Tuesday, 16 December 2014

A Hob-bite Size View

Geddit?

I haven't watched either the second Hobbit film or the third - let me say that from the beginning. I find it hard putting into words how much I disliked the first of Peter Jackson's Hobbit films, and how much I cringe when I see anything to do with the other episodes, without coming across like an arsey killjoy, so I won't bother. Suffice to say the first film was stupid, loud, obnoxious, annoying, boring, and rang completely false against the source material, and nothing in the trailers or advertisements or reviews for the others suggested they would be worth watching to somebody who had that view of part one.

The best thing about the book of The Hobbit is the treatment of Bilbo. Tolkien doesn't often get credit for being an intelligent writer, but he was one: he thought carefully about what he was doing. He was writing a children's book and also a book that was very unusual for its time. He well understood that making the story all about Gandalf or Thorin or Smaug would be a mistake. There needed to be a human lens through which to view events in this strange world - somebody for children to empathise with. And that human lens came in the non-human form of Bilbo Baggins and his development from clown into hero. Indeed I don't think it's a mistake that the main character of the book is child-like in size. He's a small person in a grown-up world, and children can identify with that in a very deep and strong way.

Adults, though, who were children once too, also get that. I don't think reading The Hobbit would be quite as fulfilling for a 40 year old as it is for a 9 year old, but the effect is still there. If you've never experienced fantasy fiction before, the book functions as the perfect introduction because Bilbo's journey is a little bit like it: a person plucked from mundane reality and cast into something much stranger. 

RPGs work best, I think, when they adopt a similar approach. I don't think it's an accident that when you look at the most popular and iconic games - D&D, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, etc. - you notice that the expectation is that the PCs start off as close to children as possible: weak, small, lacking in power and knowledge.

The reason for this is largely mechanical or pragmatic - if players start off knowing everything and being all-powerful there doesn't seem much to do, and rewards for success are harder to come by. But the effect is that campaigns in those games have something of The Hobbit about them: D&D PCs, if they survive, very much tend to follow a Bilbo-like career trajectory. This, in turn, makes them easy to empathise with, and hooks the players into the game and setting just as the reader is hooked into Middle Earth. The child becomes an adult, the hobbit becomes a hero, the 1st level character becomes a 20th level one.

Game designers overlook this at their peril. Starting off powerful may seem AWESOME on the face of it, but it's not the right approach for lasting enjoyment and immersion.

Monday, 8 December 2014

310 Pages of Possibly Incomprehensible Gibberish?

Let me tell you a story.

Long ago (in 2009) a young British man living in Kawasaki began doodling some pictures of slug-men in an idle moment. This dovetailed with a D&D campaign world he'd been running off and on in various forms for a few years, called provisionally The Mountains of the Moon, whose concept was in essence "Fantasy Tibet by somebody who has never been to Tibet and knows nothing about it, but likes the idea of yak-folk and self-mummifying monks".

The result eventually grew into something weird and terrible called Yoon-Suin. Over the following five years the British man made various rash and rather pathetic promises to release it as a campaign setting - each promise being less convincing and trustworthy than the last. During this time the idea morphed from a hexcrawl into something else entirely: a kind of toolkit of random tables, hex locations, bestiaries and rumours that, in the right hands, may come to resemble a living, breathing Frankenstein's Monster of a campaign setting - a Frankenstein's Monster with yak horns, leaving a trail of slime wherever it goes.

Looking at the final product (because yes, it does exist, and yes, it'll be available very shortly) the British man feels at turns proud and concerned. Proud because a heck of a lot of effort, willpower, creativity and yes, let's use a dirty four-letter word, love went into its production. Concern because the British man suspects that the neutral reader - i.e. everybody else - may very well view the thing as 310 pages of useless, blithering nonsense spewed from a rather unhinged mind. (And not in the good, creative way; unhinged in the sense of being mad enough to think anybody would be able to make sense of this crap.) The prevailing view may be, rather than "Wow!" or even "Hmm!", something closer to "Huh?" or even "Jesus wept".

But in any event, it's done now, and despite all the broken promises, the fundamental promise (that one day there would be this thing called 'Yoon-Suin' that people could get their hands on) has been honoured. That, the British man feels, is probably the main thing.

Suffice to say, Yoon-Suin is finished. I'm letting a few friends/comrades take a glance at it first, to see if they can salvage something understandable from it. But yes, in any case, finished. If you've ever thought to yourself "I want to be a slug-man with a crab-man slave", then don't worry: soon it will happen. Perhaps sooner than you think.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Historical Change

Barbara Tuchman is one of the all-time greats, and I was planning to re-read The Guns of August this year - for obvious reasons - but then realised my treasured copy, like many of my treasured things, is somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. So I have made do with another of her books. It's A Distant Mirror, which I have mentioned before, and which I picked up this summer at Barter Books, one of the world's finest second hand book shops.



The book is billed as being a history of the Black Death and the Hundred Years' War, but it's really a kind of extended treatise on human misery and tragedy (self-inflicted and through the vagaries of nature). It's a great book. Not quite The Guns of August - though what is? - but a riveting read.

A Distant Mirror must surely have influenced George R R Martin in writing A Song of Ice and Fire. I'd be genuinely surprised to learn he hasn't read it. It's not so much to do with period detail but to do with two things: the effect of war on a medieval society, and the sense that history is dynamic.

Take this passage, from two-thirds of the way through. Tuchman is keen to stress that the picture was complex, with some areas of France remaining prosperous even in the latter part of the 14th Century, but even so:

"The marks of a century of woe - lowered population, dwindling commerce, deserted villages, ruined abbeys - were everywhere in France, and cause enough for the climate of pessimism. Certain communes in Normandy were reduced to two or three hearths; in the diocese of Bayeux several towns had been abandoned since 1370, likewise several parishes of Brittany. The commerce of Chalons on the Marne was reduced from 30,000 pieces of cloth a year to 800. In the region of Paris, according to an ordinance of 1388, "many notable and ancient highways, bridges, lanes and roads" had been left to decay - gutted by streams, overgrown by hedges, brambles, and trees, and some, having become impassable, abandoned altogether....

"The schism had caused physical as well as spiritual damage, as when a Benedictine abbey, already twice burned by the companies, was cut off from the revenue of its estates in Flanders and spent so much money on lawyers in various disputes that the Pope was obliged to reduce its tax from 100 livres to 40 for a period of 25 years. Other abbeys, robbed by the companies or depopulated by the plague, fell into indiscipline and disorder, and in some cases into disuse, their lands reverting to waste. Decreased revenue and rising costs impoverished many landowners, causing them to exact new fees and invent new kinds of taxes to impose on their tenants. When this hastened flight from the land, the nobles tried to prevent it by confiscating goods and by other penalties that increased the peasants' hostility..."

The picture is one of a society in sustained crisis and near-collapse, where peasants are in constant revolt, landowners are constantly searching for taxes, the knights pay only lip-service to chivalry but spend most of the time robbing and raping in all senses of the word, religion has abandoned any kind of moral authority and the church is at war with itself, and the country is ravaged by roving bands of former soldiers, "the free companies", who sometimes act as mercenaries but, when not doing so, act simply as wandering brigands and thugs. But at the same time, French society hadn't always been this way: it's a culmination, the result of a "century of woe" - one damned thing after another and their combined effects.

In real life things aren't static. It's rather a mundane observation, in a sense, but also one that is worth making. Most bad high fantasy settings are bad partly because there is no real idea that there is a lived history going on: that things were different before, that situations change with the course of events, and things will be different again in the future. Instead, there is a sense that things have always been a certain way and will continue to be so (even if there is nominally a timeline or chronology of previous events). Great high fantasy settings, on the other hand, often give a sense of historical dynamism: that what you are reading, or playing, comes off the back of thousands of years of events. Tolkien's work has this, of course, but so does A Song of Ice and Fire (it's one of the best things about the series, in my view).

That's not to say that it's a requirement, of course: Vance's Cugel's stories aren't supposed to be about detailed setting creation - that isn't the point. It's to say, rather, that a detailed setting, a setting which attempts to somehow convey a sense of realism and depth, has to do a good job of presenting itself as being subject to perennial and constant historical change.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Three Ideas

It's been a while.

I've not been lazy, I promise. Yoon-Suin is done and dusted and waiting to be sent off to kindly fresh eyes. I got promoted at work. It's been intense.

Let's think about what comes next. I have three ideas.

1. A while ago on an AGPAN episode I mused about a game I'd like to run: a megadungeon carved into a huge glacial ice sheet. An ancient network of caves and tunnels burrowed into the ice by long-gone aliens. The deeper you go, the colder and darker it gets. And the more likely you are to freeze to death. I call it Cold Depths, using the Hobbit approach to naming.

Cold Depths is an experiment in adding an additional layer of hostility and time pressures to dungeon exploration. The dungeon is not just deep, dark and full of hideous foul beings. It's deep, dark, full of hideous foul beings, and the cold can kill you.




2. By the Aral Sea is a city called Mo'ynoq. It used to be a port. It isn't anymore, because during the Soviet era the Aral Sea was basically destroyed. Mo'ynoq is now many miles from what remains of the sea. Rusting ships lie buried in bone-dry sand. Poisonous dust clouds sweep in, stinging with salts and other minerals left over from the evaporating sea. The population has mostly fled. It's a lasting tribute to the power of central planners to fuck everything up.

Imagine what might be living underneath what was once a sea bed, now revealed by the blistering sun...



3. The oil rig archipelago. 'Nuff said.



Monday, 27 October 2014

Fu Ying and Lee Ba


This pair of magicians travel the foothills of the Mountains of the Moon, offering their services in return for magical items and precious gems. Fu Ying appears as a humanoid rat and Lee Ba as a humanoid pig; if this is as a result of a curse neither behaves as such - indeed, they seem to find each other irresistibly attractive and constantly paw at one another, even during conversation with a third party. Their grotesque lasciviousness makes their company less than enjoyable, but the pair have their uses.

Fu Ying
Level 5 magician
Spellbook consists of a dozen strings of quipu, each containing one spell. These are as follows:
Colour Spray, Dancing Lights, Light, Levitate, Rope Trick, Hypnotism, Charm Person, Forget, Hypnotic Pattern, Web, Item, and Hold Person.
She is equipped with the Kukri of Peeling. This magical blade (+2) slices so deeply it causes skin to necrify and peel away from the body, causing 1 hp damage per day per wound; this can only be healed by a cure disease and cure serious wounds spell cast simultaneously.
She wears Fu Ying's Hat, which provides resistance to fire, acid, and electricity and creates a screen which wards away missiles, providing AC 4 against such attacks.

Lee Ba
Level 5 magician
Spellbook is a hat made of fine bone china, which is decorated on the inside with tiny lettering. It contains the following spells:
Magic Missile, Sleep, Armour, Grease, Taunt, Jump, Shocking grasp, Glitterdust, Web, Wraithform and Ray of Enfeeblement.
He has the Claws of the Rajah of Saliput, two Bang Nakh +3 which allow the owner to climb perfectly and which can be activated to provide perfect camouflage once per day. These items can only be used in conjunction with each other and function as ordinary bang nakh if not used as a pair.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Describing Hit Point States


Observation 1: Hit points are an abstraction which represent morale, fatigue, fitness, and so forth as much as health. (The classic statement of this being the fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisbourne - erroneously identified in places as the Sheriff of Nottingham - from the classic Errol Flynn film; see this ENWorld post. The fight goes on for some time and the two figures don't wound each other until the killing blow, but Gygax seems to have imagined them losing hit points during the course of the combat nonetheless.) A lot has been written on this point, not least by me. But I don't think I'm saying anything controversial, either, if I suggest that the great majority of DMs tend to describe combat in a manner which suggests hit points are more concrete representations of health. What DMs tend to do (and I include myself in this), is that they describe the attack roll as being like the swing of a sword, and if it's a miss it's described as "you slash at the orc but don't connect" (or whatever), if it's a hit that does 1 hp of damage it's described as "you slash the orc across the shoulder" (or whatever), and if it's a killing hit it's described as "you stab the orc through the heart" (or whatever). This doesn't really square with this notion that hit points are an abstraction.

Observation 2: Hit points are actually fairly good at modelling what happens in a fight, in that wounds and injuries recieved, especially to the torso, tend not to affect combatants all that much until a genuine killing or knockout blow is recieved. A couple of times in my sporting life I've bruised or fractured ribs, or had a nosebleed or broken toe, and been able to finish whatever I was doing without much inconvenience. You don't notice the pain, often, until later in the day or the next morning when you can't get out of bed. This is due to the wondrous effects of adrenaline, obviously, and it's actually reflected quite well in D&D hit points, whose loss does not at all affect a combatant's ability to fight, but which do require healing afterwards. See also this short section from Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror:

In one combat Don Pero Nino was struck by an arrow that "knit together his gorget and his neck," but he fought on against the enemy... "Several lance stumps were still in his shield and it was that which hindered him most." A bolt from a crossbow "pierced his nostrils most painfully whereat he was dazed, but his daze lasted but a little time." He pressed forward, recieving many sword blows on head and shoulders which "sometimes hit the bolt embedded in his nose making him suffer great pain." When weariness on both sides brought the battle to an end, Pero Nino's shield was "tattered and all in pieces; his sword blade was toothed like a saw and dyed with blood...his armour was broken in several places by lance-heads of which some had entered the flesh and drawn blood, although the coat was of great strength." 

I've been considering these observations lately; and in particular I'm considering whether anybody actually needs the weird genuflection of hit points representing intangibles like morale and fatigue. I used to find Gygax's reasoning fairly convincing, to a point, but now I'm not sure. Combatants get injured during a fight by hits from enemy attacks. They don't really notice it during the fight unless it's very serious - because of the adrenaline and their own toughness. There's no great inconsistency there between the model and reality. The only tweak I might add to my games in future is something like this:

If a combatant loses 50% of his or her hit points in a given combat, from the next day onwards he or she takes a -1 penalty to all dice rolls until healed.
If a combatant loses 75% of his or her hit points in a given combat, from the next day onwards he or she is at half movement rate in addition to the above penalty, until healed. 

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Out with the Old

It happened like this in the world. Old things lost their grip and dropped away; not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger.
- TH White, The Goshawk

I am a lover of old things. Not all old things, and of course the principle only stretches so far, but I think in general I prefer the tried and tested to the new. I prefer Bach to Jay-Z, test cricket to t20, Shakespeare to Zadie Smith, old-fashioned real ale to fancy ciders and "fursty ferret" style ironically fashionable old-fashioned ale (I write this blog entry drinking a can of Courage Director's), classic cocktails to passion fruit fucking mojitos, classic rock to whatever it is kids listen to nowadays, analogue to digital, karate to MMA, hand-carved wood furniture to stark modernist stuff, gothic architecture to brutalist concrete, etc., etc. It isn't a hard-and-fast tendency by any means - and I have basically no tolerance for fakeness (I don't know about in the US but pseudo-Victoriana is the fashion of choice these days amongst hipster knobheads in Britain) - but it's a certain leaning.

Is my leaning towards old things the reason I like old RPGs? Undoubtedly yes. I like them because they are old. Not necessarily because there is an intrinsic value in oldness (though I do believe that there often is), but simply because I like things that have been around for a long time. I like having a connection with the past and with older ways of doing things. The new, the glossy, the shiny, the sparkly, is not usually all that attractive to me. I find it off-putting and ephemeral. I tend to view it with suspicion and often find its success to be attributable, as TH White did, to simply being more bad, and stronger. Much of the modern RPG industry, if its possible to speak of such a thing at all, strikes me as being that: more bad, and stronger, than what was being played in decades past.

Our preferences tend not to be rational, and I think we kid ourselves if we pretend otherwise, but I also think a rational argument can be made as to why one should prefer old things - which is simply that, if something has been around for a long time, there is probably a reason for it. The onus ought to be on new things to prove their worth: we can take Shakespeare as great simply by dint of him still being considered so important 400 years after his death, whereas modern authors have the burden of proof to demonstrate they aren't passing fads. The world of rock is the same: the latest NME flavour of the month may be a great band but let's wait 30 years or so and see if people are still listening. Of course, nothing of this is set in stone - there are plenty of things that have been around for a long time which are criminally awful (e.g. Bono) and sometimes unutterably terrible things become grandfathered into greatness for no good reason (e.g. Star Wars Episode II: The Clone Wars). And this is contingent on survival: the preference is not for old things at all costs, but for old things which have proved themselves by surviving. But I think there are strong reasons for the following rule of thumb:

Faced with a choice between purchasing or using two cultural artefacts (e.g. books) where one is significantly older than the other, the significantly older one should usually be preferred.

This is why, for instance, I'll rely on BECMI rather than buy D&D 5th edition, and why I'll try to track down the Top Secret RPG before looking for other, newer games. It's not that I'm sure the old things are better, it's that faced with a choice and with limited time, I'll go for the tried and tested. I'll trust that rule of thumb.

(There are other, less prosaic arguments too, of course. I'm thinking here of Burke's metaphor of the flies of the summer, whose lives are meaningless because they are self-contained, without past or future, neither inheriting nor bequeathing but simply living. I'm thinking also of MacIntyre and his 'goods internal to practices'. But I'll leave those for a future entry.)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Making as well as Doing

I'm currently reading TH White's book about falconry, The Goshawk. It's a great book. A beautiful, sad, meaningful book. A book that every one of you should read. One of those books which you come across from time to time and think, "How come I've never even heard of this before? Why have I never heard anyone raving about this?"

Anyway, it's full of grist for the RPG mill, but I loved this line, which I think sums up what is fun about this hobby.

"Regarding these arrangements after many hours of scrubbing with a file, one could say to oneself warmly: I have created. Indeed, one of the great beauties of falconry was that one was allowed to invent things in the first place, and in the second place to play at Red Indians with them, whatever one's age."

Setting aside the old fashioned phrasing, if you replace the word 'falconry' in that sentence with 'role playing games' I don't think the paragraph would lose anything. The hobby allows you to invent things in the first place, and in the second place to play with them, whatever one's age. It's not just the gaming, it's the way you can say to yourself warmly after drawing a map, drawing up a table, statting out an NPC, "I have created". Like all the best hobbies, it's as much about the process of making as it is of doing. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Arch-Mage Tower Generator and Yoon-Suin Update

Enough with the politics. Here's a table from the Yoon-Suin Gazetteer. This is what's consumed much of my summer: formatting tables like this. About 250 pages of them. I am to all intents and purposes finished, but I need to put the art into its various placeholders. I don't anticipate this will take very long, but I've learned a dark secret during the course of this project, and it's as follows: everything to do with layout is a massive faff, and while that is something you expect, you can never expect the level of faffing around that will be required in practice. So I expect a whole host of unexpected problems to suddenly unearth themselves in the course of this final furlong.


Monday, 15 September 2014

Sorry about the politics, but it's time to talk about Scotland

I think it's bad form to post about politics in a non-political blog, but Patrick did it and anyway, this is a once-every-three-centuries event, so I feel it deserves special comment. If you don't want to read a political rant don't read any further, and rest assured you have until the year 2321 to wait for another.

On Thursday, people living in Scotland are going to vote on whether they want Scotland to be an independent country. I have no idea how this is seen around the world, but I expect that it is largely based on misunderstandings about what Britain is; my perception, from talking to non-British people, is that everyone seems to think that the Scots are some sort of historically-oppressed minority group who were conquered by the English centuries ago and have been chafing under the yoke of London ever since. This is what led a Japanese person to message me earlier to ask why British people are opposed to Scottish independence, when Scotland would be so much better off having "freedom".

As I patiently explained: a) if Scotland has ever been conquered by the English it's through the very roundabout way of the dastardly, perfidious English somehow conniving for their queen to die heirless so a Scottish relative could take the crown; and b) you're surely thinking of the Welsh.

I blame Braveheart.

Scotland and England are essentially equal partners in Britain. Not in terms of population, because England's population is so much bigger, but constitutionally: they are two separate nations with separate crowns which are united in one monarch. They have separate legal systems, separate powers to print currency, and, since 1998, sort-of separate parliaments (Scotland has its own parliament, and there is also parliament in London which is for the whole UK; there is no English parliament of its own). What this means is that the Scottish independence referendum resembles, more than anything else, a divorce. It's two nations which have been bound together for 300 years breaking apart.

Like any good divorce, then, England is going to have to accept the result. You can't force somebody to stay married to you if they don't want to any more. That's not a recipe for happiness. You have to dust yourself down, pick yourself up, and start again. And England will do that. But it's an emotional blow that is going to take a long time to recover from.

I wasn't expecting to feel as emotional about this issue as I do. But as the date draws closer, I get increasingly distraught about it. You see, I'm half-Scottish. My dad is from Glasgow. I've never, ever defined myself as being English. Like a lot of people in this sceptered isle, I would always say that my national identity is British. I consider myself to be a product of the union between the different peoples who call the British Isles home - my English mother's father is of Irish heritage, and my dad's mother was Welsh. My mongrel background is represented in the mongrel nature of the country which I'm from: a muddled but largely successful amalgamation of ethnicities - a family, even. A group of nations who ended up having to share this cold, rainy little island and have learned to do so after many generations. A hard-won and delicately assembled arrangement which has taken centuries to evolve through blood and war.

But if people living in Scotland vote 'yes' on Thursday, what then? A dividing line comes down. From that point on you can no longer be British. You'll have to be Scottish or from "the other bit". I'll have to be Scottish or from the "other bit". My identity is going to have to change. Forget the economic arguments; this is something deeper. The Scottish nationalists are foisting an atavistic, prehistoric decision on me: I'm not going to be allowed to have the positive, forward-looking, civic association of Britishness any more, but only the backwards-looking, crude nationalism of Englishness or Scottishness. Why is this very significant thing so absent from the public debate? Why aren't Alex Salmond and the rest of his cronies being identified as what they are: enemies of progress and utter arseholes to boot?

The beauty of Britishness has always been that it isn't an ethnicity. It's an identity that anyone can have if they live here. That doesn't always work perfectly but it's as close as you get to New World, American- or Australian-style integration in Europe. We don't have the baggage of non-existent ethnic purity. Our union itself embraces diversity because it brings different ethnicities together and makes none of them synonymous with the State, and has done this since its inception. A 'yes' vote on Thursday is going to trash that.

Make no mistake about it. Nationalism is always and forever dark, restrictive, introspective, and mean-spirited. Its nature is division. And Scotland is waltzing into a future of nationalism without even apparently being aware of it - or the fact that it condemns not just itself but the rest of us British people alongside it.