Saturday, September 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Jim!

My favorite megadungeon

Today would have been Jim Henson's 75th birthday. For many people of my generation, he was an exemplar of creativity for much of our childhoods. Whether through Sesame Street, the Muppet Show, the various early Muppet movies, his special effects puppetry on Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, or Fraggle Rock, he showed us how to stretch our imaginations and dream big!

As a run-up to today, I re-watched Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal. In both of these movies, I am consistently amazed at how well Henson did at giving a sense of immense scale in his productions. Despite the limited scope of most of the scenes in these movies, you get the sense that there is something much bigger and more grand behind it all. In the Dark Crystal, it is the history and character behind the characters and their complementary quests. In Labyrinth, it is the combination of the depth and development of the labyrinth itself, as well as the goblin mythology and cosmology that drives the story.

At the same time, he was a master at making individual characters distinctive and unique, even when they only appear for a few moments. Just look at all of the different goblins in the goblin city in Labyrinth or all of the minor Muppet characters that have appeared over the years.

Henson's movies and shows have been an inspiration for me for years. Occasionally I use them for ideas to steal, but more often I use them as examples for the kind of scope I wanted to achieve. I want my encounters, locations, and characters to have the kind of depth and distinction that Henson gave to his creations.

Happy Birthday, Jim.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Game of Thrones at the Emmys

HBO's Game of Thrones won a couple of Emmys this time around. Although it did not pick up the award for Outstanding Drama Series (my favorite Netflix addiction Mad Men won that), it did win a couple of awards. First, it won for Outstanding Main Title Design for the incredible animated map of Westeros that starts each episode of the show. More importantly, Peter Dinklage won the award for Outstanding Supporting Actor for a Drama Series for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister.

Tyrion has been my favorite character since I started reading the series, and Dinklage does an amazing job at bringing him to life in the series. Bravo and congratulations!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Inkwell Ideas Icosahedral World Map Generator

Yesterday I spent a little time playing around with Joe Wetzel's new Icosahedral World Map Generator. I've had world building on my mind a bit lately, and this looks like it's going to be another great tool to add to my toolbox.

Like all of the tools from Inkwell Ideas, the generator runs on Java. It only has a few simple controls for setting the number of hexes along the side of each triangle in the template, the amount of land, vegetation, mountains, and temperature for the world. Once you choose the appropriate settings, hit the recreate button, and the program generates a new world map.

Once you have a map generated, you can change the terrain in the hexes using the symbols at the bottom of the screen. The symbols are fairly intuitive, with a descriptive popup if you hover over the symbol.

The program doesn't have a native save or print feature. If you want to save or print the map, you can export it as a map for Hexographer. The symbols automatically change to the default Hexographer symbols when you open the map with that program. You can then edit the map further using Hexographer or print, save, and export it as you would any other Hexographer map.

I can see quite a few uses for this program. The most obvious is as a quick way to generate world overviews for Traveller and other sci-fi RPGs. You could also use it, though, to generate the appropriate templates to allow you to work on an icosahedral world design from scratch in Hexographer. Just load in a map at the appropriate size and then rearrange the terrain as you need for your own map.

Once again, Joe has done an excellent job creating a simple tool that is exceptionally useful and does exactly what it needs to do very well. Check it out.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Checking Out Chainmail, Part 9

This time we are going to look at the catapult rules. Prior installments in this series can be found with the links in the left sidebar.

Catapults in Chainmail are divided between light and heavy types. Light catapults have a range of between 15 and 30 inches and affect an area 2 inches in diameter. They can fire every other turn if fully crewed. Heavy catapults can hit a range between 24 and 48 inches and affect an area 3 1/2 inches in diameter. Heavy catapults can be fired every third turn.

Both kinds of catapults cannot be fired unless they were stationary for the prior two or three turns before the firing turn. They both also require crews of four to operate. If a catapult has less than four crew, it takes an additional turn to fire for each crew less than four.

Catapults can be fired in a 90 degree arc, 45 degrees each left and right. To fire, you state the distance forward and the distance left or right of center that you want to fire the missile. These distances form two sides of a right triangle, with the flight arc of the missile forming the longest side of the triangle. The appropriate hit template is centered on the end of the flight arc. Any model completely or partially under the hit template is a casualty.

As an optional rule, you can roll two different-colored dice, one for overshooting and one for undershooting. If the dice are equal, the missile lands at the estimated point. Otherwise, you deviate the missile by the higher of the two.

The requirements that catapults be basically static emplacements and that they be crewed by trained soldiers make sense historically and allow the machines to be effective in the game without allowing them to become modern mobile field artillery. These rules require you to consider how you will place your catapults and how you will defend them if you want them to be effective. From an opposing view, you need to consider where your enemy's catapults are placed so that you can best maneuver through or around their field of fire.

Triangulating the shots requires that players develop a good eye for the board and terrain and become skilled at estimating distances. This is similar to the old "guess" rules for Warhammer. If you have a player that is exceptionally good at guessing distances, they can almost always land a catapult shot where they want. Chainmail takes care of some of that by requiring the player to estimate the length of the shorter two sides of the triangle rather than the longest one, but it can still be easy for someone with an accurate eye and good geometric and spatial skills to abuse.

One rule I am particularly fond of here is the rules for overshooting and undershooting. They put a little variability into the mix and help account for some of the range-guessing issues. You could also introduce a variant of the variant for expert crews: If your catapult is crewed by an expert crew, their shots deviate by the lesser of the mismatched deviation dice.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembrance, vengeance, and forgiveness

Today we sang "America the Beautiful" at the end of Mass. I would be surprised if many people in the United States do not know the first verse:

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

What struck me in the context of the anniversary of the attacks, though, were the other two verses:

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
America! America! God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.

Ten years ago, when the planes flew into the buildings, I was cleaning my apartment and enjoying a mild, sunny, pleasent September morning. When I first heard about the attacks, I thought it was a hoax. I could remember positing similar scenarios with my friends years before as the historical run-ups to post-apocalyptic games. That our hypothetical disasters would become reality was something that we considered so unlikely as to be impossible.

Looking back on the events that morning, I have a difficult time recalling anything other than shock and horror. I deliberately tried to not watch television for more than a week, just because some of the things that happened that day were too terrible to see over and over. Those images I did see are forever burned into my mind, and they do not fade with age.

That kind of horrific experience changes people. It spawns the most noble and most terrible actions in response to it. We have seen both over the last ten years. We have seen thousands of people involved in a continuing war as a result of what happened that day. We have also seen thousands of people consciously engaging in diplomatic and relief efforts around the world. Both are intended to keep anything similar from ever happening again.

I don't know if I knew anyone that died in the events ten years ago. I suspect I would have heard if I did. Certainly, none of the people I am closest to perished that day. I do know people that were there, though. I know firefighters that went from Indianapolis to New York to help with the recovery of people and bodies from the ruins of the World Trade Center. I know clergy that worked at St. Paul's Chapel, providing what comfort they could to victims, families, rescuers, passersby, and anyone else they could. I have heard first-hand stories of people that were there that day and many days after. Like the images, these stories stay with me.

I was changed that day in ways that, even now, I cannot understand or explain. Our nation and our world were changed as well. Nothing can ever be the same as it was before the towers fell and so many lost their lives so quickly. We may not understand it or know exactly how we have been affected, but there is no denying that we have.

In the aftermath of the attacks, there was a great cry for vengeance. There are still many who think that the only way to properly remember the people that perished that day is to wage war on our enemies and impose our political will strongly throughout the world. There are just as many people that think that any military action just encourages someone else to do the same thing or worse to us sometime down the line. They are convinced that if we could forgive and work for peace, justice, and equity around the world, we could make the world safer than if we try to eradicate our enemies with force.

I understand both of these desires. I have a real human need to see the people that caused this tragedy punished for what they have done. On the other hand, though, I have to wonder what would drive someone to such hatred that they could even consider slaughtering thousands of innocent people. I have to wonder if there is a way to address that so that the violence doesn't happen in the first place.

I don't know the answer to any of the questions I have about that day or the events that have happened since. That doesn't mean that I don't have to think about them, though. I am a theologian, and I believe that you have to start thinking theologically from who and where you are. Today that means trying to take account of the unspeakable, unfathomable events of ten years ago.

I have no idea how to feel about the attacks, but I know that God does not want me to respond with vengeance. Human desire leans to revenge, but God asks me to forgive instead. Vengeance is easy. Forgiveness is hard. In some cases, it may be beyond our human capacity, but that doesn't mean we don't have to try. Ghandi said, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Hopefully, we can keep our vision long enough to see the path forward that doesn't just create the same level of destruction elsewhere. We will always remember, but we need to do what we can to forgive so we can heal.

Our alabaster cities have been smudged with the ashes, dust and tears of the fallen, the responders, the families, and everyone who witnessed the attacks. We have seen our heroes proved in liberating strife. I pray that God will mend our flaws, help us keep our self-control, and help us maintain our liberties. More than anything I pray that God's grace will shine on us and that we will be able to find the brotherhood around the world that keeps all nations safe in the future.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Testing the waters

I just downloaded the Blogger app for the iPhone and wanted to see how it works. I'm definitely not a fan of typing on the phone, but I think it might work for making a quick post now and then.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Checking Out Chainmail, Part 8

It's time to get back into the Chainmail rules, this time looking at missile fire and cover rules. Previous installments of this series can be found with the links in the left sidebar.

The missile fire rules in Chainmail distinguish between fire from bows and crossbows, thrown hand weapons, gunpowder weapons, and catapults. The missile fire rules I'm looking at here deal only with bows, crossbows and thrown weapons. The first thing we see in the missile rules is a table that shows the results for missile troops firing at unarmored, half-armored or shield-bearing, and fully armored troops. To resolve missile fire, missile troops are organized into groups and a die is rolled for each group. The result is then compared to a target number to determine the number of casualties inflicted on the enemy unit.

The number of archers in each group and their effectiveness is determined by the type of armor worn by the target. When firing at unarmored, half-armoured, or shield-using troops, the archers are considered in groups of up to 10. When firing at fully-armored troops, archers are considered in groups of up to 20. If the group of archers is larger than 10 or 20, respectively, they are divided into 2 or more equal groups so that each group is under the maximum. Archers cannot be divided into smaller groups unless they exceed 10 or 20, respectively. So, if a group of 16 archers is firing at an unarmored opponent unit, they would be divided into two groups of 8. If the same archers were firing at a fully armored unit, they would be considered a single group of 16.

Basically, the larger the unit of archers you field, the more chances you have to cause casualties against better armored opponents. If you field a tiny unit of archers or your archers take heavy casualties, they will only be effective against the weakest-armored troops, and they will not cause many casualties when they fire against them. On the other hand, if you field huge masses of longbowmen in long ranks, you can dispose of the bulk of your opponent's knights and heavy foot in short order.

Rate of fire varies between archers and light crossbowmen on the one hand and heavy crossbowmen on the other. The former can fire twice if they do not move or melee, once if they move up to half their movement, and once if they move their full movement and beat their opponent's roll in a roll-off. Heavy crossbowmen can only fire every other turn if they are stationary or move up to half their move. If they move their full movement, they can fire if they beat their opponent in a roll-off, but they cannot reload.

Horse archers can fire and be fired at after they complete half their move, and stationary foot archers can fire at troops that are in sight and range at the half move stage of the turn. These shots are part of the regular rate of fire. So horse archers basically strafe as they move rather than in the normal missile phase, and stationary foot archers receive their extra shot in the movement segment rather than doubling up in the missile phase later. This allows stationary foot archers a chance to shoot down anyone charging them as well.

Two ranks of archers are allowed to fire, and more ranks can fire if they are elevated above the front ranks. A unit of archers arranged on a stepped hill or pyramid could rain down significant fire on an enemy. Range is always measured from the front rank.

Indirect fire is possible if the troops are armed with bows. Crossbows are limited to direct fire only. Indirect fire is not effective at all against heavily armored troops, and archers firing indirectly reduce their range by a third.

Soft cover cuts the casualties taken in half. Overhead cover or woods eliminates indirect fire. Hard cover makes troops "arrow-proof" to direct fire.

Thrown weapons may fire once per turn, may always fire at enemy troops charging them, and may not fire indirectly.

All of this amounts to some very comprehensive missile rules with a lot of subtlety to them. How you deploy, arrange, and maneuver missile troops can have a great impact on the battlefield, as it should. With the split fire, pass-through fire, and indirect fire rules, missile troops are given some of the best tactical flexibility rules I've seen, and these rules do a fine job of capturing the roles and effectiveness of archers on the medieval battlefield. I also like the way the cover rules and the missile charts limit their effectiveness in certain situations. Against hard targets or targets with good woody concealment, archers are not very effective unless they are massed in large groups and firing directly at their targets. Against poorly armored opponents, even a small number of archers can be somewhat effective.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Magic Challenge: Black Deck part 1

Yesterday I threw out a challenge to take one of the Magic swag decks from Gen Con and use it for inspiration for something for your RPG of choice. I started looking through the black deck and jotted down a few ideas based on just the Swamp cards in the deck. I'm going to use these four cards as the inspiration for a place to populate with things inspired by the rest of the deck.

In keeping with the background for Magic, I'm putting everything together around a place saturated with old residual magical energy from a war between powerful wizards that occurred centuries ago. The magic in the land causes subtle mutations in certain species and magical effects in key places. One such place is the Darkling Swamp.

Darkling Swamp is a mixed salt and freshwater swamp that borders and merges with the Darkling Forest at the terminus of the White River. The majority of the swamp is covered by dense forests of mangrove, cypress, junipers, swamp oak, water ash and red maple. The swamp is also home to a unique tree species known locally as steelspike.

Steelspike trees are dense hardwoods with grayish-black bark that produce long, sharp, spiky growths. Primitive humanoid tribes in the swamp use these spikes as stabbing weapons that cause 1-4, 1-6, or 1-8 points of damage with a successful hit, depending on the size of the spike. These weapons are also favored by druids throughout the Coastlands. The wood of a steelspike is light gray in color and polishes to a brilliant luster. Many nobles along the coast prize furniture and decorative chests made of the wood.

Typical fauna in the swamp include black deer, raccoons, minks, and beaver. Dozens of frog, turtle, and snake species can be found in the swamp as well, including several giant species. Alligators are rare here. Typical birds include egrets, herons, eagles, spotted hawks, owls, and several species of woodpeckers.

Ghost birds, rare snow-white birds that resemble ravens, can be found here. These carnivorous birds have a variety of calls, including a haunting call similar to a dove and a throaty cackle similar to a rook or raven. They can be taught to mimic a few words, and many wild ghost birds speak a few random words learned from local humanoids or humans. Captive ghost birds can be trained and fetch a fair price in cities along the coast.

The southern end of the swamp is a blasted landscape of twisted, decaying stumps that poke up randomly from fetid water and spongy hummocks of drenched land. The entire area is covered by a fine red-tinged mist. The mist is not harmful, but travelers have reported that it is difficult to breathe and has a faint ferrous taste, like blood. Vampires and other undead are more common in this area than elsewhere, and there are rumors of a feral vampire lord that makes his home somewhere in the mists.