Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wizards that manage Awesome: Xavier Pendragon

One of the early wizards I actually enjoyed was from a fighting game of all things.  Eternal Champions was a fighting game released in 1993 on the Sega system.  It was never in arcades being designed for the Sega home system and I enjoyed it greatly despite the fact that it was too hard by half.  Along with Zombies Ate My Neighbors it remains one of the few Sega titles I would still play today.  At the time of its release fighting games were en vogue so any new title was guaranteed to at least get a rental if not a sale.  Eternal Champions did well enough, it would seem, to warrant an expanded edition on Sega CD format with extra characters.  I never played it, but I assume it was just as hard.  This was the dawn of the gore era of fighting games thanks to the runaway success of Midway's Mortal Kombat and its much loved/reviled fatalities.  Eternal Champions attempted to go MK one better with Overkills and being a fully rendered game, as opposed to MK's digitized actors the gore could be over-the-top such as being eaten by a dinosaur.

Fighting games often have storylines, some complex, some not.  Eternal Champions had a fairly involved storyline wherein the competitors were all killed prior to the tournament at a crux in their lives when they would have changed history but for their deaths.  Pulled out of the time stream just before death they were given the opportunity to fight to win the ultimate prize: being sent back to the moment of their death, seconds before the key event, with foreknowledge and a chance to change their futures.  Pretty deep, yeah?  Each character came from a different time and place and their fighting stages were based on those eras and settings.  It was pretty good game from that point if nothing else.  Among the characters (which included a cat burglar from 1920s Chicago, a futuristic bounty hunter from 2030 and a caveman from 50,000 B.C.) was an alchemist/warlock from 17th century Salem, Mass by the name of Xavier.  Since wizards are not often featured in fighting games as playable characters this instantly caught my attention and Xavier became my favorite character to play.  The vast historical inaccuracies (such as the martial arts styles employed by the fighters that more often than not had not been invented when they were alive) are easily forgivable to me. That's saying a lot, you know.
A wizard in a martial arts fighting game?
Why not?
Most fighting games employ a set of special moves for the characters, often involving seemingly magical abilities.  You can say that the martial artists use Chi or some similar psionic ability, but no amount of Chi is going to produce a ball of fire so why not a straight up wizard...even a wizard who gets his powers from Clarke's Third Law.

Full Name: Xavier Pendragon (good start)
Occupation: Warlock/Alchemist (actually his bio says he had failed at many jobs before taking up the study of alchemy, including being a blacksmith/farrier)
Time Zone: 1692 A.D. (you will no doubt instantly recognize that as the year that the Salem Witch Trials began)
Stage Location: Salem (stage location being where he was from and where his fighting stage is; note Time Zone above)
Fighting Style: Hapkido Cane Fighting (One of these things is not like the others...not only is Hapkido a Korean martial art and so unlikely to be known by an Anglo living in Puritan Salem, it was not yet developed, as we know it, when Xavier was alive)

Bio in Brief: After failing at being a blacksmith, drastically, Xavier turned to his original love: science.  He began experimenting with alchemy and rather than finding a way to turn lead into gold he discovered a way to create a source of cheap, clean-burning energy.  This discovery also fundamentally changed him giving him some powers which seemed like magic, but were completely scientific (the instruction manual claimed).  Unfortunately the people of Salem didn't like hippies back then any more than they liked witches and he was seized and burned at the stake for being a warlock before he could reveal his OPEC wrecking secrets to the world.

In game he fights with kicks and cane strikes making use of his "dragon staff" (because a wizard has to have a staff doesn't he?).  His special moves include a teleportation ability that allows him to switch places with his opponent; the ability to convert his dragon staff into a glowing green energy snake and have it coil around the foe, doing damage and holding them in place; and the ability to turn his enemy into gold for a brief time, allowing complete and total freedom to beat them silly.  Like all the Eternal Champions he has a taunt to lower his enemy's fighting abilities, his being "Simpleton" in a somewhat haughty and creepy voice.
Xavier became suddenly aware of his poor choice in attire during the early days of the Witch Trials in Salem.
I like his look.  It is iconic wizard, which might be how he got found out by the good people of Salem.  If you are running around in 17th century Puritan Salem where the people wear shirts, short pants, hose, low-cut shoes, neck cloths and disdain jewelry looking like a wizard with your big foldy boots, cloak and amulet, not to mention your Satanic dragon-headed cane, you are just asking to be burnt, mate.

I also like that he is in a fighting game, beating arse with a stick.  As I've noted before, many, many, many times the lack of physical martial abilities in wizards is a major annoyance of mine.  Old Xavier may disdain the hands-on approach but he has no problem with the foot to the balls and stick upside the head route.

Unfortunately his appearances outside of the game proper, in comic form no less, made him into some sort of jerk-off who looks down on everyone and has an irrational fear of horses.  I get it.  Trying to keep it canon.  Stupid.
Coincidental fashion template or victim of an outright rip-off; you decide.
As far as look goes, I have noticed a more than passing resemblance to the Marvel Comics character Modred the Mystic who first saw the four-color inked light of day in 1975 in Marvel Chillers #1.  Modred, who really deserves his own article, is a wizardly anti-hero/villain possessed by the Elder God Chthon who was so damned while trying to use a book of ultimate evil for the purposes of good.  You know, that old tale.

Xavier Pendragon, one of the Wizards I Do Not Hate.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Wizards that manage Awesome: An Introduction

Wizards...I seem to post about them quite a bit.  You'd think I liked them or something.  As a gamer from way back I can say that yes I do like the wizard, but it is twisted history indeed.  You see, I refused to play wizards in games growing up be they tabletop RPG or arcade games or MMOs (that came later) or computer-based RPGs.  I post about games quite a bit too, come to think of it.
In a previous post entitled I am a Wizard... and I sword, already a classic of pop culture literary criticism, I spoke of my disdain for the treatment of wizards in gaming culture when they have such a rich literary basis and history.  It is precisely because of that maltreatment I mentioned in the linked article above that I avoided playing wizards for so long in gaming.  Like many young men I liked things that were (are, let's be honest) awesome such as skulls, heavy metal, guns, swords, barbarian movies and sharks.  Wizards were, as I saw them then, sorely lacking in much of what made for awesome.  When I entered gaming in earnest I found the wizard to be woefully inadequate as a class (this would be the first days of AD&D 2nd edition, which had its own flaws...but I'm not here to give you a history lesson on AD&D...yet).  I suspect my first foray into playing a wizard of any kind in a game was due to my beloved gamebooks, specifically Grey Star the Wizard, written by Ian Page as part of the World of Lone Wolf series that was set in Joe Dever's world of Magnamund.
The U.S. edition of Grey Star.  Not a cover to make you rush to the counter with your money in hand, I'm afraid.
The U.K. edition of Grey Star.  This is, in my opinion, a stronger cover presentation.
I enjoyed the books immensely, but as gamebooks are written from a solo player perspective with the reader as the hero any inherent comparative weaknesses of the wizard to the other classic character archetypes are not readily seen.
I can also add J.H. Brennan's excellent Grailquest series of gamebooks to my earliest forays into wizardry.  I have mentioned them before in my award-winning essay on Merlin where I explained that Brennan's Merlin employs a young person named Pip to do his dirty work (Pip being the reader of the gamebooks) and as such Pip is a wizard's apprentice and has access to some of the master's magic.
Outside of that I did not muck about much with wizards save for the odd comic book wizard here and there or a video game or two.
It was not until I played Neverwinter Nights 2 with my lovely wife and was forced to take control of a wizard in the party after my character (I don't recall what it was) was killed in combat that I started to take an interest in the wizards again.  I will not lie, it was because of a spell called Issac's Greater Missile Storm.  I was thoroughly impressed with the damage.
Sometime before that incident I read the Harry Potter books.  So the interest was always there, but the application was lacking.
I do find that gaming wizards disappoint me often.  I am interested in the trappings, the bits, the bobs, the esoteric knowledge and all that but in gaming it just keeps coming down to nuke, nuke, nuke, and when in doubt, nuke again.  To offset this WMD potential the wizard gets saddled with a set of restrictions that make the character most undesirable.
And of course I am getting older.  I once balked at the "dress wearing" habits of the wizard, but now I think I like the robes.  I like armor too, so let's not get confused here, but the robes are part of the attire, like a uniform.  Most games these days ignore the full potential of the wizard as the Swiss Army Knife of the group (Wait, I have a spell for that somewhere) focusing on the damage potential, which I think is a shame.

My point here is that I enjoy the wizard in its many roles as character class, fictional protagonist (and antagonist), and cultural icon (also as found on murals painted on the side of vans, which is bitchin').  I like the mystery, the imaginative forces, the look (both dangerous and not-so-dangerous), and the various ways authors and creators describe the spells and work of the mage.  It find it more interesting than simple sword swinging, but I do like that too (quite a bit, actually).

I suppose I could have called this article (series) Wizards I Have Played in Games and Stuff but that seemed to lack poetry.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Spell Profiles: The Coffee from Hell

As any fan of my work will no doubt have memorized every detail of these posts I don't need to remind you gentle readers about my fascinating article on those wizards of the Weird West: Hucksters.  However if you do need a refresher you can always go HERE.  You will recall that I expressed my enjoyment and admiration for the system and approved of the Wilder Magic Designation Type III that it used.  The thrill of knowing that any attempt to cast even the simplest of spells could result in the loss of life, limb, or the eternal soul was matched only by the thrill of being lynched when successful due to the irrational fears of the good folks of the town you just saved from some demonic coyote-rabbit.
The game designers realized that there was a niche that could be filled and where there is a niche there is a dollar to be made.  To the end of filling that niche (and the coffers) they published Hucksters and Hexes, a book full to bursting with new information for the Huckster players.  Among the improvements were a set of minor hexes called "tricks".

Tricks are very minor hexes (spells) that do not require much power to cast and provide correspondingly minor results.  The virtue of the trick is that sometimes a Huckster doesn't need to set the whole town ablaze, he just needs to light a fuse; in the absence of matches he shouldn't have to blow his fool head off to do it.  In game terms the Huckster slips his conscious mind off to the Hunting Grounds, grabs a scrawny little Mantiou and just whips its ass for a smidgen of power.  Even if he fails he just gets a little winded.  Not so bad, really.
Well in all fairness there was a small chance he might still get backlash, but only if he drew the black joker (1 in 54 chance or 1.852%); that's much better than the usual by far.
Tricks were what fantasy gaming calls "cantrips" and there were plenty of them.  Most of the effects were useful, if limited, but players being the clever and crafty lot they are would always find a way to use them in expanded ways.
The trick that always stuck in my head as the prime example is my focus today.

As described in Hucksters and Hexes, coffin varnish is a slang term for bad coffee and that is what the hex makes-sort of.
Cast on a cup or glass of some beverage (anything, as long as it is potable) Coffin Varnish changes the liquid from its former state into something resembling a hot, coffee-like beverage that would curl a dead man's toes.  A thoroughly unpleasant taste experience, the brew had practical uses.
1. It will keep a cowpoke awake.  The in-game benefit was a large bonus to vigor rolls to stay awake.  This is useful if you need to be up for a stake-out or have guard duty or are trying to pull one of those all night poker games.
2. It instantly and irrevocably sobers up drunk people.  The experience leaves the poor soul with a hangover for 1-6 hours, but he is sober.
The coffin varnish must be drunk within 10 minutes of casting to work lest it lose its power and it automatically fails if cast on a magical or alchemical concoction.

That's not a bad little spell.  Coffee is one of those particularly Western genre things like bacon, beans, rot-gut whisky and stampedes.  Thus a spell for making a piping hot cup of nasty coffee is all part of the flavor of the game (puns are free here at the Pumpkin).  You might be thinking, "Hey, that's pretty basic, but I bet it can be of more use than what you've listed."  I'm proud of you.  You have the makings of a true gamer (as opposed to that breed of modern gamer raised in a video dependent world who can't think outside of the script of the game rules).

What could you do with a cup or glass of piping hot, coffee-like hellbrew?
You could throw it in the face of some cuss who is getting on your nerves or holding a gun on you.  That's a likely scenario in both fiction and gaming.
"Okay, you've got me dead to rights, Clem.  I could see when you came in holding that piece that we weren't going to part on friendly terms.  At least let me be neighborly and offer you a cup o' mud." Splash!  +4 to your next attack roll and you have initiative.
That same scenario could go more subtly if you liked.  Just because the rules don't mention any penalties for drinking the blamed stuff is no reason for the enterprising Huckster player to not argue with his GM for an ad hoc roll or penalty.
"Yeah, Tom, I'm going to pick up this cup of regular coffee, cast Coffin Varnish on it and offer it to Clem."
"Sure, Dave, he takes it and takes a drink."
"He should totally be gagging right now; that stuff tastes like the Devil's diarrhea.  Do I get a free attack?"
"I don't know..."
"Come on, man, it tastes like hell.  He's expecting normal coffee, that's got to be worth a negative at least."

You might be one of those players who enjoys the social aspects of gaming more than the dice rolling.  Perhaps you are a wizard with a mean sense of humor and enjoy playing obnoxious pranks (no, that never happens in gaming).  How great a prank is the old cup o' Coffin Varnish played on those closest to you?  Or just pulled at the local chop house on people you don't even know.  One of the odd things about the trick is that it has a range of 1 yard.  3 FEET.  You can literally do this to a person at the other table without their knowledge.  The potential, while not limitless, is staggering in the right hands.

Of course you could pull that black joker and blow your damned head off trying it, but suffering for one's art is all part of the game, right?
"Evenin', Sheriff"
"Evenin', Clem.  Looks a damned bloody mess in here.  Body without a head; just about takes the cookie.  We know what happened?"
"Luke seen it all, Sheriff.  He said this here fella from outta town was sittin' here mumbling something about his coffee then his damn fool head just blowed up and sprayed all over the walls."
"Damn shame, Clem.  Must have been some strong coffee.  Let's go get some beans."

That's a hell of a way to go, blowing your head off for a joke, but man your group will tell that story for a long, long time.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The inherent problem with Socialism

Brethren and Sistren, I am taking a break from my usual in-depth evaluations of gaming and fiction and wizards and such to talk about a very real problem that I am seeing all too often.
I am a frequent patron of the Chesapeake Public Library system.  My most frequent activity at my library is the checking out of recorded books.  As a person that commutes to work I have between an hour and two hours a day to listen to books on CD, depending upon traffic conditions.  I have managed to read many books thanks to this service.  Like so many busy working adults I just don't have to use the restroom enough to get much reading done and this is a fantastic way to do it.  With a book playing through the speaker system of my car I can relax more in traffic knowing that any delay is simply giving me more time to "read".
Thus I say that it hurts me greatly, in an emotional sense, to find that so many of the CDs I check out are scratched, often to the point that whole sections of the texts are unable to be heard, much less enjoyed.
I say now to everyone who uses their local library:
Now a public library is a library that is supported by the public and for use by the public and is intended to serve the public trust.  Your taxes, my taxes, the taxes of the people go to build, staff, supply and maintain that institution.  It is, in essence, everybody's library.  Since no one person owns it you can say, quite correctly, that we all own in a public trust.  The library does not restrict membership to only those citizens who pay taxes, however.  Indeed the library restricts membership based upon local citizenry.  That is to say that in order to obtain a library card you must show proof that you belong to the community the library serves.  The Chesapeake Public Library system has 7 branch locations throughout the city of Chesapeake.  Chesapeake is an independent city in Virginia of 351 square miles that boarders the state of North Carolina and has a population of over 222,000 persons.  All of them are served by but 7 libraries.
Public libraries, like public schools and public parks, are examples of the essential failure of Socialism.  You see Socialism stands opposed to private ownership.  What everyone owns, no one owns.  As anyone who has rented a car or hotel room knows, if you don't own something you are not apt to take very good care of it.  What is worse is that a public institution carries the further problem of being the "government's" responsibility to maintain in trust for the people.  If your city park gets trashed, covered in litter and has its playground equipment and benches defaced who is responsible for the clean up?
Why the government of course, they own it!
But they don't own it.  You own it.  You pay for it with your taxes.  Yet, you do not own it alone.  You share ownership with every other citizen of your community tax payer or not.  What we do not own you do not protect.  The attitude, evident from the abuse and destruction I see every day in public parks and the library, is that "someone else" will take up the slack.  "Someone else" will pay the cost.
Ownership brings with it responsibility.  If you own something it is yours and you cannot look to another to replace it or supplement it.  Should you damage or destroy what you own you have to pay the cost to replace that thing or live without it.  Not everyone treats their property with the same care and concern, but too many of us treat the property of others, including shared public property, far worse than we would our own.
Where we hold no stake we hold no concern.
Take a thief.  A thief steals the property of others and then must fence that property.  Whether it is through pawn, private transaction or another thief who specializes in the disposition of stolen goods the thief accepts far less than the value of the item from the fence.  This is of little concern to the thief for he attaches no real value to the item stolen.
Lack of ownership breeds apathy at best and disdain at worst.
That's what Socialism is, a system in which those who have nothing, produce nothing and desire to produce nothing share in equal ownership with others who do produce and desire.  That corrupt system will not work unless someone in the group does produce, but always that production will be undercut and debased by those that do not.
If you want to see it in action, at its worst, go check out a recorded book from your local library.
Every skip, every scratch, ever second of the text lost to you is but a symbol of what will be lost to you in greater terms should you become a part of that corrupt system.  That book, even if it is a work of fiction represents knowledge and the destruction of the medium robs you of that knowledge.  If another person will so callously destroy that medium, because that person sees it as "somebody else" responsibility, that person will take from you simple joy and knowledge.  Would you put all of your existence into those hands?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Wizard with a (magic) Gun

Recall my discussion of Hucksters and you will remember I briefly mentioned something called a Hexslinger.
Hexslinger at work, just a hexin' and a shootin' the ever-livin' shit outta things.
I want to revisit that character because I really liked it back in the original Deadlands days.

In gaming you really have 3 choices: Class-based, Classless, some unholy hybrid of Class-based and Classless.  Most Class-based gaming is of the type I like to call "Classed Scaling Leveling" (CSL) gaming.  In such gaming the player chooses from a set of classes, which are really packages of skills, traits, abilities, etc. and then as they play the characters "level up" through gameplay getting better at a set rate of improvement.  The Original game (OD&D) and the bulk of every game since then, including nearly all MMOs, are CSL games.  Classes provide the player with a set framework for advancement and improvement and provide a predictable measure of "success" within the game framework.
Classless games are generally what I call Skill-based Freeform (SbF) games and offer advancement through player choices and increasing difficulty skill improvement.  Such games may have something akin to class requirements for magic or technology, but it is not required.  Unholy hybrids of CSL and SbF are just that: unholy and hybrids.  Essentially Unholy Hybrids allow players to create whatever they want but have structured frameworks for specific concepts.
As humans given unrestricted options are often overwhelmed, it is not uncommon for Classless games to offer some sort of template or archetype upon which the player can base their character.  Templates and archetypes are also great for "quick play" options to get a new player right into the game with minimal fuss.  Since most templates and archetypes are based on popular tropes they just come naturally to people.

Back in the 90s PEGinc published a book for Deadlands called Law Dogs which had all sorts of information on playing officers of the law, bounty hunters, banditos, and something new called a Hexslinger.  Now one of the popular issues in RPG and MMO gaming is something called "balance" which is a strange chimera that I am not going to go into at this juncture (but might one day if the mood takes me) except to say that the general notion of balance is that if one guy (class) has lots of strength and armor and weapons then he isn't allowed to cast spells and if another guy (class) can blow things up with a fireball he isn't allowed to wear armor or swing swords.  Deadlands was/is a classless SbF, basically, so the balance is generally maintained by the fact that you can't afford to be good at everything.  True min/maxers will never sacrifice points that could go into their main abilities; good role players often will.
Deadlands, like many classless games, used archetypes to aid the players in designing characters.  Deadlands also used a pseudo-class system with regard to what it called "Arcane Backgrounds" which was where all these Hucksters and Blessed and Weird Scientists came from.  The Hexslinger was a new type of Arcane Background introduced in Law Dogs that worked, essentially, as Hucksters but focused their magic on gunfighting.  Hexslingers could use all the normal Huckster hexes and even had a few new ones (which Hucksters could learn too, I should add) that were associated with gunfighting.  Hexslinger hexes including hexes for reloading your gun, making magic bullets, not getting hit as much, quick-drawing and the like.  The practical upshot of all this was that in a game where you were not likely to find magical guns you could play a gunslinger that could make his own magical bullets.  That's pretty neat.
If you are not a gamer this picture will not make much sense to you.
Given the nature of the game characters like Hexslingers often had to put their abilities into several areas, meaning that they would not be as quick on the draw as a plain old gunslinger or as smart as a plain old Huckster and so on.  Despite that, the flavor of the archetype was just too cool to not play.  The main difference between the Hexslinger and the Huckster, however, was how they learned their craft.  The Huckster decoded the secrets of the Book of Hoyle, but the Hexslinger had a tutor of some kind and usually (but not always) learned with the aid of a "focus" which he had to have or else he could not cast hexes.  The focus was sort of a psychic crutch, you see.  Self-made men versus apprentices; not too much unlike the fantasy well from which this all springs.  Hexslingers still had to risk their souls and minds to wrangle Manitous though and they had all the same problems with backlash.  Balance maintained: see?
And that's what backlash will do for you.
In a game where the walking dead or ghosts or mythical monsters might show up to run roughshod over some backwater town a magical gunfighter standing tall at high Midnight seems a nice thing to have.  Of course these are highly specialized characters to play.  They are pretty much good at one thing only, and that can be a bit limiting to a player.  We see this in all sorts of games.  Sure, it seems great to be a badarse vampire slayer, but unless there are lots of vampires to slay your skillset is just too restricted for the game and more often than not you end up looking for your special type of monster to get your "bonuses" and suffering under your lack of versatility only to meet with frustration when Joe the Generic, Fighter par Mediocrity does the deed for you with his magical Sword of Lopping Off Random Body Parts +5.  I did mention magically reloading the guns, right?  There was also a great spell where you could magically transform ammo should you find that you don't have the right type for the gun you are holding.  How often does that happen?  Well I don't know, but it's a neat trick all the same.  Hey, .22 ammo is pretty cheap.  How great would it be to buy a brick of .22 and just magically turn it into something expensive?  I think you know the answer to that.  In the picture of the Hexslinger above his profile lists Soul Blast as one of his spells.  Soul Blast is a basic Huckster spell and more or less the Deadlands equivalent of the mighty FIREBALL.  Only nastier.  So it's not all guns and ammo, I suppose.
Just a "regular old" Huckster, I'm afraid.
Sadly the Hexslinger did not make it out of the original Deadlands.  By the time the revised edition (not 2nd edition) arrived the term Hexslinger was a general term for Hucksters and in the d20 stuff and later he just sort of faded off into the sunset.  Deadlands Reloaded uses a different enough mechanic that the Hexslinger as a specific subset of Huckster is no more, but the player has the freedom to go ahead and make one if they like.
And why shouldn't they?  Guns are cool.  Magic is cool.  Guns that shoot magical bullets wielded by wizards is not just twice as cool, it is cool squared!  (cool X cool = freakin' awesome)  I'm thinking about it really hard right now and I am still not able to think of anything cooler th...wait...yes, I've got it...Hexslinger riding a T-Rex!  Just shooting and eating everything they see.

I have to say, I sort of miss that guy.  The standard Huckster gets shown throwing cards a lot, which is fine if you are a Cajun mutant thief that hangs out with the spandex crowd, but gets a bit blase after a while.  Now a wizard with a six-gun, that's worth the price of admission.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Today's topic is shapeshifting.
Once upon a time the ability to change one's shape into an animal form was considered magic.  Those who could do so were either magicians of some sort or had used a magical ritual to accomplish the deed.  It is little wonder that many who could do so were given the appellation of witch or something similar in their own culture's tongue.  Superheroes notwithstanding, I think we can all understand how the ability to change one's form, or even to send out the spirit in the form of something else, or just to inhabit the body of an animal would be seen as magical.
Times changed; they always do.
Today the fashion is to consider shapeshifters to be aliens or naturally occurring species.  This has certainly been the case with werewolves of late.  Without going into too great a detail (since I did that back in 2011 HERE) I can trace it thusly: Werewolves start as folk stories/cultural tales, possibly linked to prehistoric shamanic rituals --> Werewolves become a figure of evil in cultural stories after the Christian expansion into Europe and the advance of civilization --> Nobody seriously believes in werewolves anymore; Europeans come to the North American continent and discover similar legends among natives --> Horror as a genre of story becomes commercially viable in print, radio and celluloid --> Folk tales get turned into Horror genre works --> Tales of curses that turn humans into beasts, typically the minority of werewolf tales, become the main plot for werewolf/shapeshifter movies --> Monsters turn sexy --> Werewolves become their own "species" of noble monsters born different because that is what subcultural twats want.

This is all well and good, but did it need to happen?  I don't think it needed to, but it did.  Perhaps if stories had stuck to older legends of wizards changing shape by their own wills it would not have happened.  The curse is the default story now.  We can trace it back to Circe, maybe even before, but it lingers today.  Look at Harry Potter.  The werewolves of Harry Potter are of the bite cum curse variety.  Nobody ever wants to be one.  This is a shame as in the days before the mighty FIREBALL the more subtle magics, including shapeshifting, were the standard.  Modern gaming, for example, seems to give this ability to the druid class.  NOTE: There is absolutely NO basis for this in the historical record.
The witch/wizard, traditionally, assumes a new form (an animal form, not a hybrid) for the benefits of that form and possibly for the freedom, pleasure and communion it provides.

And on top of all of that it is just badass.  I mean, look at that guy.  That is badass, that is.  If you are in a world full of farmers and peasants and people that have forgotten just why the wilds are dangerous (oh, they are convinced the wilds are dangerous, they just don't know how much and why) the ability to turn into a regular old wolf (with your own intellect still intact) is a powerful thing indeed.
In the werewolf movies the protagonist, assuming the film is not about hunting werewolves, becomes cursed and then whines about it.  He doesn't want to be a werewolf.  He doesn't want to be!  Bullshit.  If you could turn into a wolf and rip some asshole who you don't like from neck to nuts and get away with it, and you WILL because the police are going to have zero leads at this point, you would do it.  Every time.
Don't pretend otherwise.

Now the thing about wizards is that they spend a lot of time learning magic and not much time learning to wear armor, swing a sword, or sneak into buildings in the gloom of twilight.  They therefore expect payoff for the hard mental work.  The ability to change your form seems a pretty good payoff.  I'm not saying this should be your first ever spell you learn, but it is still magic and that should be a goal.  I'm not saying don't learn to throw the FIREBALL.  Go ahead, learn that, but know that there are going to be times when throwing a fireball is just not practical.  You want to take out the enemy but leave their gear in good shape because your party needs to disguise yourselves as guards to get into the keep?  Not a good time for a fireball.  Having a magical duel with an enemy sorcerer in his tower surrounded by priceless tomes of ancient magical lore that you covet and noxious chemicals from his latest round of experiments?  Not a good time to throw a fireball.  Fighting an army of killer scarecrows?  Go ahead and lob that FIREBALL!  But falling overboard into the raging ocean surrounded by an army of killer mermen?  Would you rather have a fireball on hand as you sink beneath the waves or be able to turn into a giant white shark and just eat them to death?
If you said fireball you are not wizard material, I can tell you that.

I haven't even taken into account utility shapeshifting.  There are times when it is useful to become, say, a sparrow and listen in on a conversation or becoming a modest rodent and scampering to safety.  If the mighty Dracula sees the value of shapeshifting into canine and chiroptera forms is it not a most useful power?
Then there are the enemies that the wizard must face, which are not limited to the simple Orc or enemy warriors.  A seemingly endless horde of servitor zombies under the command of a powerful necromancer (mayhaps even a lich) can quickly exhaust the spell reserves of even the most accomplished spellcaster and nobody wants to be surrounded by flaming zombies (undead conflagration!).  Now a deadly hybrid combat form would come in handy here.  A grizzly bear wouldn't even need a hybrid form; that's a bad mama jamma.
Tell me I'm wrong.
Wizard shapeshifting: kickin' it old school; keepin' it real.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Deadlands, Hucksters, and Hexes...oh my!

Ah wizards.
A genius of pop culture analysis recently said, "Essentially we can break magic type characters down into 3 groups: those who possess inherent power, usually because they are not human; those who gain their power through items, tomes and talsimans; and those who consort with extraplanar entities, like spirits." in an astounding article located HERE.  
Okay, it was me.

An Origins award winning RPG set in an alternate history American West, part of the Weird Western genre and including elements of Steampunk, Horror, Fantasy and a sense of humor (mostly with pop culture references) appeared on the scene in 1996 and immediately attempted to get into every conceivable gaming market with cards, miniatures, dice, and by partnering with other game systems (GURPS, d20) to stay alive, even after the RPG bubble burst in the 2000s.  In 2006 it re-launched as Deadlands Reloaded under the Savage Worlds system (which itself came from Deadlands...again not here to give a history lesson).  PEG inc, the company that publishes Deadlands, and its founder, Shane Lacy Hensely, were smart in the design of the game keeping the general fantasy classes but fitting them to an Old West setting.  To this end there are Fighters (Gunslingers, Soldiers, Braves, etc.), Wizards (Hucksters), Clerics (the Blessed) and even Druids of a sort (Shaman), but as a "classless" system the player could, more or less, be anything he or she wanted to be.  Today we are talking about Hucksters, the wizards of the Weird West.
The classic image of the Huckster.  Note the sparking cards...regardless of type all Hucksters get a hand of "magic" cards for a second when they cast spells.
Deadlands features magic almost entirely of the consorting with extraplanar entities type.  Wizards (Hucksters) do magic "according to Hoyle", as in Edmond Hoyle, the man who wrote the famous book of games.  According to the lore of a game, the background if you will, Edmond Hoyle has a wizard of some skill and he worked out how to do magic and encoded it into his book A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist and then later encoded more thoroughly his learning into a larger book of games.  Hoyle had worked out that working magic was a matter of entreating spirits he called "Jokers" into giving power to the wizard for the working of magic.  He encoded his learning because he didn't want the negative connotations of sorcery leveled on him (the most negative being execution, obviously).  Hucksters have learned, through the study of Hoyle's book(s), how to work magic.  Each edition of Hoyle printed is a little less useful than the one before it due to editing, misprints, etc. as the original wording is part of the code.  These spells or hexes were not too impressive or powerful until after the Reckoning (July 3rd, 1863) when the magic came back to Earth and the history of our world and the Deadlands universe diverge.  
In game terms a Huckster that wishes to cast a spell slips his mind into the Hunting Grounds and engages in a mental duel with a Manitou (spirit).  If the Huckster wins the Manitou is forced to give some of its power to the Huckster, briefly inhabiting the body, so to speak, and casting the spell.  If the Manitou wins bad things happen.  By default the duel of wills is seen as a hand of poker.  It doesn't have to be, however, and each Huckster can have whatever contest he wishes but for the game rules it is poker.
Gal on the left tossin' cards?  Yep, Huckster.  Huckster art is full of the wizards just throwing cards at things.  Hard to express magic in a painting I suppose.
What all of this means is that the Huckster player rolls some dice for the spell he is casting, draws some playing cards, makes the best 5 card hand he can and tries to match it against the minimum hand needed for that spell (or if the spell has variable effects to match one of the needed hands) without failing or getting backlash from one of the two Jokers.  (Hoyle's Jokers are what we call Manitou).   The spells in the game (called hexes) are learned as skills so typically Hucksters put their efforts into learning hexes and not pistols or rock climbing and such.  It's all about balance, right?
Wilder designation Type III: Entreating of Spirits.  See, it's all about the spirits.
I liked that system quite a bit.  The mechanics could get a bit complicated but it was a fresh way to do magic and unlike previous game systems I had played or read about it had a "real world" feel to it.  The player characters not being extraplanar beings, or superheroes, or mutants, or any of those things had to entreat the spirits to work their magic.  The same sort of logic applied to the Blessed (entreating of gods) and Shaman (entreating of good nature spirits vice manitou) although they had their own mechanics for it.  The "personal power" notion did not enter the game until Kung Fu was added and Chi became a factor.  Due to the nature of Deadlands there was not a surfeit of magic swords and armor lying around either (although Weird Science existed) but there were a few "magic" items, called relics, that could be found.  Magic of the Huckster type really was working with the dark forces as people feared and it made for a different but more classical type of wizard.  On top of that the Hucksters had to keep their existence secret for the most part as decent folk don't hold with consorting with evil spirits and the governments of the world tend to frown on such uncontrolled esoteric powers.

In 2006 Deadlands got reloaded for the Savage Worlds system and the Hucksters changed ever so slightly.  In general terms they still cast hexes and still play with fire in the form of Manitou, but now they have a number of personal power points (Savage Worlds is a power point system) they can use to cast hexes without recourse to endangering their souls in a contest with a demon.  The balance to the Reloaded system is that the power points return very, very slowly once spent and are not in large supply.  Sooner or later the Huckster is going to have to "deal with the Devil" as the Reloaded rules call it, and engage in that battle of wills to force a Manitou to give him the power.  
The difference is subtle, but mark it.  In the original game a Huckster has NO personal power.  All power is gained through entreating extraplanar entities.  In the Reloaded game a person has SOME personal power, but probably needs to entreat extraplanar entities.  Honestly I prefer the original version.  It is easier and more reliable in Reloaded to play a Huckster but flavor of the original kept with the most common of the traditional real world forms of magic, which is the entreating and/or controlling of spirits/demons/angels/gods/what-have-you.  
Green smoking glowing cards, dandy gambler outfit...yep, he's a Huckster.  For a group of people that don't want to be found out they sure do all wear the same outfit.  Kind of like robes and a pointy hat.  Most Hucksters "pretend" to be cardsharps.
Unlike the standard fantasy wizard, a Huckster has nothing preventing him from picking up and using a sword, or better yet, a gun.
Just like the standard fantasy wizard he is still completely unable to cast a spell by reading a book.  At least he is not limited due to some arbitrary level system...just how often he wants to risk blowing his head off due to possession or unchecked magical energy.
Not a Huckster, per se, but a Hexslinger...which is a Huckster that specializes in magically shootin' the shit outta things.
I miss the all too brief Hexslinger...perhaps another look?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Illiterate Wizards

Surely a wizard with a spellbook can cast a spell.  Right?
Don't let this guy fool you, he is actually making an emu omelette and that is a recipe book
Well if you play games chances are no, it can't.

Games are not reality.  That seems self-evident, but hear me out.  Games are little simulations of reality.  In the real world money buys things.  In Monopoly play money buys things.  See?  Simulation of reality.
For some reason wizards in gaming, by which I mean RPGs, MMOs, and their kin, don't seem to be able to cast spells by reading them from books.  This is odd because they keep their spells in books.  You'd think they could just, you know, read the bloody spell out of the book, waggle their fingers and blammo! magic.
But no.
Let me take you back to 1974 and the birth of role playing games.  The Original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D) had the Magic-User, which was a general, all-purpose term for wizard/warlock/sorcerer/mystic/theurgist/enchanter.  Essentially it was a culturally neutral term for all of those things.  The wikipedia has an article on "Vancian Magic", or at least mentions it in its DnD articles, and that is generally the magic first employed in OD&D and that was kept throughout the editions until the 4th edition.
In short the caster (let's just say wizard, okay?) has a collection of spells in a book and each morning he memorizes which spells he will use, locks them in his gray matter, packs his book away and goes about adventuring.  This sort of sucks.  In the first place you end up memorizing the spells you think you'll need and invariably one of the most useful ones, it turns out, is the one you didn't lock and load.  In the second place you can't just whip out your book and cram when you do need that other spell.  In the third place, in keeping with the game's progressive scaling leveling system, you start very weak knowing something like 1 bloody spell at 1st level PER DAY and gradually gaining more uses of spells as you improve in levels.  This makes the young wizard less useful than Harry Potter BEFORE he got to Hogwarts.  At least he could talk to snakes.
I just threw this one in because I needed something awesome.
Now in the Original game there was the Fighting Man, the Magic-User and the Cleric (and demihumans but I am not here to give you a history lesson on DnD).  The Fighting Man could use magic weapons and armor, but no other magic items.  The Cleric could use magic armor, some magic weapons and some items.  The Magic-User could use no magic armor and only magic daggers, but all other magic items were his to wield.  There was the source of the great and terrible power of the wizard: cool toys.
Lest we think this makes him somehow less magical, consider the many legendary, real world and fictional wizards that were the sources of fantasy magic.  You had your Merlin who was half demon and your Gandalf who was an extraplanar being, sure, but you also had Circe, who used a wand and herbs and any number of humans who gained their abilities through the use of magical trappings.  Essentially we can break magic type characters down into 3 groups: those who possess inherent power, usually because they are not human; those who gain their power through items, tomes and talsimans; and those who consort with extraplanar entities, like spirits.  The OD&D wizard is not specifically any one of those things, but much of his trappings come from those things.  One thing we can say about magic, real, fictional and imagined, is that the image of the spell caster in a tower (or grove, I'm not picky) surrounded by magical apparatus, reading from a tome to cast their works (like a chef working from a recipe really) is a tried and true image, popular in art and literature.
But not if you are playing D&D.  Oh hell no, you are apparently illiterate.
Except first thing in the morning, after a good night's sleep, at which point you can read for a bit.
I understand the practical side of the equation.  You don't have time to whip your book out in the middle of a dark dungeon and have a read.  You can whip a scroll out and have a read though.  Once read the scroll disappears (writing goes away, burns up with the spell, you pick your flavor text, practical rule is that the scroll is now useless).  So you can read a spell from a piece of paper but you can't just read  it out of a book and cast it.  Bullshit.
I admit it, this guy looks badarse.
Other systems have been devised in gaming over the years.  MMOs like to use "power points" and "mana" and such that regenerates out of combat or while resting.  This allows the wizard to just point and click with their spells and they don't have to preread them, but MMOs typically provide their wizards with very few spells and most of them are variations on the theme of damaging things.  No utility spells in MMO.  Some interesting tabletop systems have been developed as well, often using Power Points.  Power Points, essentially, allow a wizard to cast any spells he knows at any time by simply paying for them from the power point pool.  Typically these power point systems have less total number of spells available, but the spells are variable allowing the use of more power for more effect.  The sad part is that the wizards are still illiterate, perhaps even more so.
I find this frustrating.  How much flavor and style you want in your game is a personal choice and no one wants a handicap like "Your wizard must be in a magic circle, reading a book, burning candles, naked, holding a banana in his ass, and chanting in pig Latin to cast any spell" in their gaming.  Generic systems like Savage Worlds often use spells that are just basic information on range, cost, damage and effects and allow the players to customize the outcomes (like choosing fire as the operative attack even though it does nothing but provide a cosmetic change, the damage being set by the spell itself).  It would be nice if one of them would let you cast a spell by just reading a book though.

In our next installment: Deadlands, Hucksters, and Hexes...oh my.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

This is a stupid picture

Look at it.
Now look again.

That's stupid.
Look at that sword-stick-fecking-thing.  It looks like an 1980 photoshop job.  This is the cover of the German edition of a 1980 game called Warlock.  At first glance it looks like it might be cool, but look again.
He's wearing some sort of weirdarse earrings and riding a horse that looks hangdog.  Some broken down nag and a so-called warlock that is trying to pull a Gandalf.  I don't know if it is supposed to be a sword or a staff or what.  A mate of mine suggests the top bit must "shoot off" like in The Sword and the Sorcerer.  I'm inclined to believe him, I'm afraid.  He's holding it all nonchalant braced against this poor horse's neck and riding like he really means it.
Put this on the list of crap wizards.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Martian Racism

As far as I am concerned Martians should have big, brainy heads and skullish faces a la Mars Attacks (Tops Cards and Burton film).  I do not accept giant green four-armed weirdoes and red-skinned humans.  I will accept Marvin and Ray Walston, however, even if he is not MY favorite martian.