Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Gossamer & Shadow: Curses, Foiled Again!

Narasen, Queen of Merh (image by Daphne Danielson)

As my last post indicated, I've been reading Lords of Gossamer & Shadow, Jason Durrell's wonderful diceless RPG. The game's publishers have been released a series of mini-supplements in PDF form, and my favorite of the bunch so far has been Addendum: Blessings & Curses, a new set of powers for LoG&S characters. The essence of the Blessings / Curses power is straightforward: you pay fifteen character points for the basic ability to bless and curse, and then you add on twenty character points for a blessing / cursing pool. The twenty points in this pool can be used to construct personalized blessings and curses; all blessings and curses consist of five aspects (severity, influence, persistence, dismissal, and duration), and the various degrees of these aspects cost different numbers of points. As a blessing or curse is cast, the points used to pay for it are subtracted from the pool and remain inaccessible until the blessing or curse expires or is broken. The result is that a beginning magician will only be able to maintain a small number of minor blessings / curses or a single medium-sized one; with experience (and more character points), more mojo is available to build one's bene- and maledictions.

It's a fairly elegant little system, and I immediately begin using it to reconstruct the blessings and curses in the books I'm teaching this semester as part of my "Literature of Fantasy" course. My first attempt was this blessing from Ursula K. Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea:
[Ged] set a charm on that salty unreliable spring. The water rose up through the sand as sweet and clear as any mountain spring in the heights of Gont, nor did it ever fail.
I rated the blessing's severity at "mild" (1 pt.)—it's just a desalination charm. Because only a single small island spring is affected, the blessing's influence would be "specific" (also 1 pt.). So far, so cheap. Things get more expensive with the blessing's persistence, though: a spring is a constant thing, so I had to take "ongoing" persistence for 4 pts. I had some options for dismissal depending on how difficult I envisioned it being to break Ged's spell; in the end, I opted for "requires effort to dismiss" (2 pts.). Even as a young mage, Ged is extraordinarily powerful, so only another full-fledged Roke graduate could cancel the blessing. Finally, I had to consider the blessing's duration. This aspect is a multiplier, not an additive, making things get expensive fairly quickly. "Nor did it ever fail" didn't leave me a lot of wiggle-room: I was going to have to choose between "lifelong" (x3 pts., a duration of decades), "generational" (x4 pts., one of centuries), or "eternal" (x5 pts., what it says on the box). Here I split the difference and took "generational."

The final cost of Ged's blessing was 32 points ([1 + 1 + 4 + 2] x 4), a spell beyond the ability of a starting character in LoG&S. Of course, Le Guin's Earthsea works along different axioms than the game: for example, blessings and curses in the novel are more or less fire-and-forget (no maintenance cost). So there's not going to be an easy match-up between the fiction and the rules.

Something similar happened with the curse I decided to replicate. By this point in the class, we had moved from Le Guin to Tanith Lee. Our course text was Night's Master, but I had enjoyed reading that book so much that I went ahead and started its sequel, Death's Master, for pure pleasure. At the start of that novel, Narasen, Queen of Merh (depicted above), has been cursed by the dying sorcerer Issak. (He attempted to assault her, and she put a spear through him.) The curse is too long to quote here, but its essence is this: the land of Merh will become infertile and barren until the man-loathing queen conceives a child—but her womb is destined never to "quicken from the seed of any man living."

I don't think it's much of a spoiler for a book called Death's Master to note that the seed of a dead man offers Narasen a way to get around Isaak's curse. But that loophole is the only way out; none of Narasen's sorcerers can break the spell. So the curse's dismissal aspect is the most expensive: "difficult to dismiss" at 4 pts. Its influence and persistence are also at maximum: the entire kingdom of Merh ("widespread, 4 pts.) is affected, and the infertility is "ongoing" (4 pts.). Severity is surprisingly less extreme: the people, animals, and plants of Merh can exist as always, but they'll never reproduce until the curse is broken. Call it "middling" (2 pts.). Duration seems straightforward: Isaak mentions that "Famine and plague shall sit dicing in the streets for mortal lives." Add to this the curse's targeting of Narasen, and I think we can stick with "lifelong" for a multiplier of x3 pts.

Once again we have a particularly expensive casting: 42 pts ([4 + 4 + 4 + 2] x 3). But Isaak is a particularly potent wizard, and, since he is dying, he's not particularly afraid to incur any Bad Stuff he needs to cover the cost of the curse. (As a GM in a diceless game where player death is negotiated, I'd be willing to let a PC get away with a death curse like this in exchange for the end of the character.) Sorry, Narasen—looks like you're going to have to go ahead and get the plot of Death's Master moving!

As mentioned above, fiction != game. So I'm not using these sample blessings and curses as a way of judging the rules for their failure to recreate the conditions of settings other than the one Jason Durrall created for LoG&S. Instead, I've been using them as a way to test the versatility of the cost scheme, and here the supplement excels. The system was able to account for all the aspects of the castings, a fact that bodes well for players who will be more inclined to act in accordance with the parameters of the LoG&S universe. So call this a strong recommendation for Addendum: Blessings & Curses, especially since the supplement will only set you back $2.99!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Gossamer & Shadow

Pick a Door, any Door (art by the amazing Jason Rainville)

Whew. Seven weeks into the semester, and I finally find some time to post here. My fantasy literature students just took their midterm (covering Dunsany, Tolkien, Vance, and Le Guin), and my global performance in the Middle Ages class has just started Yuan zaju after finishing medieval English drama. Had to give up running Tales of the 13th Age because I'm taking part in my daughter's dance recital: I'm playing the non-dancing part of the evil Spanish Governor in Pacquita, and rehearsals for the actors are on the one night all my 13th Age players could make it. Luckily, one of those players has assumed GM duties and is now running the game on Thursday nights; I'm playing a dragonspawn paladin named Sule whose One Unique Thing is a congenital allergy to god.

But the primary reason for this update is to discuss my latest RPG purchase, Rite Publishing's Lords of Gossamer & Shadow (LoG&S). I've been eyeing this system for some time, partially because it comes highly recommended by such respected folks as Rob Donoghue and Bruce Baugh and partially because its original setting removes the primary obstacle to my enjoyment of the late Erick Wujcik's Amber DRPGRoger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber setting. (Don't get me wrong—I have nothing against Zelazny's books; I just read them far too early in my adolescence to really appreciate them.) When DriveThruRPG's GM's Day Sale dropped the price of the PDF/softcover combo to $30, I decided to take the plunge.

Still making my way through the rulebook, but I like the overall cut of the game's jib. Mechnically, I appreciate the clarity of the rules and the utility of the worksheets for player-generated Artifacts, Companions, and Domains. As an old Everway hand, the diceless side of LoG&S doesn't bother me at all: between attribute ranks, Stuff, and player tactics, I have more than enough information to adjudicate conflicts. I still can't get my head around how to integrate PCs and NPCs on the Attribute Ladder (do I need to create all the NPCs at the start of the game? if not, how do new NPCs get worked into the ladder?). I'm also thinking that there's a bit of an Amber DRPG remnant in the strange advice on p. 15 that players not be able to establish their characters' parentage—that makes sense in the familial hothouse that is Amber, but not in the more wide-open environment of the Great Stair. So far these are my biggest problems with the game.

In fact, I liked LoG&S enough to go ahead and grab all of the game's mini-supplements while the sale was still ongoing. The Addendum: Blessings & Curses powers add-on is a particular favorite of mine; look for a follow-up post test-driving those rules. 

Monday, January 20, 2014

More You "Noh" You're a Gamer ...

Kusabira by Ise Monsui (1859-1932)

... when you're trying to decide whether or not to teach a kyogen about a yamabushi priest comically overwhelmed by demonic mushroom spirits, and all you can think is "Someone fumbled their 'Turn Undead' roll!"

Sunday, January 19, 2014

You "Noh" You're a Gamer ...

Atsumori by Tsukyioka Kogyo (1869-1927)

... when you're deciding which Muromachi-era noh plays to place on the syllabus for your spring semester "Global Performance in the Late Middle Ages" and suddenly get a hankering to buy FGU's Bushido.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mae Govannen, 2014!

So, long time, no post. November 2013 was the month where my teaching and grading responsibilities combined with my familial duties to eat up my life. December 2013 was the month where Ms. Vargold suffered a pulmonary embolism and nearly left me a widower with two children under ten. (Luckily her heart was strong, and the doctors were sharp—she's back home on the mend.)

Up until now, I haven't really had the time or will to post as a result.

But I did want to check in one last time before the clock ticks over into 2014. The past year has been the blog's most productive year: 40 total posts (including this one), 12 more than the 28 posts I made in 2010. Moreover, until November went all pear-shaped, I managed to post at least once a month for ten months. Here's hoping that I can get back on that schedule in 2014!

2013 was also the year where 13th Age got me back in the GM's seat. Thanks to Pelgrane Press's organized play program, I've run (I believe) 5 sessions' worth of the game and plan on running more in the new year: the system is a blast to play!

Best wishes to everyone for a safe conclusion to 2013 and a pleasant beginning to 2014!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Best-Laid Syllabi o' Mice and Men Gang Aft Agley . . .

In my last post, I outlined my planned reading list for my Spring 2014 fantasy literature course here at Big Midwestern Flagship Public University. I was very excited about this reading list.

And then I had to submit my book order. And discovered that Patricia A. McKillip's Forgotten Beasts of Eld has gone "out of stock indefinitely"—effectively out of print. And learned that ordering the UK paperback of Poul Anderson's Broken Sword—the only in-print edition of that novel—was going to be more difficult than I had assumed. And realized that ten novels was going to be too much for the number of classes I had available for the spring semester.


I had to make up a new reading list on the spot. The key requirement for inclusion on this list: ready availability. The secondary requirement was that each text speak explicitly to one other text on the reading list. Here are the pairings I came up with:

Dunsany's King of Elfland's Daughter (1924) and McKillip's Winter Rose (1996)

The connection here is love that reaches beyond the fields we know into Elfland: a mortal man and an elf woman in Dunsany's case, a mortal woman and an elf man in McKillip's. I'm sad to lose Forgotten Beasts, but Winter Rose is  beautiful book as well.

Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) and McKinley's The Hero and the Crown (1984)

Two books from the last version of the reading list that make it into the next. Here the connection is dragon-slaying—a fairly tenuous theme, but a valid one. The evil of the wyrms Smaug and Maur lives on long after their deaths; in a sense, the dragons are just misdirection for the real evil of the tales.

Vance's Dying Earth (1950) and Lee's Night's Master (1978)

Decadence and exoticism drive this pair of books entering the reading list for the first time. I recently reread The Dying Earth for the first time since I was a teenager and came away incredibly impressed with what Vance achieved in those six stories; 12 or 13 was clearly too young for me to really grok them. As for Night's Master, I lost my copy of the Sci-Fi Book Club Tales of the Flat Earth omnibus back in the spring when the basement flooded. So this is my chance to finally read all of Night's Master.

Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and Miéville's Railsea (2012)

This pairing is so obvious I can't believe I missed it: thanks to Ceridwen Anne for the idea. Two young adult novels, two sailing stories, two great beasts (the Dragon of Pendor and Mocker Jack), and two tyro protagonists. I love Miéville's Scar, but I have included it on the reading list every time I've taught the fantasy course here—it may be suffering from overuse. So a change is good.

(Coincidentally, I'm interested in hearing suggestions for a book to pair with Le Guin's Voices—my favorite fantasy of hers—the next time I teach the course. I couldn't think of a candidate this time round.)

Pratchett's Wee Free Men (2003)

I needed a ninth book, so I decided to indulge myself and go with my favorite Pratchett of all time. What better rationale is there for a book besides Feegles? Crivens, I can't think of one!