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.