Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Six Random Links

If I can't prod myself to post new content at least once a week, this may become a regular feature of the blog. Why not share some link love?
  1. Gamers always seem to be fascinated by maps. I try to check out what's new on the Strange Maps blog every week or so.
  2. What? You don't know about xkcd, the geekiest stick-figure cartoon north of the Charles River? For shame...
  3. Grognardia has been talking about Diplomacy today, and that always makes me think of Slobbovia -- a free-wheeling Diplomacy variant that was played by a close-knit group of friends (including game designer Greg Costikyan) in the 1970s and 1980s. They ignored pesky things like rules and victory conditions, and concentrated on creating a shared world with rich history and traditions. This kind of long-term community building is a rare thing to find, and should be (IMHO) held up as an exemplar of the ways that games can enhance the quality and meaning of lives.
  4. Aberrant Hive Mind has posted an incomplete, but very fun-looking set of rules for an old-school D&D-based RPG.
  5. A nice blog about archaeology, history, wine, and sometimes games, is For some reason, reading it induces calm. Must be because it's author is Canadian.... :-)
  6. A great resource book for improving one's productivity (and other aspects of mental dexterity) is Ron Hale-Evans' Mind Performance Hacks.  75 individual tricks for making yourself into a better mentat!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Homebrew '82: Magic and Miracles

It seems like messing with the "Vancian" magic system of D&D is a popular pastime these days. No exceptions here! (Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s it seemed like the combat system was the thing that got the most scrutiny and rebooting...)

So, Homebrew '82 still has magic-users with spells, and clerics with "miracles."  I wanted to make a clearer distinction between the two groups, so the magic spells are all very elemental and physical, and the miracles are all mental and a bit "psychic." No crossover in the lists. I'm also sort of thinking of a Dark Ages Britain setting, where the clerics are Christian and the magic-users are native Celtic enchanters or hedge-witch types. But I also don't want to rule out other representatives of the "countercultural" strains of the Western Hermetic tradition for magic, either.

No spell books for the magicians, since a big part of the training for each level is intense memorization. No gathering of material components, but I am toying with the idea of WANDS being necessary for M-U's. Mr. Ollivander's shop is just too inviting! :)

The biggest change to 1e-type D&D will be that each attempt to cast a spell or miracle will require a to-hit type roll on a d20. A higher INT or WIS will mean a better chance of success, and so will the "relative ease" of the spell (the caster's experience level minus the spell level).  A 9th level magic-user casting a 9th level spell will have the same basic chance of success as a 1st level magic-user casting a 1st level spell.  But a 9th level magic-user casting a 1st level spell? Way easy!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Homebrew '82: Using the Ability Scores

Over the next few months, I'll be making some posts that describe various pieces of the Homebrew '82 RPG. The main goal is to convey what differentiates this set of rules from the dozens (hundreds?) of other variants out there. In other words, why should RPG fans bother to look at yet another new set of rules for their favorite pastime?

My starting point was the 1st edition of AD&D, with simplifications inspired by the scope of the 1977 "Basic Set" by J. Eric Holmes. In these blog posts, I'll assume the reader has basic knowledge of these rules, so I can get right to the things that are different. (The full Homebrew '82 rules will be more complete, I assure you.)

Okay, the first thing that's often done when sitting down to play is for the players to create their characters. I'm sticking with the classic 6 ability scores, generated randomly. In D&D, some of the scores don't matter too much at the time of character creation, and are sometimes called "dump stats." I wanted each score to have more teeth, so that players won't be able to handily dismiss any of them without consequences. Here's what I'm thinking about for each one:

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Tension and Release

I'm not sure how many posts I can make that give examples of common features of role-playing games and the Glass Bead Game, but this one is a slam-dunk.  :)

Over a wide range of human creations, there is a common aspect of tension and release. In other words,
  1. Something happens to build up tension. People get increasingly anxious about what will happen next.
  2. Then something happens to "resolve" or "release" the tension. The people become relaxed and satisfied at the outcome.
The above sounds vague and general because it is. Some examples may help....

In STORIES, tension is increased and decreased by things that happen in the plot. Since the ancient Greeks, people have talked about plots as "rising" and "falling" when the tension level goes up and down. There are entire theories of dramatic structure that attempt to analyze the flow of tension in plays, films, and novels. Playwright William Gibson described it as the tying and untying of complex knots, and Prof. Allen Tilley described the rising and falling as a "plot snake" that undergoes some predictable twists in many kinds of stories. Even modern sci-fi authors are getting into the act by cleverly unpacking some "classical" ideas of narrative structure in new ways.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Tabletop Role-Playing Games

I don't think I really need to introduce the concept of fantasy role-playing games (RPGs), but this post attempts to summarize what they're all about. They were an honest-to-goodness pop culture fad in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since then, however, the traditional tabletop version, with its hand-drawn dungeon mazes and weird polyhedral dice, has gone out of fashion and been replaced by video games and online MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. But not for everyone! This post is my attempt to lay out my own view of the history and recent renaissance of "Old School" RPGs.

It all basically started in 1974, when Gary Gygax and David Arneson published three little brown booklets that formed the first set of rules for Dungeons & Dragons. In a departure from the board games and wargames available at the time, most of the "action" in D&D took place in the minds of the players. The players took on the personalities of fantasy-themed adventurers, who live their lives through a combination of imagination, narrating what they intend to do, and rolling dice to see what happens. In other words,

"You play Conan, I play Gandalf.  We team up to fight Dracula."

Monday, January 3, 2011

More about the Glass Bead Game

People have had trouble explaining exactly what this Glass Bead Game (GBG) thing is all about since Hesse first wrote about it in the 1940s.  His novel won the Nobel Prize for literature, despite it being a scathing critique of the academic Ivory Tower literati.

The story itself is about a future utopian society, where the world's intellectuals have walled themselves up in monastic orders to study their chosen arts and sciences. Chief among these pursuits is a strange GAME played by the monks that involves making connections between disparate ideas.  My favorite quote from the novel, which many other people have also used to describe the game, is as follows:
The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Hello world!

So, what's a Servitor Ludi, and why should you care?

This blog is intended to be a place where I can post about two of my game-related interests:

First, I'm developing an "old school" fantasy role-playing game (yes, sort of like Dungeons & Dragons), and this blog will be used to post about my progress, point to places where the game can be obtained when it's finally done, and so on.  I haven't played a game like this for 20 years, but I've been inspired by the online "Old School Renaissance" that's going on right now to flex those creativity muscles once again!

Second, I've long been fascinated by Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game (from his 1943 Nobel Prize winning novel of the same name). Some brave souls over the last few decades have been working towards building real-life, playable versions of the GBG, and their insights into philosophy, spirituality, and the meaning of life have had a big effect on me.

Hesse's novel was subtitled Magister Ludi, which is Latin for "Master of the Game."  That's certainly not me, so I thought that an appropriate title for this blog would be "Servant of the Game" (in Latin, Servitor Ludi). I'm looking to stand on the shoulders of giants, here, not to wow everyone with my own awesomeness.

Soon, I'll try to create some introductory posts on these topics that will give more details about why I'm so interested in these weird and kooky things....