Monday, March 16, 2009

Of Banestorm, BRP, and the Old School-New School Continuum

For a while now I've been meaning to write about the BRP Banestorm campaign I've been running for Des. In the interest of having this not be just another one of those "let me tell you about my campaign" type posts, I've had some thoughts, however loosely connected, on matters of a perhaps more broadly applicable nature. So let's down our motion sickness pills, because there are going to be some sudden shifts along this train of thought. Let the rambling commence!

Let's start things off right away with a tangential reflection. Folks who study human sexuality will tell you about the Kinsey scale, a continuum rated from 0 to 6 along which everyone's sexuality lies. A rating of zero is exclusively heterosexual, a rating of six is exclusively homosexual. In the course of thinking about the mechanics of GURPS vs. BRP, or Basic D&D vs. newer incarnations, I thought of the Kinsey scale. I think everyone falls along a similar continuum in terms of what they're looking for out of game mechanics. A zero would be someone who is comfortable with using the rules strictly as loose guidelines, making constant on-the-fly rulings and seeing actions as player-driven rather than character-driven. A six would be the type of person who wants a rule not only for swimming and juggling, but for swimming and juggling at the same time--and the modifiers for wearing heavy armor while doing so.

Now, the campaign I'm running has to take top honors for one of the longest gestational periods of any game I've actually managed to successfully get off the ground. The roots of the campaign stretch back to some time in 2006, when I was passing a boring evening on the front register at the bookstore I worked at at the time by coming up with ideas of games I wanted to run. I struck upon an idea of having the players create "average Joe" characters (using GURPS) for a campaign set in 1981 or thereabouts. They could make any sort of character they wanted--the only connection would be that they all knew each other because they all played D&D together.

The campaign would kick off with their somewhat weird and eccentric DM (an NPC) promising them that he would be running a "special" game their next session. "Like D&D, only better!" is all he'd say about it. The "game", of course, would turn out to be some sort of magical tome that would transport the characters to a D&D-type fantasy world, and you know the rest...

From the get-go, I wanted the world to be a fairly "realistic" take (as much as possible) on standard D&D tropes. Over time, the idea gradually morphed as I thought more about it, as these things often do. I toyed with the idea of making the connection to the D&D cartoon even more explicit, by (a) having the characters all be teens/older children, and (b) grafting on "character class" templates based on each character's concept (i.e. the Jock becomes a Fighter, the Nerd becomes a Wizard, etc.). (I ended up dropping the latter idea somewhat--in the end, rather than having the characters immediately take on personae, they could discover their "class" over time, organically. In the end, Des ended up on a path towards becoming a bard.) Then I remembered that GURPS actually had a fantasy setting...and that it was explicitly designed to be a "realistic" take on standard D&D tropes...and that it had the concept of being gated from our Earth to said fantasy world as a built-in (and rather essential) component of the entire setting...and that a newly-updated hardback detailing said setting had recently been released! Ya gotta love it when things dove-tail like that, you know?

So it naturally figures that I'd be using a completely different system to run a setting that was in part designed to showcase the GURPS system. Ah, gaming. Sometimes you are like a Zen koan.

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Once I'd decided on using Yrth (as the setting is called) and picked up GURPS Banestorm (the title of the aforementioned hardback), I started looking into previously-published resources. That's when I found Harkwood, a setting-cum-adventure that Doc Rotwang summarizes nicely here. Once I'd settled on using Harkwood as my initial point of departure for the campaign, the final modification of my original idea took place. See, the events described in the adventure take place in 1988 (Yrth's time line runs concurrently to our own). Not to give away our ages, but it just so happens that that's just about the right time to allow any of the given players who constituted my group at the time to play themselves as 10-year-olds. So I decided on that as being an option, and figured it was probably a given that my ego-maniacal players would leap at the opportunity to play themselves as children.

I had intended to run my Banestorm campaign as a follow-up to the Pendragon campaign. As it turned out, I swore off running chat-based games, burned out by the monumental task of running Pendragon for over two years. But I didn't want to let my sweet campaign idea go to waste, so I pitched it to Des as a one-on-one game. (I kept the details extremely vague--I only told her that the game would be set in 1988 and she could play herself...and she did jump at the chance, as anticipated.)

Side Tangent the Second: I can't recall if I've written about this before, but I actually have a great big soft spot in my heart for single-player campaigns. When I first got into gaming, it was just me and my buddy Alex for a good two, three years--most of our high school years, in fact. (Not a lot of gamers in our high school class, for some reason.) Although we knew we were missing out and wanted to get a group going, and eventually did, I developed a definite appreciation for the many merits of single-player gaming--for example, the ability to tightly tailor action and story arcs, to say nothing of character and campaign concepts. Since introducing Des to gaming, we've run several single-player campaigns and they've all been eminently satisfying.

At any rate, things really gelled from the get-go. (Example: when interviewing Des about what she was up to during the summer of 1988, she volunteered a memory--still having no idea, mind you, of what I was planning--of being dragged along to one of her brothers' Cub Scout events, a weekend campout called "Dragon Quest" or somesuch, an event that featured plastic goblets, a "wizard", archery tournaments, the whole nine yards. Perfect! I had a banestorm strike right in the middle of the camp, whisking away the entire Cub Scout troop and scattering them across the Old Forest. Des's den mother companion was shortly thereafter eaten by a troll, leaving our young hero alone in the middle of an enchanted forest.)

The only thing that wasn't gelling was the system. My ultimate disenchantment with GURPS is owed directly to this campaign. The prep work was tiresome. The actual game-play experience was muddled with a myriad of niggling details. Bothersome questions about how to implement various rules occupied more of my time than actually coming up with new adventure ideas. Switching to the Basic Role Playing system was a relief of simplicity.

I was thinking about this recently in regards to some developments that are soon to take place in the campaign. Essentially, Des, upon being whisked away to Yrth, gained a bit of a patron and mentor in the form of an elven bard. He's been a sort of enigmatic guide and has taken her in as his protege. As such, next adventure the now-adolescent "Little Desi"--as we've taken to calling Des's alter-ego--will be invited to attend a Bardic College (and the campaign will take a new direction, becoming a sort of bardic Hogwart's for a time). Here's the thing: in GURPS, the elven bard, using his pull with the College to get Des admitted, would be considered a Patron, an advantage costing points and bringing with it its attendant rules and exceptions. In BRP, the elven bard is simply an NPC and his actions are dictated solely by me, the GM.

This is the central problem I have with the movement towards assigning rules to cover every situation. It's like a hydra--every problem the new rules quash gives birth to two new problems. What's wrong with the GM simply making a decision?

(Incidentally, I wouldn't rate myself a full "0" on the Old School continuum, simply owing to the fact that I still see a place for having mechanics for things like, say, removing traps. I think any time a PC's life or health is potentially in danger, the dice should come out. Note that I don't necessarily think finding traps should be left to a dice roll either. I'd put myself at a "2" on the Old School continuum.)

As so often happens in this here blogosphere, Amityville Mike has apparently been thinking along the same lines, and addresses another facet of the argument against having a rule for everything:

My problem was that by defining concretely what a character CAN do, you’re also defining what he CANNOT do, or at least not do well, and I, for one, have grown very tired of falling off horses.

Of course, BRP does have a skill system, complete with a Riding skill--characters can and do fall off horses. But then, BRP is an unapologetically realistic system. Combats are short, brutal, and deadly. Fumbles can lead to spectacular failures. So it goes.

This, incidentally, is why it was such a snap to convert the Banestorm setting, despite its built-in GURPSisms, to BRP. Both systems are grounded in realism, such as it is. But nonetheless, BRP plays very fast and loose and leaves most details of characterization and social interaction up the GM/PC relationship, something I like very much indeed.

The Banestorm setting, for those who don't know, is pretty much a "vanilla fantasy" world. Elves, dwarves, orcs, knights, pirates, wizards, the whole shebang. As with my original vision for the campaign, this is a world that attempts to rationally explain the plurality of sentient races and the existence of magic. The original inhabitants of the world were the elves, dwarves, and orcs. (Incidentally, the orcs of Yrth have just about the best rationale for traditionally orcish habits I've ever seen; essentially, orc culture is all about being the last to possess objects...and that the way to ensure that no one else can possess a coveted object once you've acquired it is to destroy it. Perfect orcish logic!) A splinter group of elves, in an attempt to rid the world of the orcish problem, accidentally caused a magical catastrophe that gated in races from across the universe--including a whole bunch of humans from medieval Europe and elsewhere. Traumatized by the whole situation, human culture has grown afraid of progress and actively works to discourage scientific progress. Thus, the quasi-medieval culture and technology that still prevail today, a thousand years after the first "banestorm". (Also of note is the fact that Yrth deviates most explicitly from most fantasy settings by having a monotheist religion--Chritianity, in fact--ironically putting it closer to the implicit setting in OD&D than most actual D&D settings.)

So far so good, but there's the matter of the magic of Yrth being tied intimately to one of the central conceits of GURPSian magic: mana. In GURPS, mana is the fuel for magic. Low mana areas penalize a spell-caster's skill; high mana areas make magic easier. Entire political boundaries are determined by mana levels, so it wasn't something I could easily ditch or ignore. Despite finding some really nifty conversion guidelines for using the GURPS Magic system wholesale in BRP, I decided to keep things closer to the BRP system as written and use the magic system presented therein. As a result, I decided that mana levels affect how much Power it takes to cast spells. This keeps the handicap of low mana areas but makes the mechanics more organic to the existing system.

One other change I'm implementing (apart from renaming the Great Desert as The Waste and renaming the Great Forest as the Old Forest--because, I mean, honestly...) is to draw a bit of visual inspiration (always an important element for me whether I'm running or playing) from the world of Warhammer (with a tip of the hat to noisms for his recent series of posts on one of my favorite fantasy settings). Essentially, for that small intersection of readers who are familiar with both Yrth and the Old World, I'm envisioning Caithness as being analogous to Brettonia and Megalos as The Empire--without gunpowder, of course. I'm actually considering adapting the College of Magic system from WFRP to represent the Megalan battle wizards. I always liked the different colleges, with their gang-like colors and affiliations. I haven't thought about Cardiel, but I suppose something along the lines of the southern polities like Tilea and Estalia wouldn't be far off. At any rate, I love the idea of Megalos being sort of Renaissance-like in its military structure, fashions, and attitudes. It's already pretty close to that as written. Caithness, of course, is Bretonnia without any further effort on my part.

As I mentioned, the campaign is about to take a dramatic shift. I'm looking forward to the point where "Little Desi" is in her late teens and is capable enough to set off into the big, wide world. She's already acquired a trusty steed and a smart-talking magic sword; her time at the Bardic College should round out her education nicely. Then it's off to see how much trouble she can get herself into...
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