Friday, October 20, 2017

Call of Cthulhu: History and Library Use

I'm going to be running a 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu game tonight which, if all goes well, will be recorded and turned into a podcast for your listening pleasure. However, this gives me the perfect opportunity to talk about two flawed skills that have been with the game since its inception. What skills, you ask? History and Library Use!

I've always had a problem with how both of these skills were handled. The History skill is insanely broad, and the difficulty for someone to recall some historical fact should be dependent on their own field of specialization. For example, with a History 80%, a historian is equally knowledgable about the War of 1812, the Punic Wars, and the exact identity of the settlers of a colonial township. They have an 80% (or, under 7e rules, less if the check is a hard one) chance of knowing the answer to any of those questions. To me, as a trained historian, that seems absurd.

The fix is simple: history must be taken as a specialty. A broad category of history would give the investigator only the most cursory knowledge of historical data. Thus, any question of a specific historical fact might be hard or even nearly impossible for them to answer (1/2 skill, or 1/5th skill). The same would be true of a specialist being asked something outside their own field.

Example: Harvey Walters has a History (early medieval) score of 80%. When being asked about the wars of Charlemagne, he has an 80% chance of knowing the answer. When being asked about Operation Barbarossa, he has a 40% chance of knowing the answer.

Library use suffers from a different problem: as written, a single roll of library use turns up all potential data the Keeper has prepared on that subject. This replicates the real experience of following leads through strands of research about as well as Law and Order replicates the real experience of being in court.

When conducting research, you tend to follow strands that either lead to more research to read, or down dead-end alleyways that turn up nothing. You get new search terms each time you find a book or article, and you tend to chase footnotes in those to find more information.

How, then, can you replicate that experience (something that is as cool and involved as a private eye tailing a quarry to determine the places they visit in the day) with the current rules? I have a handy little alteration that I'm using for this game, but I might try to make it more complex later.

That is: a successful Library Use roll given a search term will take 1 hour of research time. This returns 1 result (ordered by the Keeper in a stack of most easily locatable under that term to least easily locatable). If the skill roll would also qualify as a HARD skill roll (1/2 skill), the search returns 1D3 results from top down. If it would qualify as an EXPERT result (1/5th skill), the search returns 1D3+2 results from the top down.

I'll keep everyone informed as to how this works.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Background Solutions: The Elves

As the Swords of Stock leave Tailimisia behind, encamped on the step of a feral, juvenile, white dragon, the question remains: what will become of the roiling civil conflict threatening to boil over in Aita Valmindene?

Since the city is a capital of the largest and oldest elvish kingdom, the chance that other powerful adventurers will be drawn into the conflict in the Swords' vacuum is quite high: let's say, something like 80%.

The composition of the city must be determined, in terms of active adventuring parties, but the highest-level and most likely replacements are the White Chalice, an all-elf part who began in the city of the white walls and have recently returned to it. The Crossed Pikes, a notoriously unpleasant party who slew one of the dragon princelings of Sylvasil for the old ruler of the elves, are also present, but have been hired by the troublemaking Prince Leofrysn.

With a simple table, we can discover how well the situation turned out in the absence of the Swords.

Thus...

1-2. Very Poorly
3-4. Poorly
5-6. Stalemate
7-8. Well
9-10. Very Well

We can add a +1 bonus to the roll because of the skill and cunning of the White Chalice, but whatever is going on in Aita Valmindene will remain a secret until the rumors percolate into Stock and the Reach.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Postmodern Materialism

Although materialism has more or less taken hold in the various disciplines as the theory de rigeur,
there is a misunderstanding about postmodernism prevalent in circles that identify as "Orthodox Marxist" in which it is believed to be a rejection entirely of the material viewpoint. It is not, but it is necessary to reconcile the old Marxist doctrine of historical materialism with the postmodern understanding of mediated semiosis; that is, the world is composed of material objects, but those objects cannot be experienced except through a shared social reality, which relies on mediated understandings.

When we talk about materialism and substrate, we must be careful to recognize that social mediators, by which I mean the mental constructs that determine how we understand our interaction with the semi-fictive, unmediated, "real" world, are themselves part of a decent material analysis. We must examine the mental structures that our interactions with the world as material for consideration. Attitudes, mores, etc., are not idealism in Marx's terms, but are rather actual moving parts of the social order. Gramsci recognized this, and the rejection of the so-called Orthodox Marxists that the hegemonic thought-systems constitute a separate and discreet material basis for understanding history is a paucity in the thought of the circles that reject postmodernism wholesale, as a project.

While it remains fundamentally true that material conditions shape ideas, it is also true that ideological formations in return shape material conditions by shaping the ways in which societies can permissibly or even conceptually interact with them. Thus, the change in material reality is typified not solely by a base-superstructure pyramid, but rather a reflux feedback, in which ideological formations in the superstructure are projected downwards onto the base. The one is conditioned on the other, with the base forming the necessarily a priori and fundamental bedrock of ideological formation.

Thus, we may dismiss the simple bourgeois ideology of the "freedom of the press" as being not grounded in material reality, being idealistic. However, the manner in which this idealism is deployed in defense of the material reality (that freedom of the press in a bourgeois democracy is nothing more or less than the freedom of the wealthy to make use of the press as an organ of policy), it is a material fact that we must grapple with in our analysis. The way social behavior is shaped by this ideology is itself part of a new material basis.

What is ideology, then, and idealism, if we reduce the components of ideological arguments to pieces of material experience for analysis? Well, idealism is essentially the claim that there are no mentally-independent realities. But if we examine the classical postmodern works of the Opera Aperta and its partner The Limits of Interpretation, both by Umberto Eco, we can see that postmodernism does not necessarily reject the extant physical world. There are limits to permissible interpretations of the senses, and these limits are determined socially, which creates the social reality in which we live.

Thus, when we as Marxist materialists, "reject idealism", we are not rejecting the notion that ideas have a palpable effect on the world. We are rejecting the naive idealism that considers the stated goals or methodology of ideologies as their actual goals, methodologies, and effects. When we say, for example, "Liberalism is the left wing of fascism," we are actually engaging in complex material analysis of the pragmatic, material effects of classical liberal thought.

Raw Experience.
The question posed by ultra-materialists, who reject even the very possibility of social constructs, is essentially this one: "Can we interact with the world and receive raw, unmediated, experience?" The answer, of course, is that the very notion of a raw and unmediated experience is fatally flawed and self-contradictory.

In order to understand this, we should examine raw experience as a concept. The ultra-materialist point of view, which rejects socially constructed mediators as acceptable vectors of analysis, must rely on the concept of direct, unmediated, sensory experience. However, anyone who has been socialized in any society must necessarily experience sensation through the lens of these constructed mediators; for example, knowledge of socially-constructed connotations of color, even though they may stem from straightforward-looking connections, are mediators.

The perception of darkness or blackness as being related to death and the grave, for example, is not a universal social mediator. Eastern culture associates whiteness and paleness with death. Both can be logically justified on actual material experiences (the dark is unknown, it is scary, etc.; the dead are pale, etc.)

"Raw experience" thus immediately gives rise to assumptions about perception, which rapidly become social mediators. Social mediators constantly interfere with raw sensory experience, altering the perception of what is experienced. Even were a child to be raised without any social input, the act of generating experiences would give rise to social mediators that the child alone understands. That is, culture and experience exist in a perpetual feedback loop, one affecting the other.

Social Reality.
What do we mean by reality, then? We mean the socially undeniable reality that exists as a result of a mass of mediated experiences shared in a social group. We run up, then, against the limits of interpretation much as we would in a fictional work; certain inputs can only be permissibly interpreted in certain ways based on the systems of thought (primarily logic) that we have chosen to adopt as socially useful.

However, the inputs still exist. We can destroy social realities by proving them false, or simply by attacking them vigorously enough until they are no longer supported or no longer exist. However, the material realities that gave rise to those social realities are not necessarily directly accessible. In order to get at them, we must understand and deconstruct the social realities that have arisen as an inevitable consequence of the nature of sense-perception.

Social realities, whether they line up with material realities or not, continue to affect people living in the society, and they must be analyzed with the same degree of care as material realities. They are not, as some ultra-materialists believe, flimsy gauzy veils that simply vanish when material realities change. Certainly, there was a notion of "race" before there was imperialism; however, imperialism empowered race-theory and created a virulent strain of bad social reality that has persisted to this day, even when the most useful elements of bad race-theory have been superseded by neocolonialist attitudes. But because we failed to sweep away the shards of race-theory, it persists and continues to affect people in the world.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Akem's Gentle Repose

Akem's Gentle Repose
Level 1
(death, guardian)
abjuration

Sometimes, a Journeyman may be in a situation when he cannot give fallen comrades funerary rites. To make taking their bodies back to a temple more bearable, he may temporarily sacrifice a first-level spell slot to keep a body from corruption.

This spell slot may not be used until either he abandons the corpse or returns it to the temple and begins funeral preparations. He must escort the corpse for this effect to remain in place.

While Akem's Gentle Repose is in effect, time is halted for a corpse and it does not rot. If it has already started to rot, any corruption is halted, though the body is not restored nor is any damage repaired.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Second Edition AD&D Is Only 3/4ths Of a Game and Even Though I Love It, We All Have to Acknowledge That

On Friday, the Swords of Stock (formerly Fenrus' Very Best) were in the Tomb of Queen Serenavalla, last of the Golden Age Queens of Tailmisia, seeking her undecomposed silver elvish corpse in order to talk with her ghost about who should rule the Greatwood.

They came upon a puzzle (the Queen had always intended for the very clever and very strong to be able to reclaim her belongings from the tomb) that included a series of traps in the form of 5' wide 30' long mosaic strips on the floor.

The question arose, "Can we jump them?"

Can they?

I flipped to the index of the DMG and looked up jumping. Oh, page 82. No, not 82 in the DMG, there's no jumping entry here. Someone check the PHB.

Huh, the jumping proficiency, which gives rules for if you have it... but no default rules for jumping. Interesting.

Did I go over to my computer and scroll through the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide pdf? No. I frantically checked all the other 2e books I own. Meanwhile, half of the party walked into another room and began their scientific jumping trials. They put out a measuring tape and began jumping from a standstill to see if they could make it across.

Eventually, since a heroic and enterprising member of the group was able to broad jump 4.5' from a standstill, we agreed that they could probably jump it. To be safe, they never did, rather using a slow and tortuous method of casting dispel magic, crossing the mosaic, and sleeping on the far side so they could use a dispel magic to escape.

But the question lingered. Where the hell are jumping rules in 2e?

Oh, as I thought: they're in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide. A 1e book.

Now, let me just say that I love 2e. It's the perfect iteration of D&D. I'll never change. I've houseruled it to death. I just added a houserule granting specialists a -2 penalty to all saving throws made against spells by opponents hit by spells of their specialty to represent their increased understanding of how their own school of magic works. I use Combat and Tactics 15 second rounds, but don't reduce the duration of spells to match (should a first level spell only last 15 seconds? That seems like not even magic at that point). It doesn't break the game, because the game is flexible and doesn't exist on a razor's edge of functionality.

But 2e is missing so many important things. And they're all in 1e.

This means I have to get the 1e books, since I finally have a real group of flesh and blood people, in person, to play with and I can't take the time while people are typing on IRC to putter around through 1e pdfs.

What rules am I talking about?

The data for construction a holy water font? In the 1e books. 2e hints at, but never grants the full explanation, of how holy water is made. Things like exposure rules from the Wilderness Survival Guide. The jumping rules in the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide.

The fact of the matter is, 2e doesn't appear to have been designed with just itself in mind. It is an expansion of 1e and while many of the rules are different, it builds on rules that people were either expected to know or have access to. But 2e was my first D&D, so I never had the 1e books.

Now, it's time to fill in the gap.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Ballad of Scintillus Sulpicius Severus (composed by Vinhalaloen)

Verse 1
Have you heard of the Last Schoolman?
Yes, it's Schoolman Scintillus!
listen close, you folk of Varan
of that bloody blacklake baron

Chorus
Look out! Vampire!
Sharpen stakes and polish mirrors
If to save those you hold dear-er
The valeguard marches chivalrous
on Suspicious Sulpicius Severus

Verse 2
Dont let tricks let you forget him
Yes, it's Schoolman Scintillus!
He's Lord Servillus, Schoolman Scintillus
Sulpicius Severus; he means to kill us

Chorus

Verse 3
You know a corpse in need of burning?
Yes, it's Schoolman Scintillus!
hide your wife and hide your children
from that viscous voracious villain

Chorus

Verse 4
There's a vampire worth destroying
Yes, it's Schoolman Scintillus!
Vale's protector,  to blacklake
In his heart, you plant your stake

Chorus

Verse 5

A great sacrifice made to Akem, to fight a great evil
Yes, it's Schoolman Scintillus!
Three great bulls, bled and burned
Eastwick saw, and Blacklake learned

Chorus

Verse 5
Let's send them off, to fight great danger
Yes it's Schoolman Scintillus
Off they go now, Valeguard ride,

We'll see you back with a vampire's hide

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Academics in the 10th Age

Apropos of the Academician kit that Arneth the Cautious, the party's new wizard is outfitted with, I am here collecting a number of academics from throughout the setting, as well as introducing a number of new ones. Part of the Academician's benefits include exchanging communication with other academics and sages and having access to a wide network of knowledge through them.

Very Famous Academics and their Fields
Ceylon the Thoughtful
Ceylon is a monk who dwells in the Heartland of the Empire, in a small abbey south of Miles. He is known for his meditations on theogony, Milean history, and ancient history in general. His most famous work is the History of the Heartland, followed closely by Theogony.

Cyon Greenmantle
A vanished scholar of halflings and the Greensward, Cyon Greenmantle was a wizard who once lived in the Lamp Country with his apprentice Aurelien. Several years ago, he left to find out what had become of the Conclave and its members... and was never seen again. Considered the foremost scholar on halflings and gnomes.

Drozon the Red
There is no scholar in Arunia as learned as Drozon the Red, one of the rulers of occupied Kallatha when it comes to the matter of Wyrmish histories, beliefs, and religion. Drozon is a scholar of dragons and has studied them in more detail than any man now living, although conversation with him can be difficult, as he is also a mighty and reclusive wizard.

Hamish Letterfriend
Another wizard. Hamish Letterfriend is a sage of one particular topic above all else: food. The history of and making of various foods are his pride and joy. A gnomish illusionist, Letterfriend was once a member of the now-vanished Conclave. He is also a scholar of illusions and general history.

Nauheryon the Recorder
An elf-scholar who resides in the Library of Sulcania in Aita Valmindene, Nauheryon is the foremost historian of elvish wars, including the Elf-Dragon Wars, the War of the Moon, and the Rot War.

Reynarius di Llun
You know this scoundrel; a Dorl who now spends his time behind enemy lines in Essad, Reynarius considers himself a Sage of Renown on all topics. He wrote several guides for adventurers early in his career.

Sarent de Vayens
A Milean historian, well-known for his histories of the First and Second empire.

Local Academics near or Within Craftsman's Reach
Ilisia the Sage
Ilisia is a historian who specializes in Elvish histories, but is well-versed in all history of the west. She resides in Aita Valmindene, and is frequently patronized by the royal court there.

Varius of Tyreth
Varius is a man who grew up in Tyreth under Prince Aegus, but left for the Library of Sulcania in Aita Valmindene. He is a religious scholar, studying comparative religions of the various races. This includes the mythology of monstrous folk, when he can get his hands on it.

Aurvangr the Aged
A dwarven scholar at Aella's Hall, Aurvangr is an ancient dwarf with no hair on his head and a long white beard. His knowledge is focused on the eddas, the law, and the hated enemies of the dwarves: giants, dragons, orcs, goblins, and other such races that have troubled his people since time immemorial.

Lastresis of Aellon
An Aellonian  scholar of the Art, Lastresis has come all the way west to study in Aita Valmindene amongst the elves. He is one of the wisest arcanologists, most witty historians, and a master of each of the fields of spellcraft. The elves consider him a prodigy.