Monday, February 28, 2011

When Labyrinths Go Wrong (Part 2)

PART 2 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Last week I detailed the creation and exploitation of a supposedly challenging labyrinth for the in-development game Elven Fire. When we last saw our band of dragon-marauders, they had just finished robbing cradles and interrupting battling practice. Those poor, young dragons.

Time for round two! This time, welcoming a suggestion to let an experienced GM test out the written labyrinth, I handed the power over to the old batling (who had designed most of the game, anyway). I happily took my place in the marching order as one of the heroes.

The next challenge was the Food storage area, where the dragons kept their live snacks. The contents of the room included three separate pens of creatures: lions, elephants, and bears (oh my!) and two attendants, armed with something like a pitchfork and a large axe. Written into the plan was the idea that if the attendants saw the battle going south, they would unlock the nearest paddock and give the heroes more to deal with. It was a fun plan in theory. With the new aforementioned "recruits" added to our already large group of characters, there wasn't enough space in the room to fit everything as planned, so the new GM had to condense all those animals to one paddock. (We just assumed the various carnivores were all friends.) Sure enough, it only took the first round before the attendants decided they were outclassed and lifted the lock on the cage door. Aha, here comes the stampede of wild beasts! No, one of the attacking party stepped into the doorway, blocking any stampede and only having to attack and defend against the single animal in the doorway. The other characters happen to notice that the paddock is actually a low wall (otherwise how could they see the animals inside?) and the team lines up along the wall for potshots at the corralled animals. Might as well have put blindfolds on the poor creatures and offered them cigarettes. I suppose they did get one last meal, though. My son dropped a giant imaginary snake (illusion) on top of them, and they did manage to at least kill that as they were being slaughtered like fish in a barrel. Anyone need any healing? Yeah right, they made steaks out of the lions and moved on.

They chose to go to the Dragon Baths next. It was set up as a kind of Roman Bath for dragons, complete with priestesses to serve them as they enjoyed the hot spring rising from the Water Dungeons far below (into which no one had yet unsuspectingly fallen). There was also a water drain (another opportunity to throw someone into the Water Dungeons) and the two priestesses had mental powers. The mental powers kind of fizzled, and the 9-hex dragon of 70 strength (our players run about 10-20 strength on average) got turned into a dragonskin handbag with a couple of super-lucky, massively powerful rolls of the dice. (If I recall correctly, the second hit on the dragon did more damage than the dragon had strength to start with!) But hey, it was a pretty room!

Finally, we come to the Dragon Cella, the centerpiece of the Temple of the Dragons. Remember pictures of ancient Greek temples, where there was a statue of the god standing 50 feet tall and looking ready to step on you? This is that place. Other than the big dragon statue, there was only a girl in an orange tunic chained to the feet of the statue. This statue, however, was special. Not only could it turn into a live dragon (did anyone not see that one coming?), but this dragon, being the special, magical dragon that it is, could alter its type in a single turn. Most dragons in this game are one type or another and cannot change what type they are. Red dragons breathe fire, blue dragons breathe ice, brown dragons spit boulders, and other dragons do things even more insidious like spitting acid or lightning bolts, or breathing ammonia gas or shadows. This one can be whichever it wants, given a turn to change. Since the dragon doesn't wake up until the kid is freed, the party stood around the kid and planned first. Then, it all happened pretty fast. Snatch the kid, throw her on the lizard-taur's flying carpet (the "little" one) and send her zooming down the hall to be protected by some of the crew that wouldn't fit in the Cella, namely the young dragons and Ringwart the goblin slave (We've started calling him Target, after his ability to get hit against the odds). Then, everyone else takes on the Statue Dragon. These guys do a lot of fire power, and they did enough the first round to make the dragon hesitate. You don't hesitate in this game, it doesn't go well for you. So, in like two turns, there's dragon-rock pieces strewn around the temple floor and the principal warriors are heading for the dragon treasury at the back of the Cella. They open the treasure chests, grab the booty, and head back down to the nursery for "free" dragon eggs.

At this point I, the writer of this abysmal failure of a challenge, have pretty much given up hope of anything challenging happening. So I missed the conversation where the horse-lizard argued that half the eggs had hatched and been carried off away from the nursery. So, instead of a dozen hatched young dragons and two golems to fight, all we found were the two clay dolls and some expensive eggs. You know, I never did get my share of those dragon egg sales!

Despite my feelings of failure, they all claim to have had a very good time, and come away with good memories (And some extra fire-power and treasure!). Back to the drawing board.

Monday, February 21, 2011

When Labyrinths Go Wrong

I've been busy recently writing content for a game that is in pre-release development called Elven Fire. It is a table-top rpg game, similar to the popular Dungeons & Dragons game, but more family friendly. One problem they've been encountering is that they know the game so well that they have designed characters with such clever features and abilities, exploiting loopholes and such, that challenging them can be difficult. Other that just assassinating them, maybe. I suspect Desdra's player would find a way through even that.

So, with this in mind, I set out to design a fun labyrinth that would challenge these "Masters of the Game". Let me tell you how well that worked out. In the game, a dragon is a pretty strong opponent, even the small ones. Sizes in the game are measured in hexes, and dragons run from one hex up above 20. It is generally assumed that the biggest of the dragons could just step on the whole party and then wipe them off on the grass and complain about litterers. Plus, dragonskin is valuable for armor and, the creatures are just plain fun. So I decided to make them the focus of the labyrinth.

Welcome to the Temple of the Dragons. Plot/motivation: two little kids have gone missing and were last seen playing in that general direction. The party follows the path and reaches a meadow at the base of a mountain. In the meadow stands a large (7 hex) statue of a dragon with a welcome sign that basically reads "Show respect or run away."

Let me stop here and explain something about this crowd. Respect is not an ability any of them have invested points in. Historically, their first response to finding a statue that is likely to be special is to pee on it. This particular statue, if one is disrespectful, turns into a real dragon and starts spitting boulders. So I was expecting, counting on, a fun little battle with one character's RPG pants down! Instead, I get "Hello, honored dragon, may we respectfully pass?" Then, just to be safe, they toss him some gold coins. Nix the expected pissing match; room one: fail.

That's ok, I think, I have more surprises. They decide to take the low road into the caves instead of the higher road along the outer edge of the cliff face. A short distance in, the cave path becomes an unsteady-looking stone bridge crossing a great chasm the bottom of which slopes away out of sight. Hanging from the roof are sleeping bats. This room is just full of fun. In this game, there is a Movement Phase where everyone takes what steps they may or like, and then an Action Phase, when characters do things other than walk, like fight. After each Movement Phase, I would roll to see which piece of the bridge would crumble and fall. If someone happened to be standing on that spot, well, physics takes over. Also, any bats near the falling bridge piece would wake from the sound and attack the party. Any damage from bat bites would come with a roll to see if the bat also knocked them off the bridge. Now, I'm not as mean as it sounds. Everyone would scramble to save them from certain death, but if they did fall, I had a surprise set of rooms hidden down below, though their party would assume them dead until later. That was the plan.

This crew? Of course not. One of them had not long ago discovered a giant flying carpet big enough to carry the entire team. So of course, the team just floats on into the cave.
•Crumbling bridge? Who cares; we're on a flying carpet.
•Bottomless pit? Wow, guys, look at this view! Anyone got a camera?
•And the bats? Without the falling bridge, they just hang asleep from the ceiling. Think carnival shooting gallery. I think the old batling won the cupie doll. Room 2: fail. But I banned the carpet for the rest of the labyrinth.

Well, the next room should be really fun. No way they'll get through that without a fight! The next room on this path is the Nursery. I created the concept of dragon eggs (where do YOU think all those big dragons came from?). Dragon eggs are worth loads of money, but hatch into baby dragons that don't like you. Baby Dragons just being the smallest of the available dragons in the game. Still nothing to sneeze at. So, this room has 6 clutches of dragon eggs (about 5 eggs each), guarded by two golems. Touching the eggs would result in a roll to see if they hatch, and missed shots were opportunities for hatching eggs, too. In addition, if you nabbed an egg and it didn't hatch on the spot, but you wanted to take it to market, every room we enter, there'd be a roll that might have a baby dragon hatching in your backpack. This one was going to be chaos. Greed may be one the Seven Deadly Sins, but in this game, it's a character trait! 15k in silver multiplied by 30 eggs would be better than Vegas.

Unless you're playing with these loophole-exploiters. They open the door, look in the room, look at each other and say "Let's come back when we're done and take these to market." Then they close the door, and walk away. With this strategy, they don't have the risk of little dragons popping up as they fight through the other rooms. They'll have one shot risk and then safely carry the rest to market, at 15k each.

Let's recap the first few rooms of the labyrinth.
Room 1, they walk past the statue, smile and wave.
Room 2, they float right over the bridge and the abyss, taking target practice on the conveniently hanging bats.
Room 3, they quietly close the door and move on.

So far, this is going great! :) *cheesy, sarcastic smile with a double-thumbs up* But those were all traps and sneaks. The next room should be straight up battle. Let's see them ignore half a dozen young (3-4 hex) dragons and two lizardwomen attendants!

They walk in the room, and as is their custom, they take quick stock of the opposition. Against the 8 occupants of the room, the party consists of 5 warrior-players, one of whom also has a trained octopus and a goblin slave, by virtue of various Amulets of Control. (Watch for Ringwart the Goblin Slave's Web comic, coming soon!) Once they have assessed their enemy, they take stock of their own weapons and abilities. Kind of a 'which weapon will be most effective against these guys,' thing. Then the pixie-sorceress looks up across the table and exclaims "I've got an Amulet of Control Dragon!" The old batling across the table looks up and replies "me too!" and I just lay my head in my hands with a sigh. They proceed to capture/enslave two of the 6 dragons (both happened to be green dragons, which breath poison gas). So now the battle stands 9 to 6, with two of the dragons ready to fight on our side. The odds are now vastly in our favor. The two newly acquired dragons don't even fight. The group mops up the rest of the room, collects their treasure and moves on, a much larger dinner party than before.

With the added dragonic firepower, the three-hex octopus, and the two hex centaur-lizard-girl, plus the other five characters, our band of warriors can barely fit in the next room, nevermind the several 5-6 hex dragons that were working on target practice. In addition to the regular treasure in this room, they find one of the two kids they were looking for. A successful room for the group, complete failure for the training dragons.

It is about this time that we break for the night and plan to return to the labyrinth a few days later, with the more experienced GM taking over the labyrinth I wrote, to test playability and let me focus on my own character.

Tune in next week to read how THAT turned out.

Monday, February 14, 2011

From Real Life to Real Good

It has been said that Art imitates Reality, or perhaps it was the other way around. Regardless, it's true. We borrow from real life to create our art. Even those of us writing in science fiction and fantasy. Everything we do is based in the mundane world we are trying so hard to escape.

Early science fiction didn't happen until science began to take a foothold in the world, giving us a basis on which to question and explore concepts, many of which later became reality in their own right: Jules Verne's submarine, Star Trek's Communicators/cell phones, H.G. Wells's Time Machine... oh, maybe not that one yet.

What comes most from our reality, is not the laws of nature, but the nature of humanity. Critics often claim that the best works of literature are ones that we as human beings can relate to, works where the characters feel the things we feel, react the way we would react, and even come from the kind of background that we ourselves carry in our backpack of id. Our stories are pieces of our history blended together and dyed with new colors, hidden among the worlds we create, that are, in turn, based on the one we live in.

The old adage advises us to "write what you know." Yet how could we do anything else? Martians are described as "little green men," we take our own bodies and alter them slightly to make something we claim is new. In fantasy, we have horses with horns, big lizards with bad breath, and men that become not something unknown, but merely a variant of what is familiar: bats, or wolves. Elves, goblins, giants, fairies, leprechauns, and dwarves, they are all variants on humanity's natural form. Even our ghosts and gods take human or familiar forms. The Greeks were all human forms, the Egyptians blended human bodies with animal heads, the Native American spirits were mostly animal forms that they knew.

Where then, is the fantastic that is not grounded in our reality? It is all borrowed from what we know. Shakespeare may have said that "there is nothing new under the sun" because he was frustrated with his inability to concoct something completely alien to our existence.

However, knowing this, I advise you not to frustrate yourself trying to figure out what hasn't been thought of, but to look around and figure out what you could borrow to enrich your story. If you are sick, make notes on how it feels to be sick, what you think of while sick, how your voice sounds. Be a people watcher, that observes the weird things people do, for we, truly, are likely some of the most fantastic beings in our world. How muich weirder can you get than us, really?

Monday, February 7, 2011


This book, Our Gods Wear Spandex by Christopher Knowles, has been on my wishlist for some time. This past Christmas, I unwrapped it. Over the next month (I'm not a slow reader, just busy!), I read it, and enjoyed it.

The premise is that in ancient times, people created gods, not just to explain their world, but to help them feel safer, taken care of, protected. Now, in our modern day, "gods" have fallen out of fashion, and superheroes, of various types, have replaced them for the purpose of psychological/emotional protection of the masses. Truly, an interesting assertion.

Overall, I very much enjoyed reading the text, particularly the histories of the Comics industry/culture and the analysis of a varied array of major and minor heroes and their particular backgrounds/origins. I learned of some heroes that I'd never heard of, despite being major players in their time, and heroes that were forerunners and inspirations for modern-day big-hitters. I also relished the comparisons between individual modern superheroes and particular ancient gods. The artwork, by Joseph Michael Linsner, was absolutely riotous. Wolverine roasting marshmallows on his claws over a campfire comes to mind (Knowles 156).

There were some areas, however, that I felt the book failed in my expectations. The greatest of these was its thin disguise as propaganda for the occult. I certainly don't mind discussing the occult, and I expected to read about ancient religions in comparison to modern fantasies. That, after all, was part of the premise of the book. However, it was not long into the book before ancient gods were only referenced in relation to the occult, and every assertion the book made was from the occult, as opposed to just ancient gods, or even of basic psychology of humanity. Chapters 6, 7, and 8, in fact are titled Secret Sects, The Victorian Occult Explosion, and Occult Superstars. These talk none about superheroes, or ancient gods, but merely the societies and individuals that were big in the occult over periods of recent history. In comparison, chapter 4 handles the deities of Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Hebrews, and Vikings all in those few pages.

I also felt that many of the connections the book tried to make between ancient gods and super heroes were stretched, and in some cases, almost manufactured. Take as example, in chapter 4, on page 28:

Many Theologians [he never names any of them] have pointed out the essentially solar nature of heroes like Elijah and Samson, both of whom are thought to derive from stories of Hercules. Like Hercules, Samson (whose name means "of the sun") was betrayed by a woman. Hercules cerated the two pillars named for him by smashing through a mountain that sealed the Mediterranean at Gibraltar. Samson destroyed the Temple of Dragon by knocking down two pillars. Like Hercules, Elijah wore animal skins. Hercules was often identified with the sun, and Elijah ascended to heaven in a flaming chariot identical to that of Helios, god of the sun.

First of all, he confuses this paragraph by trying to compare multiple heroes at the same time (nevermind that all of these are classical myth/theology, not modern superheroes). He argues that Samson and Elijah are both taken from Hercules. Samson, because his name means "of the sun" and supposedly Hercules is often associated to the sun (Did I miss that lesson in Bible school?). Also, one created two pillars, the other knocked two down. And they were both betrayed by a woman. Well, frankly, get in line, guys. The list of men who have been betrayed by women is a LONG one. As for Hercules being in some way related to the sun, a Google search brings up several hits, most of which mention Apollo or Helios when talking about the sun. The only one I could find that talked about Hercules and the sun was also piled with random "connections' between Hercules, Atlantis, the 9-11 terrorists and the number 11. The Hercules=Samson connection seems pretty weak to me.

As for Elijah, guess they shopped at the same tailor, probably the one frequented by the likes of Daniel Boone, Tarzan, and most primitive cultures past and present. The passage seems to connect him more to Helios, through their dual flaming chariots, than Hercules, fitting since it is supposed to be about how these were "sun gods" anyway. This is just an example of some of the very stretched connections the book tries to make to prove its point of... well, I guess of occultism in comic books, as that seems to be more the focus of the text.

The book also tried to classify heroes of being of a certain type, born from ancient mythos. This was not only expected but essential. However, in some cases, I was left thinking I had skipped an entire section, for the classifications didn't make any sense. Take, for instance, the classification of golem. Wikipedia defines golem like most other sources: "In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being, created entirely from inanimate matter." Thus, I can easily see classifying Ironman as golem, possibly even a hero like The Thing. However, Knowles declares that "the archetypal golem character [is] Batman..." Batman, created entirely from inanimate matter? He spends most of the chapter talking about Batman, but never explains this seemingly nonsensical classification. He ends the chapter with short mentions for the Thing and Hulk, even Robocop is certainly arguable as a golem. However, according to Knowles, Daredevil and Punisher are also golems, again, with no explanation as to why he believes so. Last mentioned in the chapter, Wolverine's adamantium skeleton could be up for discussion of a golem status, the precedent set by the cyborg status of Robocop or the robotic suit of Ironman, but Knowles doesn't discuss this at all, instead contenting himself with offering a short bio on Marvel's wonderboy.

As I closed the covers, I felt a little cheated, having expected a thought-provoking treatise on human race psychology and an exploration of superheroes as modern deities, and instead getting a weakly supported and loosely connected advertisement for undying, secret occultism. I don't buy most of the arguments that comics are occultic. I certainly don't deny that magic, legends, and ancient religions have influenced our superhero culture (Have you noticed that Thor has his own title?). I did, however, very much enjoy the superhero history, both of the genre and industry, as well as the fictions behind them. I also welcomed that few fruits hidden in the pages that actually argue the rise of superheroes to protect our culture's collective id.