New on Desk #27 — High-Tier Coup

This has been a bit of a vacationing week, as the forestry project was finished just in time before the rains started, and I’ve mainly been recovering from the physical exertions and putting my office in order. A bit of gym, yardwork and philosophizing about old school D&D have rounded out the week nicely.

Developing the old school campaign

I consider old school D&D to be a very campaign-specific endeavour: there are universal principles to the game, yes, but much of the superficial cruft, nearly everything in the rule books, belongs more in the category of “this is how we do it in this campaign” than in a general rulebook. (This does imply that D&D has arguably been off-track ever since the original ’74 booklets, which acknowledged this reality, were replaced by a more commercially oriented vision of a game with Official Rules that would be defined by the publisher from their ivory tower. Probably more feasible as a product, but RAW D&D suffers a drastic decrease in quality compared to a properly refereed independent campaign.)

Naturally this means that starting a new campaign always implies embarking upon a new process of campaign construction, one where we review everything from first principles. The very barest of foundations can be taken for granted as universal features of D&D, such as the concept of “adventuring” and the mechanical conceit of hit points, while many other things can be drawn from the referee’s personal library of best practices and technical preferences. There could even conceivably be a singular rulebook elevated as a mechanical starting point, although I don’t think I’ve ever played D&D with more than a inspirational relationship to a rulebook myself. Outright declaring any rules text to have precedence over the foundational procedures like referee rulings and simulative modeling of the fiction would be alien to the culture.

(What are the universal principles, then, that actually make up and define D&D? I have my specific opinions, but it’s a bit of an involved topic to get into in a newsletter. Let’s just say that the most important bits are referee and adventurer roles, the nature of XP as a scoring device, the adventurous conceit, concept of Level, hit points as a formal measure of defeat and the specific simulative tradition and rulings jurisprudence that goes with the game’s cultural tradition. Classes and races, and even the hallowed d20 attack roll, don’t quite make the cut for me — I can construct a D&D campaign without those, which ipso facto proves that they’re not essential.)

In practice the majority of the campaign design won’t be developed from scratch, but rather drawn and remixed from traditional sources — established ideas from past campaigns. The most influential parts of the tradition are those documented and published most prominently, of course. Some ideas from the earliest ’70s campaigns, after being elevated into writ by TSR publications, have come to be considered essential to the game. Even if choose to establish things like Fighting-Men and Magic-Users and Evil Humanoids in the traditional way, that still leaves the major parts of the campaign up in the air, essentially to be developed anew every time a new campaign begins.

Aspirational design in Coup de Main

Gearing up the new Coup campaign naturally involves all kinds of practical design as well, ranging from character classes to combat rules, but interestingly what’s captured the most immediate collective interest in the early days has been aspirational campaign design: what happens and how the game functions at high levels. Nobody’s going to be engaging these game structures this year (I’d be surprised if we got our first mid-level character in under 40 sessions), but they nevertheless attract player curiousity already.

Brendan linked us to a good basic piece he’d recently written on aspirational design; 10/10 for the Berserk reference in particular. While I might not agree on the idea that this was an intentional design effect on TSR’s part (if it was, they did it badly), I think the core observation is quite cogent: it is natural for future expectations — or even better, goals — to shape and motivate play, and development and exposure of future game content is a natural way to influence those expectations. Many D&D texts make much hay by simply describing hypothetical high-level campaign content that you too can some day have if you keep on trucking (or start directly at high level, I suppose, if you’re into that).

The idea of calling high-level design “aspirational” is probably easier to understand if you keep in mind that I’m crazy challenge-oriented in my old school D&D, and appreciate authenticity of campaign development over all reason. As I described above, things written out in game texts aren’t real before actual play affirms them. I literally do not know what mid-level D&D is like (not to speak of high-level) before authentically playing the game to that level myself. We can write aspirationally about what we’re planning to do with high-level stuff, but not authoritatively unless we’re already there. The game texts about high-level play are largely hypothetical, particularly as I don’t necessarily trust the textual tradition to be describing other people’s real experiences; these people cheat, they publish material that does not arise from authentic play or represent direct experience with the same 😀

We’ve discussed not only the practical high tier structures of the Coup campaign this week, but the theoretical basis of aspirational design as well. I listed a few cornerstone requirements of good aspirational design, let’s see if I can find them from the chat logs…

  • Aspirational high-level plans need to be literarily distinct; they need to present a vision of D&D that differs substantially from low-level stuff. If all you have is just the same dungeon grind but with bigger numbers, it’s better to not bother and invest in a robust retirement rules set instead.
  • The rules formalisms you suggest need to be bold, yet sketchy. It makes no sense to go into minute detail on something that exists to inspire rather than to be used in actual play (yet). The boldness is good to have, though; those bold details you describe are what inflames the passions. “My characters gets to fly around like a superhero on 8th level!”
  • You shouldn’t rob the present to furnish the future. Mentzer Basic is a particular case study on this, as it gimps low-level characters in a multitude of inappropriate ways to justify the inflated level range — Mentzer basically moves legit low-level character competencies up to higher levels to have something to offer to those higher-level characters. Thief rules are particularly ridiculous; where I personally consider Thief skills to be something that should mostly max out in mid-levels (a Thief at level ~7 or something like that should already have this stuff down pat), Mentzer suggests that the cool thing about being a level 25 Thief is that you’re finally kinda-sorta competent in Hiding in Shadows. Yeah, no. There are many similar examples all around D&D textual history, of course.

I’ll explain a bit about the aspirational high-level design that I’ve done for the Coup campaign. It’s heavily derivative of the two best high-level aspirational frameworks that I’ve seen for D&D, namely Gygax’s “Name level” and Mentzer’s Immortals; I think that you can fit both of those into one campaign easily enough. But first, a quick summary of prior work:

Traditional D&D tiering concepts

This is a quick summary of what to me seems to be the “traditional” way a D&D campaign is supposed to progress. The concepts have developed organically over time, with the ’80s Mentzer Basic line as a major codification. Something like this is probably what you or I think of when thinking of old school D&D tiering.

Low-level dungeoneering: Adventurers delve into ruins in search of treasure, fighting monsters and avoiding traps. Often understood to roughly encompass character Levels 1–3. “Basic set” territory for Mentzer. Myself, I like to characterize low-level as being highly opportunistic and adventure hook reliant adventure locale play; I have extensive experience of this tier, so I think I have some handle on how it is.

Mid-level wilderness adventuring: Adventurers undertake long overland or overseas expeditions to distant locales. What “mid-level” means ranges all over the place (e.g. 5–15 in Mentzer and 3e), but I prefer to say 4–8 or so. “Expert set” territory for Mentzer. My personal theory of what “mid-level” means focuses on fictional positioning, with the adventuring concerns becoming more proactive and less generically opportunistic than at low tier; I consider the concept of “urban adventure” to be a secondary, less-developed sister mode here. I have some experience of mid-level play, but not so much as to imagine that I understand all there is to know.

High-level domain play: Adventurers settle down as lords of the land, engaging in the game of thrones. AD&D “name level”, “Companion set” for Mentzer. Typically starts at Level ~9 or so, but Mentzer inflates heavily. I think I get what’s appealing about this, and have ideas, but for me this is aspirational territory: I have never played a complete campaign arc of domain play.

High-level planar play: An alternate vision (sometimes follow-up) of what high level play is like, with the adventurers extending their activities to the fantastic supernatural realms. Mentzer “Immortals set” has this begin at the extensively inflated level 36+, with 15+ as more typical. (This inflation is partly justified in that Mentzer’s Immortals planar style is of a higher overall power level than that envisioned in AD&D.) Like with domain play, this is an entirely aspirational realm for me; I can speculate, but not speak from experience.

When discussing historical “aspirational design”, I’d like to clarify that I mostly mean the last two tiers/modes there. Much of what’s been written about low and mid-level D&D is, as far as I can perceive, firmly rooted in actual play, and not speculative at all; it is how we play, and how the game really works in practice. So much so, in fact, that D&D tiering has always had a tendency towards failing to transition: groups just continue doing the dungeon grind with characters of higher and higher power level, with no effort to shift the mode of play. This has in fact become the default in modern D&D, which does not have a tier or modal structure in this sense at all.

Domain play in Coup de Main

I think that the Greyhawk setting is the natural “home” of the 1st edition AD&D, so I obviously take great stock of the concept of Name level as utilized in AD&D: characters who achieve a sufficiently high level do, indeed, get a castle and enter the game of thrones as movers and shakers. I personally imagine this as a fully-realized game mode of court intrigue, medieval warfare and feudal power politics. Here’s a high-level mechanical overview:

First, metaphysically: Name is something that is essentially of the Prime Material realm. It may be spiritual in nature, but as a concept it is Unaligned and invisible to the Outer Planes. Divinities ignore all Name-based game mechanics at will, and I’m not sure if Name works at all outside the Astral nimbus surrounding the Material world. I wouldn’t characterize Name as exactly natural, though; rather, it’s a sort of romantic, idealized Charisma effect that accrues to lords of their own domain. It is of the same order as Hit Points: real game effect, essentially unrealistic, but nevertheless non-magical as far as the metaphysics are concerned. Druidism does some rather wacky things with Name level (as readers of Gygax’s Unearthed Arcana know), but the most common way we see it in function is in royal charisma.

Each character class has a specific set of “Name level accoutrements”, essential possessions that give rise to the “Name level domain” for that character class. A Fighter’s accoutrements consist of a castle keep and a number of armsmen, for example, and their domain consists of the lands their castle claims. A Thief’s accoutrements are money and loyalty; domain is a criminal cartel (technically a corporation, but it’s not understood like that in-setting). A Cleric’s accoutrements are social stature and divine inspiration; domain is a religious cult. A wizard’s accoutrements are laboratory and secret lore; domain is a school of magic. Name level, its accoutrements and its domain all go together such that a character who claims Name gains the accoutrements (reality literally conspires for it to happen), and a character with the accoutrements has the means to seize the domain. So those three concepts — Name, accoutrements and domain — are technically separate, but highly associated.

Multiclass characters combine all of their class-specific Name accoutrements and domains when defining the nature of their Name level, which may end up with interesting circumstances. Players with specific “exotic” ideas of their character’s domain development get to customize them against some mild metaphysical resistance; for instance, we discussed the possibility of a Fighter wanting to start a swordmanship school instead of becoming a feudal lord, with the school as their domain, which is fine with me, as it’s “fighterly” enough.

“Name level” is what we say of a character who has Name in the technical, metaphysical sense. This is a very social reality despite having a metaphysical dimension: to have a Name, you have to have the Name, which in-setting is a function of reputation and Charisma. (Characters with Name literally should be given an appropriate rulership name and title as per their position, in case that wasn’t clear.) There is no specific adventurer Level threshold you have to reach to claim Name, unlike Gygax; there are two ways for a character to claim Name:

By accoutrements: If you already have the class-specific accoutrements of your class, you can claim Name with a successful Charisma check. A Fighter who gains a castle and armsmen, for example, can claim Name by simply declaring themselves. Characters can do this at very low XP counts if somebody helps them to it, which is my construation for how you can have Name level kings who’ve never been adventurers. You can even inherit some Name rank as the legitimate heir of a Named individual!

By spiritual claim: If a character has 100 000 (hundred thousand) XP or more, they can claim Name with a successful Charisma check. On success the GM arranges for them to have the accoutrements as soon as reality can conspire to drop them in his lap. People will literally come to the character, asking to serve them and help them make their domain a reality.

For a sense of scale, a Fighter reaches 100k XP a little bit before Level 8, so they’re capable of declaring Name on level 7, but will probably want to wait until 8 at least and maybe 9. Classes vary, but that’s the ball-park. All adventurer classes progress on a pure geometric XP scale, so gaining ordinary adventurer levels past ~10 takes exceptional circumstances; a Fighter attempting to attain level 11 requires a neat million XP!

A character who claims Name should gain appropriate heraldry, a regnal name, a theme song, etc. as part of their accoutrements. (This isn’t actually optional, Name functions via reputation and its symbols. This is a social reputation based magic system, if you will.) They stop advancing as adventurers for as long as they remain the lord (or pretender) of their domain. All XP gained past their last limit threshold instead goes into attaining Name Rank, which starts at 1 for newly Named characters (just like adventurers start at 1st level despite not having any XP yet).

Name rank costs the same for all character classes, 100k XP a pop linearly. This is harsh from a low-level perspective and definitely not worth it compared to adventurer levels (how’s low thousands for one sound?), but by the time you’re approaching double-digits in Level you’re basically picking between taking one more adventurer level or ten Name rank with the same number of XP, so think about that. Rank benefits are as follows:

  • +1 hit point per rank. These are not hit dice per se, but they behave like 1d1 HD for some HP-specific purposes (healing, etc.).
  • More rank emblems, and reputation development. The character should have one title per rank, one commonly-known story about them, and at least as many symbolic accoutrements (heraldry, flags, etc.) as they have rank at minimum. Gain more rank, and your legend grows whether you’d like that or not.
  • +1 to the character’s Name bonus, which is basically [Charisma bonus] + [rank]. Name bonus is used in various domain management dice rolls and reputation checks, specifics to be determined; it’s not everything you need to be a good ruler, but it helps a lot. This is the main mechanical way in which improving Name rank makes the character more powerful, as characters can discover ways to leverage their Name bonus in various affairs mechanically.
  • Class-specific rank improvements. Some classes have more, some have less, but there are some class features that continue improving with rank. Wizard and Cleric spell-casting are prominent, major examples of things that improve as part of the domain. Fighter attack bonus, on the other hand, does not improve by Name rank, although Fighters get a modest charismatic leadership bonus with rank due to their tough man mythology.

Name-level characters have some new means of earning XP (running their domain successfully, basically), but the basic premise is that they run off the same rules as adventurer characters. You don’t technically speaking have to declare Name to start doing serious domain management, it just helps a lot if that’s what you want to focus on.

A character can abandon or lose their domain, which throws them back to the adventurer advancement track and makes their Name rank largely quiescent; they are still benefited/hampered by the reputation and social effects of Name as the refugee lord, but many of the rank benefits directly pertaining to domain aren’t available without the domain to work them on. The specific way XP counts towards levels here is a bit counterintuitive compared to orthodox rules sets: when the character drops out of Name mode the XP committed to Name level is “released” to once again count for adventurer level, which basically means that having been a lord does not hamper adventurer advancement. Characters can regain their domain or succeed in establishing a new one, of course, in which case their rank is re-established and they go back to Name advancement, but if XP has meanwhile been assigned to adventurer levels, they might take a while “catching up” to their rank before advancing any further.

Divine nature in Coup de Main

As early readers of this newsletter might remember, I read the Mentzer Immortals box set last winter alongside some xianxia stuff, and was over all pretty impressed. Impressed enough in fact that I’ll be making my own take on that stuff available in the Greyhawk campaign. I think it’ll work out well as a sort of alternate approach to character development for those not interested in declaring Name.

The Greyhawk cosmology includes a rank system for divinities, which aside from the usual Lesser/Greater god distinction also includes Demi-Gods and a peculiar category called “Quasi-Deity”. In fact, I just now did a quick Google review and stumbled on a profound essay by Greyhawk Grognard (in case this hasn’t come up, he’s basically the sage of Greyhawk lore; if I wasn’t reading the original materials I hardly woud have to, with him having blogged on everything Greyhawk over the years at a very formidable level of quality). You might want to read that for background on what Gygax calls a “quasi-deity”.

Let’s adapt some more of the Grognard’s Gygaxian terminology to the Coup campaign, in fact. Here’s some conceptual work:

Hero is a technical term used somewhat similarly to Stafford in Glorantha, in that it’s intended to gesture at extremely high level characters like Mordenkainen who are head and shoulders above even ordinarily competent elites. It’s unclear whether this is a metaphysical status or description; I lean towards the latter at this time, so anybody of exceptionally high level is a Hero. For our purposes in the Coup campaign I might suggest drawing the line somewhere around level 10, or maybe at simple 1M XP. It doesn’t matter much as long as we don’t have any particular qualities that being a Hero requires. An idea: maybe “Hero” means “achieved escape velocity in charop”; would fit in with the fact that Heroes are of a generally higher power level than is realistic to achieve with the basic tools of charop that I thrust at the players. You have to go above and beyond, break the game in some way, to become a Hero. Amassing XP for ever-more-expensive levels is a loser’s game, there’s gotta be some more effective way of gaining power!

Quasi-Deities are physical Flanaessian persons who are of a similar power level as Heroes, but possess a divine nature. They are corporate, very minor deities, what classical culture would call a Demi-God. I like the Grognard summary on the differences between Heroes and Quasi-Deities: the latter seem to possess numinous Power that stands mechanically aside from the ordinary. Heroes are technically statted up in terms familiar to lower-level adventurers, just ridiculously inflated; Quasi-Deities meanwhile have qualities that might be described as “psionic” or “divine” or simply “unfair”.

Demi-Gods are apparently basically low-tier gods in that they reside in the Outer Planes or wherever and do not have a corporeal body as much as a perfected spiritual existence. Demi-Gods are generally ascended mortals, sort of like Christian saints, but to my understanding they only become Demi-Gods when they discard or elevate their mortal form; you’d be a Quasi-Deity if you had divine potence but were still primarily corporeal. I cannot quite define Demi-God in a way that distinguishes it from a god except in being “lesser” in all ways. This is probably fine and proper.

Hero-Deities are a weird and perhaps ill-named exception to an otherwise relatively understandable scheme. It’s possible that I’d be better off just ignoring this category of being, or saying that a Hero-Deity is an arbitrary transitional phase between being a Quasi-Deity or Demi-God. If I’m keeping the concept, renaming it to be more descriptive of whatever it is would be indicated. My current best idea is to treat Hero-Deities as “Planar Heroes”: a Hero who engages in the game of divinities without actually possessing the quality of divine soul. For example, if you’re a plain 20th level Fighter who just so happened to hijack a Githyanki portal and have established yourself a fortress in the Astral Realm, all without partaking of divine power, maybe that makes you a Hero-Deity — a Planar Hero, to rename in a way that doesn’t imply a divine nature. You don’t grant spells to worshippers, for example, or anything like that, despite possibly rubbing shoulders with actual gods on occasion. Adventuring in the metaphysical realms of Heaven and Hell is of significance, even if you are entirely mundane yourself.

Gods are the simplest of these concepts, and strongest. We know a lot of how they work from Gygax in various sources: most gods reside in the Outer Planes, send magic to their followers, maybe send projections of themselves to other Planes, etc. Gods may be classified as lesser, medium, medium-rare, greater, etc. if you’re into that sort of thing. Gods are essentially Aligned, gaining their potency from their Alignment, acting as filters or lenses of Alignment into the Inner Planes. Greyhawk also includes True Neutral gods that I like to think of as “Immanent”: they reside in the Prime Material Plane and apparently are divine despite refusing all Alignments.

So anyway, with the Greyhawkian concept of the divine hierarchy clarified like that, let’s see how the Mentzer Immortals slot in:

A “quasi-deity” or “immortal” is a person whose soul divinity has been ignited. The absolute requirement for ignition to succeed is having at least 10 000 XP and a soul; any less XP and the ignition either fails or burns up the soul. The outcome of ignition is that the character gains a Power Pool a la Mentzer: for every full 10 000 XP the character possesses, they gain a single Power Point in their Pool. They have become something that might be considered a very, very minor corporeal godling. Ignition of quasi-deities is normally performed by a greater divinity at a considerably higher level, but there are esoteric mystery cults (Baklunish kungfu monks, etc.) that train in self-ignition and indeed occasionally produce a a mid-levels “cultivator” with a cute handful of Power.

Quasi-Deities continue gaining Power by gaining more XP, of course. The scale of the divine is intimidating, though, and at lower levels a Quasi-Deity isn’t that much more powerful than a pure mortal. Ascending into a Demi-God, for example, is something that one shouldn’t even contemplate before amassing a neat 100 PP; just about the first requirement of the ascension is burning 100 PP to create your divine body — just plain throw away a million XP! Most Quasi-Deities no doubt get stuck as corporeal entities, failing to advance to proper godhood.

Quasi-Deities, once ignited, are almost exactly like any mortal character aside from their Power Pool. I have this idea that Power interferes with Name rank, so that an ignited character loses their Name, and the two advancement paths don’t generally really mesh, but the details will no doubt be clarified if we ever get there. I’m not generally bothered by it being “unbalanced” that some characters can just have extra divine Power by being divine, so that’s not an issue in itself. Who knows, maybe we’ll find some other venues of progress for characters who aren’t into self-deification.

As for Power Points, characters can use these in various ways, burning them (loses the point and the associated XP permanently), exhausting them (recover over time like a mana pool) or committing them (unusable for other purposes while committed). Basic stuff for mana pool systems. Here are some simple ways in which characters can use Power, with the understanding that we’ll discover more if these rules see any practical use at some point:

  • Exhaust points equal to spell level to improvise any divine spell. Alternatively, commit double the number to make the spell castable At-Will as long as the commit lasts.
  • Exhaust a single point to auto-succeed a save against a lower-level source, or reroll the save otherwise, or get a save against something usually not saveable (e.g. an attack).
  • Exhaust a single point to heal HP equal to Con score; this is instinctual for ignited souls, you actually have to exhaust their Power to slay them.
  • Commit a single point for a week of cultivation to attempt to improve an Ability score by one point, up to natural maximum (20 for humans).

For low-level Quasi-Deities all of these activities take some time, usually a minute or so, but characters can train and improve themselves, set up daemons (immaterial spirits to help shape divine essence for them) and whatnot, I’m sure. At higher levels the particulars sort of strip away and leave behind a sheer comparison of Power to Power, defined and shaped by some metaphysical tactics that have relatively little to do with mundane conceptions of combat rounds of whatever.

Low-level Quasi-Deities can recover exhausted Power by either being worshiped, worshipping their divine patron, or by channeling Alignment (recovering Power by committing Alignment-resonant activities). A cultivator would probably simply meditate to catch Alignment Power from the air. This can be far from trivial to begin with, but later on characters will probably set themselves up in whatever way to be able to exhaust their Power and then recover it effectively; actual gods on the Outer Planes are refreshed reliably and constantly by their closeness to their Alignment pole(s).

I’m considering other good bits from the Mentzer Immortals rules as well. For instance, Major and Minor Talent will probably make an appearance in some way that intersects naturally with the AD&D concept of divine domain. In general we’re well under the Mentzer power levels here, as his rules envision characters starting as Immortals when they already have several hundred Power Points, but I think that’s just more interesting: I envision the life of the low-level Immortal to be sort of similar to a xianxia cultivator’s. Meditate a lot, learn esoteric divine arts to channel your Power, hunt exotic monsters to eat their hearts for XP (Power) and so on. Or maybe not, the dao of my D&D is to not prescribe; we’ll see what the players think if we ever end up igniting a character.

Hypothetical Power levels for the various kinds of gods and otherwise powerful figures follow, by the way. I’ll also include rough indicator of the equivalent adventurer Level (with the understanding that various Classes advance a Level or two faster or slower).
Hero: 100-200, Level 11 (unignited)
Planar Hero: 200+, Level 12+ (unignited)
Cultivator: 1–100, Level 5–10 (not in Mentzer; just me speculating about low-level ignition and xianxia in D&D)
Quasi-Deity: 1–500, Level 13 (“Initiate” in Mentzer, but specifically corporate here)
Demi-God: 1–1000, Level 14 (“Temporal” in Mentzer; sub-500 is perilous in natural habitat, not recommended)
Lesser God: 1k–2k, Level 15 (“Celestial” in Mentzer; subservient, specialized or isolate deities)
God Proper: 2k–5k, Level 16 (“Empyreal” in Mentzer; major gods of a pantheon)
Greater God: 5k-10k, Level 17 (“Eternal” in Mentzer; creator gods, philosophical abstractions, difficult to worship)
Exarch: 10k+, Level 18+ (“Exarch” in Mentzer, maybe these don’t exist in the Great Wheel cosmology?)

(Pretty neat how the geometric Level progression roughly aligns with the divine rank table, right? Specific Classes end up with different cut-offs vis-a-vis the divine ranks, but because both are geometric progressions, it’s basically one divine rank per level no matter what your Class is. I will probably be doing something with that later, actually; why not just equalize the two and say that being a Demi-God is being Level 14 ignited, like a level title…)

So that’s another aspirational rules framework: you can use those numbers of figure out the rough Power Level of Hieroneus or whomever and start figuring out how to kill the gods if that’s what you’re into. I think the exotic difference between my redaction and the original Gygaxian ideas are pretty interesting, for instance; the strict geometric Level progression really caps out even major gods in a way that means that it’s not so much the massive Level as the Power Pool that differentiates between a mortal and a god. You could theoretically become a massive Hero and beat a god stat-for-stat in a wrestling match, provided you got something to annul the divine Power.

100M XP is apparently just about the ceiling of what the Great Wheel multiverse can even withstand, by the way. Any more and you’re firmly in the “I’ll just create my own” level of conceptual import, insofar as we’re thinking of XP as a measure of cosmological importance.

Looking at that, I have to conclude that Mordenkainen is like Level 12 here, with maybe some Name rank on top; having refused to ignite, he lacks an obvious way to advance any further, but then I imagine that he doesn’t need to be in any hurry about that, either. Not like the world’s going to end tomorrow just because he’s not out making Level all the time. Meanwhile, the Mad Archmage Zagyg is Level 14; just two Levels more, but I imagine that the import of “just two Levels” gets more significant at higher levels in some well-defined ways. (Many divine Powers probably work off rank, so they auto-succeed or auto-fail on the basis of respective rank.)

Monday: Coup de Main #4

Coming back to Earth from the aspirational heights, the reality of the campaign is that Phun Eral the Cleric leads the high score table with 136 XP; they’re 1.4% of the way to becoming a Suitor (what the cult of Wee Jass calls ignited cultivators) and 0.1% of the way to achieving Name on the strength of their soul, which I understand is probably more his style. Some ways to go still; you got to understand that you’re not making much progress if you’re actually trailing behind my Quest for Lucre progress bar!

(For people not familiar with old school D&D, a clarification: a 100 XP like that is a pissant number, the sort that you collect incidentally during various maneuvers. The players rightly expect to make more like low thousands of points from success in even a low-level adventure. I’m just making fun of the entirely normal slow start we’re having; it’s characteristic of the goal-oriented reward system that you gain most of your XP in a lump sum at the end of the heist, if you succeed.)

The Ysgrame mansion, which is responsible for the XP rewards so far, is slowly giving up its mysteries to the party of remarkably careful and methodical explorers. The players clearly enjoy advancing carefully and in full paranoia mode through the chateau. They’re finding some promising results, too: there is a major library on the premises, seemingly undisturbed, and a precariously hanging crystal chandelier, and some pretty good-quality furniture that could probably be hocked off somewhere assuming the adventurers decide it’s legal enough for them to carry off anything not nailed down.

(This is actually one of the royal roads that you can sometimes use to kickstart a campaign at a low level; I promise I didn’t plan it this way, but to me it looks like this particular adventure module, when facing this particular group, is going to yield some serious treasure simply because the module author doesn’t seem to understand that well-preserved books are treasure. My initial estimate has the mansion library valued at something like 50 000 GP; I’ll need to figure this out in detail at some point.)

In fact, if I was playing here, I’d probably just leave off with the carefully methodical search through the house and focus on running off with the furniture. I mean, what are the odds that the entire house is going to be as empty as it’s been so far? Would I really be such a simulative GM that I’d choose to include an entire manor house with nothing more than some piddling giant rats guarding a 50k GP treasure in books? (Well, I guess I would — it’s not like I read this module in advance beyond superficial placement checking. But who’s going to write it?)

The party is currently on the second floor of the mansion, planning to spend the night inside, confident that they’re safe to camp here instead of traveling back to town (a 4 hour trip during the day) in the dark.

Session #5 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 6.7., starting around 15:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Tuesday: Land of Nod

My other gaming exercise this week was the low-tension story game thing with Club Hannilus; we’re playing Land of Nod, a Forge-style shared-GMing story game in a group of four experienced GMs. The game’s fair solid, even if at this point in my hobby it’s also pretty routine. As the scenario was improvised at the beginning of the first session, it doesn’t carry any particular special meaning either. It’s something of a game development game in that it’s more interesting for me to figure out what Paul (the game’s designer) is looking to accomplish with it than to actually play.

Not that the performance itself has any particular issues, it’s all being very workmanlike. I rather enjoyed the “color scene” (that is, conflict mechanics were not engaged) we did with Petteri around my character; I’m looking forward to having more non-conflict scenes in the game later on.

Gentlemen on the Agora

I skipped the cultural saloon review last week due to lack of time, so let’s get back to that now. Plenty of stupid topics in the chats:

  • A contributor reviewed the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu for us! Apparently the game known for being static is undergoing some minor rules changes. Nothing major, but some things. The change to Idea rolls being a formal fail-forward mechanism is certainly an interesting opening that I imagine has to divide audiences.
  • A contributor made an interesting observation about how they dislike both Fate and Gumshoe. The reason might well lie in the resource management mechanics, they pondered. It’s so formally detached from the simulative “reality” of the fiction, I suppose. Most human activities don’t run off resource management in real life.
  • We found out that one of the contributors at Agora actually has a teenage background in forum roleplaying, that hallowed tradition of making up characters and then arguing about who cuckolds whom. Muy excellente! We’ve been discussing the kind of character-focused roleplaying that I like to call “princess play” over the year, so it was naturally concluded that forum roleplay tends to be much more princessing-focused than most tabletop rpgs. Some theory was developed for the practice’s problem spots as well, though it seems unlikely for the Agora to suddenly start doing forum rp in practice.
  • The Masters of the Universe discourses continued, this time in the context of the forum rp theory discussions. A new excellent Good Warrior was established: Tefflor, the knight of Teflon sheen, who is not only armed with a formidably slick armor, but also a formidably slick mind; he is the perfect forum rp character, because anything anybody tries to do to him just slides right off. “Nuh uh, that doesn’t work on me!”.
In case you were wondering what the heck I’m babbling about.
  • We also developed some basic ideas for a classical MotU issue, namely how could Mekaneck, the “heroic human periscope”, ever be cool? A contributor actually stumbled on a legit narrative idea by granting Mekaneck the ability to abandon his body and just slither away, neck and all; just imagine that as the punchline to a shonen adventure story where Mekaneck is seemingly defeated but proves surprisingly resilient. Basically, make Mekaneck into a Rokurokubi. Nothing to totally salvage one of the most pitiable powers in a franchise full of ridiculous super heroes, but a cool moment of awesome nonetheless when Mekaneck uncovers his ace in the hole.
  • Agora considered the rumour that Disney might be retconning Star Wars. We didn’t seem to care, except in the sense of adults being faintly bemused by children caring about “canon”. There was an interesting observation, though, in that the space opera genre doesn’t seem to be really viable in movies without being “forced” by the SW marketing machinery. It was posited that the genre’s natural appeal (as in, you could have a box office hit without an already bankable franchise) ended with the space race.
  • Inspired by the recent culture war discussions, “was Robert E. Howard fascist”? No he wasn’t, just worshiping strength doesn’t make you specifically a fascist — it makes you a social-darwinist! Howard’s specific philosophy (which was apparently reflected faithfully in his writing) is a sort of “libertarian fascism” that apparently doesn’t quite have an established name despite existing as the radical right wing of American politics to this day. Howard distrusted authority and celebrated the individual while also romanticizing strength and the fundamental struggle for survival. I suppose that calling it an early, particular form of “survivalist” philosophy isn’t far from the mark. A sibling flavour of social-darwinism compared to fascism, certainly, but not the same.
  • If Rangers and Barbarians in D&D are both Fighters with a wilderness niche, then isn’t it redundant to have two of them? This resulted in an interesting discussion about the essential nature of Rangers and Barbarians, and about how various campaigns might or might not have room for them both. It’s possible for a campaign to not really have “conceptual space” for them both, but you could also have an amusing skirmish environment by replacing Fighter and Thief with Barbarian and Ranger.
  • “With all this cancel culture, will they forbid Tolkien next?” The question started with us laughing at a moronic news article comment, but the Agora was unable to explain why this couldn’t possibly happen over the next 20–50 years, depending on how the culture war develops. Tolkien’s a solidly modern-era author, and not particularly mainstream-important, so why not, exactly? It could be like with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a previously popular novel that is well on its way to obscurity due to the combination of age and ultimately incidental controversial content not aging well. Of course there’s no reason to believe that “they forbid” would come in the form of state censorship or whatnot; simple social censure is how this usually works in the free world.

State of the Productive Facilities

I actually did make something this week! Specifically, I wrote a bit of comics script for a little comic strip that we’re considering for the old school primer kickstarter project. Patreon correspondents can check out the script, although it’s in mixed Finnish and English, so bit of a limited audience thing, that. Most importantly, I’m again making something after the June being more of a tree-killing exercise.

Meanwhile, the June essay polls concluded early in the week. The Patreon correspondents graciously asked me to write an “outline for the old school primer”, which I appreciate; it’s basically encouraging me to do a bit of preliminary work on the project that I might also get crowdfunded later on.

The blog poll was an exciting and dramatic thing, on the other hand! There were three RPG theory articles that had been advancing head-to-head for the entire month. However, check out the final results:

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

  • [theory] The Sacrament of Death (19%, 66 Votes)
  • [theory] A Big Model overview (15%, 54 Votes)
  • [theory] The semiotic significance of game mechanics in rpgs (14%, 51 Votes)
  • [design] Notes on my Basic D&D homebrew (13%, 46 Votes)
  • [design] more C2020 Redux (10%, 36 Votes)
  • [design] Concepting the post-D&D adventure game (8%, 27 Votes)
  • [design] TSoY and SS update (6%, 21 Votes)
  • [design] Drafting an old school primer (5%, 18 Votes)
  • [design] a Chronicles of Prydain wargame (4%, 14 Votes)
  • [design] Coup de Main in Greyhawk campaign protocol (3%, 11 Votes)
  • [design?] Put together some He-Man shit, for reals (2%, 8 Votes)

Total Voters: 145

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“The Sacrament of Death” totally dominated in the end, and there’s an interesting reason behind that: an eager correspondent who really likes the topic specifically sniped the poll in the last day, asking social media friends to help him bring victory to the Sacrament. That’s dedication!

I hope it won’t take me like 3 months to actually write these essays, but who knows how it’ll go down. I’m hoping to pull that old school primer crowdfunding campaign together this month, so that’s going to eat up some writing time at least. I intend to split my time fairly between general writing (blog essays, that is), the crowdfunding campaign and the Coup de Main campaign, so it’ll be exciting to see how that works out in practice.

3 thoughts on “New on Desk #27 — High-Tier Coup”

  1. Why not accelerate character advancement in order to get to high level play earlier and gain insights into its nature? I’m not suggesting starting at high levels or even fast forwarding through low and mid-levels — after all, high-level characters are enmeshed in a web of rivals and allies, concerns, pending conflicts and loose ends from former adventures, storied magic items, anecdotes etc. that can hardly be created ex nihilo – but your hilariously (and proudly) high difficulty setting seems like a hindrance here. Why not decrease XP requirements (or increase treasure) by a set percentage? The idea must have occured to you, so what gives?

    1. It is true that I have now created more Coup rules for high-tier play than low-level. We don’t have a saving throw mechanic or consistent task resolution, for example, but we do have rules for what to do when a character hits 1M XP. Meanwhile, last night the first character got to 2nd level.

      Not accelerating the progression is mainly an issue of authenticity for me: I don’t gain interesting and reliable insight into the virtual reality defined by the rules if I use godmode. Admittedly there are more and less biasing ways to get there, but none that retains as much fidelity as actually playing the game does. I don’t have any pressure to publish high level rules or anything like that after all, so I don’t have any external pressure on this.

      I mean, how do we even know that 1M XP is possible? Maybe it’s not.

  2. Pingback: Kiinnostavia blogauksia: heinäkuu 2019 | Efemeros

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