Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Greek Mythic Fantasy on the Rise

 In the last few months I've seen a few new cultural items with a strong focus on Greek Mythic Fantasy, here is a review of a few I have encountered.

Video Game: Hades

Let me start by saying at the date of publishing I have ~120 hours of game time in this game which I bought in early access in 2019. It has since come out of early access and is gaining some wide spread popularity.

Description: Hades is a roguelike RPG where you play as the son of Hades, Zagreus, as you try and escape the realm of the dead to find out the truth of your family history. Aiding you in your escape are many of the Olympic gods: Zeus, Poseidon, Artemis, and many more. The Olympic gods lend you some of their powers so you can smash up the guardians of Hades and escape.

Thoughts: The setting of the game is compelling and provides adequate framing for the roguelike structure, especially if you are a mythology nerd like me, but the real stand out is the game play. Everything feels very tight and responsive, there are enough combinations of weapons and god given boons to make each run exiting. I would have loved to see more gods in the game (especially Hephaestus!), but the diversity already included is great. As with all Super Giant games the art direction is sublime.

Final Score: 9/10, a really great game

Western Animation: Blood of Zeus

Description: Set in fantasy Ancient Greece, the Netflix series focuses on the story of a new hero, Heron, the son of Zeus and a mortal queen and his half-brother who has been tainted by eating the flesh of a dead Titan. Heron teams up with an Amazon warrior and some capable rouges to help the gods stop a second war with the Titans.

Thoughts: Produced by the same studio to create the excellent Castlevania animated Netflix series, I had pretty high expectations for this show that were frankly not met. While the art style looks similar I didn't find any of the punchy combat animation I loved so much in Castlevania, and while the premise of the story is fine I didn't find it that compelling. It is always fun seeing interpretations of Greek myth on screen, but that is about all that I found engaging.

Final Score: 5/10, its a quick watch with some cheesy fun

D&D 5th Edition Source Book: Mythic Odysseys of Theros

Description: Wizards of the Coast owns Dungeons and Dragons as well as Magic the Gathering, and this is the second cross over book published for D&D 5e from their Magic settings (the first being Guild Master's Guide to Ravnica). The book is meant to "serve as an example of how to take inspiration from real-world mythology and adapt it into a world built from the ground up for fantasy adventures" a goal I myself have tried to accomplish in this blog.

There are new races and sub-class options for characters, as well as optional mechanics for characters to have a more mythic origin. There is a chapter dedicated to the pantheon of the setting where each god is given some myths, a set of beliefs and observances of their followers, and some examples of how characters might gain or loose their favor. The next chapter includes a world map of Theros with some lengthy descriptions of each city state/civilization. After that is a chapter focusing on adventure design in the setting, framed around the champions/villains of each god described in the earlier chapter as well as some encounter tables and small dungeon maps. There is also an example adventure included in this section, No Silent Secret, to demonstrate some of the principles described. The final two chapters are dedicated to magical items and artifacts, and some mythic bestiary stat blocks. 

Thoughts: I played a little bit of Magic the Gathering back in the day but I never encountered the Theros setting, so that might have something to do with why I feel so lukewarmly towards this book. There is a lot of fluff text here dedicated to retelling Greek myths in a slightly different way, and I mean a lot. I understand the necessity, but is seems like wasted space. All this new mythos does is create homework for the DM and players to get a common background in the setting when most groups already likely have at least some impression of Greek myths. To get the most value out of the set dressing I would take each location or myth and put them in a table for easier use while playing, because who really cares about the major landmarks around the Sparta clone city-state?

Because of the origin in Magic the Gathering there is a lot of art included in the book, most of it in a kind of "psychedelic cosmos" style, the image above is a good example. There is an in setting reason for this (the gods live in Nyx, a realm of dreams in the night sky), but a lot of the art feels a touch too dramatic for me. I do like the art included in setting chapter, there are some great city/land scape pieces.

There are a few new races included, but many of them have been published before in other 5e books so that is disappointing. The new sub-classes and backgrounds are flavorful, but there are only three.

I like the piety mechanics introduced for the gods, it seems like a good frame work for PCs to interact with very powerful gods, though in my own setting I prefer to keep my gods small. I can see myself using the stat blocks of the mythic beasts at the end of the book as well as the magic items, those are always useful. 

Final Score: 4/10, a lot of wasted effort on a setting that is not doing anything compelling with the source material. The mechanics provided are okay, but that's about it.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Point Crawl and Spatial Resolution

Introduction and the "Linear Point Crawl"

I was taking the train across town (now a few months ago, none take the train across town in these times) and looking at the transit map when I realized that they had created the most basic kind of a point crawl: a sequence of locations (stations) and vectors (the track between them) without the opportunity to change the order of those locations (you can't skip a station). I am a geographer as well as a forester, I work in the geospatial world and spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the locations of things in relation to each other. 

Many in the RPG community praise the adventure structure of a point crawl. The premise is this: the adventures take place in discrete locations (dungeons usually), while exploration occurs in the vectors between those locations (the wilderness usually).

Many of the "mainstream" RPG adventures published follow this most basic point crawl structure (as well documented by Joseph Manola in his series of Consolidating Pathfinder Adventure Paths). Just as you "finish" one location you are directed (not gently!) to the next one by plot contrivances, hence the abhorrent accusation of "rail-roading".

Lets call this form of the point crawl the "Linear Crawl". Its features are this:
  • Locations are the only places where the game "happens"
  • The order in which you visit them is constrained absolutely
The minimum requirements to run a Linear Point Crawl are: 
  • A series of adventuring locations that you have planned for players to visit
  • An order in which the adventuring locations may be visited
Of course even the most egregious example of a rail roading adventure is flexible enough to allow the adventurers to return to town between adventuring sites, an implicit allowance for non-linear travel, but only to places where adventure "don't really happen". Sometimes this hub changes during an adventure, for example the party now always returns to a big city instead of the small town they started in.

The travel between locations is often hand waved (after all adventure doesn't happen there), but some times these published adventures use a technique to mask the linear nature of their adventures:  wilderness encounters (see D&D 5e's Tomb of Annihilation). These wilderness encounters occur between locations, and sometimes are even supported by random encounter tables. These help the adventure feel like it has the opportunity for exploration with a non-linear structure, but this is an illusion. This style of wilderness "exploration" rarely gives the players any real autonomy to explore beyond the encounter, it functions as a way to tax the character's resources while they travel and as content filler.

An example of a Linear Point Crawl style adventure.

The "Multi-Path Point Crawl"

The next order of complexity up is what I would describe as the "Multi-Path Point Crawl". This is where locations are connected in a more complex way, with the opportunity for multiple vectors leading to or from a single location. This means that locations are still the primary focus, but not all locations have to be visited and the order that they are visited in can be influenced by the player, though there may still be constraints (like time, more on that later). To use the train map analogy, this train system has multiple lines who share some common stations, riders can choose from several routes to get to their destination.

Many adventures have an in built time constraint: an impending orcish invasion, a lich gathering strength and corpses for an undead army, the king is dying and needs a drink from the fountain of virility, etc. With this structure, adventurers are incentivized to move quickly and efficiently twords their goal, meaning that choosing the correct path/destination has consequences and that they will not get the opportunity to visit every location or travel every vector. This structure is common in a more narrative style of play, generally not the style of play so well described and explored in these articles by Ben L: Pleasures of the OSR Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Sandbox style play does not rely on these drivers, it has many other conflicts and motviations.

An excellent example of this tension comes to us from the Fellowship of the Ring, where the Fellowship tries and fails to cross through the Redhorn Pass and has to turn back and travel through the Mines of Moria (also an interesting example of wilderness like exploration and travel through a dungeon like environment). They had three choices as laid out in the book: travel south and pass near to Saruman's tower (dismissed out of hand), to travel though the Mines of Moria (a dwarf stronghold gone strangely silent in recent years, Gandalf resists this option) or travel over the Rehorn Pass (a perilous journey but preferable to the Mines). Tension is achieved by the slowing of their important journey and their choices having consequences.

To summarize: the multi-path point crawl still places and emphasis on the locations visited, but the order those locations are visited (if at all) are removed or relaxed. In a multi-path crawl you need:
  • A set of adventuring locations that players may visit
  • A set of travel vectors between those locations
  • Information provided to the play on the consequences for those deciding which path to take or local to visit (for example they might get more treasure for traveling through the Wight Wastes to the Mound of Misery as opposed to the easier travel along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City)
An example of a Multi-Path Point Crawl adventure structure. If you can find a way to activate the Standing Stones you can skip the Keep of the Meta-Fungi altogether (an avoid the mind altering spores!)

The Hex Crawl and the "Spatially Relevant Plane Crawl"

The level of resolution that I am currently enamored with is what I will call the "Spatially Relevant Plane Crawl", the logical extreme in complexity of a Hex Crawl.

The problem: The highest level of spatial resolution possible is a to-scale map where every point on the map is in a sense a location.  This is the resolution that we are trying to simulate with the Spatially Relevant Plane Crawl, we want players to feel as if they can point to any point on a map and say that is where they want to visit. Of course planning a to-scale map would take a prohibitively long time and take up a large amount of space. Because we have limited time, space, and creative juice we should not attempt to create a to-scale representation of the play world. These valuable resources are better spent on things that players will actually interact with. The goal of this approach is to simulate the experience of a to-scale map. So how do we do this?

A common approach is to use a Hex Map, a map with a grid of hexagons projected onto it, often with a series of rules of thumbs for the correct amount of content for each hex: a monster lair, the dominant ecosystem, some hidden locations, etc. Often these maps may not even have hexes projected onto more detailed maps, but instead have some visual shorthand for the content of a hex:

This is... fine. It uses a few basic topographic/ecological features to indicate the content of a hex (forest, hilly forest, marsh, grass land, hills, mountains, water, etc). There are usually accompanied by a keyed table telling you what you can find in each hex.

While the above map is perfectly serviceable, it is not especially compelling aesthetically nor does it have the little bits of weird detail that real world maps have or the fun landmarks and style of the best fantasy maps. It also restricts/abstracts choices into which of the adjacent hexes the party wants to venture to next, leaving little room to study the terrain between the players and their destination.

A nice solution that appeases my aesthetic sensibilities is to simply project a hex grid onto an existing/generated map. It removed the clunky and harsh divisions between hexes, and allows the topography to tell more of the story. Getting the grid to match perfectly to labels/features can be a bit clunky and doesn't solve the problem of abstracting choices into which hex to travel into next, so lets discard the hex grid entirely.

Using/drawing/generating a good map can help you create challenges and interesting choices for your players. The features I look for in a "good" map are these:
  • Topography is indicated, preferably with actual topographic lines, but maps with a hillshade effect give a good idea of topography as well
  • A reasonable scale. Do you really expect your players to walk from New York to San Francisco? If not, then you probably don't need a map at that scale. I find that getting an idea of what a reasonable scale can be a little hard, think of hikes/runs/bike rides you've been on, how long did it take you to travel that far? Could you keep up that pace over many days? There is no need to plan a map in detail where most of it's content will never be seen (an argument for localism and a discussion of long distances/time).
  • Some idea of the dominant ecosystem (as you know I like to build systems around ecosystems), this will help fill wilderness travel content. This can be represented in a choropleth map with color codes for land cover.
Using the above basic requirements as a guide I generally like to enrich my map with the following:
  • Place settlements and the paths/highways between them
  • Place adventuring locations (ruins/keeps/monster lairs/etc)
  • Name some major wilderness areas and think about their major features/gimmicks

With a good map with the above elements, I feel like I have what I want to run an adventure. I can build random encounters/locations for the wilderness areas (see an approach to this here) and flesh out dungeons and settlements as usual.

So when my players look at their map and point to some far and whimsically named place beyond the mountains and say they want to visit there next I can nod and say "Great, go ahead and roll the first wilderness encounter as you make your way into the foothills bellow the Unpathable Peaks..."

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Fountain is Dry

I fear this blog has gone the way of previous endeavors of mine. I have curated online spaces before, and gone into the spiral of self conscious approval seeking where I write/showcase things I think folks want to see. Once I realize the vanity of the project I tend to abandon it.

I don't think my time writing here has been wasted, but I grapple with half finished ideas and the uncertainty of publishing something that is uninteresting/derivative/etc. Perhaps I simply need to pretend that I have no audience (and perhaps I no longer do?).

The Nature of a Dry Fountain

Since my last media consumption update  my life has changed somewhat. I have moved from one end of the West Coast to the other, from a rural town to a major American city, and I finally was able to move-in with my long time significant other. Like many people my life has been disrupted by the pandemic, but I am among the privileged that get to continue my work from home.

My days are general absorbed by work (now chained to a desk, no field work for this forester), exercise (I am running semi-seriously for the first time since college), cooking (one of my great joys), reading (perhaps a blog post on its own?), playing video games when I have the time, and of course playing RPGs with new friends.

I actually rather enjoy the routine, but perhaps cabin fever is getting me anxious to write again.

So, perhaps the fountain might yet trickle?

Here is some bread I baked