Saturday, May 19, 2018

Magic Going Back to Ravnica After Dominaria

Man, so if we want to talk about nostalgia...

I don't play Magic: The Gathering anymore, partially because of what my friends are into and partially because Hearthstone is so convenient given its mobile format and the fact that you can (somewhat gradually) earn cards for free.

But there were two major periods in which I played - from Third Grade through Sixth (aka 1994 to 1998) and then for a couple years in college (mainly 2005-2007 or 2008.)

I recently posted about how Wizards went back to Dominaria, its original "home plane" setting for the game that they hadn't been back to since 2002 or so (with the Onslaught block, the second half of a kind of two-part literally post-"Apocalypse" series of card blocks.) That really took me back to those old days of childhood.

Now they're going back to Ravnica, which was the block during my Sophomore year of college, and when I was playing the most on MTG Online (which I needed a PC emulator to play on my Mac.)

It's not the first time they've come back to Ravnica - there was a "Return to Ravnica" block a few years back - but I can't say I'm all too shocked at their decision to do so. Ravnica had a ton going for it. The concept of the plane was really cool - a plane that was just one enormous city - but on top of that, they basically came up with ten new really distinct flavors in the ten guilds that run the city by finding the logical combination of each pair of Magic's five primary colors.

The idea worked out brilliantly, and it also really encouraged different deckbuilding styles by giving each of these guilds distinct mechanical strengths.

There was a confluence of good mechanical design and good flavor that made the original block very successful. I don't actually know how well received the second block was, but as an outsider mainly looking in on the game for its art and concepts and perhaps the little D&D supplements for running a game set in one of the Magic planes, I'm really excited to see more of my favorite plane they've come up with.

And in case you're wondering, House Dimir all the way. Not that House Dimir exists, of course. What was that? Never heard of it. Sorry, who are you? I've got to go.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Per-Server Characters Slots Rising to 18 - More Allied Races Incoming?

We originally got ten character slots per server, which was actually enough to have duplicate classes and races per server, even with both factions. Once we got Blood Elves, Draenei, and Death Knights, things evened out very nicely with ten races and ten classes. We then got new character slots with each additional class (Monk and Demon Hunter) so that you could have one of each per server.

We didn't get new ones for Worgen or Goblins, and if you had a full server, you were really incentivized to go with a Pandaren Monk if you wanted to play both a Pandaren and a Monk.

With Allied Races, however, we've gotten a new slot for each race added - if you stick to one faction per server (prior to Cataclysm, I had all my toons on a single server, but transferred by Hordies to a different one to make room for new alts, some of whom are my class-mains now.)

With the current live patch, we now get sixteen slots per server, allowing you room for one of each Void Elf, Lightforged Draenei, Dark Iron Dwarf, and Kul Tiran Human if you're Alliance or Nightborne, Highmountain Tauren, Mag'har Orc, and Zandalari Troll if you're Horde.

But on the Beta, we're not getting eighteen slots. Por que?

Well, it could mean we're going to see four new Allied Races added beyond the eight that are currently announced.

Allied races are of course far easier to implement than traditional new races, as they tend to use the skeleton and animations of existing races and their "starting zones" are really just a static area (usually one that already existed, Void Elves having the exception, though it borrows some assets from elsewhere) where you get a quest essentially saying "hey, go be an adventurer." Only Zandalari Trolls and Kul Tiran Humans look geometrically distinct from their base races, though I suspect they still use the same basic skeleton (indeed, female Zandalari have the same posture as their Darkspear antecedents.)

So what might we be getting in 8.2 or whenever?

This is all speculative, but given that it's based on somewhat spoileriffic content, I'll put a cut here:

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Possibilities of the "New Lordaeron" Undead?

My favorite Horde race has got to be the Forsaken. Not because I'd want to hang around them, mind you, but because I think they have a fascinating story.

I've always liked monstrous or seemingly monstrous people who struggle to be good. You get that a fair amount in World of Warcraft, whether it's the Orcs reckoning or failing to reckon with their brutal history, the Draenei trying to escape their demonic kin and do right by the universe, or the Worgen trying to reconcile their beastly and human natures.

On top of the crisis of identity that they share with the Worgen, the Forsaken also have to reckon with the fact that they're not even alive anymore - and whether that means that they might not even be the same people they once were.

I've written about the idea of having some Forsaken try to join the Alliance, recognizing their past as the human kingdom of Lordaeron and rejecting the culture that Sylvanas has imposed on them.

Well, it appears that in the preview chapters for Before the Storm, the pre-BFA tie-in novel, there are some hints that such a thing is not so far outside the realm of possibility.

Predicting Classes for Kul Tirans and Zandalari

While Dark Iron Dwarves and Mag'har Orcs are on the Beta, thus giving us a pretty clear sense of their playable classes, it looks like the primary inhabitants are going to take a little longer to unlock, possibly as late as 8.1. I suspect you'll need to go through some major stories to get there.

So what classes will these guys get? Let's speculate!

Zandalari: Announced with BFA, the Zandalari Trolls are obviously going to be the biggest population on Zandalar. Theirs is the oldest humanoid civilization on Azeroth (if you don't count Titanforged, who are more Giant/Mechanical.) Now, there are some classes that are easy to detect via datamining - specifically Druids and Shamans, who have their animal forms and totems respectively. So let's go down the line:

Warrior: It's really harder to justify not having Warriors than otherwise. Blood Elves were the only race ever to not have Warriors, and that ended in Cataclysm.

Paladin: This one's a bit controversial - there were actually Zandalari Paladins loyal to the Loa, but there are NPCs who explain that their order is so tiny as to not really be a thing anymore. As a Paladin main, I'm always happy to see new flavors of these guys (and a Paladin-themed Raptor mount could be really cool,) but I'm skeptical we'll get them.

Death Knight: Hero classes appear to be out.

Shaman: I think we've got totem models for these guys, and Trolls have a long shamanistic tradition.

Hunter: Like Warriors, Hunters are pretty universal, and Trolls have always had good hunter traditions.

Rogue: Again, unless you have loud hooves, there's nothing really culture-specific about Rogues. And with all the intrigue in Zuldazar, you'd have to imagine they've got spies and assassins galore.

Druid: This we know from the various dinosaur models. Trolls' connection to the Loa mirrors the Night Elves' to the Ancients, which is of course all just the same worship of the Wild Gods. Malfurion's status as the first Druid is maybe a little in question, though it's possible that the Zandalari (like the Darkspear) looked at this tradition and said "hey, how come we're not doing that?"

Demon Hunter: Again, hero class, so no.

Monk: This would actually be tricky. The Zandalari were literally thought of as monsters to scare children in Pandaren society before the Mists receded, and I could imagine that a lot of Monks would want nothing to do with these ancient allies of the Mogu. On the other hand, Pandaren are very chill and forgiving. Still, I think Blizzard would be totally justified in denying Zandalari Monks.

Mage: As an ancient society that has certainly done some work in Arcane magic, no reason not to have these.

Warlock: Very few societies are really happy to have Warlocks, but I doubt that there's any special taboo against dabbling in the Fel among the Zandalari that would prevent them from trying this out.

Priest: With the importance of the Loa and specifically navigating the kind of politics between them, Priests are a hugely important part of Troll society. So yeah.

So it looks like with the possible exception of Monks, Zandalari might get the same suite of classes as their Darkspear brethren. Zandalari Paladins would be cool, but they seem to be backing away from that possibility.

Now, we move on to Kul Tirans!

Kul Tirans have a mix of influences - we can obviously look to Stormwind Humans to get a good sense of their capabilities, though we also want to look to Worgen, as Kul Tirans were originally Gilnean colonists (though that was three thousand years ago.)

Warrior: Like above, practically guaranteed.

Paladin: This one's less obvious. Personally I felt that it was weird Worgen couldn't be Paladins, but it's a question of how widespread the Silver Hand was. There's definitely examples of Paladins in Stormwind and Lordaeron, but we don't know if Kul Tiras has that tradition. Among NPCs there, there are no clear examples, except perhaps the Witch-hunting Order of Embers, which would actually be a pretty badass Paladin order with a very different flavor than we've gotten with other Human Paladins.

Death Knight: I'd actually argue that this should be available, but Blizzard really seems to be taking hero classes off the table, so no.

Hunter: Kul Tirans have a long tradition of monster-hunting, so this is another practical guarantee.

Shaman: This is actually kind of an interesting question: we actually know from some datamined dialogue that the Drust were not entirely wiped out, and that some have worked alongside the Kul Tirans to train them in their ways. This seems primarily to be about their creepy form of Druidism, but I don't think it would be a huge stretch for it to extend to Shamanism. No anchor-themed Totems, though, as far as I can tell, so probably not. There are also the Sea Priests in Stormsong Valley that dress in cloth like Priests, but have a deep spiritual connection to the sea and storms, which frankly feels pretty shamanistic to me.

Rogue: Um, Pirates. Definitely definitely yes.

Monk: Unlike the Zandalari, there's nothing saying the Pandaren couldn't come and teach the Kul Tirans some unarmed combat.

Druid: This we know from datamining, and it's a super-cool different take on Druidism that is far darker and seems to employ both Life and Death magic. I'm totally rolling one of these.

Demon Hunter: No hero classes, and this wouldn't even make much sense even if they were considering them.

Mage: Hello Jaina. So that's a big yes.

Warlock: If Worgen and Humans can have them, I don't see why you wouldn't find some Kul Tiran Humans who practice the dark arts.

Priests: There's a whole tradition of Sea Priests on Kul Tiras, so unless they make them all shamans (unlikely, though I think justifiable) I think this is a lock.

More than the Zandalari, the Kul Tirans seem like a bigger departure from their base-race. Ironically, they might feel more like an Allied Race variant of Worgen than Humans, especially given the English accents (personal pet peeve - it's a fantasy world. We don't all have to be English.)

Monday, May 14, 2018

Distinguishing Great Old Ones and Fiends when Building Your D&D Setting

I'll preface this by saying that I'm not really satisfied with my solutions to the problem I want to talk about. When you're creating a fantasy setting, particularly for a fantasy RPG like Dungeons and Dragons, you're going to have a few terrifying monsters - the heroes need something to fight.

Demons, a kind of catch-all for evil magical beings in most folklores and mythologies (though the word actually originally meant just spirit in general, meaning you could have benevolent demons,) serve a pretty strong role in most fantasy settings as the ultimate bad guys. They are by their nature evil and are inherently magical and powerful.

Tolkien, a pretty important author if you want to talk fantasy, borrowed a lot from the Catholic tradition (he was a devout Catholic and wanted his setting to be consistent, even if it was separate, with Catholic theology and philosophy) had its demonic creatures like the Balrog and Sauron himself, be fallen spirits - once good, but fallen to corruption. His universe's big bad is Melkor, is later renamed Morgoth (equivalent of Lucifer becoming Satan,) and has the same basic Lucifer origin story - once the highest of God's creations, Morgoth defies God and tries to usurp his power, and is cast down for introducing evil into the world.

But a lot of fantasy writers instead play on the idea of demons having always been so.

D&D is built to be customized, but its usual framework generalizes demons into a broader group known as fiends. With its alignment system, there are seven "Lower Planes" and seven "Upper Planes," with two morally neutral planes to represent pure Law and pure Chaos. The beings of the Lower Planes are generally Fiends, and those who occupy the Lawful Evil plane are Devils while those in the Chaotic Evil plane are Demons. And then there are things like Yuggoloths, Night Hags, and Rakshasas that are also fiends but don't count as devils or demons.

What this means is that you've actually got a really wide selection of demon-like creatures with all sorts of different forms, attitudes, and powers.

Now, another staple of fantasy, more toward the horror end of the perspective, is entities that can generally go under the umbrella term of Eldritch Abomination. The most famous of these beings is Cthulhu, created by H. P. Lovecraft.

Now, Lovecraft's creations were in a kind of odd limbo between fantasy and science fiction flavors of horror. Their general character was that of being utterly alien and bizarre while also supremely dangerous and capable of shattering minds simply by knowing about them.

You can make distinctions here, but I think the problem you run into is neutering the scariness of fiends if you invest all of that terror in your Eldritch Abominations. Fonts of madness, dark magic, cults, and disfiguration could all work perfectly well with a demonic source.

Of course, Lovecraft was writing with a particular world view in mind - one that emphasized the indifference of a universe in which humanity was an insignificant speck (not to mention a terrible fear of the "other," which for Lovecraft meant both fear of alien life and also, unfortunately, racism.) There's no benevolent monotheistic deity or righteous pantheon to punish monsters and evil here. Lovecraft uses terminology associated with the demonic (or the demoniac, as he often uses, meaning the same thing) to describe his abominations. But Lovecraft was blurring the lines between fantasy and science fiction - some of his stories come off more as the blueprint for 1950s alien invasion stories (which, to be fair, H. G. Wells really codified with War of the Worlds.) Indeed, when Lovecraft actually goes into detail describing his monsters (such as in At the Mountains of Madness,) they often come off as the kind of floppy foam-rubber creations one could imagine seeing for cheap in a 1950s drive-in.

In this way, Lovecraftian horror is often best sold by having the actual monsters absent. Only one of the vignettes in The Call of Cthulhu talks about someone who actually saw the thing. Seeing, instead, the depravity of those who worship these things, and perhaps even seeing them physically transformed simply by attempting to make contact with these abominations, is a good way to sell them as monsters.

One could make the argument that abominations and demons fit a similar role in related by distinct genres. But a lot of fantasy world give us both. So how do you draw the line?

I think the first thing to consider is intent: Demons, or fiends in general if you want to go with D&D's terminology, have malevolent intent. In D&D, where the cosmic balance is defined by genuine good versus self-identifying evil, fiends actively seek to spread evil, either by committing willfully evil acts or corrupting others to induce them to do evil. So murder and cruelty here are end goals, not just methods, and your fiends can relate to characters within the human framework of morality. They can be bizarre and alien, but their intent, however couched in complex and incomprehensible logic, is still working toward the same end - they wish to see the multiverse suffer.

Intent for Abominations, on the other hand, is very different. I think the default alignment for such creatures (usually listed as Aberrations as a creature type) ought to be unaligned. They aren't going out of their way to create suffering in mortals. It's more like they don't even have a concept for what suffering is. It's more that their mere presence is enough to alter reality around them enough that it is harmful to be there. The end result is suffering, but the abomination does not do it intentionally - nor, and I think this is just as important, does the abomination care in the slightest.

Now, there are beings like the Ilithid who are given a certain alignment - lawful evil - but I would play these aberrations less as conniving villains who long to see other civilizations collapse, but rather those who honestly don't consider any of the mortal civilizations to be any more complex than a termite colony. They don't feel any true contempt for humanoids. They simply don't believe there's anything wrong with sucking their brains out or using their bodies as incubation pods for their offspring.

And Ilithid are only the most humanoid-like versions of these entities.

I do think there's certainly a place for madness-inducing demons and devils, but perhaps one way to draw a line between them is to think about what causes this. A demon would induce madness as a form of cruelty - attacking someone's mind in order to bring them low and disrupt their ability to live the life they had previously.

An abomination, on the other hand, would probably do this passively and without real intent. Sure, the Ilithids use Mind Blasts to attack enemies, which kind of undercuts this, but you could imagine that simply seeing some greater abomination would cause psychic harm - or perhaps not even harm. One idea I've had is for an alien race (and eldritch abominations can be just particularly alien aliens) that communicates psychically by simply arranging the thoughts in another individual's head. Their neurology might allow for their brain (or brain-equvalent) to hold this foreign set of thoughts separate to their own and be able to understand it as simply extremely thorough and efficient communication, but to we weak mortals, it might come off as total mind control. The abomination might even be pleasantly surprised that everyone on this world they "speak" to is so willing to do anything they suggest.

Demons and abominations both ought to be far from mundane - they're both alien in a sense. But demons can be more closely linked to the mundane world, whereas abominations are defined by their distance from it.

Granted, one of the great elements of cosmic horror is the discovery that what is thought to be alien is anything but: a protagonist might discover to their horror that they are, in fact, partially alien, or even that their entire society is secretly the byproduct of abominations' actions.

So it's tricky.

There are two approaches I think you can take, to synthesize the two as being related to one another. In Hellboy, for example, the Ogdru Jahad, which are sort of the ultimate eldritch abomination as seven entities in one, are actually the dragon mentioned in the book of revelations, created by an angel, ultimately putting them into the Christian dichotomy of good and evil, but with the aesthetics of Lovecraft.

The other is to suggest that Eldritch Abominations are far more powerful, but also more apathetic. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, "pure demons" are far more bizarre and alien, while the horned humanoids one tends to encounter are actually hybrids with humans (and vampires are actually the most human-like of demons, being demonic entities that inhabit undead human bodies that have lost their souls after dying.)

It's certainly a lot simpler to have one type of thing and not the other, and perhaps borrow the aesthetics of the one you're counting out. But while difficult, it is possible to carve a space out for both types of entities in your cosmos. While it's certainly ok for characters within your world have a hard time telling the difference, you as the creator (or DM) should have a good sense of how they differ.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Returning to Darkest Dungeon

So I got Darkest Dungeon years ago, intrigued by its Mike Mignola-inspired art and both setting and gameplay that really effectively drive forth the idea of cosmic horror.

The weird thing is that I think I'm getting the hang of it, and that's making me nervous.

I play the game very conservatively - I try to do all the easier missions until I've got my heroes upgraded to high levels, gear, and abilities. I also definitely tend to get them more provisions than they need. I keep the light level nearly at 100 most of the time.

But I also think that now that I've figured out how to swap out abilities on each hero, you can really build some powerful combos. (To swap out abilities, you first have to make sure that you have more than four trained at the Guild. You then click an ability on their character sheet - which you get by right-clicking the character in your roster - and then click the ability you want to use instead.)

As an example: the Occultist has "Wyrd Reconstruction," which is a heal that has the potential to heal a lot (it's a range from zero to some high number) but then has a chance to put a bleed on the target. I believe the bleed is only one damage a turn for three rounds, which usually makes it a net positive, even if it prevents you from capping someone's health. On the other hand, the bleed is often resisted.

But if you mix him with a Witch Doctor, you can get a heal (whose name I don't recall) that heals only a hit point or two, but also removes all blight and bleed effects - including that of Wyrd Construction.

Together, you can lay some pretty significant heals down in a game that is extraordinarily stingy with healing.

Learning how to build a party really makes the game much smoother. For example, with the guild you can first unlock all of a character's abilities, and then you can pick the ones that suit certain positions - for example, you might put an Arbalest in the back and give them a bunch of long-range attacks (which generally require a back position.) I like to have my people specialize, which does mean that when enemies use knockbacks and pulls you can get out of position, but you can usually recover.

There are also kind of "builds" that work for each class. The Jester, for example, has a lot of abilities that buff "Finale," which is an ability you can only use once in a battle. If you assign the Jester's abilities to focus on this, however, you can buff Finale to something like three times as much damage, which then allows you to hit for a massive burst of damage that will generally one-shot anything but a boss.

Now given the horrific nature of this game, I'm certainly wondering whether my current tendency toward success will prove to inflate overconfidence, thus getting a bunch of my dudes killed.

Still, another useful skill that I've figured out is trading out heirlooms - the currency you use to upgrade buildings in town. Next to them is a little "exchange" symbol that you can use to exchange one type of item for the other three. I suspect that this is less than a zero-sum exchange, or else you might as well have all the same kind of resource, but given how just about every upgrade needs house seals, you'll often find you have tons of busts, portraits, and deeds that would be more useful as something to trade for seals.

Anyway, fun game.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Mag'har Orcs, the Draenei, and 35 Years Later in Draenor B

So you know how I was talking about how the biggest problem with the Horde is how there's so little reason to actually hate the Alliance? Every time conflict arises, it's either a measured and proportional response from the Alliance that gets blown into all out war by the Horde, or it's the Horde attacking without provocation.