Wednesday 21 March 2018

In Which I Contradict Harley Stroh....

Hopefully, my readers are veteran listeners of the Spellburn podcast. If not, I recommend it. The most recent podcast, Episode 66: Life on Aereth, featured the awesome Harley Stroh as a guest. I like Harley, and I am a big fan of his work, but I think he's wrong on two counts. This blog post is my rebuttal.

The Warrior, The Wizard, The Elf

Player Characters are always agents of change, and I can completely support the idea that the arrival of the party is going to shake up the status quo. If you can't change the world through game play, what is the point of playing? Dungeon Crawl Classics, both in its core rules and in its adventures, exemplifies this concept. Adventuring changes the characters, and changes the world around the characters.

However, the importance of the characters to the narrative in play does not imply that they are the only agents of change, or that they are the only characters of their class in the world...or even in the immediate area.

The rules for character classes are designed to allow players to have a somewhat structured means to interact with the game milieu. They do not imply that every NPC is created the same way - indeed, it is explicit that they are not. NPCs do not need to follow the rules, in the same way that monsters do not need to follow the rules, but that is not the same thing as saying that they cannot follow the rules.

It is definitly true that, when Jake the Gongfarmer comes back to his home village filled with divine power after Sailors on the Starless Sea, his fellow villagers have never seen a real cleric before. Likewise, the ex-ostler is probably the only wizard the villagers have ever seen. The PCs are the focus of awe and terror in their little settlement.

Sooner or later, though, those same PCs meet the wider world. And that can include encounters with fighting-men, spellslingers, thieves, and divine servants more powerful than they. It is part of the nature of the game that the PCs should not assume they are the most dangerous people in the world. Conan might always win in the end, but he doesn't always come out on top in every battle. Conan has been captured, he has been forced to flee, and he has faced opponents who were nearly his equal. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are not necessarily the two best thieves in Lankhmar.

Most importantly, the roster of characters is likely to change. If The Warrior dies, and the player is allowed to bring in another warrior, I guess The Warrior wasn't as special as he seemed. What if two players run clerics? The clerics? And if two more players join, also running clerics? What if a player is The Wizard? Should he never get to join in a spellduel because there are no other wizards around?

How would you run Enter the Dagon?

Every Monster is Unique

Unique monsters are great, and there is every reason to run a game where every monster has the potential to have unexpected properties. But, in the Spellburn podcast, Harley suggests a world where there is, for instance, only one Dragon. The Dragon.

This is an idea that I have written about once or twice before. Note that I don't think that this is a good idea.

You can read the earlier blog posts (and I encourage you to do so), but the short version is this: Appendix N fiction, like the real world, has a large number of persistent creatures within the milieus presented. The lemutes of Hiero's Journey are not one-off creatures, nor are the orcs of Mordor, the banths of Barsoom, or the shoggoths of the Cthulhu Mythos.

This is not to say that unique creatures do not exist in those literary milieus. The Dweller and House in Hiero's Journey are unique, for instance, as is the Watcher before the gates of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. If these unique creatures had appeared in a setting where every creature is encountered was unique, they would certainly have had less of an impact.

I am going to put it another way: Imagine Peril on the Purple Planet with only one Kith, only one Death Orm, and only one Strekleon. Now imagine Journey to the Center of Áereth without a consistent ecology that you could learn, and profit from your understanding of, once you got there.

The persistence of certain creatures makes the uniqueness of other creatures stand out.

You can certainly play up how much better they are than the average gongfarmer, but PCs are agents of change because of player choices, not because they are The Cleric and The Warrior.


  1. I don't listen to the podcast and I'm probbaly not going to so what did he say to prompt this?

    1. I'd rather not take Harley out of context or put words into his mouth. While I am disagreeing with him here, I really like his work, I respect him a lot, and the disagreement is really about different ways to achieve the same goal.

  2. I think that the important thing to remember when dealing with PCs as agents of change is the rarity of individuals of any real experience (as listed in DCC RPG). Granted, these are provided as food for thought and guidelines more than a hard and fast rule, but that level of scarcity means that Harley's statement can stand with just the slightest bit of hyperbole.

    0 Commoner 95% of population
    1 Expert in a field 2 in 100
    2 Leader or master in a craft 1 in 100
    3 Rare genius 1 in 1,000
    4 Elder, learned genius 1 in 5,000
    5 Once in a generation 1 in 10,000
    6 Supra-mortal accomplishment 1 in 50,000
    7 One per continent or century 1 in 250,000
    8 Typically the greatest mind in a field 1 in 1,000,000
    9 “The best there ever was” 1 in 10,000,000
    10+ An immortal or demi-god—no longer mortal 2-3 per epoch

    Certainly, it doesn't make them the most dangerous individuals out there but, using these rules, under the MAJORITY of circumstances, a group of 4th-5th level characters rolling into a town should be cause for curiosity and no small bit of alarm.

    I think that it isn't the individual character that is so special so much as the grouping of them as a unit. 1 in 5,000 will be 4th level. There are certainly others. Put a group of 4-5 of them together though, and it becomes a team of real heavy hitters. Granted, campaign world strengths vary and the above chart can easily be thrown away. Perhaps, like some people run a high or low magic campaign, another judge might run a low or high power level campaign. I think that all comes down to taste. Of course, going from being THE Cleric in a small town to being A Cleric in a big sity is also a bit of RP worth exploring.

    On the monster front, I'm pretty much in agreement. I think that "monsters" (as opposed to established "races" such as the Kith) should often FEEL unique but don't themselves need to BE unique. That flavor avoids the whole "you are attacked by a band of 10 orcs, roll for initiative" dialog that can be prevalent in so many fantasy games. Giving creatures unique features, even if the stats are unchanged makes things feel more mysterious and, I think, is more in keeping with Appendix N. Monsters should feel alien and frightening. If they are all neatly cataloged that they really are just races and dangerous animals. That isn't to say that characters might not eventually come to understand the wide variations that might be found within say....goblins...but most often they won't be encountering the same creatures adventure after adventure unless you really want them too. That continuing freshness maintains an air of mystery around encountered beasts and helps to give them that flavor of menace.

    Still, a nice, thought provoking write-up from you.

    1. "a nice, thought provoking write-up" is the most I hope for!


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