Monday, April 4, 2016

Jackson Hobbit v RIFTS Psionics

Here is a pair of entries for the second round of the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you're new to the contest, it's like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write something interesting and original about hoary old RPG topics.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the second round Thought Eater essays are up...

The rules for the second round are here.

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "ART" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Epically Boring: The Hobbit movie is not a model for adventure design.

Peter Jackson's treatment of The Hobbit has been panned by purists of The Professor's work . As much as Peter Jackson does violence to Tolkien's Hobbit, I disliked his adaptation because of the scale and the ridiculous action sequences. The scale of the events and the stakes of the story are epic but the scale does nothing to make the themes and plot of the story better. The character's have a more superhero like competence that makes it hard to suspend your disbelief. The films felt like something that wanted to be a “gee whiz” experience with a story tacked on. This mirrors a lot of what I've seen from WoTC with their 5E adventures. The current D&D 5E adventures have been about epic scale and the characters must become a sort of force of superheros to fight the threat. This made the Hobbit films and the 5E fairly predictable and banal. My point is that I'd like to see WoTC move away from making every published campaign the way Hollywood makes epic blockbuster films. 

There are these guys in the movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle who's entire existence is about what ever is “EXTREME!” In their world, there are only two choices EXTREME! or lame. Everything has to be over the top and enough is never enough. If it isn't EXTREME! then its lame. Peter Jackson's Hobbit and the more recent editions of D&D are these guys. Anything that's not EXTREME! is lame. That manifests in two ways. First, the scale of the events in the movie and the D&D adventures are on the epic scale. Second, the characters in both Hobbitand D&D have become comic book superheros in terms of what they can do physically. Let's start with the scale.

We can't just have dragons that are a danger or a cult that is a danger to the locals or even a maybe a kingdom.. There must be a DRAGON CULT TRYING TO TAKE OVER THE WORLD! We just can't have a demon threatening a town or maybe a city. We have to have A DANGER THAT THREATENS TO OBLITERATE THE REALMS! We can't just have an Underdark adventure with some drow we need an INSANITY THAT THREATENS TO SHAKE THE FORGOTTEN REALMS TO ITS FOUNDATIONS! EXTREME! Similarly The Hobbit is loaded with EXTREME! scale. All the material taken from the appendices in LoTR about the necromancer, the fight at Dol Guldur and strategic importance that Smaug was killed never appeared in the text of The Hobbit. Instead of having what feels emotional experience where something we are kind of invested in as viewers or players, we have a retread of an overplayed theme. Superheroes out to save the world, again. They aren't motivated by their own interests, they are thwarting the interests of some bad guys because the bad guys are threatening to destroy the place where the good guys keep their stuff.

Tolkien's Hobbit, as it was originally published and conceived, is a story about an event that was very important to the characters involved in it. Though the Battle of Five Armies is important in the greater epic of the Third Age of Middle Earth, we don't get any of that in the novel itself.The slaying of Smaug and the battle further the story of how the little hobbit became a hero and the king of the dwarves learned a tragic lesson. The events were in service of the story. For Jackson, the story is service to the set pieces intended to make 14 year old boys say, EXTREME!This move towards always epic all the time has been paralleled in the modules published for 5E. All three adventures have a threat which, if the PC's fail, would result in rampant destruction in Faerun. The epic scale is built in to the assumptions the design team had in building the game as is evidenced by the following quote from the 5th Edition D&D Player’s Handbook: The Wonders of Magic page 8. “Many adventures are driven by the machinations of spellcasters who are hellbent on using magic for some ill end. A cult leader seeks to awaken a god who slumbers beneath the sea, a hag kidnaps youths to magically drain them of their vigor, a mad wizard labors to invest an army of automatons with a facsimile of life, a dragons begins a mystical ritual to rise up as a god of destruction- these are just a few of the magical threats that adventurers might face.” This sort of approach was not always so.
There were some classic D&D adventures with high stakes and heroism was, I think, the default assumption in the early days. Demonweb Pits and Temple of Elemental Evil are two examples but there was no assumption on the part of TSR that every published module had to end up with the PC's trying to save the world. There were plenty of modules where the adventurers just killed monsters and took their stuff. It was OK if they saved a village or made life a little easier for the guys guarding the borderlands. At the very highest level adventures, there were some threats which could be on the apocalyptic level but it wasn't the default assumption. Most of the adventures were with tough but adversaries that could be defeated by a group of adventurers that didn't resemble the Avengers. Which leads us to the second part of the EXTREME!

Rabbit sleds, dwarves that leap like Bollshoi ballerinas, orcs with big swords instead of arms (OK that was pretty cool), trolls with catapults on their backs and the list goes on an on. After a while, it all gets boring. If everything is EXTREME! it eventually becomes so ridiculous that the degree to which you have to suspend your disbelief is beyond your willingness. While 5E fixed a lot of those problems, it still has some elements where characters become superheros, more or less, at higher levels. This is a much bigger issue in 4E and 3E where I've heard DM's complain about how parties could kill Orcus in three rounds without loosing a single character. Even lower level characters have no fear of villagers in the more recent games where an OD&D character could be taken out by a tavern wench with a rolling pin.

I don't know if this is just me being a cranky middle aged dude telling the kids to get off my lawn but it seems like there is some room for RPG's where the scale is more focused on what ever is important to a small group of characters. The superhero PC's don't have to save the world from CHAOS every campaign. Campaigns of smaller scale and smaller scope have plenty of interesting events that PC's can become extremely important without blowing up the setting. So hey WoTC, lay off the EXTREME!

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "RHC" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Psychic Powers are Ur-Magic
(or: one thing Rifts got very right!)

My thesis for this article is that psionic or psychic powers are a kind of Ur-Magic.  That is; creating an effect with only the power of your mind is a primal way to change the world.  This idea is the stone that lays the foundation for the majority of fantasy magic.

Most systems of magic in gaming share this core idea.  Magic in the Rifts setting is an excellent example of how to state this idea expressly and clearly.

Magic in Rifts is basically a variation on spell points.  It's a common reaction against the Vancian magic of previous games like D&D.  Points make things easier to track with a simple system of numbers instead of reams of paper and charts. The thing that interests me is the underlying explanation for those points.   The P.P.E. point system is a very direct explanation of how psychic power is the source of all magic.

I will take a brief look at a few other examples of this idea from popular culture before diving into why I think Rifts got it very right.  

Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series is probably the most widely popular example of fantasy magic to date.  The ideas that proliferate the series are not particularly original.  Witches fly on brooms, dragons breathe fire, and evil wizards wear black robes and serve a dark master.   Not ground breaking stuff, there.  The execution of those ideas is easy to get across because they are culturally familiar.

The example I want to illuminate for the thesis of this exercise is the source of a wizard's magic. Fully fledged wizards in that world all cast spells using wands, gestures, and incantations, but under that performative fluff is a core of willpower.  Take a look at the first descriptions of Harry using magic, from chapter two of the first book:  

Once, Aunt Petunia, tired of Harry coming back from the barbers looking as though he hadn’t been at all, had taken a pair of kitchen scissors and cut his hair so short he was almost bald except for his bangs, which she left “to hide that horrible scar.” Dudley had laughed himself silly at Harry, who spent a sleepless night imagining school the next day, where he was already laughed at for his baggy clothes and taped glasses. Next morning, however, he had gotten up to find his hair exactly as it had been before Aunt Petunia had sheared it off. He had been given a week in his cupboard for this, even though he had tried to explain that he couldn’t explain how it had grown back so quickly.

Another time, Aunt Petunia had been trying to force him into a revolting old sweater of Dudley’s (brown with orange puff balls). The harder she tried to pull it over his head, the smaller it seemed to become, until finally it might have fitted a hand puppet, but certainly wouldn’t fit Harry. Aunt Petunia had decided it must have shrunk in the wash and, to his great relief, Harry wasn’t punished.
His anxiety at being humiliated manifested in a magical effect.  There is no incanting, gesturing, or wand flicking.  His will is brought to bear on the situation he wants changed, and reality changes under that power.

A sign of exceptionally powerful wizards, is that they eventually come full circle.  Dumbledore is shown casting spells without use of a wand a couple of times.  For lesser wizards, losing a wand prevents them from performing magic altogether.  I would argue that this indicates a stronger connection to the psychic Ur-Magic that is a source of their reality bending powers. 


You can see this idea permeate all sorts of popular depictions of magic or psychic power.   

In Star Wars the application of will is what gives more power to those individuals who can use The Force.  The scene where Yoda lifts the X-Wing from the swamp shows this exact thing.   Yoda has sufficient belief that his will can lift the spaceship from the muck whereas his student's mind was blocked by doubt.

Stephen King's "Carrie" also works this way.   Carrie White's psychic outbursts are more pronounced (and ultimately combustible) in direct proportion to the exertion of her will.  The application of greater mental force creates larger catastrophic effects.

Dungeons and Dragons psychic abilities sometimes use the exact mechanics of some spells.  In some versions of the game spellcasters can gain the ability to cast spells wordlessly using thought and gesture, or purely verbally without gesture or materials.  Closer to the pure psychic power of Ur-Magic.

Looking at one of the crunchier parts of the rules in 4E Dungeons and Dragons illustrates this single source, too.  Dispel Magic in fourth edition dispels effects based on their keywords instead of their source of origin.  It doesn't differentiate between a psychic effect and a magical one.  I would argue that this is because they both alter the world away from the mundane in the same way.

In the Dragon Age video games, it is dispelled in a similar way.  Templar characters can dispel magical effects by using a sort of reverse-magic.  They channel their will to assert reality in the face of magic, thereby turning it off.

White Wolf's magic:
There are a few different systems for magical powers in the various games that make up the World of Darkness.   Taking a brief look at three of them will show a continuum running from unfettered and free form powers on one end, to structured powers with specific expressions on the other.  
1.  Vampire    
Vampire is the most successful game from the World of Darkness.  The magical powers that vampires possess are all very specific.  Each power draws its source from Prime energy that is stored in the blood.  Each effect costs a certain amounts of blood points, and the effects progress in set increments.  Each increment has a proscribed list of what exactly it can do.   This is magic with the most levels of interference between the psychic power of pure will, and the expression of reality warping effects.

Those levels of interference make it easily gameable.  Filling in bubble sheets, tracking the points, and refilling your power reserves on yet another random hobo are all easy to track. It ultimately makes for a game that is easy to play.

2.  Mage 
One step removed from Vampire, is Mage.   In the magic system for Mage things are less codified, it is more malleable and the effects are open ended. 
"Reality is a work in progress; constant change keeps the universe alive.  Magick is the most dynamic example of change - the alteration of reality by enlightened force of will."  (Mage: The Ascension, Core Rule Book pg.6)
Each power still costs a certain amount of Quintessence (also called Tass), but the desired effects are not from a list. Instead the wizard makes them up on the spot from a range of Spheres they can influence. The description of Quintessence as the source of magic is described somewhat nebulously, but it is still communicated in terms of will or emotion.
"Most views regard Quintessence as an ever-fluctuating pool from which all creation arises and returns.  As a basic "life-force," it is often gathered by events of great passion and colored by those same emotions.  Sharper students realize that this means Awakened Ones are their own best source of Quintessence, with their Avatars providing the internal wellspring." (Ch.4, Pg.65)
Mage is tougher to play than a system of easy points and lists like Vampire or Rifts offers, but it has more flexibility once you know your way around the mechanics.

3.  Wraith 
Wraith: The Oblivion takes this idea and cranks it all the way up.  It was the least commercially successful game that White Wolf published.  It is the most difficult game to play or run, and it is also the closest thing to a representation of psychic Ur-Magic in the World of Darkness systems.   
In Wraith, players take on the aspect of a ghost with unresolved emotional issues (called Fetters).  They play through the game's goals to gain Passion points (called Pathos) to fuel their abilities.  They then use this magic to reach across from the afterlife and affect the physical world.  Ultimately the goal is to resolve the emotional Fetter that is keeping them from passing on.  Everything in the game revolves around emotional role playing, and applying the character's will to create the game's effects.  The playing field is almost entirely removed from the familiar physical world, and it this makes it much harder to gameify than any of the other systems.


Rifts got it very right! 
(This includes a rehash of some Rifts basics, for those readers who may be unfamilliar with it, so bear with me if you're an old pro)

The point system that Rifts uses for its magic is called P.P.E., or Potential Psychic Energy.  It does exactly what it says on the label.
"PPE is the fuel that makes magic spells possible. In the past, nobody contained enough PPE within a single person to invoke it into a spell, but with the coming of the Rifts, vast amounts of Psychic Energy flood the earth, making it a readily available resource for those who can control it."
PPE is blatantly and directly emotional psychic energy.   The post-apocalyptic setting for Rifts is the explanation for where magic came from, and why the eponymous Rifts themselves are ripping open space.   

The short of it goes like this: 
Nukes fell, people died in agony, their collective psychic energy erupted all at once.  This activated the dormant Ley Lines around the world, which triggered cataclysms and tore open Rifts.  Those in turn killed more people, which released more PPE, and so on... and that was the apocalypse.

It has codified magic into a physical energy.   The Ley Lines even glow bright blue with it when seen at night. This power is harnessed and stored by spell casters inside their bodies, and they have a reserve of it that replenishes and grows as they train their wills.

It's easily gameable, it's quick to learn, and it communicates exactly the Ur-magic nature of mental power.

The psionic powers in Rifts work almost identically to the magical ones.   They use the same layout for psychic powers that they do for magic spells.   They have specific things they can do, unlike the vague Spheres in Mage.  Psionics advance much the same as spell casters, they have a parallel points system called ISP (Inner Strength Points) The two types of points are even largely interchangeable.  Psychic characters can power a wizard's magic devices with their ISP, though at double the cost.

Ur-Magic is an inversion of the worldview created by science.   No matter how hard you actually think at your teacup, it will not heat up.  No magical Force will enable your will to levitate your coffee mug above your desk.  But, in the fantasies we play, the Ur-magic powers bend the world in the same way.  Things blow up, reality bends, and the game is more fun than the mundane world we usually inhabit.

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