Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Old School Game Review: The Compleat Spell Caster Fantasy Role-Playing Game Supplement by S. Michael Sechi and V. Taylor

The Compleat Spell Caster is a fantasy roleplaying game supplement written by Stephen Michael Sechi and Vernie Taylor, published through Bard Games in 1983.

This book is somewhat rare; it appears that it is unavailable through PDF download at this time. A limited number of copies are in circulation on used books sites and those in decent condition command a fair price, from thirty to forty dollars before shipping.

It was a companion volume to two other books by the same authors, The Compleat Alchemist and The Compleat Adventurer. The Complete Alchemist is, like the Spellcaster companion, a book that has limited availability, although the Adventurer companion (which dealt with rogue and fighter classes) is somewhat more common.

These books were intended to be used as supplemental works to other full game systems, most notably 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. As such, they provide new classes, magic spells, and magic items to an AD&D campaign, among other things.

The Compleat Spell Caster is broken down into six basic sections and I will deal with these individually. 

The Compleat Spell Caster Introduction

This section of the book details how to plug the supplement into the existing fantasy campaign of the DM. It assumes three basic types of R.P.G.'s the DM might be running but being unfamiliar with two of them, I will simply discuss the 1st Edition AD&D conversion.

In a nutshell, the six spellcaster classes in The Compleat Spellcaster are to be treated as sub-classes of 1st AD&D classes or sub-classes. Experience point progression and spell acquisition are the same for each new class presented here as it is for the "kindred" AD&D class. The witch and warlock class, for example, use the AD&D Druid class XP and spells known table per level table, but have their own unique magic spells and abilities as detailed in the supplement.

This section also sets up an armor class conversion system for the supplement's bestiary monsters (all summoned beings or familiars), as well as a table for the turning or controlling undead abilities of newly presented classes. It also suggests a novel savings throw modification rule which takes into account the levels of spell casters in magical combat. Basically with this rule, the difference in levels between mages in magical combat create a bonus or penalty to savings throws against spells by a defending mage. So if a fifth level sorcerer was casting a spell at a seventh level sorcerer, the seventh level sorcerer would receive a +2 to saves against his opponents spells that have a saving throw, while the lower level mage would save at -2.

I give this section a total thumbs up for clarity and ease of adaptation. 

The Spellcasters

This section of the Compleat Spellcaster outlines the new spellcasting classes and their spells and class abilities. You will likely have a LOT of fun including these in any D&D game you are running, particularly 1st Ed AD&D but certainly Original D&D and older or retroclone Basic and Expert systems as well. I will deal briefly with each one.

Witch/Warlock: This book assumes that witches and warlocks derive their powers from Nature and may be of any alignment. Class abilities are that they can identify plants, pass through wooded areas without leaving a trace, and, at seventh level, read magical inscriptions. Like the AD&D classes, witches can, at middle levels, attract followers and, in their own unique case, form a coven. As the leader of the coven, the PC witch can hold a special full moon gathering monthly where his or her followers can join together to enable the head witch/warlock to cast a spell at much higher levels than the caster's actual level. Witch spells conform in some respects to Magic User type spells from AD&D but there are many notable differences that give the class a unique flavor. Most of their spells reflect the powers of witches in traditional fantasy literature and occult terms. They can, for example, cast a psychic shield spell which lasts 24 hours and makes them nearly impervious to any mind altering spell.

Mystic: A mystic is considered a clerical subclass but uses the clerical XP progression and spell acquisition. The difference is that a Mystic is completely pacifistic and cannot, without serious penalties, inflict harm upon another living being. This prohibition does not apply to demons and the undead. However, the mystic is given very strong defensive powers. Their nonviolence code does not mean they cannot cast certain offensive spells. They are experts in runes and magical inscriptions and can create a runic staff which can hold certain enemies completely at bay. At a certain level, they may create runic or symbolic powered scrolls, as well as receive a personal spirit Guardian to defend them. At middle levels they can build a shrine and attract a group of followers, and although they cannot personally use violence, no such prohibitions are upon any warrior who becomes a follower and pledges his or her self to the mystic's cause. They have many interesting spells, some very clerical in nature, others unique, such as the upper level spell, Mystic Flame, a magical fire which can be set to burn in a brazier or other area and can never be extinguished except by the mystic or his or her Deity. It can also be set upon a staff and used a perpetual light as well as deter undead. Mystics are able to turn the Undead, in cleric fashion, but are subject to the same alignment and faith requirements as a cleric to retain their powers.

Necromancer: This one is perhaps the Jewel of the book's treasure chest. It could not only be a PC class in a campaign with evil characters but a Necromancer as presented in the Compleat Spellcaster would be a most formidable and colorful NPC villain in any campaign. Treated for all intents and purposes as an anti-cleric, the Necromancer uses the same XP and spell acquisition rules as their holy counterpart. Necromancers have powerful class abilities: beginning from level one, they can communicate with any undead. Because they are of evil alignment and serve infernal powers, this can make for some interesting exchanges and situations if agreements can be reached.  Obviously, as per evil clerics, they can gain control over undead entities. They can see in darkness, even without infra-vision, but suffer very poor eyesight during the day. At upper levels, they can construct golems. At middle levels, as most AD&D classes, they can attract followers and construct a base, but in this case the followers attracted are undead servants and the base is an "accursed temple", created in a crypt, catacomb or ruin! Perhaps the most interesting class ability of a Necromancer is that if he or she is killed, they comin' back! They will return as an undead being the 13th day after death. The only thing that can prevent this is a successful exorcism of the body immediately after death by a cleric or mystic.

Here is one place I will offer a suggested change to the rulebook: a table is provided for rolling a d10 to randomly determine what sort of Undead being that the Necromancer comes back as--a 1 being a Skeleton and a 10 being a lich, lesser undead beings being represented by lower numbers on the table. I think it should be based on level of the Necromancer upon his or her demise--a level 1 Necromancer comes back as skeleton, while a level 10 character or higher returns as a lich. The interesting thing about this class ability is that even if the Necromancer only comes back as a skeleton or zombie, they still retain their former intellect as well as all of their spells, experience and abilities! The caveat is they cannot progress further in levels until they kill the agent of their death. 

So many possibilities with your game with this sort of character. Imagine your players killing him or her only to face them again in undead form and having to seek out the knowledge and means to fully destroy the Necromancer's spirit! Or a PC who returns as an undead being...

Necromancer spells are very much like reversed cleric spells but chock full to the brim of unique spells related to summoning, conjuration and cursing.One favorite of mine is the Curse of the Living Death--the target who fails it's saving throw will begin to waste away into a rotted form resembling an undead creature but still have full memory and intellect intact. Gross!

Sorcerer: The Sorcerer class is a nod to the scientific and alchemical dispositions of the medieval wizard. Think Issac Newton, Roger Bacon, and company. They are a kindred class to the Illusionist of 1st Ed AD&D insofar as XP and numbers of spells, and in fact, they are able to use many Illusionist spells. The Sorcerer believes the arcane forces to be wholly natural forces which will one day be mapped out by learning, and he learns spells in a progressive manner, i.e., the principles leading to levitation must be mastered before one can understand flight. Alchemy, lab and tome research, these are the mana and the meat and drink of sorcerers. One should assume they are of upper class as such research is not cheap! Sorcerers have, as a class ability, the knowledge of reading magical inscriptions, any and all languages but the most obscure, and all manner of arcane texts and magical writings. If not very obscure, this ability is automatic and a reflection of the Sorcerer's intensive studies. If any such writ is significantly ancient and/or obscure, the Sorcerer still may roll a "save vs. Intelligence" to be able to decipher. The spells listed for a Sorcerer are highly unique, a mixture of spells related to magic users, illusionists, enchantment of of magical items (including scrolls) and the manufacture of potions and alchemical elixirs, and conjuration and summoning. At middle levels, they can construct a major lab/learning center and group of followers interested in such. They tend to be of neutral alignment as they do not highly regard the neat classifications of "good" and "evil" common to most beings.

Sage: I have no idea whatsoever how a Sage character would play out in a fantasy campaign. I think with patient and thoughtful players, if a DM used the guidleines for Sages in the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, a sage could indeed be an interesting character choice, certainly a formidable and useful NPC. The Sage as presented in the Compleat Spellcaster can basically treat the magical spell lists of the foregoing classes (or those in the AD&D Player's handbook) as "fields of study", and as such, he can learn magical spells in the manner of a sorcerer from such studies, alignment being a major qualifying factor in what the Sage can acquire as to magical powers. Only a Sage of evil alignment will be interested in Necromancy, for example. Combinations of magical fields of study are open to him or her, but the sage can learn only up to seven levels of spells and while learning a particular field fo study they are subject to the XP requirements of that class. So a Sage can learn spells from any casting class. Sages can learn higher levels from class spell lists when they are higher level with the caveat that these higher level spells may only be created as scrolls. The only class ability a Sage possesses is very good skill at reading magical inscriptions and languages. They can never gain any class abilities of the classes whose spells they learn through intensive magical study but neither do they have the restrictions of these classes. For example they can cast clerical or mystical spells without serving a Deity. Make your own assumptions as to what this says about where divine magic comes from as to the minds of the authors of The Compleat Spellcaster!

Magical Inscriptions

In the hands of a clever DM, this section can provide hours of campaign material. It deals with three matters: runes, magic symbols, and circles of power. All three are accompanied by illustrations, and while you may simply assume that gaining levels in a spell casting class unlocks access to them (it does), you can just as easily decide the knowledge must be found "in-game", that is, a certain rune, symbol or power circle must be discovered in a tome or scroll or be taught by a higher level spellcaster. Runes and Magic Symbols are primarily the domain of the Mystic Class and the source of much of the Mystic's power. Power circles are used in summoning rituals and WOE unto the spell caster who constructs or draws one improperly.
This to me is one of the greatest gems of this book--it adds a depth to magic-using or clerical classes that D&D lacks. Games like Harn went there, the how and the why and the study of magic, the classes and orders built upon the traditions, but D&D went for a simpler path. And that path is good, but there is certainly more to add with this book. 

The player who is controlling a spell casting character can feel that their character really is learning and acquiring magical and arcane knowledge, not simply getting access to new spells. It could certainly add a very fresh and long lived element to any campaign when the game is not simply about getting new "Bang" powers but the quest being the process in actually gaining such powers.

In a nutshell, this section provides runes and symbols that represent various defensive and protective magical effects and details what sort of circles are used to protect a spell caster when communicating with or summoning beings from the planes of existence.



 This short section of the book deals with rules for summoning and controlling familiars. In most respects, it resembles the first level magic user spell "Find Familiar" in 1st Edition AD&D. There is a table for finding a familiar from among animal kind or from among three classes of minor demons. In fact, this book assumes that an animal familiar is possessed with a demon that is so low on the pecking chain in the demon hierarchy that it will gladly choose service to a mortal mage over the torments it endures in the nether world. It will even gladly conform to the commands of a caster whose alignment is diametrically opposed! As with AD&D, the familiar confers not only service but shared sensory perceptions with it's master. If seriously wronged by it's master, however, a familiar can break it's bond pact and seek revenge! To make matters more interesting, the spell caster can have a familiar who inhabits an object or space rather than an animal or demon body. A cauldron, for example. A disembodied familiar is subject to going insane, however. Chances are low, but still....

Summoned Creatures

This section of the Compleat Spellcaster is both a bestiary and a magic tome.Again, in the hands of a creative DM, it can add a TON of campaign material for him or her as well as a depth and color for spell casting classes...and any companions foolish enough to be involved with them.

The DM using this supplement will include in his game the assumption among spell casters and persons acquainted with magical lore that there is an "Ancient Pact of Summoning", and the book states that "While the origins of this pact are lost to antiquity, the conditions have remained the same over the eons of time."

What the Pact amounts to are some common conditions for the process of summoning and conjuration that will be known to a spell caster, or, if the DM is devious, learned by them through magical research and discovery and ancient tomes.
Basically, magic circles must be properly made, as well as incense of a certain Gold piece value burned. Knowledge of the offerings demanded by summoned beings must be possessed. In the case of higher infernal powers, true names must be known. If these precautions and requirements are seen to, the summoned being is bound to one act of service to the spell caster.

Serious perils are attendant if one should fail in their magical preparations. Demonic possession, insanity, trickery and demonic deception, imprisonment on another plane are risks taken. But if a mage knows and follows all the guidelines, he or she stands  a very reasonable chance of getting what is desired.

There are three basic classes of summoned beings in the Compleat Spell Caster: Demons, Guardians, and True Elementals.

Guardians are, for lack of a better description, generic angelic beings who serve lawful good and chaotic good deities. They resemble biblical angels as winged beings with swords and are primarily included in this section because of the Mystic Class, whom they are special guardians towards. Obviously, summoning them is not as perilous as trying to do sowith their infernal counterparts, but if the Mystic is careless as to WHY he summons them and they "die" as a result, the Mystic loses the power to call upon them for as long as a year. They only appear to and serve Mystics who strictly follow alignment and faith restrictions.

True Elementals are of four types: Earth, Water, Fire and Air. They are somewhat like demigods, are True Neutral beings, and do not mind being summoned provided either the cause or the offering is good enough. For example, a Water Elemental will be more than happy to destroy a ship of profane sailors who have acted impiously in their comings and goings upon his or her sea road. True Elementals are sometimes worshiped as gods and goddesses.

The Demon hierarchy provided in the Compleat Spellcaster is very interesting. It is not meant to be used in conjunction with the 1st Edition Monster Manual Demon descriptions, but rather, to replace it. It assumes a different cosmology altogether, and is actually congruent with the setting detailed in the Bard games trilogy of Atlantis; the Lost World. There is no order of devils, and none of the named  demons of AD&D are present. A demonic being named Mephistopheles in perhaps the highest and most mysterious lord of the nether realms in this supplement. A description and stats of lesser demon types as well as all the greater demons and arch demons is given, along with the demands of each according to the Ancient Pact of Summoning. "Pleased to meet you, can you guess my name..but what's troubling you is the nature of my game..."

The Major Arcana

This section of this interesting supplement deals with several spells and artifacts that are of a special nature and could be used as the object of campaign quests. One of my favorites is the spell called Sorcerer's Gate. It is essentially an AD&D Dimension Door but is of a permanent nature and can be set in any place chosen by the caster, such as the hollow of a tree in a forest, to lead to a certain destination. 

This concludes the sections of the Compleat Spellcaster.

Overall Review

If you are able to acquire this somewhat elusive tome, it could add much to your game, either as an actual supplement or as inspiration. The writing is top notch, clear and very in line with the period of gaming from which the Compleat Spellcaster was born.
Like all Bard games books I have read, the intelligence, education, depth and dedication of the authors is evident at all times. 

Aesthetically, it is a joy to read and view. There are several full page illustrations by the same artist who drew the cover, one Joe Bouza. My initial internet searching produced no information about this artist or any other attributable works, which is a shame, because he has a special touch. There is also an abundance of very good pen and ink illustrations accompanying the bestiary done either by one Tom Doran or the author, Stephen Michael Sechi. 

The writing is done in old school game type font with occasional calligraphic embellishments.

I definitely plan to not only incorporate the Complete Spellcaster classes into my next D&D campaign, but to use it's depth of magic knowledge and it's demonology as plot structures and PC quests and goals. If you can grab a copy, I highly recommend it to you if you DM any class based rules system!

Back Cover

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

In Memoriam: Wyatt Ferris, Fellow Gamer and A Beloved Son

Wyatt Ferris

This post causes me more reflection than any other I have ever posted.

The young man pictured above is Wyatt Ferris.

I did not know Wyatt. Before this week, I had never even heard of him or seen his face. But being a member of  Facebook community which I love very much, DM Scotty's Crafts and Games, I happened across a post which gave me pause.

Rather than attempt to describe it, I will simply relay the post to you in the words of Wyatt's mother, the original poster:

Last week my 17 year old son Wyatt Ferris took his own life after suffering a traumatic brain injury. He was very active in the gaming community, both as player and GM. In order to show our endless love for Wyatt and to honor his countless hours at the gaming tables, we're asking GMs and storytellers around the world to add Wyatt as an NPC in your games. Wyatt was a paladin, cavalier, war priest, rogue, swashbuckler, investigator, Hellknight bodyguard, and more. Please see the photos here of Wyatt and use the hashtags #Play4Wyatt #WyattNPC so we can follow his continued adventures. Thank you for helping this broken hearted mother mend after this tragic loss. I love the gaming community for starting this for my son. My Twitter is @baddicebad.

I asked Wyatt's mother if I could share her posting here and she asked that I would do so.

Being a parent, I can only imagine Wyatt's family's pain, but their love of life...and his...is evident in this request and the beautiful pictures of Wyatt his mother has shared.

So if you can, please honor Julie's request and let's make Wyatt's love of adventure live on.

If you are a blogger, please, by all means, post Julie's request in your own way at your site.  

Rest in peace our fellow gamer! 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

MazeCraft: Setting up Simple Dungeons for Your Game on a Budget

Nothing fancy, but very inexpensive and should prove a lot of fun with the kids. 

The pictures are of a dungeon board I've been crafting this weekend. My aim was a different aesthetic than the traditional scale and realism of my D&D games, something a bit abstracted and fun. 

I am preparing a game for Halloween night since I've been asked by some family to do so for the cousins and their friends who are too old to trick or treat, and these are the elements. It will play something like a board game version of D&D, a bit like Hero Quest. I was inspired by the magic cat encounter in the dead village of Maajula in Dark Souls 2 and so in my game, if a cat is randomly encountered, giving it a treat results in the grant of a magic spell that can be used once. That should tell you how serious the game is!

I want to make a game that is exciting and fun for our younger ones and one which can be learned easily enough in one session that any of them can run it and they can play it together whenever they want.

However, the mat would work just as well for the traditional miniatures as well for a normal game of D&D. 

The fun part is instead of the arduous and meticulous painting of metal minis, I can recruit my heroes and monsters from the toy bin at thrift stores! See the cleric with his mace below? He cost me a quarter and was fully painted. I have over 100 game pieces like the ones pictured here. You can see I cut of Maleficent's horns--she is going to be painted and re-purposed as the Elf Sorceress in my game. 

The Jenga Blocks are going to be scored to look like heavy stonework, roughed up on the edges a bit with a drimel, and painted to serve as moveable walls and arches. I'm also going to weight them down so they stay in place. A lot less work than modular dungeon tiles, and they can be arranged in endless patterns for every game and stow away like Lincoln Logs.

I ran into some difficulties with the foam core material I used, it was a triple panel that separated during the process and also warped, so I'm going to mount the panels on thin plywood with hinges. I pressed a square perfume lid over and over (and over) into the foam core and it left a relief which then guided me in painting. Yeah, about five hundred pushes and my wife wasn't thrilled with that idea with her perfume lid...

I could have drawn a grid but I wanted a little bit of relief edges on my tiles.

The squares aren't perfectly sized but for my game purposes they will work as game board spaces for movement rolls...the Elf Sorceress mentioned above gets a +1 on movement, incidentally, but she has less life tokens than her fellow adventurers. Still, she gets several spells to choose from at the start of the game and if she should meet a cat in the dungeon, she can have spells restored!

Now get you unto the Mazes!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Old School Game Review: Tekumel Source Book; the World of the Petal Throne, Swords and Glory Volume 1 by M.A.R. Barker

"Kor'unkoi hiGard'asisayal Ko'lumelan hiTirik'eluda'lida'lisa"

The above words are the English character rendering of the Tsolyani language title of the Book of the Mighty Imperial Deeds of the Great and Glorious Petal Throne, the royal decrees of the Emperor of the Petal Throne which are published upon leaves of gold and kept in the mysterious Hall of Blue Illumination at the chancery in the Royal city of Avanthe. I don't have a Tsolyani font generator unfortunately, or I could show you the beautiful, fluid exotic calligraphy of the title in Tsolyani script in all of its lush, vibrant movement on the page.

Now unless you were born upon the planet of Tekumel to one of the nobility clans of mighty Tsolyanu and are of sufficient rank, you are not even permitted to enter the Blue Hall, let alone touch or read the Book of Mighty Imperial Deeds. 

However, you can acquire and read the Tekumel Source Book from the Tekumel Foundation through DriveThru RPG and obtain an in-depth survey of the origins, races, geography, cultures and mythologies and religion of Tekumel, brought to you by the hand of the late Professor M.A.R. Barker,  creator of the fascinating world of the Petal Throne.

In it, you will find all the setting information you need to run a plausible Tekumel campaign. The book contains no maps or playing rules--it is strictly setting material--but these are easily enough obtained through online order. In fact, there are playing rules available for free download at www.tekumel.com and artist Jeff Dee, of TSR fame, has also recently published a set of rules called Bethorm if you are interested in the latest Tekumel rules.

There also exist online conversion guidelines for playing Tekumel with AD&D, Savage Worlds, GURPS, and even Runequest.

I am extremely happy with my new copy of the Sourcebook, which is available in watermarked PDF or black and white hardcover. The book arrived very promptly and appears solidly bound, the ink so fresh and crisp that it actually still shines. It ran me around $30.00 after shipping.

It is not heavy on illustrations but what art it contains consists of very elegantly inked renderings of the various Tekumelani non-humans by a capable artist named Craig Smith, two historical scenes from Tekumel by Professor Barker, and a couple pages of the diverse Tekumelani scripts.

On of the more interesting features of The Sourcebook--a number of pages dealing with pronunciation and writing of Tsolyani and other Tekumelani languages. These will allow a game master to create some very interesting props and gradually, word by word, introduce enough actual Tsolyani words to really add flavor to a game. M.A.R. Barker invented these languages, and he had the credentials to do so: he was a professor of Urdu and South Asian languages and the Chair of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota. He authored a book on the Urdu language and had articles published on the language of the Klammath Indian Tribes of Oregon as well. He also traveled to many countries on anthropological and linguistic studies and also because he loved to see these places. The Professor had very interesting perspectives to bring to the world of gaming and fantasy world building.

An illustration by M.A.R. Barker depicting the Wizard Ny'elmu gazing upon Princess Ma'in in his Globe of Distant Discernment. The faded appearance is actually light glare from the super fresh ink!

If you are unfamiliar with the world of Tekumel, it has a long and storied history in the annals of gaming. It was the one of the first Dungeons and Dragons games, published in 1975 by TSR as the boxed set Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT). Prior to it's debut as a role playing game it had existed for many years as an intricately detailed fictional setting created by the Professor as a basis for a series of fantasy novels he later wrote which have seen major publication. Tekumel has been the subject of a score of professionally produced game materials published at various intervals from that time until now, including lines of metal miniatures, boardgames, roleplaying games, and wargames. A very rich body of fan and player produced material in zine form also exists, as well as an extensive internet archive of articles, correspondences with M.A.R. Barker. In short, there is no want of resources for an enterprising Gamemaster who wishes to convey his players to the strange and wonderful world of Tekumel.

The Tekumel Source Book is my personal favorite resource.

Weighing in at 150 or so pages and containing a very extensive index, nearly every detail of Tekumel history or society is at the GM's fingertips, and it is not a dry read. Aside from the T.S.B. being artfully written, you can feel Professor Barker's enthusiasm and energy coming through every line. 

The book is broken into numbered sections and subsections and contains a very detailed historical overview. Tekumel actually has a science fiction basis, having been an alien planet settled by starfaring Earthmen as well as other galactic races. A great cataclysm buried Tekumel's technological pasted and frayed the inter-dimensional boundaries, allowing the influence of powerful entities who were destined to become the "gods" of Tekumel. Their energies also became a means of power to the peoples of Tekumel--energies that on the basis of intent, purpose and effect constitute what any rational person would call magic.

Tekumel is one of few games to offer a scientific rationale for it's Deities and spellcasting! 

After the cataclysm, the races of Tekumel found themselves sundered from the galaxy they had known, trapped in a dimension all their own. Soon, the technological marvels of the Ancients had become only legends and relics, the superiority and relevance of technology being eclipsed by the practical uses of the new magic.

From the ashheap arose new civilizations and empires, the first notable one being the ancient and mysterious Ilyan, a culture largely only known from buried inscriptions. Then came the Three States of the Triangle, a civilization whose foundations were laid upon three great cities of antiquity and their trade routes. This civilization was swept away by unnaturally tall and fiercely warlike barbarians called the N'luss, riders of Dragons, history being unclear as to whether these Dragons were strange beasts now unknown to Tekumel or technological relics of the star-faring ancients. The reign of the Dragon Warriors would in turn give way to the Fishermen Kings, powers so named because of their great sailing ships.

The end of the time of the Fishermen kings was occasioned by a 13 year old slave girl who was to eventually become concubine to a king, then a queen, and ultimately, by various intrigues and well planned marriages and assassinations, one of the most powerful royal personages of all time. From the kingdom of Queen Nyari would arise the First Imperium which flowered into a Golden Age that saw incredible religious and cultural innovations. The Golden Age was to be followed by another terrible decline, the Time of No Kings, brought about by physical cataclysms and terrible wars, but this has been followed by the glorious Second Imperium. 

All of this is but a taste of the history you find in the T.S.B. along with the names of the names of each Seal Emperor of the Petal Throne, the duration and hallmarks of their reigns, and the contemporary political climate in Tsolyanu (home nation of the player characters) and it's four neighboring kingdoms. At the commencement of a game campaign set on Tekumel, the players will begin in the year 2,358 of the Second Imperium. There is an abundance of resources given to a GM who might wish to run his or her Tekumel game based on politics and intrigues as much as monster killing and treasure winning.

You will find no Tolkien here--Tekumel as a setting is an amalgamation of science fiction pulp magazines and swashbuckling films concealed neatly in a lavishly painted milieu that evokes Mesoamerican, East Indian, and Dravidian mythological patterns. A pantheon of Gods which consist of Five Gods of Stability and their polarities, the Five Gods of Change, provides the rich and elaborate Temple life of the cities of Tsolyanu. Each God or Goddess also has a Demigod servant and attendant known as a Cohort, each of whom are honored in their own name along with that of their master or mistress. Religion plays a major role in every player character's life in a game of Tekumel, and magic using characters normally acquire their spells from the Temple teachers.

The nonhuman races of Tekumel are as richly detailed as Tsolyani culture. There eight non human races available to a player, one of my favorites being the hulking Shen, reptilian "Demon Warriors" from arid wastes who are among the most feared warriors on Tekumel and hence highly sought after as mercenaries.

A pair of Shen in full regalia, probably portrayed to denote military allegiance. Shen actually possess natural armor and weapons that are just as fearsome as their blades, and they accept cannibalism in their culture as a means of weeding out weak offspring and dispatching Shen born from egg clutches with a different smell than one's own....

Tsolyani culture will be something quite different to players used to the quasi-medieval setting of D&D. It is not politically correct by modern standards, to put it mildly. Slavery is a punishment for crimes as well as an aftermath of losing in battle and well established as a caste. The Stability Gods generally do not favor humans as sacrifice but they sometimes do and one of them, the war god Karakan, is served by a priesthood who routinely offers him the captured warriors of foreign campaigns. The Change Gods delight in human sacrifice, some more than others, and it is routine in their Temples and an accepted facet of Tsolyani society. A player character's highest loyalty is most always to his or her clan and it's interests and reputation--if a player is role playing properly in a Tekumel game, the interests and reputation of the clan are even more important than the private and individual concerns of the character.

Also, Tsolyani society is patriarchal, albeit, not empirically so; a woman may declare herself "Aridani" at any time in her life she wishes, and as Aridani she enjoys complete equality both socially and legally. Polygamy being a male prerogative in Tsolyanu, Aridani women may also follow that path as well. Aridani women can rise as high in the Temples or Imperial government as any man--acceptance of the custom is universal. Homosexuality and multiple partner relationships don't raise an eyebrow on Tekumel. The class system, closely related to the status of a clan, is accepted without question and people who speak or act disrespectfully to those of higher status may find themselves in serious trouble. 

Honestly, if you have a player in Tekumel who insists on trying to relate to Tsolyani culture in terms of traditional D&D, that player's character will probably not live long. If they speak to the Imperial legionnaires as they are used to speaking to town guardsmen in other settings or try to pickpocket someone, they could simply be killed--impalement is the usual method. The Legionaries are the direct representatives of the Emperor, and stealing is considered base and dishonorable. Not that no one steals, but there is no acceptance of a thief class or guild.  Tekumel is great fun but it requires being willing to really commit to being Tsolyani. Players who can do so will find themselves richly rewarded with the unique gems that gaming on Tekumel has to offer.

Still, Professor Barker often offered this caveat in his writings: in the end, the Gamemaster is free to develop with his or her players any Tekumel that pleases their taste. He encouraged people to take what appealed to them and set aside the rest, so actually, a GM could run Tekumel much as they run other campaigns. Still, I feel that people who put a little effort into gaming on Tekumel in accord with M.A.R. Barker's vision of his setting will find it very much worth the adaptation.

A great illustration of one of the Priests of Ksa'rul, the God of Change who prizes knowledge and occult wisdom for purely selfish means. Ksa'rul was such a threat to the other gods and goddesses that even his fellow gods of Change allied with the Stability Gods and aided his imprisonment in a state of eternal slumber in a strange dimension known as the Blue Room where he sleeps and dreams even to this day; his Priests and Priestesses, however, will assure you that he shall not sleep there forever..

I encourage any Gamemaster to read Professor Barker's books, particularly Man of Gold and Flamesong. These were published by DAW and are very gripping swords and sorcery reading as well as great insights into how to run a Tekumel game. I can also highly recommend the Tekumel Sourcebook as being a great addition to any GM's bookshelf. Even if you never run a Tekumel campaign, rich mines are here to be plundered to add incredible flavor to any D&D campaign you may be running with even a little adapation--the Tsolyani culture could neatly be inserted into any non Tekumel fantasy setting, even as an exotic foreign culture far across the sea. If you do wish to GM a Tekumel game, this book contains all you need to know if you also have the accompanying maps, which are available for sale and also are archived at www.tekumel.com 

Swords and glory await you!

But beware the smell of cinnamon in the Underworld...


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

GAMESPELL; A Theory of Gamestyle by J.E. Becker

 What is Gamespell?

Gamespell is not a game system or setting but a method of playing a tabletop roleplaying game…what we would call a “style of play.” 

This style of play will not appeal to every sort of rpg gamer but shall be as meat and drink for those who crave such a gaming experience. 

These latter are the gamers who, we are often told, “take things too seriously”; those strange role-players who seek an immersive, vicarious experience from their fantasy gaming that is similar to the rapture of an engrossing film or book. They want to try, in as much as within their power and can be safely managed, to “be” in the game they are playing., to make the game and the tale within the game as “real” as possible.

Quite simply, they wish to enter the fantasy world. Not forever...not for real...just for a little while, as realistically as possible.

Attend any movie theater and if there is a good or great film playing, you will observe reactions among the audience. People may be scared, on the edge of their seat, or even crying or sitting in saddened silence, mesmerized by the vicarious life they are watching upon the screen. Likewise, a reader with a gripping book is equally mesmerized, caught up, like the moviegoer, in a story that they know is fiction, is not “real”, and yet their real emotions are engaged in the tale into which they have submerged.

There is no reason that a fantasy role-playing game experience cannot be almost or as engaging if those who enter the experience together are willing and committed to letting it be so.

Beer and pretzels gaming and the ensuing hilarity and campiness that results from rpg-playing as pure goofiness is a beautiful and fun pastime for friends and a time honored method of play. Every gamer can enjoy such playing.

But there is another, more vicarious gaming experience to be had, one where those who cooperate in the setting of atmosphere , plot and characterization can be as players upon a stage, allow the story and the atmosphere to carry them along for a few hours to a place where halting the game and rising from play is not unlike awakening from a dream or a relaxed and pleasant state of mild hypnosis such is experienced when listening to music, watching a great play or film or being enfolded in the pages of a beloved fantasy novel.

This is the experience which Gamespell is meant to aid and facilitate.


Gamesmaster, you are tasked not only with the preparation and conducting of the adventure but also its presentation in an atmosphere suitable for the Gamespell. 

Little need be said to an experienced Gamesmaster about how to prepare a dungeon or adventure, but now you will be working as much to create a mood or ambience as you will in running the adventure.

Many things will aid you in this…music , art, props, lighting, even fragrances.  These we will examine presently.

But the chief thing to realize as a Gamsepell Gamesmaster is that you are not to be what is prominent in the game session; it is the fantasy world and experience that should stand out in relief to your troop.

You are not there to crack jokes or speak unendingly but to be the medium between the players and the fantasy environment and non player characters they encounter. Humor and joking is fine and always in order, not to mention serving as a much needed relief from the heroic and high fantasy themes of Gamespell, but let the Gamesmaster’s humor be given vent through well acted non-player characters and subtle underlying themes built into the adventure.

Players should perceive your brief descriptive narratives as a disinterested voice that speaks as little as possible except when you are acting as a non player character, in which case by all means you should enter the role and have as much fun as everyone else is having—in character. Because as the players are to “be” their characters, so you are to be something other than yourself for a little while.

The Gamesmaster should make certain every player has a copy of these guidelines before playing so they know what to expect and also, be certain they desire this sort of game. 

You will rely upon diverse elements and not lengthy narrative description to impart the fantastic vision you want your game to be for yourself and everyone present. It will be necessary enough for you to give descriptions when these elements are not sufficient and to answer the inevitable questions that arise in play, but that is why you should curtail any unnecessary talking so that your voice is not omnipresent. You will be relying mostly upon your players’ imaginations; you are not there to make them see what you see but to let them see what they can envision within their own minds, both collectively and individually.

One of the most important features of Gamespell is that the rules and mechanics of the game you are using fades from the forefront and the story and setting become prominent.

For this reason, there is to be absolutely no arguing about rules during the Game. 

Time should definitely be set aside before or after the game to clarify rules or straighten out differences, but during Gamespell, as much recourse and reference to books as can be avoided should be avoided or handled in the form of a note to the Gamesmaster should it prove absolutely necessary.
Players who agree they want to play a Gamespell style campaign will therefore accept without explanation the decisions of the Gamesmaster during play and not make lengthy appeals to rules books. 

This does not mean a player will always be wrong or disallowed to express questions and perhaps help the Gamesmaster past a misunderstanding; what is mean is that during actual play the above principle should be observed by all.

You will understand from the onset that players and GMs who enjoy rules lawyering , as it is called within the hobby , will realize here and now that they do not wish to play Gamespell. And while these are fellow brothers and sisters of our craft and hobby with whom we can enjoy playing games outside of Gamespell, for purposes of this gaming style , it is well they do not want to play, for it is not gathering a group of willing players that is usually the bane of any aspiring gaming group but achieving the right concord concerning game style. No stones are being cast; the desire is that players who enjoy a particular table style will be matched with a gaming group that delivers this to them.

Note however, that this rule of acceptance of the Gamesmaster’s choice of how to proceed during play when a mechanic rule is in question does not mean we are to assume he or she is right about the matter in question, only that rules discussions will take place before or after a Gamespell session, not during. The Gamesmaster, as always, will be expected be using a set of rules and a setting that is familiar and to be amenable to admitting any mistakes in interpreting the rules.

Because of the “No Gametalk Rule”, as it is called, it will happen occasionally that a player’s character or the party is affected, seriously or even drastically, by the Gamesmaster’s decision when he or she proceeds with an incorrect interpretation or faultily remembered rule .  In Gamespell, however, there is a remedy for this situation, that being the mitigating principle of Poetic License . If, in out of session discussion it is determined that the GM was wrong and the course taken created unfair or damaging consequences to any character, the story is simply altered to undo, as much as possible, the deleterious effects. Thus, if a character died due to a rules error on the Gamesmaster’s part, when the next session resumes, that character is alive. If a magical item was lost, or a friendly non-player character offended and estranged, or whatever the case, all is undone and the next session of Gamespell begins with things set right; it is not important to this style of play if a story changes after the fact, only that the illusion and immersive experience of play during a session is maintained as much as can be done.

If the Gamesmaster is not to speak endlessly or give unending narrative or description, how, you may ask, will players “see” the fantasy realm and respond to the game?

In answer, the Gamesmaster is to make use of ambience, props, visual and auditory art, and the players’ own imaginations.

The Gamesmaster does not need to describe with long narrative what the characters discover upon being conveyed to an Elfin Kingdom or Enclave—he or she can play a specially chosen and prepared piece of classical or medieval music in a soft light setting while passing around or holding up an image that either shows or evokes the Elfin Kingdom in a manner that will impress it upon the imagination of the player.

Players are asked to let go, to listen to the music, and to “experience” the image and the sounds together and form in their own minds. For this reason, it will not be uncommon for there to be many moments of silence during Gamespell, wherein the particpants attempt to truly feel and visualize the game world and what is taking place there by means of a meditative disposition which makes the enjoyment of a piece of art or a selection of music an integral element of play . At times, it may be that players will close thier eyes and listen to an entire sing or instrumental piece as they see with thier mind's eye what the piece evokes.

At other times, suitable music is played in the background during normal play. Imagine listening to Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel as the characters browse a village Bazaar...or a dark and brooding piece of Wagner as they approach a dragon's mountain, accompanied by a painting of one of Larry Elmor 's dragons. The power and grandeur of music and art, and thoughtful silences amidst  character role playing, become effective means of creating the Gamespell. It is no longer incumbent upon the Gamesmaster to paint the world with his or her own meager words-- in such an atmosphere, the players' imaginations will do that work instead.

Thus, the Gamesmaster does not seek to place any certain image in their minds; he or she may simply play a suitable classical piece while showing the players a color image of Botticelli’s Primavera  It is not assumed that the players are actually seeing exactly the scene they behold in the art piece, but rather that this is an evocation of the feeling from what their characters are actually seeing.

At some point, the Gamesmaster will ask them to close their eyes and “see the Elfin Kingdom.” At this time, brief suggestions and bits of description can be offered as the players visualize in their own minds what their character is experiencing. “See the stately elves, smiling at you as their viols and harps fill the glen…see them dancing in the treetop houses…merrymaking and soft song with the smells of a midsummer’s feast…you stare transfixed as an Elf Lord and His Lady approach you…you may open your eyes.”

At such a point, the Gamesmaster would now speak as the Elf Lord or Lady. If desired, one of the players can speak from a prepared piece of dialogue provided by the Gamesmaster., portraying the Lord or Lady.as it becomes them. The Gamesmaster would take over the character once the players begin interacting with the non player character, but a regular feature of Gamespell can be the most suitable players introducing a non-player character or monster and then resuming playing their character as the Gamesmaster takes over.

As you can see, visualization, letting go and seeing, if you will, a “movie of the game” in your mind is an important component of Gamespell. The desired effect is that by use of soft lights, a quiet and private playing space, perhaps candles or oil lamps , mood altering music and imagery, players will become relaxed and the characters, story and setting will be more suggestively impressed upon their mind’s eyes.  This is, in fact, how movies and movie theaters and plays are designed to draw you into them. And this is exactly what Gamespell attempts to do: that is, create a drama stage or movie theater atmosphere in a game table environment, in as much is possible, so that the same sort of transport can occur during your adventure, in a shared fantasy world that is experienced both individually and collectively.

Even though during the visualization process each player sees in his or her own mind something completely different and unique to their own psyche and how their psyche is filtering and interpreting the visual and auditory elements, there is still  enough of a shared element that it will feel as though everyone saw the same thing. And play will proceed from that basis. The Gamesmaster is actually letting the player’s imagination do the work , and for the player, it is more relaxing and pleasant to experience this than have to try and digest a wall of repetitive narrative that leaves as many questions as it does answers.

Everyone who is playing Gamespell is attempting to evoke for themelves and every other player the feeling of Being There.

In light of this fact, it should be most apparent that it is not only the Gamesmaster who avoids silly banter and superfluous description but the players as well. This is governed by the ageless roleplaying principle of staying in character, or, to be more memorable, “In Persona Dramatis.”

Jim, who is playing the role of Felhaus the Fighter, does not say “Felhaus lights a torch” but speaking as Felhaus, Jim says “I shall set a torch to burning, that by its flame we might see this buried place.”  Angie, who is portraying Drumina the Cleric , does not say  “Drumina casts her healing spell upon Felhaus to heal the goblin damage” but speaks in the voice she imagines to be of Drumina, and says “Felhaus, good knight, ye shall be healed by the power of the Goddess, behold, I cast my healing upon thee.”

It is by these acts of small drama, and staying in character, that the players will immerse themselves in the game and create a much richer experience that is, it is hoped, will be almost akin to a spell. The story is the spell…

It can be easily seen that out of character banter, such as talking about your day at the office or the factory, or interrupting the game to discuss politics or a movie you saw is definitely not fit for a session of Gamespell; that would be somewhat like if we were all seated in a movie and right during an intense part of the film someone behind us began loudly talking, breaking the spell.

Thus the party, as well as the Gamesmaster , will endeavor to avoid as much as possible such Player Talk and be committed to Character Talk instead. And with regards to Character Talk, players may be as free as they wish for they are acting out a play of everyone's making.

We are conditioned socially to feel embarrassed or silly about individually expressing ourselves this way, especially now that we are adults. And yet, socially, we don’t look down on actors or musicians or artists when they let go, not when we are getting to experience someone else’s imagination. If we should see someone shedding a tear at a movie, we don’t say “Don’t you realize that no one really died here? That’s just an actor and this film is fiction.” Somehow we feel, most of us anyway, that that is perfectly acceptable. But if a group of gamers lets go and pretends to be their characters and to “see” and share a fantasy setting, well, this is somehow different to many. It is our position that, in fact, it is not so different, or needn't be among gamers. 

It is not necessary that everyone be real acting talent during Gamespell, but it is important that can let go and be their character.

For this reason, it will be beneficial if at the beginning of a session of Gamespell if the Gamesmaster sets the modd by dimming the lights, playing an appropriate music piece, perhaps a piece that become the theme of the fantasy setting, and gives the players a chance to let the world outside wash off their shoulders. The Gamesmaster may then say something to this effect; “Greetings, Mighty Heroes. Rest for a moment as you see the world outside of this room fading away. You have entered the world of (the setting). You are no longer Jim—you are Felhaus, the warrior of renown. You are no longer Angie, but you have become Drumina the Priestess of Ardrahna, Goddess of the Namonites. You are no longer Chris, but you are Isilthris, Master Magician. Til we break this Gamespell. What is your wish?”  Or set up the introduction piece from here. 

In addition, each player may have an illustration or figure that is set forth prominently to depict their character and everyone should focus upon seeing and hearing each other in these roles.

Players should feel comfortable enough in their group to then let go and speak as their character. Due to the descriptive nature of role-playing, it will sometimes be necessary to state as dialogue what, in a real setting, one would simply do, but even fantasy worlds have their limitations. As In Dramatis Persona is already an understood rule for people who have agreed to gather for Gamespell, the Gamesmaster should not try to force this during a game. Sometimes it will be inevitable that something must be said or asked not in charcter. But every Gamespell group will find their own creative ways to interact so as to preserve the principle of Character Talk and No Game Talk  as much as possible.

For obvious reasons, these kind of observances are more likely to be lost in larger groups. It is recommended that a Gamespell party consist of three or at most four players plus the Gamesmaster: this keeps everyone off the sidelines and is much easier to manage under the guidelines suggested here. However, larger groups may work well enough if everyone gets into the spirit. 

A closing word about props. Props are most essential to Gamespell. Music, prerecorded dialogues, art, handmade maps, poems , weapon replicas, potion bottles, scrolls, portraits, sound effects…all are in order for the resourceful Gamespell group and all, not just the Gamesmaster, may take hand in providing crafted props, though the Gamesmaster reserves the right to guide these contributions in a manner that does not conflict with setting or game rules. Some groups would not mind, perhaps, if players were permitted to write a page or two for each session to read, accompanied by music, to their fellow party, bits of background or some such like. Learning to seamlessly move between such moments will be something that develops over time… soon, awkward silences will be replaced by a group rhythm and pace will become natural.

The choice of rules, setting and the use of miniature figures and table top terrain models is a matter of group taste Rules for movement and combat should be simple and understood by all so as to facilitate their quick resolution without Gametalk as much as possible. Some may find it refreshing to leave these behind during Gamespell, perhaps replacing them with larger , lovingly crafted figures which are merely visual in nature and meant to evoke game mood, not necessarily strictly tied to rules of movement. For example, in addition to six or seven inch tall representations of the characters which are either crafted by the group of printed from images and affixed to heavy card stock on both sides, the Gamesmaster would also have pieces prepared for non player characters and monsters. If Drumina, Felhaus, and Isilthris have met a minotaur and are engaged in battle, the minotaur figure is set on the table purely to help create a mood, not to be moved about during battle. Figures like this Wraith, pictured below:

It was crafted using a plastic dollar store skeleton from a package of four, a cloak from an old doll,  foam board particles for the base, and a stick to hold it upright. It is nearly seven inches in height. My inspiration was from the South American paper mache and cloth dolls of folk tradition. Gamespell would benefit greatly if such crafting and props became a hobby of the players involved and everyone who could and wanted to contributed to the props.

This concludes the general rules and guidelines for Gamespell. Now you have only to find likeminded players to whom such a “serious” game appeals. Not that the game should always be serious.-laughter and fun are vital parts of every roleplaying game., and everyone should be free to offset the more sober scenes of a Gamespell session with levity and humor; only seek to be creative in doing so In Dramatis Persona.

Does Gamespell work, you ask? Absolutely, if you can let go and as a group of players collaborate in a little magic. I will never forget playing a game many years ago in a darkened room with six other players and having our playing pieces on the table cast in a relief of shadows in the flickering light of candles as I told them that in the ruined dungeon they found a rotting bed whereupon lay the skeletons of what appeared to be a mother and child. They were the remains of the wife and daughter of the wizard who had once been Master if that place. An eerie and solemn hush fell upon our group and it felt like we were there. The child's skeletal wrist was encircled by a bracelet which was meant to be a clue to passing another barrier in the dungeon and as GM I had intended the party to take it. But so great was the Gamespell at the moment that when the party's Thief went to remove the bracelet, the player running a Cleric suddenly said "No, you shall not desecrate the dead. Thus is a tomb, we shall honor it as such." I looked at the player and was spooked by the emotion in his eyes,  realizing at that moment that he was a father to a daughter of the age of the wizard's dead child. At one point in the game, the Thief attempted to sneak back to the room unnoticed after the party had moved on. I diced to see if the cleric noticed since the player had been suspicious of this happening and had warned the Thief against it. The dice indicated that the Cleric did indeed see the Thief's attempt and he went and blocked the passage, drawing his weapon and warning that in the name of his deity he would rightfully punish any desecration with attack. The Thief declined the Cleric's offer and the party had to go on without the bracelet. While things didn't go as I as GM had planned, the dramatic scene was far more satisfying for everyone as the other players watched this unfold with serious interest.

So immersive was that scene that it had gotten through the player's conscious mind and into his emotions. I had not deliberately attempted to create this effect; somehow the music, the soft light, the props, and our imaginations had combined in a strange but engaging alchemy of role-playing. I did not then refer to this effect as Gamespell but the atmosphere I was wanting to experience even back then was essentially what this essay describes. The hope that such magic moments can be shared by your gaming group is the reason I have shared these thoughts with you.

The best of gaming to you!

Post Script: I will be producing an illustrated PDF of these guidelines in the future. These guidlines may be printed and distributed freely for non-commercial purposes. If there are any questions, comments or feedback, please feel free to address them to me via the comments section of this post. Thank you! Humble apologies to Latin, I need to edit this post again! 

Disclaimer: I assume no responsibility for irresponsible or unsafe use of these guidelines. Candles are potentially dangerous and should only be used by adults with care. In no instance should weapons be brandished or employed as anything other than as visual props: no sharp or real weapons should be used. Hypnosis of others and self hypnosis are complex and potentially mind altering excercises and should not be practiced by anyone without the oversight of a licensed professional. Gamespell is not intended to be a hypnosis session.