Sunday, February 24, 2008

GURPS Divination: part 1

For those of you not familiar with the GURPS Magic System, here's an overview. The spells are divided into colleges, such as Animal, Mind Control, Necromantic, Elemental: Air, Elemental: Fire, Food, Healing, and so on. Most spells have a prerequisite. That is, you need to learn certain other spells before you can learn this one. In each college, there are one or more "basic" spells, that anyone can learn (only mages can actually cast the spells unless you're in a high mana zone, but anyone can learn them). These basic spells are very simple spells with no prerequisites, and in turn are the prerequisites for more powerful spells, which are the prerequisites for even more powerful spells, and so on.

Some have options ("Hide" can be learned using either "Forgetfulness" or "Blur" as prerequisites), some have non-spells ("Activate Runes" requires the "Rune Lore" skill), and some spells require that you be a mage (that is, you have purchased the "Magical Aptitude" advantage). Some spells require a certain number of spells from a specific college, but it doesn't matter what those spells are.

I mention this because I want to discuss the "Divination" spell. The spell itself is pretty straightforward: you cast the spell, and if successful, you receive answers to a question concerning the future. The exact method of doing this varies, and the prerequisites for the spell depend on the method you choose for your character to cast the spell. It lists several examples, from the mundane and standard (such as Astrology, Crystal-gazing, Tarot) to common but less mundane (such as Haruspication -- examining the entrails of an animal) to the less common (Belomancy -- throwing a bunch of arrows into the air and divining the answer from the pattern in which they land) to the bizarre (Molybdomancy -- pouring molten lead into cold water and examining the resulting shapes).

I own "The Word Lover's Dictionary." The author is fond of words for divination; there are some fifty words ending in -mancy. Some of these are great, and I would love to see them for use in a GURPS campaign. So I'm going to create GURPS rules for them.

The problem I had in undertaking this project is that, contrary to what GURPS would have you believe, each word refers not to a specific act, but to a category. For example, "halomancy" (which means "fortune telling with salt) can mean observing the patterns in which scattered salt falls, tossing salt into a fire and observing how it burns, watching salt dissolve in water, or examining the patterns of deposits from evaporating salt water.

This week, we start with the "Scattering" group: nine forms of divination that involve scattering something and examining the patterns in which they fall.

Alomancy - Divination by reading the patterns in scattered salt. Casting takes 10 minutes and a carefully prepared area.
Prerequisites: 3 Air spells, 3 Earth Spells, and 3 Food spells.

Cleromancy - Divination by casting lots. Most often, this is to determine the guilty party in a group of people, or to determine who will be the best candidate for a chosen task. Otherwise, each participant can represent a possible answer to a question, and the winner's answer is the correct one. This is usually done with dice, but can be done with drawing straws or scattering beans or any other method of casting lots. Casting takes 20 minutes.
Prerequisites: 4 spells from each of the elemental colleges.

Crithomancy - Divination by reading the patterns in scattered flour. Casting takes 10 minutes and a carefully prepared area.
Prerequisites: 4 Air spells and 3 Food Spells.

Critomancy - This is similar to Crithomancy, in that it is the scattering of flour. However, in Critomancy, the flour is scattered over the bodies of sacrificial victims (usually animals).
Prerequisites: 3 Air Spells, 3 Animal Spells, and 3 Food spells.

Oenomancy - Divination by sprinkling wine onto a cloth and reading the patterns that form. Each casting of this spell requires a length of fabric (usually white, but any light colour will work) at least a yard long. It must be fine fabric; anything costing less than $10 will not work. It also requires a quality wine, costing at least $20.
Prerequisites: 3 Air Spells, 3 Water Spells, and 3 Food Spells.

Psephomancy - Divination by scattering pebbles or beans marked with special mystical sigils. These items can be crafted with an appropriate craft skill roll, or purchased for $30. Casting takes 10 minutes.
Prerequisites: 3 Air spells, 3 Earth spells.

Spodomancy - Divination by reading the patterns in scattered ashes. This requires ashes from the fire of a specific type of tree (which varies depending on the world and area and so is left to the GM's discretion). It must be done in a specially prepared area. The question must be asked before the ashes are created, so casting generally takes several hours, and sometimes an entire day.
Prerequisites: 1 each Air, Fire, and Earth.

Urimancy - Divination by reading the patterns in scattered urine. It requires urine caught in a special sacred bowl ($40), which is then poured from the bowl into a specially prepared area.
Prerequisites: 3 Water spells and 3 Body Control spells.

Xylomancy - Divination by reading the patterns in pieces of wood which are tossed into a specially prepared area. The wood must be prepared (with an appropriate woodworking roll, and possibly also a thaumatology or theology roll). Casting takes 10 minutes.
Prerequisites: 2 Air Spells, 2 Earth Spells, and 3 Plant Spells.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Board Game Reviews - The Order of the Stick: The Dungeon of Dorukan

Welcome to another week of the Game Dork's discussions of gaming.

This week, I introduce an activity that I expect to do on occasion: board game reviews. To start with, I was thinking once about the way that people review movies, and it occurred to me that what these reviews are doing is saying, "I liked this movie because..." or "I didn't like this movie because..." but that does nothing to let me know if I'll like the movie! Shouldn't we find a more objective way of reviewing things that will actually tell a reader if that reader will like it? So I have endeavoured to do just that.

Thus, I present to you, my system for reviewing board games. Hopefully, this will enable anyone who reads to decide whether or not they would like the game, without having to rely solely on my opinion.

So this week, we start with The Order of the Stick Adventure Game: The Dungeon of Dorukan.
Strategy: 3
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 5
Humour: Derivative, implicit, inherent
Attractiveness: Average* (see below)
Expected Length: 3 hours or more* (see below)

Fans of the online webcomic "The Order of the Stick" can rejoice, for all their obsessions can come to life in this game. This set contains the base game (there have been hints of expansions, though none yet exist) in which you play one of the six main characters: Roy (the intelligent human fighter), Haley (they attractive and greedy human rogue), Elan (the stupid but attractive human bard), Durkon (the dwarven cleric of Thor), Vaarsuvius (the intentionally sexually-ambiguous elven wizard who loves to hear the sound of his or her voice), or Belkar (the evil halfling ranger with deep-seated emotional problems).

Unlike in the comic, you are not on a team in this game, but rather, each of you is out for himself. Gameplay consists of exploring a dungeon, which is accomplished by laying out oversized cards that represent rooms. The dungeon can have a number of levels, determined at the beginning of the game (this is decided upon by all players, depending on how long they want the game to last). In any given room, you can look for stairs, which enable you to go to the next level down, until you reach the last level, which is called "Xykon's Lair." Gameplay continues until someone finds and kills Xykon, at which point, the dungeon collapses, and all players flee the dungeon. Once everyone is out, the game ends, and you count up your bragging rights. You earn bragging rights in several ways: possessing loot that you Drool Over (indicated by having your character's icon on the loot card), learning shticks (the special abilities and combat techniques that you can use), being the one to defeat Xykon, and being speedy in fleeing the collapsing dungeon.

Movement and exploration in the dungeon is straightforward, but combat can be very complex. Mostly this is because it is likely (especially on lower levels) to have many monsters in combat. Add to that the fact that there are a great many abilities that the monsters can have, many of which can be fairly complex. Most notably, there is an entire category of abilities called "Support," which gives a monster a certain bonus multiplied times the number of monsters of a certain class on the same level.

I've played the game twice now, and support abilities still hurt my head.

Other than that, the game is a lot of fun, partly for me because I am such a fan of the comic, and the game delivers a lot of that same style of humour. Those who aren't fans will still find plenty to laugh at, but some of the jokes just won't make as much sense. Much of the humour is implicit, in that the cards themselves are funny. However, there is a lot of inherent humour as well, as players can use "screw this" cards to alter the course of events, often in hilarious ways.

The attractiveness of the game is rated at Average. This is in part due to the nature of the comic. The author, one Rich Burlew, draws a stick figure (sort of) comic, because it adds to the humour of the comic. He does this on purpose, not out of laziness or inability. The game captures that style of artwork perfectly, which means that the art in the game will not be what you would call attractive. But since that's the point of the art in the comic, this cannot be held against it.

The design could be a bit more effective as far as game play goes, however. The oversized dungeon room cards are hard to keep in order, especially on a small table. Since they are so large, they take up a lot of room, especially if there is a lack of space in the play area. Of course, making them smaller would limit the amount of room to work with, since often, you'll have two or more players, several monsters, and a large stack of loot in any given room. Another problem is the very small size of loot cards, which is only bad because it makes it very hard to shuffle them. Especially since there are so many.

The last thing I'm going to say about this game is that the expected time of play listed above is for the short game, in which there are only four levels to the dungeon. The rulebook states that the short version should take two to three hours, but in my experience, you can't get away with less than three hours. And heaven help the poor fools who decide to try playing the "Weekend Killer" version listed as an option...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Loosing my gaming rants onto the world

You have found my little corner of the web, where I talk about one of the most important things in the world to me: games.

I am a major fan of games, including both board games and role-playing games.

So here is where I shall talk about it.

First, let me introduce myself. I'm the Game Dork. Hi. Nice to meet you.

Now, for my first post, I'm going to talk about something that I've wanted to try for a while now, and haven't really got the chance to do: chronicle play.

Chronicle play is when you create a starting level character (1st level for D&D, or whatever), and play that character continuously in the same group of players with the same characters for years, until he becomes a truly advanced character.

Don't get me wrong; I like sampling. It's nice to be able to play a different character every week, jump around between systems and settings, getting a little experience with everything. But sometimes, I think it'd be nice to actually do something with those experience points I earn. It's a little annoying to go through a campaign with a beginning level character, and just as the character is starting to get powerful enough to consider something more than a fledgling neophyte (I know that phrase is redundant, but I don't care), the game ends and it's time to write up a new character in a new system for a new game in a new background setting.

Just once, it'd be nice to have a character that I've played long enough that I really know him (or her) very well. A character that has lots of actual stories. A character who's been around long enough to be fairly powerful.

I've known lots of people who've talked fondly about their level 97 fighter/mage/thief with a +27 vorpal sword of ogre slaying and giant decapitation, that can cast 63 level 15 spells per day and has a thac0 of -34 with a +117 damage sneak attack.

Why can I never get that?

I've come close twice: once, back when Werewolf: The Apocalypse was new, I wrote up a Silent Strider theurge named Michelle. For a few months, whenever we played Werewolf, Michelle was the character I played. It wasn't a continuous campaign, and it wasn't with a set group of players, but after about a year, I was able to get her up to Rank 2. Then never had the chance to play her again.

The second time was when I ran a Changeling: The Dreaming game for a few of my friends. I told them at the beginning that I wanted to have a long-running campaign, and we'd game until we got sick of it. I ran four adventures, with one break to play a tylenol game (more on this in a later post). One of the players wasn't a fan of Changeling, so I allowed him to play a hsien, one of the asian counterparts to the changelings. This fit in well with the theme, since the first game was inspired in part by Big Trouble in Little China. His character had followed the antagonist from China to San Francisco to seek revenge for the destruction of his village. The second story led the players to China, following the hsien as he attempted to put things in order to relocate to San Francisco permanently, and they got caught up in an affair that was taking place in a town there. By the end of the second story, the players were talking about some grandiose plans they had for their little group. So I decided to test their loyalty: the third story was all a series of interactions with NPCs that were designed to tempt the characters to leave the PC group. Of course, none of them did. The fourth story was to be a trip to Ireland... and right in the middle of the story, the group collapsed. The players started telling me things like "I didn't expect the game to last this long."

Which I thought was odd, because I thought I had stated that as one of the reasons for running the game in the first place.

Anyway, so I didn't get to continue the chronicle. I would really like to try again someday.

So that's my rant for today. Check back often; I'll probably update this weekly.