Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Strange Land/Plane Generator

There is Therefore a Strange Land continues, alongside New Troy (more on that in a future post). I keep describing TTSL as "Planescape meets The Magician's Nephew meets William Blake". The gist is as follows: at the start of play, one of the PCs inherits the home of a deceased uncle, which contains a study; inside the study is a portal to a liminal "vestibule" which in turn contains portals to other universes. Also inside the study is a series of clues and information about what the other universes are like and what they contain - and how to get into them. In addition to this, the game assumes an early-19th Century real world in which a vast network of secret societies of aristocrats, collectors, priests, devil-worshippers, thieves, royals, artists and poets know about the existence of other portals and universes and are busily engaged in trying to exploit them. So as well as adventuring in the "Strange Lands", the PCs also explore the (to me equally interesting) question of what happens in the real world when they bring things back...

Like Yoon-Suin it is mostly formed from random tables. I'm currently working on the "Strange Land" generator itself. This is what I'm fooling around with; there's a lot to be fleshed out (including all the subtables), but this will give an idea of the kind of thing I'm aiming for.

Strange Land Generator

Base Type (refer to subtables)
Special Conditions*
Single element (subtable 1)
Gunpowder/chemistry does not function
One species only
Mix of elements (blend) (subtable 1)
Unstable – has a 1% chance of collapse and regeneration as a new Strange Land after each visit
Appropriate inhabitants for base type
Mix of elements (distinct) (subtable 1)
Very small – only a matter of miles or even metres
Maze/Construct (subtable 2)
One human sense does not function
Tunnels (artificial) (subtable 3)
Air is not breathable; special equipment, alchemy or magic required
Tunnels (natural) (subtable 3)
Many layers of different base types
Tunnels (mix) (subtable 4)
Gravity is very strong
Random distribution of intelligent races (2d6)
Single natural terrain type (subtable 5)
Gravity is very weak
Single climate type (subtable 6)
Gravity is sideways
Many gargantuan beasts
Mix of terrains (subtable 5)
Gravity is reversed
Many demigods
Mix of climates (subtable 6)
Bytopia type
Every individual is an amalgam of many species
Many spheres separated by vaccuum
Every individual is a separate species
*Only roll if desired
**Think of your own, choose appropriately, or randomly determine from Monstrous Manual
***Inside the belly of a leviathan, an infinite lake’s surface covered in giant lilypads, a vast graveyard, a world of toadstools, etc.

Subtable 1 – Elements

Roll d3+3 times where the result indicates a blend or mix.


Sutable 2 – Maze/Construct

An infinite maze of traditional type – hedgerows and gardens
An infinitely large art gallery and/or museum
An infinitely large library
An infinite cabinet of outlandishly sized curiosities
A universe of gears, cogs, pistons, and/or clockwork
A vast metallic geometric solid, or a universe of them
An endless hall of mirrors
An infinite staircase with rooms leading off

Subtable 3 – Tunnels

Roll d3 times. For a mix, roll a d3 in each column.

Wood-panelled corridors
The veins or digestive tract of a vast beast
Primitive stone
Volcanic caves
Advanced masonry
Solutional caves
Mines and construction works
Glacier caves
Giant worm, mole, ant tunnels
Infinitely deep sinkhole with caves leading off
Metallic corridors
Crystal caves

And so forth. 

Friday, 17 July 2015

Only in Dreams

Nobody is ever interested in hearing about other people's dreams. It's an instant conversation killer. Nevertheless, I'm going to tell you about one I had today. So fuck you.

I was driving with my missus in the dark in the city of Chester - though obviously, a dream-world version of Chester which wasn't really it. Somewhere along the way we got hopelessly lost; I was driving around hairpin bends, ending up in poorly-lit multistory car parks inhabited only by shadows, heading down cul-de-sacs and having to do sixteen-point turns to get out, etc. Eventually we ended up on a residential street of large, prosperous-looking houses in a leafy suburb. We drove for what seemed like an age before I decided to turn around and head back into the city; just as I was turning the car around the engine gave out and the car refused to start.

Annoyed, I got out of the car to call a breakdown service, only to realise neither of us had our phones with us. I was going to have to ask somebody to use theirs. For some reason, rather than ask somebody in one of the houses nearby, I decided to walk along the road, away from town, to see if I ran into a passerby. Ultimately I did - a moustachioed, smiling, rather too-nice middle-aged man carrying a small Christmas tree in each hand. He said he didn't have a phone, but if I walked back in the other direction I would eventually come across a house with the lights on, and if I asked there, I they would have a phone I could use.

I doubled back on myself and kept walking, looking for the house with lights on. But I didn't find it. Eventually I thought I'd been walking so far that I must surely have come across my car where my wife was waiting for me - but I didn't. It was nowhere to be seen and all the houses looked the same. With a growing sense of panic, I kept walking, half angry ("Bloody women! Where's she gone?" etc.) and half worried what had happened.

Somehow or other, without quite noticing it, I found myself walking not down that residential street, but down a well-lit corridor in a house, with a thick red carpet and magnolia walls. It was as if the street had morphed into some upper-middle-class family home; I don't know how I knew, but I knew that it was one of the houses on the street I had been walking down.

Outwardly, it was a friendly family home. The corridor went up and down small flights of stairs and landings, and there were pleasant-looking paintings on the walls, side cabinets with knick-knacks on, etc. But I felt uneasy there. I had a growing sense of dread. I knew that there was something wrong about it. I knew that I shouldn't be there, and that I hated the place. Even writing about it now gives me the willies - just walking down that corridor was oddly terrifying to me.

Every so often I would come across a door, either on the left or the right, and open it. And there would be something inside. One was a horrible young girl, much taller than me, with glassy staring eyes and this truly sinister, benign smile. One was a kind of giant centipede or worm constructed from cubes of wood connected with string; the head was that of a jack-in-the-box style clown. In another room I ventured inside and discovered a closet which I opened - inside it was a big ceramic doll without a head, wearing a blue Disney Alice-in-Wonderland style dress. Another contained a figure like an Inca mummy inside a sarcophagus, which I knew was still alive even though it didn't move. This went on and on - each time I opened the door I would find something horrendous and/or weird, and flee to the next one.

The final room I remember entering I walked in and found an empty room with an alcove in the corner, about the height of a person. It was closed off by a screen of silk or cotton; behind this screen I discovered a tall, wicker door. On opening it I was confronted by an old, withered man with wild hair, who looked at me and screamed in abject horror: I felt as though he had been there for years and years, held captive and now completely and utterly mad. With his scream echoing in my ears I woke up.

Now, there is a purpose to this entry: it's not just an opportunity to unburden myself of a particularly vivid and detailed nightmare. The second half of my dream, when it started to get genuinely scary, made me think a lot (after waking) about D&D. Walking down corridors, opening doors, discovering weird and horrible things behind them - the whole thing superficially resembled a dungeoncrawl, except one with a dream logic rather than Gygaxian naturalism underpinning it.

That made me wonder whether there isn't some mileage in the idea of a megadungeon in which the conceit is that it is a product of dreams. One of the great stumbling blocks I encounter when mapping and populating dungeons is to try to come up with reasons for things being as they are; why are the halflings living right next door to the red dragon? In some ways this spurs the imagination, but in other ways it constricts it. In the dream megadungeon there is no reason why things have to have an internal consistency or coherence. It is entirely liberating: it is fine for one room containing a clown-centipede to be next to one containing an Inca mummy, as long as, I suppose, there is a kind of thematic sense underlying it.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

How People Lived

I'm currently working my way through Bill Bryson's At Home - a kind of popular social history of the Western world. Like a lot of Bill's recent output it's not quite up there with his travel books, which had me doubled over with laughter at their best, but it remains highly interesting - and, of course, there's plenty of grist in there for the RPG mill. Much of the book is a catalogue of how bloody awful life was in olden times; perfect for those running Warhammer, LotFP, or other grim and gritty games. 

On scurvy:

"Typically [scurvy] killed about half the crew on any long voyage. Various desperate expedients were tried. Vasco da Gama on a cruise to India and back encouraged his men to rinse their mouths with urine, which did nothing for their scurvy and can't have done much for their spirits either. Sometimes the toll was truly shocking. On a three-year voyage in the 1740s, a British naval expedition...lost 1,400 men out of 2,000 who sailed. Four were killed by enemy action; virtually all the rest died of scurvy."

On human waste:

"The people who cleaned cesspits were known as nightsoil men, and if there has ever been a less enviable way to make a living I believe it has yet to be described. They worked in teams of three or four. One man - the most junior, we may assume - was lowered into the pit itself to scoop waste into buckets. A second stood by the pit to raise and lower the buckets, and a third and fourth carried the buckets to a waiting cart. Nightsoil work was dangerous as well as disagreeable. Workers ran the risk of asphyxiation and even of explosions since they worked by the light of a lantern in powerfully gaseous environments."

On waste generally:

"At Leeds in the 1830s, a survey of the poorer districts found that many streets were 'floating with sewage'; one street, housing 176 families, had not been cleaned for fifteen years. In Liverpool, as many as one-sixth of the populace lived in dark cellars, where wastes could all too easily seep in. And of course human waste was only a small part of the enormous heaps of filth that were generated in the crowded and rapidly industrialising cities. In London, the Thames absorbed anything that wasn't wanted: condemned meat, offal, dead cats and dogs, food waste, industrial waste, human faeces and much more. Animals were marched daily to Smithfield Market to be turned into beefsteaks and mutton chops; they deposited 40,000 tonnes of dung en route in a typical year. That was, of course, on top of all the waste of dogs, horses, geese, ducks, chickens and rutting pigs that were kept domestically."

On hygiene:

"[T]he spread of plague made people consider more closely their attitude to hygiene...Unfortunately, people everywhere came to exactly the wrong conclusion. All the best minds agreed that bathing opened the epidermal pores and encouraged deathly vapours to invade the body. The best policy was to plug the pores with dirt. For the next six hundred years most people didn't wash, or even get wet, if they could help it - and in consequence they paid an uncomfortable price. Infections became part of everyday life. Boils grew commonplace. Rashes and blotches were routine. Nearly everybody itched all the time. Discomfort was a constant, serious illness accepted with resignation.... 
"Queen Elizabeth, in a much-cited quote, faithfully bathed once a month 'whether she needs it or no'. In 1653, John Evelyn, the diarist, noted a tentative decision to wash his hair annually. Robert Hooke, the scientist, washed his feet often (because he found it soothing) but appears not to have spent much time damp above the ankles. Samuel Pepys mentions his wife's bathing only once in the diary he kept for nine and a half years. In France, King Louis XIII went unbathed until almost his seventh birthday.... Most people grew so unused to being exposed to water in quantity that the very prospect of it left them genuinely fearful. When Henry Drinker, a prominent Philadelphian, installed a shower in his garden as late as 1798, his wife Elizabeth put off trying it out for over a year, 'not having been wett all over at once, for 28 years past', she explained."

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.