Sunday, June 28, 2015

Angels & Allegory

Luca Giordano     The Fall of the Rebel Angels (detail)     1660 - 1665

On page 76 of the DragonRaid Adventure Master Manual, there is an advice section named “When Players Try to Leave the Written Narrative.”  It explains that other role-playing games permit (or even encourage) players to deviate from a scripted adventure.  For DragonRaid, however, departing from structured adventure material is less than optimal.  One must remember that, first and foremost, DragonRaid is supposed to be used for “imparting Christian truth.”  Thus, “a departure from the text may cause players to miss out on valuable spiritual lessons.”  Should this happen, “DragonRaid may become just another game – fun, but without educational value” (or rather the intended educational value).

So, how should an Adventure Master 'shepherd' the players when they start to stray from the course of the adventure?  What would Gary do?  According to The Keep on the Borderlands :  “If a party attempts to move off the map, have a sign, a wandering stranger, a friendly talking magpie, or some other 'helper' tell them they are moving in the wrong direction.”  Dick Wulf (designer of DragonRaid) encourages Adventure Masters to be “innovative” with regard to bringing the party back in-line with the adventure.  As an example, “Tell the players that a talking magpie flies down in front of them and advises them that what they are about to do isn't in the OverLord's will!”  I don't know about you, but a magpie is not going to deter me from my intended course of action.  (O.K., a magpie might influence me, but it won't deter my character.)  I am generally suspicious of the motives of magpies.  In fact, if a magpie didn't want me to do something, I would be more inclined to do it.  What would discourage me?  A unicorn.

The “Celestial Guardians” section of the LightRaider Handbook (p. 56) states, “Both unicorns and pegasi are embodiments of angels in the world of EdenAgain.”  Sometimes they take other forms.  About a page is taken up with the “What we know about angels” section.  Twenty 'facts' about angels are listed, such as, “They can eat food. (Genesis 18:8)”  Each fact has a biblical citation except for one:  “They are personal spirits possessing intelligence, wisdom, patience, meekness, modesty, holiness, obedience, knowledge, will power, and the ability to speak languages.”  Anyway, why not just call an angel an angel?  Why equate them with unicorns and pegasi?  For that matter, why not just refer to the OverLord as Jesus?

Wulf employs allegory for a reason.  On page 50 of the Adventure Master Manual, he explains that allegory is necessary...
          ...because sometimes people have heard things about Jesus Christ (or about Christianity) to which they have developed very definite responses, both positive and negative.  These learned responses may block any further input.  By using an allegory to retell those spiritual truths, the game provides a comfortable and non-threatening learning experience.
          It is important that the Adventure Master maintain the integrity of the allegory by rarely allowing players to say Jesus Christ or Lord instead of OverLord.  It is too easy to be inconsistent and have the game lose its impact.  The wonderful world of EdenAgain and all of its marvelous creatures may give way to “churchy” words like salvation, which repel or bore some people.  Creativity and imagination are stifled, and as the game falters, God-given opportunities for teaching are lost.
Still, 'OverLord' sounds somewhat forbidding.  I am reminded of the main antagonist in Blackstar (which aired prior to the publication of DragonRaid).  Instead of OverLord, I would have gone with WorldLight.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Inspiration: Wizards

Here is a game which draws its strength from the reality of the powers beyond, where ritual, art, and music have the ability to change the course of events, and where mystical enchantments become real, not only in the world of WIZARDS, but in our world as well.
– Avalon Hill advertisement

Wizards, Coral J. F. Mosbø © 2015; used with permission

Once upon a time, “our culture [became] more and more ego-centric and materialistic, epitomized by psychologists who encouraged us to become 'self-actualized,' with no responsibility toward the feelings of others.”  Additionally, “The genre of High Fantasy [fell] prey to the 'Gates of Delirium' syndrome” and “fighting and the violence [became] the most important thing, and Good [was] turned to Evil.”  Those dark times were “the Eighties.”  In response to this iniquitous age, “the initial concept for Wizards was born: a game which would once again portray the Good side of things: the Light, the Mystery, the Calling to the Heavenly Realm.”

The quotes above are from an exegesis of the game¹ by Thomas Mosbø, co-designer (along with Coral Mosbø) of Wizards, an Avalon Hill bookcase game published in 1982.  A portion of the above image was used for the box cover.  The full image features three of the titular Wizards; according to the indicia of their staves, they are (L to R):  Aevarex (“fairest of the High Wizards, Healer of Harms”), Ishkatar (“the greatest of all beings that inhabit the Enchanted Isles”), and Tolmitar (“possesses intense mental energies of Light”).  Incidentally, the Wizards “have existed from beyond time.”

Diverse elements combined to influence the creation Wizards; among these are:  Tolkien, cultural anthropology, prog rock (a Yes song is quoted on the second page of the rules), and Zoroastrianism.  Doubtless, the most important influence came from the Wizards and Elflords.  According to the designers' notes for the game:
In Gaming, as in Ritual and Art, players act out truths.  The world of the Game is a real world – the actions which transpire throughout its course are real events, and the personalities encountered have actual existence.  The players enter the world of the Game, experiencing and establishing the truths of that world.  But these truths are not locked only into the world of the Game, for by playing it the players make its truths realities in our world.
Therefore, “...we have hope that in actually playing Wizards, some good will come into our world, increasing the values expressed through the symbols our game.”¹

The game takes place in the Enchanted Islands.  At the beginning of each game, players distribute territory tiles (examples of which are displayed at the conclusion of this post) upon a game board representing water.  Thus, each playing of the game allows for a distinct configuration of areas.  The Enchanted Islands are afflicted by the Evil Spirit.  Only the High Druid Priest Rüktal can permanently defeat the Evil Spirit by casting “the Spell of Spells.”  In order to cast said spell, Rüktal needs a set of Sacred Gems which the High Wizards keep.  This is where the players come in.  Each player must join one of the Magical Orders (Wizard, Sorcerer, or Druid), develop abilities, eventually collect the Sacred Gems and then deliver them to Rüktal.

Sorcerer, Wizard, & Druid, Coral J. F. Mosbø © 2015; used with permission

For much of the game, players complete tasks drawn from a deck of task cards.  Examples of tasks include:
Recover the wandering Dreamer, Solina, from a random COMMON OR ELVEN space.  Return her to Belbidar, Warden of the Crescent Ridge A4 Common Town.

Escort Truvior and Corianna from the Glendale C3 Elven Dwelling to the Star Crest to perform the Star Dance for the Awakening of the Mysteries of Hope.

Release the soul of a Dolphin from its spellbound entrapment in a RANDOM space.  Return the soul to the Sea at least TWO Water spaces from land.
Successfully completing tasks improves one or more attributes (Knowledge, Perception, and Power).  By improving attributes, 'players' can advance to higher ranks of a Magical Order, thereby gaining new or improved spells.  Examples of spells include Boat Summoning, Swiftness, and Demon Dispelling.

Each turn represents a day of game time.  Every fortnight, “the Evil Spirit” attacks.  At first, the attacks are limited to placing demons and transporting the 'players' randomly.  Starting on the third fortnight, the Evil Spirit will “take over” a territory, effectively removing that territory from play.  The only way to prevent this for a given fortnight is for the players to successfully complete ten tasks.  Essentially, the action in Wizards is a 'pick-up and deliver' routine – made progressively more difficult as areas are removed from play.  As Mosbø states,  “Wizards is a race rather than a combat.”²  Since one of the Wizards is a traitor, there is also a mystery/deduction component.

The game is quasi-cooperative.  In his exegesis, Mosbø claims, “a game which must have a winner must be competitive, and so we limited considerably the options for cooperation.”¹  Why must the game have an individual winner?  The 'competition' is against the game mechanism of the Evil Spirit.  Even without 'limited cooperation', a single winner could be determined not by who completes the delivery of Sacred Gems first but instead by a player's total points or number of successfully performed tasks.  There can still be tension as player may, at certain times in the game, decide between 'going for points' or working toward the common good.  With the game's winning condition as it is, there is an effectively infinite supply of each type of Sacred Gem – each player collects his or her own set and (should any be lost or stolen) additional instances are available.  This profusion of Sacred Gems does not seem realistic (as opposed to spell-trapped dolphin souls).

The world of Wizards and its predicament could easily serve as the basis for a role-playing campaign, especially one not focused on violence.  The backstory of the Enchanted Islands is more extensive than what I covered here.  The tasks offer a variety of interesting adventure seeds.

Art by Coral J. F. Mosbø

Art by Coral J. F. Mosbø

¹  “Rivers of Thought.”  Heroes (Vol. 1, No. 5)
²  “Tactics and Strategy in Wizards.”  Heroes (Vol. 1, No. 5) 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Cosmology of DragonRaid


Games are frequently used as educational tools, so it's no surprise that someone would employ a role-playing game for teaching purposes.  However, it is counter-intuitive that – during the heyday of the Satanic Panic – a role-playing game would be used “to impart Christian truth.”  Yet, DragonRaid, intended as a “discipleship tool,” was published in 1984.  According to the New Player Briefing:
Other fantasy role-playing games create open-ended situations that have the tendency to reinforce worldly values and philosophies.  Many of them even generate unrighteous interest in the occult.  But DragonRaid is radically different in that it uses the imagination to convey a biblical understanding of good and evil.
The game's designer, Dick Wulf, played Traveller and D&D.  He knew that role-playing games are not inherently satanic and recognized their engaging value; so he designed DragonRaid as an “Adventure Learning System.”  Unfortunately, many in the Christian community were not as open minded as Wulf and DragonRaid was decried.  Additionally, gamers were not inclined (nor are they now) to embrace a 'Christian' RPG.  DragonRaid was virtually alienated from the communities it attempted to serve.  Regardless, the game is sold to this day and the current publisher is evidently preparing a second edition.

The setting of DragonRaid is the planet EdenAgain.  (Wulf had a penchant for creating proper nouns by combining two words but still capitalizing the 'first' letter of the 'second' word.)  “[A]t the outer reaches of the universe,” EdenAgain orbits the star Warfare.  The planet was instantly “forested and peopled.”  Early on...
...that pristine world came under the aggressive attack by the Evil One...[T]he Great Red Dragon known as Abaddon took one malignant egg from the dragon Kakia and transported it across the universe.  In EdenAgain's atmosphere, the dragon ovum divided before birthing, hatching nine evil, writhing serpents in a land of peace-loving people.
The serpents were the forerunners of the nine varieties of dragons:  crystal, gaze, fluorescent, firedrake, dream, slime, shadow, sea serpent, and rainbow; each with its own attributes.  Due to the enchantments of the dragons, the people were deceived; they “found themselves separated from the Eternal Presence and discovered that their peacefulness had vanished.”  The dragons “invited...nearby worlds to send the worst of their kind” to EdenAgain.  From these worlds came goblins, orcs, trolls, and other “dark creatures.”

Eventually, the OverLord of Many Names (one of those names being Jesus Christ) appeared on EdenAgain to initiate the Great Rescue, “which continues to this day...”  The OverLord led “carefully chosen people toward the southern portion of the land and laid bare the deception that had gripped them.” At the southern end of the continent of Talania, the OverLord created the Liberated Land, a refuge for the chosen people.  The Liberated Land is completely protected from the Dragon Lands by the Peaks of the New Beginning and “a dense Mist Barrier that rises from the untamed oceans.”

The chosen people became known as the TwiceBorn “because of their 'second birth,' when the OverLord rescued them and set them free from dragon enchantment.”  They “have an everlasting desire to follow the OverLord in heart, mind, and will.”  Player characters are TwiceBorn inhabitants of the Liberated Lands.  Having graduated from the DragonRaider Academy, the PCs are LightRaiders who go on missions to the Dragon Lands in order to thwart evil.  Hence the titular 'DragonRaid' is not a raid by dragons, but a raid against dragons.  The OnceBorn (otherwise known as dragon slaves) are humans who reside in the Dragon Lands and remain under dragon enchantment.  LightRaiders are prohibited from killing the OnceBorn because some of them “will meet the OverLord” and “agree to be rescued.”  Other intelligent beings are fair game.

As indicated above, the New Player Briefing uses the phrase “Other fantasy role-playing games.”  This would seem to be an admission that DragonRaid is a fantasy RPG, yet on the same page is the statement, “DragonRaid is the polar opposite to fantasy role-playing games.”  Certainly, the point of DragonRaid – “promoting practical Christian growth” – is different from its contemporaries, but DragonRaid clearly falls under the rubric of fantasy role-playing games.  In many RPGs, the goal of the player characters is to amass material wealth and power.  In other RPGs, player characters confront a threat to civilization.  In DragonRaid, PCs aren't after wealth or power, nor is their civilization threatened.  Ensconced in the Liberated Land, the TwiceBorn are beyond the influence of the Evil One; instead, LightRaiders volunteer to be pawns of the OverLord in His machinations.  In this sense (at least), DragonRaid is quiet different from the 'other' fantasy role-playing games.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Cloak & Dagger

Once again, we delve into the realm of games marketed as role-playing games but which fall far short of how we understand the term.  In this installment, the game is Cloak & Dagger – a merchandizing effort associated with the movie of the same name.  If released today, the game would certainly not be categorized as 'role-playing' but in the far gone days of 1984, such a label could be – and was – applied.

The plot of the film may sound familiar.  A kid withdraws into a fantasy world after his mother dies and the kid's father is emotionally distant.  However, it turns out that the fantasy isn't entirely fictional.  As the real life implications of the 'fantasy' are resolved, the kid and his father bond.  The end.

In this case, the 'fantasy' is focused on fictional super-spy Jack Flack, star of video and traditional role-playing games.  A dying man gives the kid a video game cartridge containing military secrets.  The kid (played by Henry Thomas, alumnus of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – another movie with an RPG connection) confronts enemy agents applying the capable advice of the imaginary Jack Flack.  (Dabney Coleman portrays the father as well as Jack Flack because the espionage ace is essentially a surrogate father image.)

The beginning of the film features the exploits of Jack Flack.  When two giant dodecahedrons start tumbling toward Jack, the scene transitions to the kid rolling a pair of twelve-siders on a table with miniature figures.  The audience realizes that the 'exploits' were merely the imagined action of a game!  The dice rolling scene (among others) were filmed at The Game Keeper, a real game store that your humble host contemporaneously frequented.

Anyway, the kid is ecstatic.  He exclaims, “Twenty-four!  Jack Flack's agility is twenty four -- he escapes!”  Since twenty-four is the maximum amount that can be rolled on 2d12, we must not be dealing with a 'roll equal to or under' mechanic.  Apparently, the fate of Jack Flack is governed by a system requiring that a target number must be equalled or exceeded by rolling dice and adding an ability value.  I guess the Difficulty Check was 48.  Obviously, I've put more thought into this than the writers.  (Actually, the script called for d20s:  “...two monstrous twenty-sided, brightly colored geometric forms come rolling...”)

Appropriately, twelve-sided dice are used in the Cloak & Dagger game.  Although the game comes with only one d12, it is rolled twice on most occasions.  Also, the challenge card of 'Boulders!' displays dodecahedrons (shown above).

Jack Flack is not a playable character in the game; he is represented by an advantage that can change hands among the players several times.  The manual uses the term “character” only once.  The rules almost always use “players” in reference to the real world participants as well as their in-game personalities.  'Players' have three abilities:  Speed, Strength, and Agility.  Ability Levels range from 5 to 25, but only in increments of five.  Thus, an Agility of 24 (like Jack Flack's stated score in the film) is not allowed.  Players distribute scores of 10, 15, and 20 among their Abilities.  During the course of a game, levels can rise and fall.  A example Ability Levels Form (shown below) is provided in the game manual.  Aside from Abilities and the player's name, an area on the form is reserved for “Alias.”

In describing the concept of “role-playing game,” the manual states:
...each player, a Spy working under an alias, assumes his or her own unique character...Each player is free to develop his or her own unique style and strategy...
The object of the game is to capture a set of four spies, go to a particular city, and retain the spies while all other players get one final turn.  During the course of the game, players can travel among several cities and choose one of three challenge levels when they opt for an encounter.  Players may attack or sabotage one another and capture each other's spies.

According to Section 7 of the manual:
In the hard world of Cloak & Dagger, as in the real world, almost everything has its price.  Players may stop the game at any point to negotiate a deal.
With a few listed exceptions, anything is tradable.  This concept extends beyond in-game favors and materials.  For example, “You may...offer Jack Flack to the player who agrees to pay you a dollar, or to get you a drink.”  In Cloak & Dagger, a player has a degree of 'agency' in excess of many board games and each player is encouraged to personalize “his or her own unique character.”  This is the extent of “role-playing” in the game; there is only one 'scenario' and there is no game master.  Regardless, someone made the decision to market Cloak & Dagger as “a role-playing game.”  The phrase appears five times on the box.  In the pictures of the game on the box (as well as in the rule book), the manual is titled merely “manual.”  The actual manual has “role-playing game” followed by “game play manual” in smaller font.  Perhaps someone felt that if the phrase “role-playing game” was used often enough, people would believe it.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Fauna of Wizards' World

Art by Tracy Cameron Mansfield; “Humor” by ?

As mentioned last week, there is no setting description in Wizards' World.  Yet there are clues to the flavor and tone of the campaign(s) from which the game developed.  Humor – or what could charitably be described as such – is in evidence.  For instance, the game's section on coins makes reference to “quatloos,” a thousand of which equal the value of a copper piece.  The descriptions of original creatures tend to offer the most insight into the Wizards' World 'playtest' environment.

All Wizards' World creatures have a 'profession' (or more than one profession) and a range of 'levels' to represent their ability.  For example, weasels are thieves of first or second level; war horses are warriors of second through fifth level.  A creature's experience value is determined by its level; specifically, “the sum of the squares of its levels times 100.”  So, an amethyst dragon having two warrior levels and two wizard levels is worth 800 experience points.

“Humor” also appears in the creature descriptions.  For instance, “Valley Giants are often seen wandering about saying things like 'bitchin´ to the max' and 'like, totally'.”  (Valley Giants are “jesters” of ninth to sixteenth level.)  Also, “Rhasti are similar in appearance to weasels...[they] are peculiar in that no matter what language they use, and even if they communicate telepathically, they have a British accent.”  Additionally, “A place guarded by a troll that will accept bribes is often call [sic] a 'troll booth'.”

Wizards' World includes some standard fantasy standards like orcs (first to second level warriors), werewolves (sixth through ninth level attackers), and succubi (third though ninth level wizards / second level black knights).  There are also recognizable creatures with new names and cosmetic changes:  azara (second to fifth level warriors) are “like lions, except they are dark blue in colour,” rogoroth (sixth to ninth level attackers) are giant eagles, and zilman (first through third level warriors) are effectively D&D troglodytes.

Here are some odd creatures original to Wizards' World:

Krang “appear as men, except their clothing is lighter.”  They are warriors of sixth through fifteenth level and can teleport anywhere at will.

Yaka “closely resemble rabbits” but have the “ability to possess others.”  They have one to three levels as wizards and one to three levels as spies.  If a yaka successfully possesses a player character, it “will have the unfortunate player [sic] attack his own party” for the ultimate purpose of acquiring the party's treasure.  Possession only lasts for a number of minutes but, evidently, “they retain all knowledge that the victim had.”  Yaka have an intelligence range of 16 - 20, in excess of the 'normal' intelligence level of the player character races.  Would such entities be satisfied with treasure?  What use do they have for it?

Wolverenes are wolverines that can “fire a bolt of electricity from their bodies.”

Tasnics seem to have no aim in life other than to have fun and collect treasure.”  They are wizards of second through nineteenth level and – even though they “can transform into humanoid form at will” – tasnics usually appear as “furry winged serpents.”  Among their special abilities, tasnics have “eye beams” and can “view reality.”

Epsilons are bull-like creatures with red horns and eyes and black fur.”  They “can fire green colored bolts of energy that inflict...damage and cause paralyzation.”

Vexaxaxi (sing. vexaxax) “look like green gorillas with tusks.”  They have eight to twelve levels as attackers and nine to sixteen levels as assassins.  “They are supremely designed to deal out death.”  Not only do “vexaxaxi have retractable fangs that hold...poison,” they “can fire a death bolt from a single horn growing out the back of their skulls.”