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.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

On Bad DMing

Let's think about bad DMing decisions (while recognising that everybody makes mistakes). Three examples from my own gaming past:

1) I can't remember many of the details about the session, but it was a TSR-published adventure Planescape module and we, the players, had gone through some gate or other into the Grey Waste. The DM described our surroundings as being an endless and featureless plain, but with a couple of demonic winged gargoyle-like beings somewhere in the middle distance. We spent a long time debating what to do. We couldn't return through the gate we'd come to. The plain was featureless. The gargoyle-type beings seemed dangerous. Eventually we decided that since we'd be noticed sooner or later we might as well try to parlay with them. On approaching them, however, they mercilessly attacked us. It then became apparent that they were immune to non-magical weapons - they were abishai of some sort or other. We all died in short order. A bit flabbergasted, one of us asked the DM, "Exactly what were we supposed to do in that situation?" He told us we should have tried to sneak around them. It combined pixel-bitching with rank incoherence - how do you sneak around something in a featureless plain?

2) A d20 Modern game set in a kind of Mad Max world. A firefight broke out with some motorcycle gang in an abandoned town. My character was caught out in the open facing an enemy with a large SMG. It was clear that he was going to die. I was already resigned to the fact and thinking up what my next character would be. The DM rolled 'to hit' behind his screen...and promptly did a very poor impression of disappointment and announced the attacked had fumbled and dropped his weapon. My character had survived. The fudge was childishly obvious. I glanced around the other faces at the table and they glanced at me. None of us mentioned anything, but we all knew: in this campaign, death was going to be impossible. 

3) A cyberpunk-type game, which was short-lived and I think run using some form of GURPS. The PCs had gathered together for a mission in some forest somewhere, raiding a secret radar station or somesuch installation for secret information. There was also a GMPC involved. It turned out that the GMPC was really good at breaking and entry and the rest of us were lacking in necessary skills, so it was agreed that the GMPC would go on the raid and the rest of us would wait. Cue half an hour of waiting around while the GM went through the rigmarole of playing out the entire raid, in his own mind, rolling dice behind his screen and apparently going through the entire event as if an actual PC was doing it, before finally announcing, "He comes back with the information". I think we were all fine with the GMPC doing the mission. But why on earth the GM couldn't have decided the outcome in 10 seconds or with one dice roll, I have no idea.

Good games are all alike; every bad game is bad in its own way. What do these three anecdotes have in common? What unifies them? I have a hard time thinking of a common thread. The first is simply bad communication, or maybe just fuzzy thinking: perhaps the guy concerned really thought he had made it clear it would be somehow possible to sneak round the abishai (he did smoke a lot of weed). The second is clearly a surfeit of niceness: the DM is an incredibly good and honourable person who was certainly trying not to hurt my feelings, but ended up, like most people with good intentions, causing a certain degree of harm. The third I think can be attributed to an overzealous concern with realism or system that you might say is common to players of games like GURPS. The GM wanted to be absolutely sure that the "correct" outcome was reached even though it unreasonably slowed everything down. 

Good DMing is fairly easy to identify. Good communication with the players, enthusiasm, reasonable levels of prep, non-arbitrary decision-making, reasonableness, willingness to listen, imagination. Except insofar as you can simply provide a list of antonyms of characteristics of good DMing, is there an underlying, root cause of the bad? Is there a single thing that we can point to as the ultimate source of malpractice?   

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Ryuutama and the Tiresomeness of New Systems

I've recently heard about a Japanese RPG that had its translation into English launched as a kickstarter. It's called Ryuutama and the unique elements are explained here, but the person who seems to have summarised it most effectively is the OP in this therpgsite post:

In a nutshell, Ryuutama is a Japanese game about traveling that uses old school-ish mechanics. You play common folk (a Farmer, a Herbalist, a Hunter, etc) who at a point in their life feels the necessity to undertake a journey to see the wonders of the world, so its focus is more what you do to survive along the way than fighting monsters (for what I've heard, the combat system is pretty lethal). 
Probably the most interesting and unique aspect is that the GM has his own character with its own special rules. The Ryuujin (Dragon) the GM chooses to play changes the focus of the campaign and how certain rules work (for example, a Black Dragon is about tragedy and betrayal, while a Red Dragon is all about exploring dungeons and fighting monsters). The Ryuujin follows the group from afar, recording their adventures, and may even be able to help the characters from time to time.

Now, there are many elements of the whole endeavour that I find bothersome (the saccharine cutesy pseudo-European Japanese art; the fact that some RPG nerds are doing the translation and I have been doing translation professionally for a long time and I am an awful snob about it; the fact that a lot of it seems aimed at 11-year-olds; the fact that the combat system is based on the Final Fantasy one) but at its core, this seems to be a game focusing on wilderness travel and adventure with interesting twists, which is something I have been wanting, or wanting to make, for a long time. And who am I kidding? I might be a grumpy old skeptic but I may as well own up to thinking that Miyazaki Hayao's Oregon Trail sounds actually rather nice. (And I am fairly sure the rules can be used for scenarios that are altogether different...like Lewis and Clark in Pandemonium or The Rough Guide to the Elemental Plane of Ooze or Let's Explore the Leviathan's Intestinal Tract or A Beginner's Guide to Caving in the Underdark or The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, pt. II.)

However, a genuine problem, I have to confess, is that I think I am just getting too old for learning new systems. I don't have the time, energy, or willpower to even read RPG rulebooks nowadays, let alone actually take the time to learn the system properly. I have about a dozen rulebooks on my bookshelf of which I've read about one page each, because even flicking through them I begin to feel the onset of brain stem death. Which says nothing about the quality of the writing or the way the rules are presented, and everything about the fact that I've reached a stage in my life where I simply can't summon up the effort or concentration to bother figuring out the way a new system works.

It says a lot about Ryuutama that it can seem both incredibly annoying and intrinsically tiresome because it's a new system and I'm lazy, and yet at the same time manage to appeal to me quite strongly. That in itself seems to warrant a purchase, don't you think?