Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Examples of Good RPG Writing

In a comment on the previous post, Zak made the fair observation that it's probably more useful to point at good examples of RPG writing to follow, than to simply suggest that people ought to try harder at being better.

So let's cite some examples.

From Cyberpunk 2020:

By now, some of you creative types are thinking "Hey, why not just crash into Internet's mainframe and delete my bill each month?" And we'd be disappointed if you didn't think it... But let's put it this way. You know how tough Arasaka's Tokyo Main is? Well, Arasaka still pays its monthly bill to Internet.
This, from a sidebar on a page about paying to use the Internet, is good RPG writing because it manages to communicate so efficiently what a game of Cyberpunk 2020 is all about. First, the game rewards creativity on the part of the players. Second, it assumes player agency: if players want to hack into Internet to delete their bills, they can do this, and the referee can and should facilitate it. Third, there are going to be consequences. Cyberpunk 2020 takes the grown-up attitude that along with agency comes risk as well as reward. Forget the archaic language and ideas (the real "Internet" is the opposite of a monopolistic corporation; internet bills will presumably be trivially expensive in the real 2020), and love or hate Mike Pondsmith's writing (I love it, personally), it's a great way to build an implied setting and implied style of play.


From Basic D&D (Mentzer):

You will play the roles of all the monsters, townspeople, and other creatures encountered. The best Dungeon Masters are able to play several  roles at once - such as when the characters meet another party of adventurers, all played by the DM!  
However, your  creatures are not as detailed as the PCs, and are easier to play. Their actions are often determined by dice rolls. One rule applies to all the creatures, even though there are many different types: Imagine how the creature feels.  
The actions of a creature are often determined by its Alignment or Intelligence. For example, an animal is not very smart, and will act  very  simply - hungry  and hostile, neutral and unconcerned, or friendly. More intelligent creatures may be thinking of many different things;  food, treasure, home and friends, and so forth.  
When an encounter seems likely, think about how the creatures feel, and how they might act. When the encounter begins, you will often roll dice to find the actual reactions of the creatures. The results should be adjusted for the creatures’ intelligence, habits, and other details.  
Imagine how your creatures will react to these dangerous, greedy characters stomping around the caves! The monsters will try to survive and be happy in their own ways, and will often fight to defend their homes and treasures. 

This is on more-or-less the first page of the DM's book from the Mentzer Red Box. I think it's interesting, not to mention refreshing, that pretty much the first bit of DMing advice the 10- or 11-year old target audience would encounter. It's basically saying, use your brain. Be thoughtful. The DM's job is to make the game world a living one: it's not just to set up a dungeon with stuff in it to kill, but to set up a world full of things which behave in a deep, believable, internally consistent way. And consider the tone Mentzer uses. He knows he's writing for children and adolescents, so he writes in a very clear and breezy fashion, but nor does he talk down to the reader. He respects them enough to say: be clever.


From Amber Diceless Roleplaying:




Here is Wujcik showing how it's done: examples, examples, examples. In Amber Diceless he was faced with the difficult task of not only explaining how to run a role playing game but also how to run a diceless one. He was a clever fellow who obviously immediately figured out the way to do this is show, rather than tell. While there are some instructions, you mostly just get illustration after illustration of how to run an Amber game.

And the illustrations are good. There may be a slight artifice in Mick saying "Oh, I get it, Farley can use Pattern to affect things" or "I know, I know, you've got to really move to affect Shadow", but it's a necessary and useful technique to demonstrate to the reader what can be done by an Amberite in the game. And the GM's questions and comments are perfect ("What are you doing?" is a constant refrain in all Wujcik's examples, and that's more or less always the most appropriate question for a GM to ask). I particularly like how this example shows (not tells) how to keep things moving, keep things interesting, keep things alive. He never lets Mick rest on his laurels: there's always a new problem. The world doesn't sit still and wait to react to the actions of the players. It's active. The actors within it have initiative.

What do these examples have in common? Difficult to say, but I suppose at root what I like about all of them is that they treat the reader with respect. Cyberpunk 2020 and Amber Diceless would both reasonably be expected to have an older audience and are written with that in mind: there's a lot that's simply implied and the reader is expected to catch up. Basic D&D spells things out a little bit more but that's because it's written for children, and I think it strikes the perfect note in guiding without any sense of being patronising. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

Innovative Reading Experiences

Astonishingly, there is a well-informed article in the Grauniad about role playing games. It makes some questionable arguments, but I like the last clause of the whole piece: "in these days of the mega-novel, innovative reading experiences are to be found in the mysterious worlds of the RPG."

I'd never really thought of it in those terms, but he's right. I have deep and abiding misgivings about writing in most modern RPG books, which I think often has this weird smarmy vibe about it that I find it hard to put my finger on but really dislike. (It's something I've discussed previously; I'm nothing if not repetitive.) But the best examples are just that: innovative reading experiences - often more readable than novels, more imaginative than the creatively-bankrupt fare that makes up the average fantasy series, and put together in interesting ways. My own particular pantheon of greats - the RPG canon, if you will - comprises Cyberpunk 2020, Amber Diceless, the Planescape stuff that Monte Cook wrote, the Mentzer BECMI sets, and probably Changeling: The Dreaming (which feels very teenage nowadays, but is still really nicely done). Possibly also MERP. And the 2nd edition AD&D Monstrous Manual, natch. I can still sit down and read those books and feel inspired, but I also think they are each, in their own way, masterpieces of what the article refers to as "ergodic literature". They take something ostensibly dry and unreadable (a load of rules and info-dump, which is what an RPG book is when boiled down to its essence) and turn it into something that is the precise opposite.

It's a bit of a shame there is no real discussion in RPG circles about how to write effectively and well. My feeling is that RPG writers tend to do one of three things: adopt an ill-advised over-conversational tone; become bombastic and po-faced, as if trying too hard to sell you the game or setting; or make too much of an effort to be literary. But that's a completely unfair criticism, because you could probably lay all of those flaws at the doorsteps of various items from the 'canon' I listed above if you happened not to like them. And yet it isn't very satisfying to just conclude that "some have it and some don't"; any skill can be taught, and anybody can improve a skill if they work at it. Maybe that is itself the issue - working too hard on rules and not hard enough on writing both effectively and inspirationally?

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Freedom of the Outlaw

I went to a talk on Monday about outlaws. One of the good things about working at a university is that you have free access to cutting edge research which you can dip in and out of at will. This talk considered the evolution of "outlaw tales" such as those of Gamelyn, Hereward the Wake, Fulk Fitzwarin, in the medieval period and how they developed into, basically, Kevin Costner's Robin Hood.

It being a British university the spin which both lecturer and audience put on the popularity of outlaw tales was vaguely Marxian in nature: the outlaw tales that have survived tend to be ones about outlaws from the nobility and yeomanry, who represent the resentment of the wealthy towards taxation by the monarchy. The typical pattern is for a person to become an outlaw because of justified reasons, eventually to be forgiven and return to the establishment. This shows the fundamentally conservative character of the middle classes, who desire a level of freedom from interference but whose ambition is to advance their social standing within the existing system. Meanwhile, we never get the outlaw tales of the genuinely poor which were never recorded and which (in the eyes of your typical lefty English humanities professor) would naturally have been more revolutionary in scope.

It sounds like a lot of balderdash to me, but then again so does most of what my colleagues tend to argue about things. I think the outlaw tale appeals because of something much more basic about human nature: we all, at some time or other, feel the desire to go against social convention and family pressures - really, to be genuinely free. Most of us repress this desire, but we like to fantasise about it. Living vicariously through an outlaw gives vent to it: it's fun to imagine being Robin Hood, disobeying the law, living with your friends in the forest, robbing from the rich to give to the poor. It's just as fun, if not more so, to imagine giving way to less apparently just urges than redistribution: one of the greatest of all outlaw tales is Egil's Saga, which is really just a catalogue of violent crime and mischief in which scores of people are murdered and mutilated with gleeful abandon. I'd suggest that Punch and Judy shows are in that same tradition of giving the audience license to enjoy the idea of freedom from social and familial ties: who hasn't had moments in their life where they sort of wish they could just bludgeon everybody around them with a club? (I don't mean that seriously - well, not entirely seriously anyway.)

We voluntarily restrain our freedom much of the time (although funnily enough I was listening to Frank Furedi lecture on the legacy of Sartre and the inevitability of freedom on my commute home this evening, so I stake out that position advisedly, as well as remind myself that being a Marxist doesn't mean you have to see human behaviour as being simply a clockwork and predetermined working-out of socio-economic forces). But that doesn't mean we always do it happily. Underneath our sensible, responsible need to fit in, we undoubtedly also have a freedom-loving, authority-hating id, and we have a strange admiration for those who release theirs.

I think that there is an element of D&D and other role-playing games which taps into that. While not wishing to speak for everybody, I don't think it's an accident that the default mode of playing RPGs tends towards criminality, towards outlawry in the sense of being outside of the law, outside of social and familial convention, outside of the ties of tradition and morality which, naturally and justly, bind us in our everyday lives. Playing D&D is another branch in the evolution of the outlaw tale: it's a mechanism through which we explore and enjoy what it is to be free. And to bring it back to Sartre, perhaps what makes it different from the outlaw tale is that, like in a Sartre novel, there are no excuses for D&D PCs. They can't blame their cowardice, their foolhardiness, their avarice, or their violence on the way they were brought up, their socio-economic background, their brain chemistry, or their genes. They can only blame it on their own (our) choices: they, which is to say us, are free. There may be something profoundly important about that.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

DIY RPGs and the Future of Work

A familiar recurring theme on my favourite podcast, Econtalk, is the future of work - how technology, particularly but not always the internet, is changing the job market and how work gets done. This week Adam Davidson discusses what he calls the "Hollywood Model" - a working life structured around "short-term, project-based teams, rather than long-term, open-ended jobs". (You can read the article he wrote for the NY Times magazine here.) The conversation covers a lot of ground, and contains a lot that's relevant to the DIY RPG business. In particular it seems to provide a pretty cogent narrative describing the way the RPG industry has evolved and will evolve in the future: in short, the model of an RPG company with permanent employees is likely to diminish even further than it has up to this point, to be replaced by ad hoc, short term arrangements composed of groups of freelance specialists.

If you can't see that happening already, you probably haven't been paying attention. Consider the way the DIY D&D movement has developed. You have the writer/publisher, or in very specialised cases (i.e. LotFP) a publisher who isn't necessarily the writer. You have the layout people. You have the artists. You have editors. Very few of them exist in permanent arrangements and there are no OSR firms in the sense of a company with employees. Instead there are short-term teams who may work together frequently but not in fixed arrangements. Much the same is true of the story gamers. This evolution is not complete, of course, and there are still RPG companies out there. But it seems likely they may well end up going the way of the dodo.

To put this into a cod laymen's economic analysis (because I am a cod layman - a laycod? - when it comes to economics), the traditional Coaseian explanation for why firms come into existence is basically to do with transaction costs: the cost of doing everything through contracts arranged via the market, in terms of time and money, is less than the cost of creating an organisation with permanent employees. It is cheaper for a book publisher to hire a permanent staff of editors rather than go out and look for a freelance editor and arrange a contract with him for every single book that he wants to publish. So book publishing firms come into existence. But as technology improves - particularly as the internet develops - the transaction costs associated with finding freelancers diminishes. You can do it for next to nothing.

I can't speak for others, but I suspect my experience with Yoon-Suin is similar to a lot of people. I wrote it. I advertised through the blog and G+ for artists. I quickly found Matthew Adams, the genius behind that cover you can see if you direct your eyes slightly to the right, and Christian Kessler, the mapper, and then arranged the publishing through RPG Now and Lulu. A loose conglomeration of people and entities which may or may not work again brought Yoon-Suin into existence, not an RPG firm, and this is going to be increasingly the case when it comes to RPG products. Now, that isn't to say that the limited liability company will cease to exist in any form - One Book Shelf and Lulu will, I suspect live on. But the world of monoliths is undoubtedly being replaced in part by the Hollywood Model - perhaps the only thing that the world of RPG nerds and film stars has in common.

Monday, 15 June 2015

A Setting on a Page

My old laptop went to the great PC World in the sky a few months ago - literally about a day after uploading the PDF for Yoon-Suin to drive-thru RPG, as fate would have it - and I've just discovered an old flash drive on which (some) of the contents were stored. Here's something I was apparently working on back in around 2007: a page of notes which I can't even remember writing down and which never amounted to anything. It's almost, but not quite, a setting on a page. There's something refreshingly old fashioned about it, I think,

County of Leon

Ruled by: * * - Count of Leon (Liege: Duke of Brittany)
Vassals: Baron of Morlaix, Baron of Douarnenez, Baron of Plogonnec
Military: 15 Heavy Cavalry (Knights), 50 Light Cavalry, 50 Heavy Infantry, 100 Medium Infantry, 50 Archers.
Income:


Major Towns

Brest

Population: 800
Major Industries: Fishing, trade
Personages: Count of Leon and family. Ibn Al-Aziz - An Ogre Magi from the Sheikhdom of Catalyud, now a powerful merchant who owns five vessels, with lots of 'shady' contacts. A wizard living in a lighthouse on the edge of town - advisor to the Count and ambiguous ally. Juliette de Nevers, a dwarfess sage, researching in the old library - secretly a spy? Circle of druids - headquarters somewhere in the forest, occasionally come to Brest.

            Locations

            Wizards Tower - lighthouse, on the rocks on the outside of Brest
            Ibn's Mansion - also on the outside of town, but on the inland side.
            The Castle - where the Count calls home.
            Old Monastery - housing a library
            Smuggler's Caves -  ancient cave system, now abandoned - except for monsters - and the smugglers' hoard?
            Meriadoc's Tomb - burial place of the semi-mythic founder of Brittany, watched over by an order of clerics.
            Conomor's Tomb - burial place of an ancient king, now haunted.
            Tower of Erispoe - once owned by a now extinct noble line, reknowned for the eccentricity.
            Giant's Cave - not apparently inhabited by a giant, but a clan of ogres.
            Oessant - island, uninhabited but excellent shelter for raiders
            Witch's Hovel - home of an enchantress.
            Castle of Mauclerc - ruined castle, magic treasure inside?

           
            Adventure Hooks

·       One of Ibn's ships has gone missing and he's certain it's the wreckers in Plogoff, who have caused him trouble before.
·       Juliette de Fevers wants bodyguards to visit the witch with her.
·       A band of gnolls are causing trouble around Morlaix.
·       Pirates spotted around Oessant.
·       Druids concerned about a troll.
                        Skeleton warriors around Conomor's Tomb.        

Thursday, 11 June 2015

A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches

Animal names always have a nice ring to them. They flow off the tongue. They seem to suit their subjects somehow. This is in a sense true of all nouns (how could a 'chair' be anything but a chair?), but it seems profoundly so in the case of words for animals. Think of a dog. Doesn't the word dog just somehow fit it perfectly? Doesn't that nicely Anglo-Saxon-sounding word just epitomise what a dog is? Isn't there something distinctly cattish about a cat?

This is because, I am sure, we feel a deep sense of interest and connection with animals; human beings and human languages evolved from them and around them. Throughout all of human history animals have been bound to our survival: they are our companions, our tools, and our food. It should be no surprise that our words for them should have a great and deep sense of familiarity to us, and that once heard they very quickly take hold and don't let go. You could even construct a kind of pseudo-evolutionary argument to the effect that being able to quickly learn animal words provides some sort of advantage that would be positively selected for - just as vervet monkeys need to be able to alert their family members that there is a snake in the next tree, so human beings surely benefit from the way animal words stick in our minds so readily. 

This is also the reason why learning animal words in foreign languages is so easy - which is something you have surely noticed if you've ever studied one. People who speak Swahili or Tagalog or Mapudungun have words for dogs and cats which are just as suitable as ours. Just as a dog is very doggish, a chien is also very chiennish and an inu is very inu-ish. The postulated Proto Indo-European word for dog is 'ḱwṓ'; think about this next time you see Rover or Fido - that thing is just as much a 'kwo' as it is a 'dog', and I'm sure you'll agree the word fits it pretty nicely.

What does this have to do with role playing games? Not a great deal, but here's a house rule: any starting PC knows the words for most animals and monsters in the most commonly encountered languages in the campaign setting. He may not be able to barter with goblins or ask an elf maiden for a date, but he can utter whatever the dwarf word is for 'dragon' if he wants to warn or bluff them. 

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Preliminary Thoughts on D&D Tarot Magic

Now, don't get me wrong: I don't believe in Tarot as a fortune telling device. But the concept is great, and I think in some respects it would be nice if it was actually useful. There is something spellbinding about the Major Arcana - the way they look in most decks, their powerful symbolism, their iconic feel. We don't live in a world in which they can actually tell us anything, but a world in which they did would be extremely interesting.

In There is Therefore a Strange Land Tarot (like God, Satan, etc.) is real and can be used by all characters. There is also a unique Tarot Reader class. I've even drawn up a table of key words:

The Fool
Excuses
The Magician
Precision or concentration
The High Priestess
Intuition, wisdom
The Empress
Mothering, sexuality, nature
The Emperor
Fathering, authority, power
The Lovers
Love, passion, bonding
The Chariot
Conquest, honour, impulsivity
Justice
Impartiality, clear vision, logic
The Hermit
Silence, guidance, understanding
Wheel of Fortune
Opportunities, possibilities, fate
Strength
Self-control, solidity, perseverance
The Hanged Man
Sacrifice, surrender, acceptance
Death
Loss, transition, inescapability
Temperance
Harmony, moderation, healing
The Devil
Materialism, anger, hedonism
The Tower
Chaos, disillusion, sudden change
The Star
Calmness, trust, joy
The Moon
Lack of clarity, deception, anxiety
The Sun
Enlightenment, splendour, personal power
Judgment
Rebirth, reconciliation, decision
The World
Accomplishment, prosperity, wholeness

The basic idea is as follows: once in a given period of time (a month, say), a PC can go to an NPC fortune teller and have a single fortune told - which means they are assigned one Major Arcana.

A PC of the Tarot Reader class can also read their own Tarot, which means taking a number of cards based on their level and combining them. So, for instance, a 5th level Tarot Reader might be able to take 3 draws. He or she can then combine the 3 cards, or use them individually.

The way this happens is that, when the PC encounters what he or she considers an applicable situation, he or she gets a premonition or feeling that bestows an advantage. So if he drew the fortune of The Chariot, he could use it when trying to browbeat a thug or whatever because it is associated with conquest, and automatically succeed: it was written in the stars that the thug would be intimidated. Or if he has The Moon, he can use it to automatically succeed when trying to tell a lie: fate had already determined this.

I think the critical thing is making sure this doesn't become too story-gamish or too overpowered. I'm not sure I like the idea of somebody being captured by bandits and just using The Tower to dictate that the camp gets thrown into chaos by a distraction, or using The Hanged Man to generate the outcome "the dragon surrenders" as soon as it's encountered. It feels a little bit too much like narrative control. Not that there's anything wrong with that necessarily, but I like D&D effects to be a bit more concrete and measurable - bonuses, saving throws, etc. And yet at the same time just providing bonuses to dice rolls strikes me as a bit banal.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Random Coin Hoard Generator

The task I am currently working on for There is Therefore a Strange Land is treasure tables. This is the table for generating coin hoards; like everything in TIT-ASL (is that a great acronym, or what?), it's designed to create treasure which is going to be, in itself, interesting to sell and find a buyer for. You obviously don't need to roll in the 'special' column every time; I will probably expand on the number of possibilities in that column in any event.

Dice
Value of Individual Coins
Number of Coins
Shape
Iconography
Special
1
Very low (1s) (Copper, brass, bronze)
10
Circle (small)
Male head
Cursed: anyone removing the coins suffers from effects of a curse spell
2
Low (1d6s) (Debased silver, gold)
1d6x10
Circle (medium)
Female head
Haunted: anyone removing the coins is plagued by a spirit who (1) makes constant low-level noise; (2) jinxes all rolls (-2 modifier); (3) blabs secrets at inopportune times
3
1d20x10
Circle (large)
Human figure
Rusted or defaced: half value
4
2d20x10
Triangle
Mammal
Of special interest to collectors: double value
5
Medium (2d6s) (Silver)
3d20x10
Square
Reptile
Of great interest to collectors: triple value
6
2d30x10
Hexagon
Bird
Fake: of nominal value only
7
3d30x10
Pentagon
Lettering
Imbued with dead souls: these whisper of their misfortune during the night
8
High (1l) (Gold, electrum)
1d100x10
Irregular
Geometric Shape
Extremely hot to the touch: cannot be lifted by bare hands
9
1000
Ring/Hoop
Flora
Blessed: using the coins for an investment makes it a guaranteed success
10
Very high (1d6l) (Platinum, ivory, etc.)
1d3x1000
Sphere
Skull
Disintegrate into dust when taken through the portal from their Strange Land

Treasure values are based on guineas/shillings/pence or l/s/d, with shillings being equivalent to a LotFP silver piece or D&D gold piece. There are 21 shillings in a guinea, and 12 pence in a shilling. 

Monday, 20 April 2015

Space Bastards: Amorality and Consequences, or Why You Need a Campaign

I played a one-shot of an Into the Odd variant my good friend and fellow podcast is creating, called Into the Oort, yesterday. It was a lot of fun and worked very well. It did remind me, however, that while one shots can be enjoyable, it is very hard to imbue them with any meaning. In short, PCs in a one shot have free reign to be absolute, utter sociopaths, because long-term consequences for their actions do not really exist. And while this is fun, there is something superficial about it: one shots are a recipe for, basically, being evil. Or, in this case, Space Bastards.

Into the Oort is a quasi-hard SF setting: the Oort Cloud has been colonised by human beings who have lost contact with the rest of the Solar System, and you travel around it trading, adventuring, and getting into general Traveller-style derring-do. I was Gamble Pohl, pig-faced captain of The Statistical Violation; the other player was Verbal Creed, my "Number One". Together we did lots of bad things. From the Referee's AP:

Gamble Pohl and Verbal Creed are adventurers in the Oort Cloud, with Gamble being the de facto captain of a decommissioned warship called the Statistical Violation, a spaceship with a skeleton crew but two profitable cargoes. 
They set off to deliver the first cargo, a shipment of guns to an isolationist community. The ship is stopped and boarded on the way by a border patrol from an asteroid, but our "heroes" turn the tables on the border patrol, and a few days later leave them adrift in a shuttlecraft a long way from home or rescue. Delivering the guns to the isolationists, they set off on a long journey to deliver their remaining cargo - four bodies in suspension pods that are being sold to an organ-harvester.
En route they detect several ships landed or crashed on a small asteroid, and a scan reveals some kind of base under the surface. After a small amount of exploration and antique-finding, they destroy some automated guard drones and confuse a weird skeleton-in-a-mechsuit. Following a blood trail they find a party of frightened explorers who have barricaded themselves in to a storage room. They reassure them that they will help...
...then go to the surface of the asteroid and proceed to steal their ships. 
Now in charge of a fleet of three ships, the new Admiral Gamble Pohl and Captain Verbal Creed proceed to the organ-harvester, selling the four bodies they originally had, and another twenty-four colonists that were in suspension on one of the other ships. 
Organ-harvester: "These are children and families."Gamble Pohl: "We're willing to consider a bulk rate." 
Having secured a hefty payment for the totally innocent and unsuspecting colonists' organs, they set off to look for somewhere to upgrade their spaceship... 
Technically they didn't kill anyone in the several in-game months that passed, but I can't help but feel that they earned the nickname that one of them started using: Space Bastards.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not doing any hand-wringing about Bad Things Happening in Games here. It's more that, in a one-shot, there's no particular reason to worry about negative consequences, and hence things end up feeling, ultimately, shorn of impact. The people on the asteroid and the 24 colonists in suspended animation were even less real than ordinary NPCs, because they only existed for the single session in which we were playing. They didn't have any friends or relatives to mourn them or come after us for revenge, and there wasn't any authority which could arrest and punish us for dicking them over, because the timeline was finite and nothing would exist the next day. So everything became ephemeral, and it is very easy to act in an amoral way when things are ephemeral: people who aren't going to exist in a few hours time don't really feel like people; bad things done in a reality which will disappear by the next day don't really feel like bad things; crimes committed without threat of retaliation or punishment don't feel like crimes. We, as players, were free to satisfy our ids without conscience or fear.

I liked the session a lot, and we had a very good time, but one-shots are simply no replacement for a proper long-term campaign of indefinite length.