nothing was lost in the details of implementation.

I believe the most well-executed systems are ones where thoughtful players can accurately discern the designers' goals simply by scrutinizing the systems in action.  Though not all players need to be able to do this, the ones who care to do so should be able to.  Designers who succeed in creating systems that can be "reverse-engineered" in such a way have captured the soul of elegance in design.

I sometimes look to traditional games for mechanical inspiration.  One of the ones I think of most often is chess.  Clocking in at over 1,000 years of play around the world, chess has had a lot of iteration time.  I'm not an expert on chess strategy and I'm not a particularly good player, but I know chess well enough to take some simple lessons away from it.  Two that I often rely on are lessons of obvious value and orthogonally equivalent value.  These two lessons can be summarized by examing three chess pieces: the queen, the knight, and the bishop.

When I look at any system, I examine both the system's design as well as the content that uses the system.  I believe this is something that system designers should always do.  A system is only as good as the content that makes use of it; content that fails to make use of a system (or vice versa) will always create a disappointing experience.

The queen is typically the most powerful piece in chess (though not the most valuable; that role is reserved for the king).  The queen's movement capabilities combine the lateral movement of the rook with the diagonal movement of the bishop.  Even if you are learning chess for the first time, the fact that the queen combines the movement of two other pieces makes her relative power clear.  A rook's ability to perform a castle, the knight's excellence at creating forks, and a the pawn's ability to capture an enemy pawn en passant are all capabilities that take a while for players to appreciate, but not the queen's movement.  The queen's value is obvious.

Gameplay consists of players making (more-or-less) informed decisions about what they need to do to overcome an obstacle.  It is not enough for the obstacle to be clearly defined and communicated to players.  They also need to have a clear understanding of what tools are at their disposal to solve the problem.  In chess, the player's primary tools are his or her pieces.  Though circumstances determine the value of pieces on any given move, no one needs to advocate the fundamental value of the queen in chess.

As an extreme analogue in video games, it's unlikely that many players need to be told what the value of the HECU RPG is the first time they find one in Half-Life.  After being pursued by a relentless Apache helicopter over numerous maps, the player winds up in a cave with the RPG on the ground and the Apache hovering outside.  Players typically snatch up the RPG and blast the Apache in moments.  Though the HECU is not the "queen" of Half-Life's weapons, it has obvious applicability in the circumstance where it appears.

When designers develop tools, we should strive for clarity of primary purpose in a player's tools.  The more obvious we make the value of the tools at a player's disposal, the more quickly the player will spend time fully engaged with the obstacles at hand instead of trying to figure out what they aren't "getting".

Chess has various informal ranking systems for the relative value of pieces.  The rankings are not used for scoring, but they are used to give players a rough idea of the strategic (not tactical) value of those pieces.  In the most commonly used system, pawns have a value of 1, rooks have a value of 5, and queens have a value of 9.  Knights and bishops are both rated at 3.  Bishops move diagonally, always staying on their starting color, and knights are the "funny moving" pieces of chess, hopping two squares horizontally or vertically and one square vertically or horizontally, passing over other pieces along the way.  Though their tactical applications in any given circumstance are completely dissimilar, the common ranking systems give them equal (or close to equal) strategic value in chess.

Whether chess' numerous contributors intended for them to be equal in value by design or players collectively determined they were equal in value, today's players generally regard them as being so in spite of their radical differences.  I.e., players treat them as having orthogonally equivalent value.  Knights and bishops are considered equivalent in an orthogonal sense because their mechanics and applications do not overlap but they commonly create the same amount of benefit for players.  Though bishops can move infinitely along their color, potentially from corner to corner, they lack the knight's ability to move over pieces.

Dungeons & Dragons commonly presents choices in such a fashion.  The most obvious examples are spells, which are grouped by level.  In most editions of A/D&D, haste and fireball are 3rd level wizard/magic-user/sorcerer spells.  Though the tactical relevance and application of these spells varies wildly, the games' designers established them as being equal.

When we design tools for the player to use -- abilities, gear, options, upgrades -- options with ostensibly orthogonally equivalent value create interesting choices for the player.  They also lend themselves to increased clarify of purpose.  The more tools overlap in function, the less obvious it is to players why a given tool exists.  The less tools overlap in function, the more those tools seem suited to a specific circumstance.

While these are high-level design concepts, creating choices with obvious, easily differentiated values can make the low-level details much easier to execute and build upon.  When a player is presented with strategic or tactical choices, he or she is always fundamentally asking the question, "Why do I want to make this choice instead of any of the others?"  As designers, we want to communicate the answers to their questions as elegantly as possible.  Ideally, the design of the player's tools and the game's content should be self-advocating, allowing players to reverse-engineer our intent and their range of choices without a word of explanation.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

JSawyer.esp - v5.1

A helpful modder going by the handle xporc graciously addressed some issues in my mod that I was having trouble resolving.  After some back-and-forth to fix some display issues, JSawyer v5.1 is ready.

Here's a high-level overview of what's substantively changed:

* Hardcore (H2O/FOD/SLP) thresholds have been set to 400/550/700/850/1000 as originally intended for the mod.  The HUD indicators now match this.  However, because all "Hardcore" HUD indicators flip over at the same values, this means we had to change the Radiation thresholds (and Rad Child) to match.  This means you can go a little bit longer before suffering ill effects from Radiation, but since the Hardcore acquisition rates are all faster than normal, I think players will still be doing more maintenance overall.
* A bunch of dirty edits I had previously made have been cleaned up.
* Various oversights have been fixed (details in the readme).

N.B.: Some of these fixes may not appear if you replace the mod for a game in progress.

As always, it is available here:

Thanks to xporc for his help with these problems.  I will be using v5.1 as the starting point for a future v6 (if it is needed).

JSawyer.esp - v5

An updated version of JSawyer is now uploaded in the usual place:

I have been unable to load the mod in FNVEdit to adjust the Dehydration/Starvation/Sleep Deprivation values, but here is the small list of changes since last time:

v5 Changes:
* That Gun added to The Professional list
* Wanderer's Leather and Highway Scar Armor placed in Mick and Cliff's stores respectively.
* Ranger Battle Armor renamed to Lucky Battle Armor.  Stats adjusted, Reilly's Rangers decals removed.  Placed in Cliff's Store.
* Has Backpack flag checked on Power Armors.
* Bent Tin Can = Tin Can! recipe added.  It turns Bent Tin Cans into Tin Cans!!!!  WOW!!!!

* All primary quest XP in DLCs reduced by 66%.  Edits were made in the quest scripts.

* Replaced accidental secondary placement of duplicate Mercenary's Grenade Rifle with the Sturdy Caravan Shotgun.
* Fire Axe and Knock Knock added to Never Axed For This challenge weapon list.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

the black hound - what its deal was

In the course of following our countdown over at Obsidian, a lot of gamers have been discussing past IPs we've worked with. One of the common subjects is The Black Hound, a project some of us at OEI worked on at Black Isle. It's also something I worked on as a NWN2 mod in my spare time. There's a Wikipedia entry for it and a few lore sites kicking around. Some of the info on it is accurate and some isn't, but I think the details are less important than what we were trying to do with it. I can't speak for everyone who was on the project, of course, but TBH was important to me for a lot of reasons.

When I came to Black Isle, the majority of the studio was working on Planescape: Torment. I was the webmaster for that project, but I desperately wanted to work in development as a designer. I had spent a huge amount of personal time in the 90s playing 2nd Edition AD&D in the Forgotten Realms. Working on Icewind Dale was a dream come true. Yeah, the game had a smaller story focus, and yeah, it didn't have companions, and yeah, and was linear and dungeon-focused, but I was making a real AD&D video game in the Forgotten Realms.

Icewind Dale II is the first game I was credited as lead designer on, but I was the lead designer on TBH first. I felt that the Dalelands, bordering on the Moonsea, presented a cool subsection of the Realms and a crossroads of cultures that would be interesting to explore. We could build a personal story, focused on how you fatefully intersected the life of someone hell-bent on doing something crazy. Like many Realms adventures, this wasn't a world-shattering event, but something locally catastrophic, like Moander appearing near a town and devouring a huge swath of the landscape. It's just one of those crazy Realms stories where bands of adventurers and the Cult of the Dragon start throwing fireballs and leveling villages while the townsfolk run for cover.

Some people have suggested that I hate high fantasy or want to subvert high fantasy. Neither of these are really true. I just don't like how most stories handle high fantasy: both too seriously and not seriously enough. Too seriously in the sense that a lot of fantasy conventions are considered so sacred that you can't touch them (or even question them). Not seriously enough in the sense that the scenarios and the characters don't feel like they tackle the obvious questions raised by the settings they're placed in.

As an example, the Red Wizards of Thay (an FR magical organization/magocracy) underwent a transformation between 2nd Ed. and 3E. They became a "kinder, gentler" trading nation forming magical mercantile enclaves in lands that would let them in. The thing is, 2nd Ed./3E Red Wizards probably look pretty weird to Cormyreans and Dalesmen. They shave their heads (including the women), speak a different language, and have a lot of magical tattoos. They're also darker-skinned. After a few centuries of being regarded as pariahs everywhere west of the River Sur, they show up in these places and are doing business -- questionable business -- in broad daylight.

The FR designers did something interesting in shifting their MO between 2nd Ed. and 3E. The not interesting thing to do (IMO) with that shift as a scenario or story designer would be to have a pack of bad guy Thayans in an enclave with the good guy locals saying, "Those darn Thayans are up to something, please help us, heroes." I was intrigued by the idea that a Thayan enclave could contain a "new guard" of diplomatic Red Wizards and an "old guard" of fireball-hurling hardasses who aren't allowed (or are discouraged from going) outside. Some of the new guard genuinely want to mend fences. Others simply want to use it as a way to re-establish safe power centers and observation posts in lands where they previously would have been killed on sight.

The new guard use concealing/lightening makeup, don wigs, and wear "western" clothing to fit in. The old guard chafes at having to conceal their heritage and suffers under the jeers and slurs of locals if they dare to appear in public. The new guard speaks with good and proper "Common" grammar and pronunciation, not stumbling over foreign sounds and linguistic concepts. I thought it would create a more interesting and nuanced relationship between the Thayans, the Dalesman, and those who interacted with them, lending sympathy to the traditionally "villainous" and creating a more agonizing struggle between the sub-factions of the Thayans.

An old evil wizard who strokes his beard and cackles as he unleashes chain lightning on random townsfolk isn't particularly sympathetic. But suppose he were a veteran Red Wizard who watched his fellows succumb over the years in service to the zulkirs and was forced to "step aside" as young diplomats smooth talked their way into trade relationships with their former enemies. He has to endure the insults of locals, hear them mock his clothing, his pronunciation, his skin, his culture. And when he expresses his frustration to his new (younger) "superiors", he's treated like an anachronism, an old artillery cannon left to rust and rot on a forgotten battlefield. That dude may still wind up casting chain lightning on townsfolk, but if we weave a compelling story around him, the player should feel that there's more to him than that.

I've been rambling here a bit but let me get back to the main point: The Black Hound wasn't really *~ sUbVeRsIvE ~* "this ain't your daddy's RPG!" fantasy. It had elven ruins and fire genasi and Ilmaterian paladins and Maztican sorcerers and crypts full of undead -- all the stuff that made the Forgotten Realms the crazy blend of hardass adventurer-heavy, gods-mess-with-things, cults-and-dracoliches-under-this-rock D&D fantasy it always has been. I, and I think we all, just tried to approach the world with open eyes, asking, "Okay, so let's suppose all of this stuff about the Realms is true. What does that really mean for how the people in it live their lives?" It made the world more dark and grim, and sometimes that consideration wound up bucking convention, but we didn't set out to invert fantasy conventions just for the sake of doing it.

I regret that the team wasn't able to complete The Black Hound, and not just because of the time and passion we all invested in it. Some of my best tabletop RPG (and CRPG) memories come out of the Forgotten Realms. Huge, crazy, "how many more Volo's Guides can there be?" Forgotten Realms. I think those scenarios were memorable because the DMs/designers made compelling scenarios and the players gave a damn about each other and what was going on. If you take fantasy for granted, yeah, no one's going to get much out of it. I don't think we took anything for granted. We had an opportunity to make something that celebrated high fantasy without being enslaved by its conventions. In retrospect, there are a bunch of personal design choices I look back on and cringe at, but I don't regret the time I spent on it at all. When you enjoy the process of making something that much, it's hard to consider it time wasted. We had a lot of fun while it lasted.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Firearm Legislation: Why We Have So Much Trouble Talking About It

This past week, there was a terrible massacre at an Aurora, Colorado theatre on the opening night of The Dark Knight Rises.  The perpetrator used tear gas and a variety of firearms to inflict numerous casualties before being captured.

As with the Gabby Giffords shooting and many other high-profile acts of extreme firearm violence, there was an immediate call for increased firearm legislation.  This is an understandable reaction, but debates on the topic are almost universally unproductive, typically because they aren't actually debates.  They are usually online shouting matches and polemics that are designed to draw agreement and ire.  I'd like to give my perspective on firearm legislation and why discussions surrounding it often go so poorly.

I grew up in Wisconsin, a state with a large population of hunters.  Though my father hunted when he was young, he did not hunt at all as an adult.  I had a BB gun and a pellet gun, but never had a non-air-powered firearm.  My mother hated guns and still hates guns of all kinds.  A few years ago, I started taking handgun safety classes and eventually purchased a Colt M1991, an updated version of the .45 ACP sidearm used by American armed forces from WWI to Vietnam and beyond.  I also purchased some lever-action rifles, some military surplus WWII-era battle rifles, and a pump-action shotgun.  I went to local indoor and outdoor ranges by myself and with friends who were also interested in firearms.  I talked with range masters, gun store employees, and fellow shooters at the range on subjects ranging from practical to political.

My interests were mostly academic.  For better or worse, many video games feature firearms, and I don't like being ignorant about the things I work on.  Don't get me wrong: I also enjoy shooting and maintaining firearms, but that enjoyment followed the academic interest.  As with many of my hobbies, my interest peaked, tapered, and has fallen off.  I'm about to sell most of my firearms, mostly because I don't have any practical use for them and I just don't get out to the range that often.  I'm glad I learned what I have, but it's just not a big part of my life.  One of the most important things I've learned is what it's like to be a gun owner in America.  I believe it's helped me understand these debates much better than I previously had.

In my (admittedly short) time as a gun owner, I've heard a lot of complaints from other gun owners about why they hate gun legislation.  Some of it is rabid hostility, but it's foolish to dismiss all of it as such.  I've also had a lot of criticism come my way for owning firearms and for going to ranges.  From these two general perspectives, I have developed some theories about why gun control debates get very unproductive very quickly.

Many of the people who are most vocal about firearm legislation are the people who understand firearms the least.  A subset of these people are even proud of the fact that they don't know anything about firearms.  I believe this attitude is extraordinarily foolish.  Ignorance leads to bad legislation, regardless of the subject.  Most firearm legislation is bad because the public's understanding of the realities of firearms in America is bad.  When I say the legislation is bad, I don't mean that it's bad because it tramples rights or isn't constitutional, but because it doesn't even accomplish the things its advocates want it to accomplish.

The 1975 Firearm Controls Regulation Act (a.k.a. the D.C. handgun ban) accomplished virtually nothing because the legislation ignored the practical realities of how firearms are trafficked across state lines and how available they are across the country, legally or illegally.  The Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was similarly ineffective because "assault weapons" as defined by the AWB are used in a fraction of firearm-related crimes.

Many of the people who are most vocal about firearm legislation are transparently disingenuous about their end goals.  If your end goal is to reduce firearm-related crime, present your ideas and desires sincerely with that in mind.  If your end goal is for all firearms to be banned and all extant civilian-owned firearms to be reclaimed and destroyed by the government, be sincere about that as well.  There are many, many cases where people advocate legislation disingenuously.  They suggest a modest restriction under the pretense of reform, but their actual desire is to make the United States a nation without civilian firearm ownership.

If you wonder why some firearm owners react to talk of incremental gun control as though their houses are going to be raided and they are going to be arrested for owning a bolt-action varmint rifle, it's because they don't believe in the sincerity of people advocating incremental legislation (and they are often right not to).

The NRA is awful.  I know some firearm owners and NRA members are going to read this blog and be upset by that, but I find it hard to defend the NRA.  It's an organization that frequently rabble-rouses and presents an eternal us-vs-them conflict to firearm owners.  Many of their positions are extreme and unsupported.  The NRA, along with many firearm manufacturers and gun store owners, "predicted" a huge storm of firearm legislation after Obama was elected.

Before his inauguration, there was an astounding market run on items that they "predicted" would be legislated or banned: >10 round magazines, certain types of ammunition, and anything previously covered by the AWB (that they said would be renewed despite virtually no signs the administration had any interest in doing so).  AR-15 receivers were among the most insanely market-inflated, but many types of ammunition were also hoarded in large quantities.  Gun store clerks were even re-selling ammunition "under the table"  with dramatically increased prices.

The saddest thing is that gun owners across the country bought into it.  All of it.  For the past year, the NRA has been building up for the 2012 election, promising that Obama is going to go into firearm legislation overdrive if he is re-elected.  Again, to date, there's no solid evidence this is going to happen, but the NRA is terribly good at spreading panic.

The media is just as ignorant as the public.  It's also sensationalist.  So despite the fact that the AR-15, one of the weapons used in the Aurora killings, fires a 5.56x45mm round realistically described as "mid-powered" (its parent round, .223 Remington, was developed for hunting "varmints" -- rabbits, coyotes, squirrels, etc.), many papers and blogs describe it as "high-powered" or "fearsome".

Writers will also draw similarities between situations that aren't really relevant, but promote radical panic.  The Aurora shooter used a Glock.  Jared Loughner, the man who shot Gabrielle Giffords, also used a Glock.  These facts shouldn't be that surprising considering that the majority of police departments across the country use Glocks and it's one of the most popular brands of semi-automatic civilian handgun around.

Some people may say that these points of contention don't matter.  When it comes to legislation, those points are very important, and popular opinion often drives legislation.  When gun owners scoff at advocates of fingerprinting when people buy "handgun ammo" or restricting the sale of "assault weapons", it's because those quoted terms are vague or nonsense.  Unfortunately, many members of the public become concerned about these specific ideas because they're the things that reporters in the media promote, regardless of relevance.

Proposed actions are often radical and irrationally focused instead of progressive and comprehensive.  These discussions happen in cycles, usually launched by a national (or international) tragedy.  Specific things happen in the tragedy: Glocks are used, large-capacity magazines are used, a certain type of ammunition is used.  Instead of looking at national (and international) trends in firearm ownership and crime, people get hung up on the specifics of the tragedy: ban Glocks, ban large-capacity magazines, ban this type of ammunition.  For many reasons, it's important to talk about the specifics, but legislating around the specifics usually doesn't solve larger problems.  Most of the time, it doesn't solve any problems, and the divide between firearm owners and gun control advocates grows even larger.

Widespread firearm ownership, legal and illegal, is a practical reality in the United States.  Gun violence, even adjusted for population, is also a much larger issue here than it is in most ostensibly "peaceful" countries.  It is sad that the salient times we have to discuss these problems are often preceded by terrible events like the Aurora shootings.  It is even more unfortunate that all sides of the debate spend so much of their energy locked in fruitless arguments instead of approaching the subject with sober, sincere, and considerate minds.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Art and Appreciation

I grew up in a household where one of my parents was self-employed.  My mother began a career at a magazine publisher when I was young.  Barring a few short stints in the late 70s and 80s when he worked as a full-time employee for various companies, my father has been a freelance sculptor for the entirety of my life.  He has sculpted belt buckles, busts, fountains, seals reading books on benches, giant flamingos, torch-bearing Sauks, lamp posts, Erté-inspired art deco female figurines, the Fonz, and myriad corporate doo-dads.  He also draws and paints.  In our house, there's a painting of me sitting on the steps of our old house in Caledonia, Wisconsin.  On another wall, there's a huge painting of some insane abstract whatever he made long ago.  And on his computer, he uses his Wacom tablet daily to make some of the most bizarre, Boschian, hellish landscapes I've ever seen.

I never really made a distinction between these things as "art" or "not art".  In my mind, I considered all of them to be art.  It never crossed my mind that the commercial pieces were less art than the personal pieces, or that the giant abstracts were more art than the portraits of family members and friends.  Many people attach personal drive and tenacity to artistic merit.  Surrender of drive, surrender of vision, surrender of principle -- that's selling out.  I never associated this with my father because, to be frank, in his professional dealings he's often been stubborn, hot-tempered, and implacable.  It didn't matter if he was working for a school district, the city of Milwaukee, or a self-made billionaire.  If you asked him to make a change that he thought was bad, the response was fast and often not diplomatic.

There is much to be admired in the attitude, if not always the ferocity of the response: the principle, the confidence, the determination.  It says, "I am the artist.  I am the one who makes the decision."  This attitude is not always rewarded, and it is typically not respected by the people who are likely to do the rewarding: the clients.  Throughout my life, I've watched my father sculpt many things for many clients.  I've seen him frustrated and triumphant as our family went through financial ups and downs.  I can't remember a time that I ever went hungry, that I ever felt poor, thanks to my parents, but I could tell that it troubled him.  To me, there was no importance on the labels: "art", "fine art", "commercial art".  The importance was the struggle.  How important is it to satisfy an audience?  Does your work need to have an audience?  Can you make a bad choice and fix it later?  Do you need to communicate something?  Do you need to pay the rent?  Do you give a shit if this person hates your guts?  Does it matter if you lose all future work with this client?  Are you willing to live or die on this one point?

After growing up with a sculptor; working with video game artists, writers, and musicians, for over a decade; and living with a traditional painter for almost as long, I developed a maxim for how I would approach creative work: Do anything you want to do in life. Just don't expect anyone to pay you or respect you for it.

This, to me, is the razor.  It's the distillation of any creative struggle with the audience: is the critical or financial approval of the audience worth making a creative choice you think is inferior?  The audience may change: your co-workers, your boss, your client, your lover, your mother, the critics, the public.  You give different audiences different weight, sometimes capriciously, sometimes rationally.  Different issues may weigh on you more heavily than others.  Sometimes it's easy to let go.  Sometimes it hurts like hell.  Sometimes you won't budge on principle.  Sometimes you won't budge because fuck you, idiot.

We often use art and the authority of the artist (or the author, or the director, etc.) as an abstract shield to justify choices we make contrary to the desires of an audience.  We make a choice, an audience complains, and sometimes -- all too often -- we say, "Sorry, but art."  This is unproductive deflection.  This is an absurd, conversation-ending non-argument.  It is presented as a wall that no criticism can breach.  How is the critic intended to respond?

Someone doesn't like how you portrayed a character.  Someone doesn't like how you ended a story.  Someone doesn't like how you framed your shots.  "Art" as defense is not a response to criticism, it is a hollow rejection of criticism.  It does not encourage dialogue, it does not promote introspection, and it does not (typically) ameliorate the audience's displeasure.  At its worst, such a defense encourages non-topical arguments about the nature of art itself.  These discussions, in which no parties are ever victorious, quickly spiral so far away from the actual point of criticism that they often never return.

When I see this, I ask myself: is this how authors and audiences should interact?  I don't think so.  I think both the author and the audience deserve, and can benefit, more from honest appraisals of why we make the choices we makes.  Stop talking about "art".  Stop talking about "entitlement".  How does casting blame elevate and advance conversation about the work?  This is about questioning our work, our choices, our relationship (or lack thereof) with the audience.

Ultimately, our works are our answers to those questions.  Implicitly, what we give to our audience is indicative of our values.  Everything that follows -- the sales, the reviews, the debates, the revisions, the re-releases -- should be viewed as tools for the authors and audience to reinforce or recalibrate those values for future work.  Unless an author plans on quitting creative endeavors after the next project he or she completes, this process is something all of us will go through for life.

If you want to end a conversation, to cut off communication, it's easy enough to deflect criticism.  Assuming you do make your work for an audience, you probably don't make it for all audiences.  Sometimes, the fuck you, idiot instinct is the right one.  If you don't want that audience to respect you or pay for your work, cut them loose; they're not worth your time and you're not worth theirs.  But most of us can also accept a certain amount of dissatisfaction within our target audience.  We make choices, some members of the audience are dissatisfied, but we still suspect they're the right choices.  For those people, and for the rest of the audience, we have the ability to engage them, to sincerely explain our values and hear theirs.

All people engaged in a life of creative work have to fight battles against their shifting priorities.  We all make trade-offs, one way or another. The more we illuminate the specific twists and turns of our own choices, and the struggles involved in making them, the more everyone can gain from the exchange.