Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Nostalgia is the Wrong Word

I started playing tabletop games around 1994, but even before that I was fascinated by RPGs in general. I'd played my fair share of games on the old Nintendo Entertainment System without realizing the games I enjoyed the most belonged to a particular genre, and why would I? I was like, nine or ten at best.

Somewhere else in the world, people were already enjoying roleplaying games played around a table with dice and books. It was in the era of fear about what it represented, though, and I guarantee that if I came home with a D&D book in hand, my at-the-time staunchly Catholic mother would have dragged me off to confession after a solid whipping. Yet, despite the protestations of the myriad fear-mongers, the hobby survived and grew in ways I didn't come to appreciate until years later.

I've had my hands in all manner of game systems, from the Dungeons and Dragons I prattle on about at length to various Storyteller system games put out by White Wolf. There were dips into settings represented by their own custom rules such as the Song of Ice and Fire RPG, as well as the occasional traipse into stuff like Shadowrun, but I missed out on the nascent eras of tabletop gaming. My first tabletop RPGs were run in 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, so I'd already skipped over the heady days of race-is-class and adventures in Blackmoor.

In the last couple of years, the power of the almighty Internet has opened doors into that bygone era (through handily-available PDFs for sale at reputable and, above all, legal sources), and I dove in eagerly, wanting to see for myself these ancient texts of nerdly lore - in particular, the original Dungeons and Dragons rulesets. I have to admit, I've been pleasantly surprised. In reading them, I've experienced something akin to nostalgia, but having never really played those systems and settings, I'm not entirely sure that word accurately describes it.

There's an excellent retro-clone created by Autarch by the name of Adventurer Conqueror King System built off of the rules, but even after playing a few games of it, I can't really say it prepared me for the odd sensation of reading the inspirations. At this point, I've gotten my hands on most everything up through the Rules Cyclopedia and most of the Known World gazetteers and devoured every line of text and overburdened table. It's been an interesting journey.

I won't pretend there weren't design choices that (at the time) probably seemed like good ones, but nowadays we look back on and cringe. Thirty-some-odd years of iteration will make improvements, for sure. Some of the regions of the world were contrived or were constructed around farcical stereotypes. But there was something distinctly fantastical about it; they didn't attempt to make apologies or explanations (at least, that I found) about why the world was hollow, or how a nuclear reactor from the previous epoch buried deep within the earth emits "magic", et cetera.

Okay, well, they do explain that latter one in a later book. An Immortal did it. But the setting was unapologetic about its absurdities, sometimes, and there's something really fun about that to me.

Even the text of a class description implies things about the setting that are not explicitly called out. Brandes over at Tribality commented in an article of his about the Avenger sub-class (prestige class?) of the Rules Cyclopedia fighter about how the concept of being able to stroll up to a Chaotic monster lair and demand sanctuary suggests fascinating things about the nature of monsters in the world.

I could probably never run these rules around a table of modern gamers as anything other than a night in the wayback machine; and I don't at all mean that in the pejorative sense. Gaming sensibilities have rightfully matured, and we no longer try to justify unnecessarily obtuse rules or vast chasms between the functionality of characters with "that's just how the book is, suck it up" (well, you can, but it might make you kind of a jerk if you say it that way).

Of course, nothing stops one from just strapping in with the current rules and taking that world for a wild ride. It would be like going on the adventures your uncle always talked about doing when he was young, in places no one goes anymore because they built a parking lot and a mall there fifteen years ago. There's something compelling about seeing how a party of adventurers today would handle a trip to Castle Caldwell or face down the Master of the Desert Nomads in Red Arrow, Black Shield.

Some day, maybe. When I have vastly more free time than I actually do.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Dark Sun Bards: College of Shadows

I kicked around a bunch of ideas for this, and it needs some iteration, but here's my starting point.

The bards of Athas are culturally distinct from those of other settings, undergoing a few different incarnations throughout Dark Sun's publishing history. In AD&D, Athasian bards were a rogue-type class with some thief skills, the ability to influence reactions, and a facility with poisons of all kinds. They lacked spell ability of any kind, which in 5th Edition would have a major impact on the balance of the class.

The 4th Edition concept was embodied more by a character theme, the Athasian Minstrel, than by the bard class itself (which, as an Arcane Leader, was subject to preserving/defiling rules from that edition if they used a power of the Arcane source). Still, it provides some additional material to work with for concepts.

I think the Athasian bard benefits from having a mixture of talents, specifically the magic up its sleeve, to help it achieve its goals. I will be working with the idea that Athasian bards of the College of Shadows train their rare students in the art of magic-use, with a leaning toward preserver magic to better keep their cover. I'll cover my idea for preserver/defiler magic in a later entry.

Let's begin.

College of Shadows

The bards of Athas are no common minstrels plucking the strings of lyres within the courts of sorcerer-kings. Students of the College of Shadows are expert infiltrators, spies, and assassins, whose facility with poisons and disguises as well as a slippery mind for escaping the probing thoughts of telepaths make them much-desired agents for templars and merchant princes.

Bonus Proficiencies

Upon choosing this archetype, the bard gains proficiency with the disguise kit and the poisoner's kit.

Subtle Magic

Starting at 3rd level, the bard gains the ability to expend uses of Bardic Inspiration in order to cast their spells without verbal or somatic components. The bard must use a bonus action before casting the spell in question, and the Inspiration must be expended immediately in this manner or it is lost.

Strange Brew

When the bard achieves 6th level, they double their proficiency bonus when using a poisoner's kit to extract or create poisons, and cannot suffer the effects of poison if they fail their check by 5 or more. Additionally, they may make a skill check with their poisoner's kit to change the delivery method of any poison in their inventory (with the options of contact, ingested, inhaled, or injury), with a DC equal to the saving throw of the poison's effect. This takes 1 hour of time and can be performed during a short rest.

Furthermore, saving throws made against poisons used by the bard are made at disadvantage.

Poisonous Mind

A bard of the College of Shadows that reaches 14th level is so accustomed to deceit that their very thoughts are a whorl of lies and misdirection. They gain advantage on saving throws against enchantment effects that attempt to beguile them or subvert them against their allies; for example, charm person would qualify, but hold person would not.

Further, any unwelcome attempt to make contact with their minds, either through spells such as detect thoughts, the telepathic communication of a Great Old One pact warlock, or the powers of a Conquering Mind mystic, force the engaging entity to make a Wisdom saving throw. The DC for this saving throw is equal to the bard's spellcasting saving throws (8 + proficiency bonus + Charisma modifier). Failure inflicts the poisoned condition upon the attacker, but does not otherwise cease the effects of the ability being used.

My idea for the class is an expert infiltrator that doesn't double up on what the Assassin Rogue archetype can do, and has some more creative uses for their Bardic Inspiration. I did not want to strip out their spellcasting entirely, since at that point you're just playing a bad rogue. Instead, I believe Subtle Magic still allows them to practice their craft in secret if it comes down to it.

Strange Brew may be too much of an odd ability for Dungeon Masters who don't allow players ready access to poisons, and it may be too powerful in campaigns that do allow them.

Poisonous Mind was tricky. I combed various bard resources from throughout the D&D line and couldn't find anything I really liked that fit the bill of the Athasian bard, but I did want something that punished intruding telepaths attempting to read their mind. Actually having it be the poisoned condition may be a little strange, but it's definitely a bear trap for the too-curious mind readers.

The penultimate Athasian bard would probably be a half-elf of the College of Shadows, with the Actor Entertainer background for maximum bullshittery. Frequenting the courtyards of templars and wealthy merchant-princes, this minstrel would be welcomed for their news from outlying territories, their facility with diplomacy, and their eager palms ready to receive ceramic pieces in exchange for snipping off loose ends.