New on Desk #12 — Castlevania Wizard

This was a busy week; two campaign starts in the first half of the week. The second was supposed to be spent catatonic, of course, but we did manage to fit in a movie night with the guys on Saturday. Needless to say, extraneous writing suffered, and I didn’t write an article this week after all. Much more fun developing online play tools for the Mountain Witch, anyway.

What’s up with Mountain Witch?

The Mountain Witch is a classic Forgite indie game. Written for a game design contest in ’05 by Tim Kleinert, it well exemplifies the typical virtues of a “Forge game”, insofar as you think that there is such a thing. The game has a focused mission, creative playstyle and elegant rules that sketch the topic out in bold yet deliberate moves. It’s one of my favourite roleplaying games.

Unfortunately, if you’ll follow that link, it’ll take you to the site of a nasty debacle at Kickstarter: two years ago Tim crowdfunded a Mountain Witch revival with the intent of publishing a new edition of the game. The pre-order (as these things predominantly are) raised a bit under 70 thousand dollars, making it a rousing success. Unfortunately Tim disappeared from the face of the Earth after the crowdfunding campaign and has yet to surface.

I’m not a close friend, but Tim’s a fellow Forge alumnus and a game designer whose work in TMW has more than impressed me, so it’s not like I’m not upset with his behavior here either. Tim has some history of similar behavior that makes me think that it’s more likely that he’s undergoing some sort of massive flake-out rather than escaping with his haul, but who knows; he certainly isn’t answering my emails any more than anybody else’s.

Dragon’s Castle, a TMW hack

Tim’s crowdfunding project and subsequent disappearance affects me personally a bit, as I’d actually signed onto the production team in a minor role. I published a Finnish-language edition of the Mountain Witch years ago, and wrote a little hack of it called Dragon’s Castle about Castlevania style horror fantasy on the side. Tim asked me to revise the hack for an English-language publication, which I was happy to promise. I turned the work in a few months later, around the time the crowdfunding campaign was ending, which was also when Tim stopped communicating and disappeared from everybody’s radar as far as I know.

I’ve been drawing on the Castlevania franchise fan wiki pretty heavily for this project.

I’m pretty happy about how the revised Dragon’s Castle turned out, even if it is ultimately just a moderately comprehensive setting hack for the original game. It’s a dramatically different setting, and the new rules I developed seem to catch a good balance between TMW-style team drama and Castlevania-style monster battling. The Boss fights are energetic and encourage action choreography without completely changing the mechanical nature of TMW, and the Bloodline character creation system is successful in encouraging superficial character color from the start. It’s not so much the perfect-fidelity Castlevania rpg (if such a thing could exist, considering the nature of the franchise) as it is a balanced combination of the two sources, which is exactly how I like it.

I finally managed to schedule a full play-through of the Dragon’s Castle last fall with our local crew, and it was pretty much everything I’d hoped from it. I’m a bit bothered by the thing being as unpublishable as it is without outright plagiarizing TMW to fill in the rules system, but that’s how it goes sometimes.

I enjoyed revising and expanding my Castlevania thing in the fall of 2018 enough that I even followed it up with a second TMW hack called The Klein Hunt — it’s about angry crowdfunders trying to find Tim, of course, and traveling to most surprising places around the globe only to find themselves rather than The Klein. It’s pretty obvious that this latter project has a bit of a therapeutic nature, but there is some legit gaming potential in it as well. I’m unfortunately uncomfortable publishing that one, too; it’s not written in anger at Tim, and I feel that it’s about larger issues of geekdom and society than that, but it’s the exact sort of thing that would get misinterpreted. Perhaps we’ll play The Klein Hunt at some point, at least.

A second visit to the Dragon’s Castle

Campaign Map at the end of the first session.

Club Hannilus, our Hangouts online rpg group, picked up the gauntlet last Tuesday and decided to try to play a Dragon’s Castle campaign. It’s just 3-4 sessions in tabletop play, but so far Club Hannilus has something of a history for uncertain scheduling and long downtimes, so we’ll see how far we’ll get before life concerns come in the way. The first session was pretty good, at least; I opted for a slow and deliberate pace as the GM, with the idea that we’ll be able to pick up the pace later once we’re more familiar with each other’s accents and the rules and such.

The first session was mostly about character creation, for which I’d created a pretty nice Google Sheets spreadsheet. This is the second set of serious online play sheets I’ve made at Google Sheets (the first was for Tales of Entropy a few months back), and practice makes perfect: it was faster, and the end result is slimmer and stabler than last time. Part of it is because Mountain Witch is somewhat sleeker mechanically than Entropy, but mostly it’s because I conserved effort better here. I’ll probably continue fine-tuning the play tools over the campaign, but for now it’s looking pretty nice. Check out the map on the side, for instance; a nice overview of where the campaign’s gotten, I’ll say.

Not to only toot my own horn, though, I have to say that I like the group chemistry and the individual players here; everything seems hopeful in that regard. Club Hannilus always has good chemistry, I suppose, but the players are getting into the cheesy gothic fantasy spirit of the game here nicely, and their characters are already gaining heat with the audience (read: me) after the first chapter of actual play. Everybody’s being nice, creative, constructive and active, so it’s all just going swimmingly.

I’ll have to write more about the events of play once we get to something resembling a story. The first chapter was mostly a simple tutorial, with a few of the monster slayers (player characters) dealing with the aftermath of a Boss monster attack. The terrible Bat-Wolf (half bat, half wolf, officially known in Castlevania lore as the Flying Wolf) made an off-hand appearance, only to leave the slayers to decide between helping the civilians and hunting down the monster. They chose the former, which means that the Wolf-Bat gets to continue its reign of terror for now.

The BBRPG is gearing up, too

Changing subjects, the second new campaign that we started this week was of course the Blood Bowl RPG thing that we’ve been anticipating with the local crew since before the aforementioned Dragon’s Castle campaign last fall. Now its time has come, and we really did do something vaguely play-like last Thursday on it!

I phrase it like that because what we did was something that I understand to be a somewhat rare mode of play in the rpg hobby: the group sat down to discuss and design the scenario of the campaign in a relatively mutual way rather than having the GM develop and present the scenario. The nature of the campaign start is such that a playstyle more resembling a Lego party than a D&D adventure was much more appropriate.

(Ars Magica is exactly like this, in case you’re interested in a published example game. Its default campaign begins by necessity with a very diffuse planning period in which the players mutually build a dollhouse and develop some dolls. Only after this build-up period is finished can actual play begin.)

The core topic of our build-up play was to answer the question of how the Imperial Rugby League could and would expand itself so that an entirely new team, the one the players collectively control, may step into the fray. There are a number of inter-connected yet largely independent issues that need to be puzzled out into a full picture here, like so:

  • The league commission consists of the ten owners of the existing league teams. The new team needs a majority vote of the commission, by hook or by crook, to secure its place. The commission is generally unwilling to share its pie with outsiders, which means the need to discover specific leverage or sheer bribery to get anywhere.
  • The new team needs a location on the map. The choice influences everything from commission attitudes (teams don’t want to sacrifice their own market territory for newcomers) to ultimate audience numbers for the team once it’s up and running.
  • Should the commission agree to expanding the franchise, we need to figure out how the season schedules and league rules change to adapt to the new structure. This all depends on how the overall deal shapes out, of course; there might be several new teams entering in one expansion, for instance, which might help balance out the divisions and so on.
  • The new team will need a large stadium with a capacity of 50 thousand or more audience. Building one has the baseline cost of 100 million reichsmarks, a hefty sum to throw down. (Players get 1d6 million per participating player as an insultingly small nest egg to start here.)
  • The funding for all of the above needs to come from somewhere in terms of both money and influence. I grant the players an imperial sponsor as a sort of combined drama hook, campaign theme and early helper to start with, but the imperial sponsor brings just 5-10 million marks, so they need to whip up a lot of money somewhere still. That, or a free stadium.

As you can see, we’re talking of a sort of wargaming exercise, but it’s very wide and interconnected. It’s also not blood-in-the-mouth serious in that I as the GM am trying to facilitate success more than adjudicate to its peril. I want the players to actually show the work, demonstrate an intellectually interesting plan for how the team gets off the ground; I don’t want them to fail, because then we don’t get a campaign at all, but I don’t want success to mean that we don’t talk these big picture details over. In practice this means a cooperative discussion mode of play where I introduce topics and we talk about the best and most feasible solutions, thus amassing more and more concrete detail about how the new rugby team is going to work.

As far as result go, we’re still just halfway through at this writing, but I’ll summarize the important conclusions of the first session:

  • The players chose to accept imperial princess Dainstjern as their imperial sponsor over her erstwhile brothers Magnus (serious politician) and Helmut (foolish rake). The princess is a 20-something idealistic hippie type who genuinely admires the lively spirit of sports heroes, but also wants to use rugby as a vehicle of cultural liberation in the empire. I initially considered her something of a hard mode option, as she brings less money than Magnus or Helmut, and the old sports suits types don’t like a woman telling them how to play the game, and everybody hates her anti-racist agenda of letting non-humans play in the league, but the players are certainly working her strengths from the start, too, so maybe it’s not so bad.
  • The team will locate itself in Auerswald, a large city (around 300 thousand people?) in Reiksland, some 50 miles from Nuln (2 million?) and a 100 miles from Altdorf (8 million?). The concept is supposed to provide the Reiklanders a more local and less urban team to identify with, as opposed to supporting the Reikland Reavers playing from Altdorf. (Yes, the fact that the new Reikland provincial team doesn’t even own the name “Reikland” may be something o a problem.)
  • The team’s preliminary name is “Auerswald Highwaymen”, with a domino mask in their logo and some country, folk sort of theme music. We workshopped that for a while; a major concern was that as the team is going to include a significant portion of non-human or non-male players (as per the princess’s wishes), while another concern was building up a contrast with the legendary Reiksland Reavers operating not too far away in Altdorf. The “Highwaymen” concept allows building on counter-cultural outlaw theming in a way that’s probably going to be more authentic than the Reavers, whom we’ve established to actually be a most clean-shaven and family-friendly team. The Highwaymen in comparison will involve a dashing human captain (to assuage the racists) leading a crew of monsters and misfits, which imago narrative will hopefully help shield the team from the initial backlash that introducing non-human players will inevitably entail.
  • The players showed off their supreme diplomatic smarts by negotiating the high king of the dwarves into becoming a major financier of their operation. All it cost them was having four dwarf players hoisted on them, a 20% share of the stock, plus a promise to not hire any orcs, skaven or elves. My understanding is that the players imagine the dwarf king to be much more in tune with princess Dainstjern’s politics than he actually is, but we’ll see how it goes. It certainly was a… it was something when they immediately after closing the deal had the princess travel to the wood elven realm to hire an elf for the team. Not like the dwarf king has a television and can see the elf in their first game, I guess.
  • The team found an old chariot racing track in Auerswald that they renovated into a rugby stadium, saving a few million reiksmarks in the process. The wise economic decision-making continued as they sold naming rights to the new stadium to a local forestry corporation for a bit more funding. I suppose that “Ponsse Hippos” will only sound stupid as a stadium name to Finnish audience members.

All in all we’re well underway on the big picture development here, but there’s still plenty to do before the players can hit the turf: we need to gather the commission votes, buy more stuff (personnel, including the players of course) and draw nice maps of the stadium layout, because otherwise I won’t know how well the sports bar the players established in there will interact with the crowd flow logic.

Just like playing with dolls, except the dolls are conceptual and only exist in the Shared Imagined Space, as rpg theorists like to say.

Movie Club: Casablanca

We had another showing with the movie club after several weeks of doing other stuff (like gaming, for instance). The participants had prepared a pretty nice lineup of movies for consideration this time around:

Casablanca (1942)
Krabat: The Sorcerer's Apprentice (1978)
Dangerous Liaisons (1989)
I created a movie info sheet to aid in movie voting and to make notes on what we watch.

We had an excited dog and a relatively small viewing room to work with this time around, so the movie voting was handled without too much decorum. The enchanting-seeming Krabat won handily, but due to technical difficulties the runner-up Casablanca actually got the opportunity to shine on screen; I’ll need to find a working copy of Krabat (it’s a bit rare) before we try that one again.

Despite being a second choice, Casablanca was something of a crowd-favourite. The teenage member of the jury wasn’t as enchanted as the adults, but the overall rating ended up at 4½ stars out of five, with the general agreement being that while this may not be the best movie ever at this point in time, it may well have been that at some earlier time. For me personally the most interesting observation was that Casablanca (which I hadn’t seen before) relies entirely on a substantial storyline combined with old-Hollywood star actor charisma. To be specific, the sets and the dialogues are mediocre – not bad, but clearly routine work of a highly skilled studio rather than exceptional.

Reading Comics: Aquaman

I’ve been continuing reading recent DC superhero comics at a casual pace, so just a quick observation about that: Batgirl was pretty acceptable, Action Comics (the Superman vehicle) a bit less so, but Aquaman was actually surprisingly good. Not mind-blowing mastery of the form or anything like that, but it’s better than you’d expect of what’s always been a B-list comic book at best.

The virtue of this take of Aquaman in the humdrum context of superhero comics is that it’s a sort of fantasy politics comic book, at least for the first 20 issues or so. Aquaman is not a superhero, but rather the king of a potent magical kingdom. Think Star Wars, except better, and with the relatively fresh setting flavour of an undersea magical civilization poised to either tear itself apart or bring ruinous war on the surface, which is often depicted as much more credible than one might think. I feel like this would work even better in a non-continuity setting that didn’t have other superheroes in it, but then that’s true of most superhero stories. There’s a certain tragic majesty and realistic human condition evident in the Atlantean society that isn’t quite given in urban fantasy treatments. Not massively so, but enough for me to notice the potential.

Superman used to be a little bit like this in the early ’80s, in fact, when it was a space opera adventure comic. Big events with empires and princesses and royal pretenders and ancient artifacts and whatnot. I particularly liked that the stories were generally stories instead of decompressed mush. Pretty old-fashioned as a superhero comic book.

State of the Productive Facilities

Eh, I didn’t have time to write an article this week, which means that I’ll be a bit behind on my self-established schedule until I make it up later. No worries, the practical gaming (the two new campaigns I discussed above) is more important in the short term. I’ll get to it when I get to it.

The March polls are poised to become the most popular yet; at this writing we’re at 31 votes, which is exactly what we got in January combined. The leading candidates are still the same as last week, except now Ars Magica seems to be threatening to overtake C2020. I don’t know if my being slow to publish all this C2020 stuff has something to do with that, but it seems like C2020 might lose out for the first time here.

[March 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • [theory] Observations on GNS Simulationism (20%, 28 Votes)
  • [design]More C2020 Redux (17%, 25 Votes)
  • [design] Many Faces of Ars Magica (16%, 23 Votes)
  • [design] Subsection M3 rules drafts (10%, 14 Votes)
  • [theory] Musings on Game State in RPGs (10%, 14 Votes)
  • [design] Xianxia with Mentzer Immortals (8%, 11 Votes)
  • [theory] Creative Safety - handling Lines and Veils (7%, 10 Votes)
  • [design] My Blood Bowl RPG notes (6%, 8 Votes)
  • [writing] Magical Swordsmen Versus Fight Club (3%, 5 Votes)
  • [design] 007 by the way of CRedux (3%, 4 Votes)
  • [writing] Ecological '80s Superheroes, the setting (1%, 1 Votes)
  • Something else (specify in comments) (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 45

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