Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Me me me

I couldn't partake in the 15 games in 15 minutes thing because, really, I don't think I could actually even think of 15 games off the top of my head. But Scott has started a newer and more relevant-to-my-interests meme (10 fantasy books you would take to a desert island, no more than one by a single author) so hey, why not? Mine would be, in no particular order:
  • Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber omnibus edition.
  • Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun omnibus edition.
  • Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth omnibus edition.
  • Tolkien's Lord of the Rings omnibus edition (noticing a trend here?).
  • China Mieville's The Scar (not an omnibus edition).
  • M. John Harrison's Viriconium omnibus edition.
  • George R. R. Martin's A Clash of Kings. (I can't go with the entire Song of Ice and Fire to date, and I think the second one was probably my favourite volume so far...)
  • John Grant's The Sacrifice of Ruanon. (Probably my favourite "young adult" fantasy book.
  • Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule. (People complain about this series but I've only read the first volume and thought it was rather good, actually.)
  • C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia omnibus edition.
What? Including omnibuses (omnibi?) is cheating? Well I'm fucked if I'm going to decide which single volume from each one I'd take - you think I have all day?


All Zombies on the Eastern Front [Session 1]

There was enough interest expressed in my post on prepping my current campaign that I thought I'd give a heads up on how the first session went: Swimmingly. (It was two weeks ago, though, so my memory is getting hazy... And the next session, incidentally, is booked in for three weeks from now - the joys of trying to find time to game in adulthood, eh?) A good time was had by all, mainly because I think all the players really bought the concept; for whatever reason the right tone of gritty realism and slightly pulpy adventure was struck from the get-go. I started things off in media res (with the PCs escaping from a prison train heading into Siberia which a pair of IL-2s were mysteriously attacking) and I'm glad I did, as the momentum just flowed from there and didn't really let up for the rest of the session.

Cyberpunk 2020 works fantastically well for a gritty WWII game, as its sheer deadliness when shorn of its rules for armour and cyberwear makes combat genuinely terrifying. (A rifle bullet is guaranteed either to kill or render hors de combat with a single hit, not to mention a 12.7mm round - and given that any competent soldier can score easy hits at 200 yards with a Mosin-Nagant, firefights are incredibly short and brutal.) Suspecting this would be the case in advance, I came up with a system whereby the players had at least some sort of control over their own destiny (a primitive "save" feature, really) - at the start I gave each of them a number of cards corresponding to their luck score from a doctored deck composed entirely of 3s, 4s, 5s, Jacks, Kings, Queens and Aces; they could then play these at any time to get various 'lucky' results (a 3 allows you to add 3 to a single dice roll; a Jack allows a single re-roll; an Ace allows you to reduce the damage of a single hit to 1, etc.). Two of them were forced to rely on this to save their characters from death at various stages.

Yet the speed and lethality of the combat didn't result in anticlimax-style fights. Quite the contrary; things built to a natural climax in which the PCs were gunning down NKVD men in a race against time before one of the enemy reached a half-track mounted 12.7mm HMG which would simply have made mincemeat of them. There was genuine tension in the dice rolling at that moment, as things really were touch-and-go.

My only regret from the session was that in actual fact only two zombies were encountered - the players were so traumatized by these events that they spent the rest of the session studiously avoiding any possible meeting with the undead! That's good for a GM to experience, as it means the players are clearly getting a visceral reaction, but still, it would have been nice to see more zombies being blasted with anti-tank rifles...

Sunday, 24 October 2010

It's like a zen thing, man

If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody to hear it, does it make a sound? And, Tigerlilly, if a GM relocates NPCs, locations or encounters from one part of a hex map that he has a good idea the PCs will never go to, to one they will, is his sandbox really a sandbox, or is it merely a railroad in disguise?

These are the thoughts occupying my mind this Sunday.

Monday, 18 October 2010

You Stupid Bookers

The 2010 Man Booker Prize winner was announced recently; it ended up being Harold Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which I'm willing to bet was probably an entertaining read - something that is quite unusual in Booker winners - as I've read some of Jacobson's stuff before and always liked it. (I doubt any American readers have heard of him; he's sort of like the British Jewish equivalent of Tom Robbins without so much of the fourth-wall-breaking.)

But it comes just as I'm re-reading Vance's Dying Earth stories, and the confluence of the two events really does hit home precisely how stupid and blinkered supposedly intellectual people can be. We fantasy fans are worldly enough by now to know that the literati loathe the genre, and fantasy authors will never get recognition even when they deserve it - that's par for the course; indeed it's a truism. But every so often a moment like this comes along and really hammers home the point: a man who could write something so absolutely perfect in every way as the Cugel stories had more creative power in his little finger than every Man Booker prize winner since the competition began, and yet his career gets almost no mention in any sort of discourse on modern literature - indeed I would be surprised to learn any literary establishment figures in the UK had even heard of him (I can't speak for the US.)

There are moments reading Vance where he is simply so brilliant, so much of a virtuoso, that you can hardly stand it. My particular favourite episode in all of the work of his that I've read is the chapter called (I think; I don't have the book in front of me) "At the Inn of the Blue Lamps", which comes near the start of Cugel's Saga. The depiction of gradual descent into drunkenness of the characters involved, the understated humour, the slightly sardonic detached tone in which it is written, and the joyous unfurling of the tightly-wrought and carefully constructed plot (the creation of which you haven't even noticed because it has been done with such aplomb) - it's enough to make you remember all over again just why literature is enjoyable and important. And yet, because it doesn't pretend to say anything about the human condition, or contemporary geopolitics, or gender, or multiculturalism, or [insert liberal bete noire of the week here], it apparently isn't worthy of the attention of anybody with a brain. What a strange and mysterious world we live in.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Once more, I sally forth in to the lists...

Must be the passing of the autumnal equinox or something, but there's a new mood of Tolkien-baiting out there in internet land. It's not just Tolkien - even Howard is getting it in the neck (much more deservedly, of course, but pointing out that Howard was a racist is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel).

I was thinking about this sort of thing earlier on myself. I'm re-reading Tales of the Dying Earth at the moment, and it occurred to me that people could, especially when it comes to Cugel, read all manner of misogynistic ideas into Vance's work. I don't particularly entertain such readings myself, but I don't doubt that they can and have been made.

What interests me about all this is the way in which people tend to imprint onto works of fiction what they want those works to represent (i.e., the devil incarnate), rather than engaging with them in any sort of formalist sense. This was one of the tendencies that turned me strongly away from English literature as an undergraduate. Feminists, Marxists, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, all of these groups tend to read subtexts into works of fiction that not only do not exist, but which always coincidentally happen to reinforce their own worldview perfectly. It's almost as if, desparate to reassure themselves that their own opinions are in fact true, people clutch on to a literary work and set it up as a strawman for themselves to beat down and thereby reinforce their own political standpoints. Thus you get Marxists such as Moorcock and Melville berating Tolkien for nonexistent crimes while simultaneously digging the foundations of their own Marxist beliefs ever deeper, almost as if they need and are desparate for some sort of enemy to define themselves against.

People remorselessly search for enemies, so as to better define their own opinions - especially when they themselves feel somewhat insecure. This seems to me a fundamental flaw in the human condition which is especially prevalent in people who study English literature. I expect the same flaw was at the root of the rise of nationalism during the 1930s (though of course I'm not comparing idiotic literary pseuds to Hitler); in countries like Germany, Japan, etc. in which the very foundations of society had been rocked, traumatised and destabilised by historical events, society itself began casting about for enemies so as to better and more clearly define what it itself stood for. Thus Germany fixated upon Jews, Slavs and Bolsheviks as a means of differentiating and reinforcing a (ridiculous) notion of what it meant to be German and what a perfect German society should be (i.e., the opposite of what Jews and Bolsheviks were like). This impulse is at the heart of a lot that is bad in the world. Including bad literary criticism.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Sunday Evening Linkage

Some links for your delectation, amusement and edification:
Substantive posting resumes tomorrow.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Magic Faraway Orient Express Sailing to Utopia

I've been doing some thinking recently about what game I'd like to run next, once All Zombies on the Eastern Front (which I expect to last five or six sessions) is done and dusted. What I have in mind is a campaign I call The Magic Faraway Orient Express Sailing to Utopia, which as the name suggests is a cross between The Magic Faraway Tree stories, tales featuring the Orient Express (like From Russia with Love and Murder on the Orient Express), and Michael Moorcock's Sailing to Utopia.

I have given this campaign the genre moniker "railroad which is literally on a train but with sandboxy knobs on". The core concept is as follows: the players are travellers on a stream train which is on a year-long journey between a great Bespin-like dystopic cloud city and a place known only as Utopia (left ill-defined; my idea is to let the players imagine what it's like for themselves). The train travels through the sky on an ancient railway, about whose builders legends abound but whose origins are essentially unknown. I imagine this being a little like the train in Spirited Away, which travels over the surface of the sea - except in the clouds. It stops every so often in a totally different reality a la The Magic Faraway Tree (although of course in this case the protagonists are arriving in new worlds, rather than having new worlds come to them) and in those different realities the players have to pursue some sort of task or other - I'm picturing something like a Holy Grail quest (they have to find a special magical artefact at each stop) or maybe an assassination.

Play would revolve as much around the other passengers as it would the "stops". I like the idea of the train being some sort of moving equivalent of Sigil or (spit) Babylon 5; a neutral zone in which violence is forbidden and everybody has to live in enforced harmony. This would make plenty of scope for cloak-and-dagger antics on board between the players and their enemies. I also like the idea of having a real-world time limit in each stop - maybe I'll buy a big egg timer that I'll turn over as the train arrives; when the sand runs out the train leaves, and if the players haven't made it back on board they're stuck...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Be Prepared

I suppose an explanation is in order for the growing gaps between posts on this blog. I'm afraid it's nothing remotely interesting - just the daily grind of trying to juggle work, shoving together a PhD, social commitments and flat-hunting - but I hope it will serve as an explanation nevertheless. Suffice to say: I am both busy and knackered, all the time, at the moment.

But I am still finding time for actual play, on a bi-weekly/sometimes monthly basis. As coincidence would have it I happen to be planning a campaign due for launch in October, and since the blog carnival this month (which I am amazed is still going) is all about game prep, I think this is a perfect opportunity to both kick Monsters & Manuals into gear and show off my super duper game planning skillz.

The game I am planning is called All Zombies on the Eastern Front (AZotEF!!!! for short) and is a World War II/Zombie Apocalypse game. The core concept of the campaign is, essentially, "You're in the middle of World War II, then something even worse happens" - and in keeping with this spirit I've tried to make it as bad as possible for the players: they begin as Axis POWs in the hands of the Soviets, trapped on a prison train heading into Siberia...an area of the world which happens to be in the first stages of being overtaken by a zombie epidemic. The email blurb I sent out to the players sums things up nicely, I think, and runs as follows:

...All Zombies on the Eastern Front will be about one part Zombieland, one part Twilight 2000-esque “soldiers in a post-apocalyptic Europe”, one part John Carpenter’s The Thing, and one part I Am Legend (the book, not the cruddy Will Smith version). There’s quite a bit of flexibility in that players can be of any rank or branch of the armed services, and can be German, Italian, Hungarian, Romanian, even foreign volunteers in the Waffen-SS (though I stress the focus of the game is escaping the clutches of zombies, not Nazism), and although I’ll be using the Cyberpunk 2020 rules they’re quite heavily hacked (no classes, very different skill list).

Content-wise, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to mow down hordes of the undead with your stolen PPD-40 and its 71-round drum magazine, but combat is by no means the be all and end all, and there’ll be a lot of NPC interaction and investigative stuff going on too, as well as all the travails that go along with post-apocalyptic gaming (finding food, ammo and shelter; overcoming moral quandaries about protecting innocent fellow survivors; avoiding cannibal bandits, etc.) and quite a bit of wilderness exploration.

You read that right; I'm using a hack of the Cyberpunk 2020 rules. This is mainly because I want to lift the Friday Night Firefight rules wholesale; my philosophy on World War II games is that you want combat to be frightening and deadly, and without armour or cybergear believe me, Cyberpunk 2020's combat rules are very deadly. I'm yet to see how it will work in play (I'm slightly worried there'll be a TPK within an hour), but the first signs are encouraging - the players are making noises along the lines of avoiding combat and playing intelligently, which is always nice to hear.

Logistically my prep is involving lots of maps, random encounter tables, random NPCs, and random name generators - stuff which I generally enjoy - as I envisage a lot of travelling on the part of the PCs, and I'm leaving it open ended, which makes for little in the way of pre-planned encounters/adventures. (Whether the players want to head back to Europe, go East and try to make Japan, hunker down and see if they can survive or investigate the source of the Zombie plague is up to them.) I expect all this stuff to run into the pages and pages, which will be a further drain on my time but one I'll actually enjoy - a rarity at the moment.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

My Dad's Bigger than Your Dad

What is it with guys who play role playing games, and talking about how much they know about martial arts?

I consider myself to be moderately masculine. I never cry, drink a lot of beer, don't mind stinking of sweat, watch and enjoy most sports, and I like ogling women at the gym, but on the other hand I'm not interested in cars and I quite like Sex and the City.

I also have done a bit of Tae Kwon Doe in my time, and got okay-ish at it - enough to know what becoming good at a martial art entails anyway (and enough to know I'm much too lazy to get there).

But I can never get my head around those conversations that some blokes have. You know the sort of thing. "I have this friend who is a black belt in karate and he showed me this move where you punch somebody in the chest and actually stop their heart!" "Well, I did kung fun for 20 years, and I know how to kick you so hard in the goolies that you end up coughing them out of your own nostrils." "My dad taught me aikido, and he learnt it from the modern founder of aikido who visited him from beyond the grave!" "I'm so utterly hard that every time I take a shit the muscles in my glutes break the toilet!"

For obvious reasons, these conversations always seem to crop up during role playing game sessions. Every time they do I have to just sit in the corner rolling my eyes. It's so utterly moronic; surely it would be simpler and more efficient if everybody just took their cocks out, compared sizes, and had done with it?

You get it with guns too, of course. Listen, I'm a WWII history buff, and I can compare the performance of a 37mm and a 47mm anti-tank gun with the best of them, but I never do so in public, or at least outside of the insanity of the turn-based WWII tactical wargames I play. The next time I hear somebody talking about how a .45 calibre round does x to your torso whereas a .44 one does y, when really it's just a matter of one doing d6+2 damage and one doing d6+3, I think I'll start strangling people.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Schoolboy Errors

Yeah, yeah, I know. So much for increasing the posting rate on this blog. Work and personal life are not cooperating, I'm afraid.

Anyway, last weekend, I made a crucial, schoolboy error which I once would never have made, and which proves my gamer skillz are growing rusty. Yes, I did it: I wrote on my character sheet in fucking INK. Now I'm going to have to put up with crossing stuff out, or (even worse) use bloody Tipex. What a moron.

This got me thinking about The Mistakes You Can Make as a player. I'm not talking about in-game stuff like the n00b error of trying to fight a cockatrice blindfolded. I'm talking about the meta-game stuff, like writing with a pen on your character sheet or using crappy dice. The kind of thing that makes everybody else point at you and laugh, or try to run you out of town with pitch forks. Here are some others I can think of; they may be a little subjective:

  • Doing a voice while playing a member of the opposite sex.
  • Forgetting your eraser so you have to keep borrowing one off somebody else.
  • Making a bald statement about something you know nothing about, without realising that somebody else at the table does that thing for a living. (I once started rambling on about putting down a horse, only to discover that one of the other players was actually a vet and was busy laughing up his sleeve at my moronic misconceptions.)
  • Not bringing snacks or drinks. Probably the most egregious error.
  • Having a CD or mp3 player filled up with sound effects and queueing up the wrong one, so instead of a scary ghost sound playing when the scary ghost appears, you instead get the sound of somebody farting or a dog barking or a T-34 engine firing up.
  • Forgetting to keep track of your hit points/gold/whatever so when the DM asks you, you look all flustered and have to shamefacedly admit that you don't know.
  • Rolling 1d100 and mixing up which d10 is the 10s and which is the units, so you look like you're cheating when really you're just an idiot.
  • Persistently forgetting or mispronouncing the names of the other players' characters.
  • Rolling your dice too vigorously so that one of them goes flying off the table and under a conveniently placed cabinet, so you have to bend over or get on your hands and knees and scrabble around for it while you go increasingly red-faced because of all the blood rushing to your head and the other players stare at your ass-cleavage.

Any others spring to mind?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Creativity of Constraint

Regular readers will know that China Mieville is kind of an obsession round these parts. It's not deliberate; the guy just insists on saying provocative things that he knows I'll want to comment on. At the gym just now I was listening to his interview on The City and The City, in which he talks at some length about how genre constraints and rules are not in fact barriers to creativity but, on the contrary, spur it. Working around strict tropes and genre expectations forces, in some respects, ever greater leaps of imagination in the drive for something new. (Of course, being a total pseud, like me, he mostly ended up talking about the Oulipo school.)

This is something I can identify with, as it's true of all the RPGs I really enjoy. Being constrained by either expectation (e.g., it's D&D so there will be a dungeon) or starting point (e.g., it's D&D so you can be a fighter, a wizard, a cleric, a dwarf, or an elf) forces both players and DMs to continually re-invent, rejig, and genuflect their games and characters in ways in which a blank slate somehow could not. (At least in theory. There are of course plenty of players who end up being Bob the Fighter in every game.) If you're playing D&D and you know therefore there are to be dungeons, you put in the extra effort to make those dungeons unique and interesting so they don't come across as old. If you're playing D&D so you know you're going to end up being the cleric, you invent some weird and wonderful new deity, religion and trappings to keep things fresh.

RPGs accomplish creativity through constraint in three different ways:
  • The Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Model. This uses hardcore randomness in character generation to force players into boxes they weren't expecting to be put inside. They then have to shape their character on unsure and unexpected footing.
  • The BECMI D&D Model. This allows some choice of role, but the roles are highly rigid archetypes that allow for little variation. This forces players to come up with cosmetic and character-based variety; if you have to be an elf you're going to play an elf who is scared of water, whose culture is modelled on Turkish horse nomads.
  • The Pendragon Model. This is the ultimate in constraint: in its purest form Pendragon insists that the players will all without exception take on the role of squires about to be knighted and taken into the service of King Uther (or King Arthur). Players therefore come up with highly creative means of distinguishing themselves from each other in looks, personality, abilities and history.
Generic games like GURPS, the HERO system, Savage Worlds and so forth therefore leave me somewhat cold. The vast blank canvasses they provide often intimidate and confuse. Better to restrict, better to constrain, better to make lack of options the spark.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The GM as Reluctant Court Jester

I've returned, windswept and rain-sodden and midge-bitten from the extreme North West of Scotland. (Some people go to sunny places in summer. I can never understand this. 7 years of Japanese summers were enough to convince me, if I didn't know it already, that the sun is our Enemy and not to be trusted. I like rain.) So naturally enough I want to write some posts about Scottish Highlands style D&D, because the bleak and empty hilltops, deep dark lochs, and abandoned castles of Skye, Wester Ross and Sutherland would be a perfect place for sandbox D&D.

But first, I want to talk about being a serious and high-minded GM, because the day before the missus and I went away there was a session of a regular Call of Cthulu game I'm involved in, which contained a moment which I think summed up rather nicely something which I've noticed over the years.

Most GMs, I think, are rather high-minded about the games they run. There are plenty of gonzo-style GMs around, of course, so I'd hate to generalise, but I think by and large they tend towards wanting their games to be taken at least somewhat seriously. They spend a lot of time carefully crafting worlds, adventures, NPCs and encounters, toiling often for hours every week to make a deep, meaningful and interesting game session that the players can really be immersed in.

And yet it so rarely ever comes off, because more often than not players just don't have the same investment that the GM has. They don't put in a lot of work outside of gaming sessions, as a rule, and much of the time what they're primarily interested in is their own character, and hanging out with friends and eating lots of fatty foods. This is true of most players and is certainly true of me when I'm a player, not a GM.

Last week during the Call of Cthulu game, we'd just learned that an old arch-enemy of the group had not in fact been killed in a fire (as we thought he had) but had in fact survived. This was quite significant, as it was an NPC we all loved to hate and who had come close to killing all of our characters in days gone by. So the scene was set for some good immersive role playing reactions. One of us, I forget who, blurted out, "He's alive?", with a serious "in-character" expression on his face. To which, on cue, another player immediately murmured "Gordon's alive!?" in a pitch-perfect Brian Blessed impression. Everyone sniggered and the moment was ruined. All that careful build-up was for naught.

Just as the remark was made I glanced at the GM's face and saw writ there the GM's tragedy encapsulated perfectly: caught between having to laugh because although it was a stupid and obvious joke it was executed with such panache, while at the same time having to be disappointed and crushed by the carefully built-up mood being so utterly spoiled, he ended up doing neither. He just looked down, paused for two seconds, and carried on. But I knew that the moment cost him, as it costs all GMs dozens of times every game session, all across the land, and he had felt it like yet another pound of the huge weight which he, like all other GMs, carries John Bunyan-like on his journey through the valley of role playing.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday: Fangs of Fury (III)

[I'll be away hiking and camping in the Scottish Highlands until the end of the month-ish, so this is the last update from me for a while. I know posting on this blog has slowed down a lot over the last few months, so I hope after the break I'll come back refreshed and full of energy.]

Back here, we were confronted by a naughty goblin who seems to have mistaken us for an ally and wants to know our regiment. Being a bunch of deceitful scumbags, you decided to bluff and give him a name.

In Zamarra, you've heard stories about the Bonecrusher Battalions so you decide to use that name. The Goblin immediately pulls out a sword and holds it to your throat. 'The Bonecrushers have not landed yet, Coney!' He calls out to one of the soldiers, 'Get the list. I think we have another spy.' The Goblin marches you to a deep earth dug-out as another Goblin arrives clutching a large battered book. He looks at you, then flicks through the pages. The book seems to contain information about King Elidor's knights, squires and nobles. The Goblin shuts the book, disappointed. 'Nobody important, no ransom, kill him.' Do you shout out that what you meant to say was that you want to join the Bonecrushers (turn to 250) or 'admit' that you've deserted from the Citadel garrison (turn to 181)?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Something tells me it's all happening at the zoo


There are some animals which really hog the fantasy-monster-beast limelight. Wolves (werewolves, wolfweres, dire wolves), bears (werebears, cave bears, owl bears), snakes (yuan-ti, medusae), lions (lamia, manticores), eagles (rocs, griffins). Enough with these trite creatures of cliche! Instead, what about:

  • Seagulls. Herring gulls and black-backed gulls are mean, noisy, vicious and cocky. They swagger about picking fights and causing trouble. Humans don't scare them - as you'll know if you've ever had one stare you down as you walk past with your shopping in a busy city street. They have sharp, strong beaks and powerful wings. Imagine one eight foot tall and the damage it could do to you. Now imagine a dozen of them.


  • Chameleons. Colour-changing lizards with spooky independently moving eyes, eerily smooth movement, and hyper-fast extendable tongues which can grab prey at a distance. Endless patience in ambush. They swallow you alive and let their digestive juices do the rest.


  • Walrus. A walrus is big, heavy, fat, and can scare off a polar bear with its turks. A giant walrus would be able to crush you like a flea, and unknowingly capsize a ship in its wake - then gobble up the survivors, floating helpless in the sea, as if they were plankton.


I also think there is mileage in dugongs, beetles, turkeys and ostriches.

Friday, 9 July 2010

D&D is About...

I've been playing some more 'modern' or story gamish games recently - things like Blood & Honour, Unknown Armies and Burning Wheel. One thing you notice about modern games is that they all tend to be 'about' something. They're not just tabletop games that you play to have fun. They're supposed to enable you to explore certain deep human emotional themes. Thus Burning Wheel is 'about' having your beliefs challenged; Blood & Honour is 'about' how obsession with honour leads to tragedy; Unknown Armies is 'about' making sacrifices for the pursuit of knowledge; Changeling: The Lost is 'about' finding onself after personal tragedy. And so on.

I think there's a tendency to contrast this with more trad games like D&D. You find this on both sides of the old school/avant-garde divide, so OD&D grognards poo-poo story games because "it's about the game, not the narrative" and story gamers poo-poo OD&D because it's "incoherent" and doesn't have a goal. Both sides perpetuate a supposed gulf between the two different play styles.

Au contraire. I think D&D is actually 'about' something too, and moreover, it's about something very specific. What it's about is ambition.

What else could it be? PCs begin at 'level 1' and hope to progress upwards to level 9 or 20 or 36. They progress upwards by gathering ever more wealth and doing deeds of derring-do of ever increasing magnitude. They learn new abilities and magic spells. They behave avariciously, whether in terms of wealth, power, or experience, and are never satisfied with what they have. Their goal is almost universally to dominate the world, even if this is usually unspoken, because world domination is implicit in their drive to succeed.

Ambition even seeps into the metagame, because in my experience it's generally only in D&D that you get DMs doing the crazily obsessive worldbuilding which you find all over the blogosphere and which I also engage in with so much gusto. You don't get people DMing Unknown Armies and coming up with the gargantuan folders stuffed full of random encounter tables, maps, random treasure generators, weather and climate charts, new monsters and NPCs, and campaign notes. You don't get the almost megalomaniacal ambition of a true D&D DM to catalogue an entire world in other games. Or, at least, not at all as commonly.

D&D is about ambition, greed, power, and the will to win above all costs.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday: (And it's actually Monday!) Fangs of Fury (II)

[I hear there's some sort of celebration in America on the 4th of July. Can't imagine what it is, but I hope my American readership had a nice time.]

It's been a while, but if you cast your mind back you'll remember that, after a very convoluted and contrived back story, we were in a labyrinth trying to decide whether to go right down a tunnel and disobey instructions, or climb over a pile of rubble. The votes were to be a good boy and climb over the rubble like Captain Laski said.

You scramble up the pile of rubble. It moves under you and, suddenly, you see bright sunlight. You scamper up and at once hear gruff voices shouting commands. Just then you slip, and a large warty hand stretches down and helps you up. You stand there blinking in the bright light and see a Goblin smiling at you. Behind him a group of soldiers are pushing a giant battering-ram against the huge outer defences of the Citadel. There is dust and smoke everywhere. You look down to see the rubble move again and the hole you emerged from seal itself. The Goblin shouts at you. "Watch your step! Next time I'll let you get buried! Now, who are you and what regiment are you marked for? I don't see any insignia."

Do you admit that you don't have a regiment (turn to 298) or do you give him a name (turn to 378)?

Monday, 28 June 2010

My So-Called [Gaming] Life

Here's what's going on right now in Noisms Wonderful World of Role Playing (tm). I am:

  • Playing in a monthly Call of Cthulu game set in 1920s San Francisco.
  • Playing in a monthly d20 Modern game loosely based on Joe Dever's post-apocalyptic gamebooks.
  • About to start a monthly Blood & Honor game.
  • Planning a Japanese-soldiers-in-China hack of the Cyberpunk 2020 rules.
  • Running a WFRP game by email.

You'll probably have noticed something: none of this is D&D. This isn't a coincidence. I've recently become so sick of D&D I could puke blood. This is maybe an odd confession, because well over 90% of the entries on this blog have been related to D&D either directly or indirectly. But what can I say? I went through a cycle of massive enthusiasm for Old Beulah this past two years or so, and now I've come out the other side and just want to think about something else. We all go through these stages.

It'll be back, of course. That's the thing about cycles. I predict that in a year or so I'll be chomping at the bit to try to hit Armour Class 0 and save-vs-death magic. But for now, I think D&D and I need a break. Much like Ross and Rachel, except D&D knows that my flirtations with other games will never amount to anything much. That's the beauty of game systems, really - your marriage to one is always open.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Luck in the Head

Before a combat begins, a player can elect to test his luck. This involves picking a dice - any dice - and rolling. If the number is high (e.g. 4 or more on a d6) he is lucky. If the number is low (e.g. 3 or less on a d6) he is unlucky. He should then roll a d100 and consult the following table, designating an opponent as necessary. If the results make no obvious sense, reroll.

Table of Luck

1. Sunlight. The sun happens to be shining right into his enemy's eyes; for the first round of hand-to-hand combat, the enemy is at -2 to hit. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
2. Diorrhea. Something the enemy ate that morning disagrees with him. The effort to restrain himself means he's at -1 to hit for the duration of combat. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
3. Slippery surface. There happens to be something slimy or wet underfoot at the start of combat. The enemy has to roll 1d10; on a roll of 1 he slips and falls prone. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
4. Daydreaming. The enemy was thinking about something else when combat started. He is last in initiative order for the first round. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
5. Butter fingers. The enemy loses his grip on his weapon and drops it. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
6. Flutter flutter. A bird, insect, bat or similar suddenly flaps into the enemy's face, distracting him for a round. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
7. Happens to the best of us. The enemy gets an attack of the nerves and is paralysed for d3 rounds. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
8. Migraine. The enemy has a crushing headache and sees flashing lights. He's at -2 to hit for the duration of combat. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
9. Flu. The enemy is weak and lethargic, and does -2 damage for the duration of the combat. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.
10. Omen. The player has inadvertently performed an action which the enemy interprets as a bad omen. The enemy comes last in initiative order for the first round of combat. If the player is unlucky, the situation is reversed.


I just need to think up 90 more entries. But you get the idea.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday: Fangs of Fury (I)

The inaugural Fighting Fantasy Monday ended in ignomony, calumny, misery, futility, and a whole host of other nouns ending in 'y'. Let's redouble our efforts for the mighty Fangs of Fury. I want correct choices this time, people!

First things first, time to roll up our character. I wasn't expecting to have as good scores as last time, but we ended up with:

Skill 11
Stamina 20
Luck 8

Which isn't too bad. To it we can add either a Potion of Skill, a Potion of Strength, or a Potion of Fortune, all of which restore points of skill, stamina or luck, respectively. I hope I'm not out of line in immediately assuming the Potion of Strength is the only one of any worth. We also have 10 gold pieces, 4 black cubes, and a gem box, the meaning of which will become clear shortly...

Introduction

The introduction to Fangs of Fury is obscenely long and pretty daft, but it essentially boils down to this: We live in a kingdom called Zamarra. It is under attack from the ominously named Ostragoth the Grim and his sidekick Jaxartes, who has laid seige to its citadel. This is despite the fact that Zamarra is protected by six giant stone sentinels, who are supposed to breath fire on anything evil which enters the land; the sentinels did not work when Ostragoth's army invaded, because their "living flame" has apparently been extinguished.

This is where we come in: as an ordinary soldier we have been chosen by our Captain, Laski, and the king's chief wizard Astragal to take a special torch, crafted by the Twelve Good Wizards of Zamarra, and thrust it into the base of a great volcano found in the middle of five mountains called the Fangs of Fury. This will re-ignite the flame of the sentinels and allow them to send Ostragoth's horde packing. Sounds simple enough, no?

To protect us from the heat of the volcano we have four black cubes, each of which will absorb one wave of heat before disintegrating. We have also been given a Running Man-esque bracelet which will glow each time Ostragoth's army breaks through a defence line. It will also explode and kill us if Ostragoth succeeds, to prevent us from just legging it, which seems overly suspicious - haven't they heard you never get the choice to just run away in a Fighting Fantasy book?

Without further ado, let's get on with it:

You are taken to the deepest part of the Citadel. Captain Laski and two soldiers march in front of you and the twelve Wizards shuffle along behind you. Astragal looks at you, shakes your hand warmly and wishes you good luck. He then stands back with the others.

Captain Laski orders the soldiers to lift one of the slabs in the chamber. They prise it up to reveal a set of stone steps leading into a tunnel. The Captain then gives you some advice: 'Keep to the left-hand wall. Don't light a torch, you might be seen. And. . . well . . good luck.' You are amazed to hear a good word from your hard-bitten Captain. You check your pack, equipment and the all important Torch hidden in the secret panel of your leather
armour, and step down into the dark hole.

Just then, the ground shakes as another boulder slams into the Citadel walls. You look up. Captain Laski pokes his head into the hole and screams at you, 'And make sure you succeed. I won't have you besmlrching the honour of the Seventh Foot sloggers.' His head disappears and the slab is dropped backdown. You are in complete darkness.

You feel your way along the left side of the wall for about 4oo paces and then you fall over a pile of rubble. You get up to find the tunnel ahead is blocked. You listen carefully and can hear shouting and screaming. You also smell faint whiffs of fresh air. You feel around in the dark and find another smaller tunnel to the right. Your first instinct is to go back but you realize that from here on there is no going back. What do you decide? Do you take the
tunnel to the right (turn to 250) or do you climb the pile of rubble (turn to 118)?


Thursday, 10 June 2010

No One Here Really Cares About Us Anyway

This week I've mostly been listening to Everclear's Sparkle and Fade. God knows why; sometimes you just want to hear the songs you loved when you were a teenager before forgetting about them for another five years. (It's still a great album though.)

Anyway, my thesis is that around 99% of gamers started playing when they were between the ages of 11 and 14, and since this is usually the period of your life when you are also seriously starting to get into music, the two - RPGs and music - tend to get linked together in an inextricable way in the mind, so that just as certain smells remind you very strongly of certain incidents in your life, certain songs and albums remind you of gaming and vice versa. Here are mine:

1. Incesticide by Nirvana. We played the hell out of this tape while playing nightly (nightly!) sessions of Cyberpunk 2020 circa 1994, in my friend's attic bedroom. I was never the hugest Nirvana fan, which is weird seeing as I sucked up everything all the other grunge bands had to over, but this one was great. I can still listen to it start to finish even now.

2. Generation Terrorists by THe Manic Street Preachers. My big sister was really into the Manics, so by extension I was too, because I thought (wrongly) that she was cool. There's something about NatWestBarclaysMidlandsLloyds that gets me wanting to roll d20s to this day.

3. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins. When you're a kid living in boring suburban Northern England with no money and nothing to do, you need something like this album to show you that somewhere in the world there are people who have ambition to rise above. D&D performs a similar function.

4. OK Computer by Radiohead. This was the biggest album of the 90s, probably, at least in Britain. I remember playing it on cassette over and over again while a friend and I studied Planescape manuals when we should have been revising for our GCSEs; Tony Diterlizzi and Thom Yorke will forever be tied together in my mind.

5. Tiger Bay by Saint Etienne. We used to game in my room when I was about 13, and music from this album could often be heard in the background floating down from my sister's room, which was directly overheard. There is something highly incongruous about listening to Hug My Soul while pretending to be an elf killing a grell, but it was a regular occurrence round my house in the mid 90s.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday: Seas of Blood (XVI)

Last time, deep in an underwater cavern, we chose to enter through the slit rather than the back door. I'm sure Pat Robertson would approve. This led us to paragraph 398:

As you swim through the crack, it snaps shut, pinning you tight some twenty fathoms under the sea. The slit is actually the heavily encrusted mouth of a giant clam. The creature holds you fast long enough for the effects of the magic potion you drank to wear off. Your adventure is over.


Yes, you did read that right. I'm sure this sort of crushing unfairness breeds character, or something, but suddenly I'm remembering why I always used to cheat with Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks....

Anyway, on that abrupt note, it seems the adventure is over. It was fun while it lasted. Next week: Scorpion Swamp!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Modernise that d20

A wet and rainy hangover Sunday; time to talk about d20 modern. I played it for the first time last weekend, and thought I'd give a little precis/review of the experience.

First things first, it was a very fun session. We're playing a post-apocalyptic scenario based on the background of a series of Joe Dever gamebooks called Freeway Warrior, which has a nice flavour of cheesy 80s near-future sci-fi, sort of like a mixture between Black Rain and Mad Max Return to Thunderdome. There's been plenty of opportunity for both player ingenuity and blowing things up, as well as good comraderie between the players. (It really is true that system comes a distant third to a good group and good GM.) So on that front, things are really good.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way character classes work; having different varieties of 'hero' (tough, smart, strong, etc.) based on abilities is the logical move that somehow never managed to be completely realised in D&D, and it makes good sense - even if I'm not particularly sold on the whole "being a hero" motif. It's a bit superhero/action-movie-esque for my tastes, which as you probably know if you read this blog leans towards the gritty, the rogueish, and the low-level. On that note the Action Point mechanism didn't impress me very much either, even though it allowed my character to survive death on a couple of occasions; I'd rather both GM and players be on the same playing field, though I recognise that's just a personal taste thing.

My main beef with the system, as always with d20, is the rules for combat, which manage to combine both the annoyingly fiddly and the misplacedly abstract while diminishing neither. The GM did a good job of making combat go smoothly (I suspect by ignoring lots of rules most of the time), but even so I found myself becoming a little irritated with all the attacks of opportunity and complicated grappling manouvers.

That's okay inasmuch as you can simply discard those rules. The worse problem is the abstraction of hit points, which destroy all realism in d20. In older editions of D&D, hit points work because you can buy into the idea that they represent a combination of physical and mental will-to-fight, both of which can be reduced over a 1-minute melee round by wounds, shock, tiredness, fear, and so on. They're a way of representing all the many variables which come into play in a 1-minute hand-to-hand melee with a very simple mechanic.

With d20 a round is 6 seconds, so obviously it is supposed to represent blow-by-blow combat rather than a back-and-forth melee. In this paradigm hit points start to make no sense at all; if losing them only stands for physical injury, why is there no physical effect of injury until they're reduced to 0 (whereupon the character loses consciousness)? But if they represent "will-to-fight", mental and physical exhaustion, etc. etc. as they did in older D&D, then are we really to credit this being (potentially) completely eliminated within 6 seconds of combat for a first level character?

This problem was bad enough with D&D 3rd edition, but once you introduce guns into the mix the system quickly becomes unfit for purpose. People are hit by multiple bullets and almost killed, only to recover almost immediately thanks to medical treatment. You can be hit by a grenade, rendered comatose and bleeding to death, but on your feet and walking around as happy as larry a few hours later thanks to a painkiller. You can be set on fire by a molotov cocktail and recieve third degree burns but have no consequences to speak of once you've "healed" your 7 hit points, which takes a week. In D&D this sort of thing can be hand-waved thanks to the existence of magic; in d20 modern you don't have that get-out clause. D&D-style hit points and modern combat don't mix; give me the system from Cyberpunk 2020, GURPS, or Twilight 2000, or even Shadowrun, any day.

A subsidiary beef is character generation, which takes forever. I don't mind the notion of skills in a modern-setting game - it's reasonable to assume that people who aren't trained in chemistry, demolitions, computer hacking or scuba diving can't perform associated tasks. But why there have to be skills for things like 'swimming' and 'listening', I have no idea. And then you have to pick from lengthy lists of feats and talents which are a min/maxer's wet dream, but draw out the entire process and don't seem to add anything substantive in terms of play (it all seems to boil down to: "if you have feat x, in situation y you get bonus z", which is all very dull).

I suppose this goes to show that even mediocre game systems are fine if you have a good group, GM and snacks. I can't help but feel that we'd be better served with something else, though.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Star Magic

There are many Gods in the Yellow City, and almost as many seperate sects and religious orders devoted to their worship. One of these is the Xáwúló, literally "the ones who look at the stars", a cult whose membership has grown in recent decades. Its members, who tattoo their skin with many tiny dots as if representing the firmament, can often be seen on rooftops and street corners at night, gazing up at the sky. It is their unusual belief that the stars are not a source of light alone, but represent distant other worlds which are inhabited by strange and foreign races.

Whether or not this belief is true (though it is viewed with contempt by the city's philosophers and scholars), what is certain is that the Xáwúló have found a way to communicate and even interact with something. For members of the sect are sometimes able to summon strange spirits into the Yellow City, through manipulating star light with mirrors and lenses. These ethereal beings are barely visible and possess only the weakest physical presence, and they cannot communicate in a spoken tongue, but their existence is undoubted.

Members of the Xáwúló maintain that these entities are the manifestation of beings from the stars. Others speculate that they are demons, ghosts, or ancestral spirits, who have tricked the
Xáwúló into believing they hail from other worlds. What is certain is that they are unaccounted for in all of the treatises of the sages, and are viewed with suspicion and fear by the powerful philosophical guilds.

Monday, 31 May 2010

History is indeed little more than the register of the crime, follies, and misfortune of mankind

The fate of these Japanese is a neglected chapter among the countless epic tragedies of World War Two.
- John Dower, from Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War Two

In the final weeks of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. The Japanese forces stationed there, mostly reserve units, were ill-equipped to fight against a Soviet behemoth honed by four years of war with the Nazis and possessing arguably the finest military hardware in the world. Within 11 days the Japanese Kwantung army had ceased to exist as a fighting force; 80,000 men had been killed and over 600,000 were taken prisoner. Along with civilians resident in Manchukuo who were also captured during the Soviet advance, the total Japanese captives amounted to 1.6 million people.

It is the fate of these 1.6 million people which Dower is referring to. By 1947 approximately 600,000 Japanese had been repatriated. More arrived illegally, smuggled from China in drips. But in 1949 there were still hundreds of thousands of people unaccounted for. From Embracing Defeat:

In the spring of 1949, after repeated prodding by occupation authorities, the USSR announced that only 95,000 prisoners remained, all of whom would be returned by the end of the year. According to Japanese and American calculations, the actual number should have been 400,000. Suddenly, more than 300,000 Japanese were unaccounted for...

...Over four decades later, the Soviet Union finally released the names of 46,000 Japanese known to be buried in Siberia. The overall numbers never jibed.

There has never been closure for the families of the approximately 250,000 people who are still missing. The issue has never been resolved, and the continuing poor relations betwen Japan and Russia (the two countries are still technically at war 65 years later) make it unlikely it will be for many years, if ever. Though this is only one of the countless crimes the Soviet Union committed, and ranks as one of the lesser of those in terms of numbers, and though the Japanese government of the pre-war era bears at least some of the responsibility for its soldiers being in China in the first place, it is impossible not to feel at least some sorrow for the victims and their families, who will never know what happened to their husband, father, uncle, brother, or friend.

In some respects it doesn't quite sit well to use this scenario as the basis for a campaign, but I can't help feeling that it would be a quite compelling concept - a small group of soldiers and/or civilians travelling across the vast expanse of Manchuria, heading in the direction they hope is home. Perfect for goal-oriented sandbox play in chaotic civil war China, where bandits, communists, mercenaries, deserters, and Soviet and Kuomintang military units are a constant threat, and the civil infrastructure has been degraded almost to nonexistence by decades of conflict and famine.

You would have to use something highly realistic to get the best out of it, I think - Twilight 2000 or GURPS, maybe. Then again the historically perverse aspect of my character wants to throw magical beings of Chinese myth into the mix too, awakened by all the blood and sorrow in the land...

Sex and The Risus

In honour of the release of the most hotly anticipated film of the past decade (by Mrs. Noisms anyway), Risus Sex and the City characters.

Carrie

Selfish bitch 4
Annoying whiner 3
Platitudinous waffler 2
Fag hag 1

Samantha

The only vaguely interesting one 4
Used to be a vulcan 3
Let's face it, a bit of a milf 2
Arched eyebrow of death 1

Charlotte

The only attractive one 9
A bit boring 1

Miranda

The only vaguely human one 4
Cattiness 3
Reasonably witty 2
Probably able to maintain a conversation longer than 5 minutes that isn't about clothes 1

All the Men

Rich and vapid 4
Unaccountably attracted to really annoying women 3
Unaccountably attracted to really selfish women 2
Unaccountably attracted to really unattractive women 1

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Subway Station Campaign Settings

Faustusnotes may be utterly and obstinately wrong in every single opinion that he holds, and he may be a cry-me-a-river leftie of the most hideous kind, but he does make some interesting posts sometimes. (He's also managed to get into the Japanese gaming scene pretty well, which is something I never really did, although I mostly blame working weekends my entire working life for that.) Here's one, on using Osaka's subway station names as locations in a campaign world. I like this idea, although I don't like Osaka all that much as Japanese cities go (it has all the ugliness Tokyo has, but with almost none of the compensatory beauty that exists in Tokyo in pockets, although the people in Osaka are nice).

My stomping ground was always Yokohama, which in my opinion is the best city in the world in which to live. It's one of the few Japanese cities which has managed to reconcile itself with its post-1867 architectural heritage, so you get a feel for what the Japan of the 1920s and 30s would have looked like when you go there, and it has that friendly, relaxed, anything-can-happen sort of vibe that all proper big port cities have. It's also lacking in the sort of pretentious, arrogant wanker which really major world cities (Tokyo, Paris, New York, London) attract.

But the problem with Yokohama as a subway-station-name-setting is that it's a relatively new city, which has seen most of its growth very recently. This means its stations have the pretty banal, made-up sorts of names that most new, planned towns have. Sakuragicho (Cherry Tree Town), Bashamichi (Horse-drawn-cart Street), Chukagai (China Town), Fujigaoka (Wisteria Hill), Aobadai (Green Leaf Plaza)... these are not the stuff on which interesting campaign settings were built.

So there's little alternative than to look to Tokyo, which really hogs the limelight as far as interesting place names go (as in most other situations). Thus we have -

- Kasumigaseki, the "Misty Barrier"
- Toranomon, the "Tiger Gate"
- Karasuyama, the "Crow Mountain"
- Akasaka, the "Red Hill"
- Akihabara, the "Plain of Autumn Leaves"
- Sangenjaya, the "Three Tea Shops"
- Ochanomizu, "Tea Water"
- Kanda, "God Fields"
- Meguro, "Black Eye"
- Hiro-o, the "Wide Tail"

My favourite, obviously, is Yurakucho, literally "the town where there is enjoyment", which I think you'll agree is both intriguing and intruigingly vague.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Tuesday): Seas of Blood (XV)

Decisions, decisions. Down or sideways? You went for DOWN!!!!!!!!

But if you were hoping for something interesting, I'm sorry:

The cave finally narrows quite considerably into a jagged slit about ten feet long and two feet wide just enough to squeeze through. The murky water doesn't allow you to see what lies beyond. Will you slide your way through the slit (turn to 398), or go back up the cave and down the side-passage you saw earlier (turn to 136)?

Hmm, slit or back side passage... The choice that confronts us on so many occasions.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Why Everyone Should Have 3d6 For Stats

Following on from discussions here and here, I've been thinking about stats. Specifically: what is the relationship between stats and social status in a quasi-medieval society? Are all peasants cursed by their poor upbringing to a lifetime of dimwittedness and ill-health? Do all kings make the best use of the opportunities available to them and become highly educated and physically perfect? Does genetic inheritance limit ones horizons and capacity for social advancement?

I've written before about epistemic arrogance, and one of my pet peeves in life is the tendency towards know-it-all-ism on the part of academics, journalists and political commentators. (To hear talking heads rambling on about the future of the global economy - as if something that complicated is within the grasp of one mind to understand.) In fact, human society is grotesquely, exhuberantly, vastly, incomprehensibly complex. So much so that great thinkers from Weber to Marx to Luhmann have devoted their entire lives to attempting to explain how it works, and failed. The more you burrow into it the vaster it appears, and it grows, tardis-like, in complexity with each layer of its onion that you peel. The idea that one could make statements about "serfs" and "labourers" and "artisans" and "merchants" (or whatever social strata you care to name) as single discrete units with defined characteristics, other than those that are very simple and banal (e.g. labourers perform labour, merchants sell things) is hopelessly misguided.

What rolling 3d6 for stats for everybody (arranging to taste) in a given society does, is reflect great complexity in its beautiful simplicity. It denies that we can map social status to ability in any coherent way, and instead allows us to represent the fact that we can never really predict human ability by social class, beyond what we know by common sense (labourers perform labour and will therefore likely be strong, etc.). We can't expect that kings, guildmasters, priests and marshalls will have higher-than-average stats across the board than merchants, fishermen and soldiers.

What 3d6-for-stats also does is allows the DM to riff. The party encounters an innkeeper; the DM rolls 3d6 for all his stats. One of the scores is 16; the DM has to put it somewhere and decides to put it in Intelligence. So the next questions are: Why is this bar-room genius an innkeeper, and is there more to him than meets the eye? What is his role in the village? And why isn't he doing something else? Next they come across a guildmaster who ends up with a host of crap scores, including an Intelligence of 8 and a Charisma of 5. How come this guy came to the position he is in; is he the tool of powers behind the scene, or is it due to nepotism?

There is great creative power in random generation, particularly random number generation, that is not adequately tapped into by players of D&D (and I include myself in this). Embrace randomness, my children, and discover the secret of everlasting life.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Tuesday and a Week Late): Seas of Blood (XIV)

Having promised some sprites we would investigate a thieving Krell's lair, we were last time faced with the option of swimming directly to the lair or inspecting various holes in the cave's sides. Naturally curiosity got the better of everybody and it was unanimously decided to do the latter. Naturally, the result was annoying. (Though this has been the first leap-of-faith-and-get-arbitrarily-punished moment in this particular book, I think.)

Reaching randomly into a hole, you disturb an enormous eel, which savages your arm. Lose 1 point of SKILL. Withdrawing quickly, you continue your descent into the cave. Turn to 105.

Ah, good times, eh? It's interesting how, in the previous entry, we were invited to "look into one of the holes" and yet here we are for some reason described as "reaching randomly" into one... Fighting Fantasy books are like the worst DM ever.

The cave sprouts a large side-tunnel which disappears into murky darkness in front of you, while the main cavern continues straight down. Will you change your direction and take the side-passage (turn to 136), or continue down (turn to 148)?

Not the most interesting choice, admittedly, but have at it.

Log: 25 Days
Gold: 183
Slaves: 3
Crew Strength: 15
Stamina: 10 (out of 19)
Skill: 11 (out of 12)

The Sorcerers of Ainhoa

[I'll continue with the biblical stuff and Fighting Fantasy Monday tomorrow. Just had to get this down while the idea was fresh in my mind.]

The Sorcerers of Ainhoa

The Sorcerers of Ainhoa are a group of six magic-users of unknown origin who travel the high plains, moving from place to place apparently at whim. Capricious and unpredictable, they are at times benevolent and at times cruel. On some occasions all six are seen together, at others they appear only in pairs or threes. Two of them, Izotz and Hirune, are never seen together unless all six are present.


From left to right, the Sorcerers of Ainhoa are Itzotz, Elixabete, Eguzki, Patxi, Zigor and Hirune.

Itzotz, Magic User Level 8, Chaotic.

Itzotz is handsome, aloof and silent, barely speaking and ever observant. In magic he tends towards illusion and phantasm, with which he horrifies or delights his victims.

Elixabete, Magic User Level 9, Chaotic.

Elixabete appears as a small and slight young girl in a faded dress, and is never seen without a bouquet of dying flowers. Her grey eyes seem to contain great age and experience. She favours spells which manipulate the weather or natural objects.

Eguzki, Magic User Level 7, Chaotic.

Eguzki is a corpulent man who is always dressed in the crimson outfit of a jester. He carries with him a sack, whose contents are known only to him. He prefers spells which allow him to teleport or disappear.

Patxi, Magic User Level 7, Chaotic.

Patxi is gaunt and gangly, always barechested. His barrel, which he carries over his shoulder as if it weighs nothing, sometimes contains hundreds of gold pieces, sometimes silver, sometimes copper.

Zigor, Magic User Level 8, Chaotic.

Dressed in flamboyant but pale blue robes, Zigor, apparently a small boy, is the most exuberantly magical of the group, ever ready to demonstrate his power. When he is not practising his magic he likes to dance, performing for food or money.

Hirune, Magic User Level 10, Chaotic.

Hirune is almost as a sister to Itzotz in appearence, though her skin is paler and her eyes sadder. Like him she rarely speaks, though she often sings in a melancholy and quiet way. She is the most powerful of all of her comrades, though she rarely displays her strength.

On encountering the Sorcerers of Ainhoa, the DM should roll a d3; on a roll of 1 two of the sorcerers will be present, on a roll of 2 three will be present, and on a roll of 3, all 6 will be found. The DM should roll a d3 to determine the mood of the sorcerers, with a score of 1 being hostile, 2 being neutral, and 3 being friendly.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

The Mandrakes are Back in Town

A certain somebody called Scott, famous for his various setting blogs (Wilderlands of OD&D, World of Thool, and Ordained Dominions of Vologes), has returned to the blogosphere after a prolonged absence. This is big news, because Scott was one of the key early 'thinkers' (if I can use the term) of whatever you want to call this movement of people who like old games and blog about it. His weird and original settings showed the rest of us where a bit of imagination can get you.

Check out his new blog, Mandragora: The Mandrake March. The blurb:

Mandragora is a fairy-tale-influenced setting inspired by public domain sources such as Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, the works of Lord Dunsany, the travelogues of Sir John Mandeville, and especially traditional fairy and folk tales as collected in Andrew Lang's Fairy Books, presented with a healthy dose of 1970s and early 1980s gamer culture. Visually, I'm drawing inspiration from a variety of classic fantasy artists including Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Sidney Sime, John Bauer, and Henry Justice Ford.

Longterm readers of this blog will know that this is right up my alley, so I'll be eagerly reading Scott's new ideas.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Bel and the Dragon

[Blogspot is acting the goat, so for some reason I can't edit html for this post. This means I can't put it in my usual trebuchet font or use bullet points. Apologies if this causes you a stroke or mental collapse of some kind.]

Bel and the Dragon is an interesting little tale from the extended book of Daniel. If you're a good little Baptist as I was brought up to be you shouldn't view it as canonical, but really, who cares?

Bel and the Dragon (at least the most interesting part; there's also a retelling of the Lion's Den story tacked on) is actually two narratives. In the first one, Daniel challenges the cult of a dragon-shaped idol called Bel which is worshipped by the king of the Persians. The idol is made of bronze, but food which is left out for it each night is always gone by morning. The king believes this is because Bel comes to life at night. Daniel proves that it is because the priests and their families have a secret door through which they enter Bel's chamber during the night and eat all the food, and Bel is merely a statue. The priests and their families are then put to death. It is a rare moment of pure rationalism; Richard Dawkins would be proud.

In the second one, the dragon is real, and worshipped by the Babylonians. Daniel kills it by mixing a special cake mixture (true story) which explodes inside its belly. It's a brief and weird little vignette.

Here's what we can take from it:

1. In the first instance, I like the idea of the fake dragon. For one thing, it makes a real dragon that little bit more special if the PCs' first encounter with such a creature turns out to be a damp squib. For another thing, I don't think in all my years of playing D&D I've ever come across a fake Big Bad Evil Guy - I've never seen it turn out that the evil wizard/demon/giant/mind flayer is really just a hunk of bronze. And finally, I like the tricksy Hercule Poirot style solution to the problem on the part of Daniel.

2. In the second instance, I like the idea of a dragon as a god (or devil). I've written several entries in the past about the general dumbing down of dragons in D&D (to the point where first level characters in 4th edition can kill a white dragon). This is a great disappointment in my view - I want dragons to be special, just like I want dungeons to be special. It's in the title of the game, for Christ's sake! A dragon should be a mighty being of mythic power and malevolence. Leviathan, Fafnir, Glaurung. Not big nasty monitor lizard with wings.

3. In the third instance, in Bel and the Dragon Daniel shows PCs how to get creative. If you can't slay the dragon fairly, box clever and poison the swine. If you come across a sinister cult of devil worshipers, investigate whether you can disprove the entire premise rather than risk your life fighting. Think outside the box.

Finally, I really thing the book should be adopted in Protestant versions of the Bible because, let's face it, you can never have enough dragons.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

You Have 4 Hours Left...

...from the time of this blog entry to download 6 entertaining indie games normally sold for $80, for whatever price you want to pay (and/or a charitable donation). No strings attached.

Nothing to do with RPGs, but I thought I'd put the word out nonetheless.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Dogs in Judea

While in general I take a dim view of "new school" hip-kids-in-skinny-jeans type games like Dogs in the Vineyard, I do think its core idea of giving the player characters real power (perhaps ultimate power) over the people in the game world is quite a compelling one. Essentially, it's a surefire way of getting the PCs to engage with the game world, each other, and their own characters' beliefs, in a very direct way.

If I was going to run it, though, I think I would set it up more like the Book of Judges, because:

a) There is more scope for smiting, and
b) You know, Samson killing 1,000 Philistines with the jaw bone of an ass, and stuff.

The Bible is a very underdeveloped resource for RPGs. I suppose you can put this down to two things - firstly, fewer kids these days being forced (like I was) to go to Sunday School every week, thus less familiarity with the source material, and secondly, a lingering fear of RPGs being seen as some sort of blasphemous satan-worship-enabler. But the Old Testament and the Talmud, not to mention the Apocrypha, are great sources of adventure (and vignette) material. I'll explore a few of these over the coming days.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Saturday): Seas of Blood (XIII)

Thankfully, none of you had to be ashamed of yourselves for refusing to help the sea sprites. Let's see what happens.

'A predatory Krell, which inhabits a cave under this vessel, has stolen the Skull of Salt,' explains the Sprite. 'This is our most precious relic, given to us by Father Sea, which, by its magic, keeps the sea and fresh waters of the world separate. We must have it back.' The Sprites give you a magic potion which enables you to stay underwater without needing to breathe, and then show you to the Krell's cave beneath the wreck. The entrance tunnel descends vertically into the sea-bed. Swimming down, you notice that the walls are heavily pocked with wide, deep holes. Will you continue swimming down into the cave (turn to 105), or stop for a moment to look in one of the holes (turn to 89)?

I love how matter-of-fact that is. Oh yeah, just a potion to let me breathe underwater. Ta for that. Cheerio then!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Game Design as Common Law

Most readers of this blog, as citizens of England and Wales, the US, Australia and so forth, will be at least somewhat familiar with the common law - that is, law created by judges rather than by statute. (Though it's my experience that most lay people in England are astonished to learn that the great majority of the principles of English law were not produced by parliament but by courts. Maybe in the US, where cases like Roe v. Wade are so much in the public eye, people are more familiar with the way the system works.) The common law is based on a very simple concept - that judges hear cases, apply precedent and their common sense, and come up with a decision. If there is no precedent, their decision itself becomes the precedent for future cases. Bob's your uncle. It's much more complicated than this (don't let's get started on Lord Denning), but that's the basic mechanism.

I sometimes wonder how a game's rules would look if they were created in this way. Ideally, a common law system has more than one judge, so you would need to have a number of different groups involved (or, more practically, perhaps one large group with a rotating DM). You would start off with an empty page, blank except for the word "rules" written at the top. This would be the blank slate on which the "common game rues" would be set down. Everything that came afterwards would arise through quasi-judicial process.

Here's how it might work. An important aspect of the common law is that it is based on adversarial, rather than investigative, discourse. Two barristers put their case to the judge in an attempt to demonstrate firstly that their arguments are logically sound, and secondly that they follow precedent. In our common law game design system, the adversarial aspect is the realm of the players. The DM is the judge.

First of all, you would probably need a system of character generation. The DM would nominate two players to put forward tentative character generation methods (roll 3d6 for a set of stats, distribute x number of points, etc.), listen carefully to their arguments and any supporting evidence or witnesses/independent experts (the other players), and make a decision. Since there is no precedent on which to base this (it is a case of first impression, to use the technical term) the decision comes down entirely to the discretion of the DM. Character generation proceeds. Some other questions may arise (what benefits accrue to high stats, or penalties to low ones?). These can be dealt with as individual "cases", taking the format described above, or they can be decided by the DM as an aside. (A little like obiter dicta, if that doesn't stretch the analogy too far.) Finally, we have something approaching a set of rules and standards for character generation.

It is important at this stage to point out that these rules and standards will not be coherent or universal. For instance, all of the players may have chosen characters with roles like "warrior" or "magician", but none like a "priest". Therefore, there will as yet be no rules for how to make a "priest". When character generation next takes place (a new campaign, or when a character has to be replaced) a player might express the desire to play a "priest", and so the rules and standards for character generation will have to be expanded; again, two players will argue the ins and outs of this before the DM, demonstrating that their proposals are in line with the precedent set out previously.

Character generation is over and the game proceeds. The PCs come across a chasm. One attempts to jump across. How are we to judge success? A new case has come before the judge. Two players put forth proposals, and the case is decided. It may be that there is already a "jump" skill that has been put forward during the character generation process, or an opinion on the matter may have been expressed but left undecided. These issues will have relevance as precedent, and the DM and players will have to obey the principle of stare decisis in deciding the matter. Their decision will be incorporated into the rules, and will itself form precedent for future cases.

Matters become more interesting from now on. What happens next time a character tries to jump across a chasm? It's in the rules, so the case is simple. What if he's trying to jump onto a moving object? The same rules may apply, but it may also be argued that since circumstances are sufficiently different, this new instance constitutes a case of first impression and a different rule must be created. Or, the decision in the initial case in which the rules on the "jump" skill were decided may contain, in the obiter, opinions on how all "skill" usages are to be ruled upon, and this may have an influence.

Yes I do have too much time on my hands; your point being?

Saturday, 24 April 2010

There are all kinds of sources for our knowledge, but none has authority.

One of the things I like about traditional RPGs, and older editions of D&D in particular, is that they have what David Brooks calls "epistemological modesty". That is, the designers seem to have understood the futility, indeed the foolhardiness, of attempting to come up with a coherent and robust system from the outset that will work for all players; their philosophy rather seems to have been to provide a starting point, a toolbox, with which DMs and players can make what they will, and which have almost been conceived with the expectation of evolution and change. The lack of cogency in these games, and the very necessity of house ruling them, is seen as a flaw by some, but it's all a matter of perspective; I suspect Karl Popper, William Morris and Michael Oakeshott would all have approved of OD&D's approach.

In fact the history of RPGs could in many ways be seen as a struggle between epistemological modesty and reductionism. On the one hand you have those who believe in decentralisation and freedom of interpretation. On the other are those who think that the complexity inherent in a game played by literally tens of thousands of different discrete groups at any one time could be simplified to the point where a satisfactory unified mechanical structure could be maintained. The latter seems like tilting at windmills to me, but it's been the philosophy of game design since at least the mid-90s.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Tuesday and a Week Late): Seas of Blood (XII)

[Totally forgot to do Fighting Fantasy Monday last week. Forgive me, I pray. Anyway, the general wish was to swim into the hole in the stern of the merchantman in question.]

The hole leads into the captain's quarters, where you confront half a dozen Sea Sprites. These anxious little creatures dart nervously from side to side as you enter the vessel, then rush into the far corner of the room where they whisper together in high-pitched squeaks. Finally, one of them swims forward cautiously and says, 'We are magical creatures, O brave adventurer from the world above. If you will help us to recover a treasure, we will speak on your behalf to our cousins, the Wind Sprites, who will surely make your ship the fastest on the seas.' Will you help them (turn to 75) or not (turn to 383)?

I don't want to prejudice this, or anything, but if you don't vote to help them you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Looking for Life in the Back of Your Mind

I think it's somewhat interesting that the first two editions of AD&D fairly accurately map to developments in rock music - the height of 1st edition's popularity coincided with the zenith of metal, whereas 2nd edition came into its own just as grunge was taking over the music scene. Whereas people from my friend's older brother's gaming group were all into Iron Maiden and Slayer, if you passed the room where our group played all you were likely to hear were the raw sounds of Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr., Screaming Trees or Soundgarden. (Never Pearl Jam, though. It was our highly developed and well informed opinion that they were shit.)

I sometimes wonder if that had some sort of influence on "the game" itself. 1st edition AD&D is, as a general rule, a pretty gonzo and simultaneously hard-edged affair, which always seemed to me to reflect "metal" rather well, whereas 2nd edition tends towards a slightly (although only very slightly) more "grungy" introspective and emotive feel. Obviously the comparison is hardly perfect - 2nd edition took a deliberately unironic and heroic view of fantasy, which is pretty much the opposite of the grunge mentality - but I think there's a case to be made that it had a more slightly more reflective and arch approach (although 2nd edition was all about high fantasy, it seemed to have a far less hard-core view of what good and evil represented; just compare 2nd edition Baatezu and Tanar'ri with devils and demons from 1st). And all the grunge bands were much more reflective and arch than their 1980s metal forebears.

Or maybe I'm overthinking it.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Tom Shippey Tells it Like it is

From here:

Q) Why do you think Tolkien has been so popular with readers?

A) He opened up a new imaginative space. He would have said it was an old imaginative space, which had been walled off, that of traditional legend and fairy tale, but I would say that he did something new with it, which was to provide the world of dwarves and trolls and elves and wizards with a map, with a consistent history and geography, which feels as if it is infinitely extendable. That's why there have been so many successors to Tolkien, writing fantasy trilogies or sequences of the same type, maps included.

The other and deeper reason is that he answers questions that have deeply preoccupied ordinary people, but that have not been answered by the official (or self-elected) speakers for our culture — writers, politicians, philosophers. The most obvious one is, Why was the twentieth century so unremittingly evil? The nineteenth century was looking forward to moral progress and freedom from want. Where (in Tolkien's lifetime, and mine) did it all go wrong? I think his images of evil, like the Ringwraiths, are at the same time completely original, highly contemporary, and mythically timeless. What they say is that anyone can turn into a wraith, and you can't be sure when it will start. Nor can you deal with evil just by being a nice guy yourself. It may force itself on you. Tolkien's images of the good are similarly mixed, complicated, and satisfying. His work has great emotional depth.

Q) So why has Tolkien been so unpopular with the critics?

A) They sense a challenge to the dominant literary orthodoxy of the past century, which has been ironic and self-doubting. I see this as a legacy of World War I, the Great War, which destroyed traditional certainties and traditional authorities. Tolkien was himself a combat veteran of that war, and I would regard him as one of the rather large group of "traumatized authors" writing fantasy (Orwell, Golding, Vonnegut, etc.), but his experience made him want to restate traditional images rather than throw them away. In particular he wanted to find a new way to represent heroes and heroism. He knew the old ways very well, and he knew they wouldn't work anymore, but he did not want to abandon the effort. This essentially positive and optimistic view of humanity (and nonhumanity) has been dismissed as shallow and unthinking, but that is a bad mistake. Tolkien knew much more about irony than any of his critics, and about war.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Luck in the Head

I'm a big fan of having a luck stat in RPGs. Perhaps this stems from my childhood love of all things Fighting Fantasy, where your LUCK score was often the difference between life and death as well as a more mundane combat variable. It's also a stat in Cyberpunk 2020, which we always treated as a dump stat until we figured out how much more fun it was to give it in-game import.

Some ways in which I've seen luck used in a game:

  • Determining injuries in scenarios like car crashes, large explosions and collapsing buildings - roll under your luck score or you end up with something Bad happening.
  • Determining miscellania in games where the players are already "established". Is it likely my character has any aspirin lying around in his flat? Roll luck. Does my character have enough loose change to buy a pack of cigarettes? Roll luck. Does my character's servant know how to read and write? Roll luck.
  • Allowing players to get out of a bad scenario if they make a successful luck score, with the caveat that if they fail things will get worse. Your character falls off a horse - you can roll luck to see if you avoid a broken leg, but if you fail you get a broken neck. (Or you can just take the broken leg and not gamble.)

I like all of these, because they do away with having the GM have to adjudicate in many situations. They also inject randomness into the game, which is always more fun.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Why People Game

At yesterday's Call of Cthulu game we had a new player, and what's more a complete newcomer to gaming, in the form of the fiance of one of the other members of the group. It's always nice to see how somebody reacts when they encounter something you really like for the first time, and this was no exception.

Anyway, there was a moment yesterday which I think sums up what's so fun about role playing games. We'd tied up some loose ends from the previous session, and some of us were in search of a doctor - who was going to be the new player's character. The player, who we'll call Helen, was thus thrust into the limelight with her first role playing experience, which went something like this:

DM: It's five o'clock in the morning and you're waken up by the sound of the doorbell. Going to the window you see a huge, red headed man in a trench-coat at the door. There's a car parked outside, and you think you can see three other men inside it. They look the worse for wear and you think one of them may be carrying a shotgun.

Helen: ...

DM: What do you do?

I think this, in a nutshell, is what role playing games are all about and what makes them great. If you could bottle up that feeling - what do you do, and the limits are anything you can imagine - and spread it around, you wouldn't have to worry about the state of the hobby ever again. Unfortunately for some reason the powers that be have become obsessed with aping computer games, the exact opposite of what they should be doing.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Friday): Seas of Blood (XI)

[There was some discussion about regaining STAMINA. In Seas of Blood this can only be done by resting - 1 day per point of STAMINA. Seems extortionate to me, but I took the liberty of resting for 3 days to get us back to 10 STAMINA.]

Eastern Rim won by a slim margin.

You sail onwards, passing the bleak red dunes of the Eastern Rim's Sea of Fire - so named because of the intense colouring of the infertile earth. Roll three dice. If the result is less than your CREW STRENGTH, add 5 days to your LOG. If the result is equal to or greater than your CREW STRENGTH, add 6 days to your LOG. One evening, with the sun setting over the sea to the west, you notice a phosphorescent wreck in the water to the side of the Banshee. Heaving to, you drop anchor and dive overboard for a closer look. You see a merchant vessel, lying in shallow water, with two large holes smashed in its hull - one in the stern and the other in the bow. Which will you swim into, the hole in the stern (turn to 44) or the bow (turn to 33)?

Log: 25 Days
Gold: 183
Slaves: 3
Crew Strength: 15
Stamina: 10 (out of 19)

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Can you spell 'spell'?

Being away from writing blog entries has had the corollary that I haven't done much blog reading recently, either. Apologies to everyone for not commenting on anything ever (as if I commented much anyway) and not updating my blog roll.

Apparently I also missed some sort of big internet OSR controversy of some kind. It's times like this that I really am glad the whole OSR thing has kind of left me behind.

Anyway, some forge spells:

P-cht-then's Ghostly Vigour (Level 4)
Range: Touch
Duration: 10 minutes/level
Effect: Temporary non-corporeality

This spell allows the target to take on a ghostly, noncorporeal form, allowing him to pass through walls and ceilings, levitate upwards and downwards, and see invisible. However, while in this form he cannot affect anything in the physical world; this includes the wearing or carrying of any clothes or items. He can be seen as a vague, translucent representation of his physical self, but he cannot be heard or communicate beyond gesture. While affected by the Ghostly Vigor he can be hit and wounded only by magical or silver weapons, or by undead beings.

Lucid Discovery (Level 1)
Range: Self
Duration: Instantaneous/6 hours
Effect: The caster discovers something while sleeping

This spell must be cast just before the caster goes to sleep. While dreaming, he can discover one of three things: 1) The qualities of a magical item in his possession; 2) The abilities of a known magical creature within 10 miles; 3) The location of a named person within 50 miles.

Moon Silencer (Level 3)
Range: 60'
Duration: 1 round/level
Effect: Temporarily cures lycanthropy

This spell will only effect a werewolf or other lycanthrope during the night, when the creature is in animal form. For the duration of the spell the creature returns to human form and regains its original alignment, personality, and memories.

Silt Pool (Level 1)
Range: 60'
Duration: 2d6 turns
Effect: Creates a pool of silt to slow and block movement

This spell allows the caster to bring into being an area of thick wet sand, up to 40'x40' in size. Any creature trying to pass through this sand can only move at a quarter of its usual rate and must make a saving throw vs. paralysis each turn or else become completely stuck.

Washan's Secret Kiss (Level 2)
Range: 240'
Duration: 1 day to 1 month
Effect: Causes the target to fall in love with the caster

This spell can only be cast when the target is sleeping. If he is a light sleeper, he may feel a light kiss on his cheek and remember it as a dream, but in fact it is the spell taking its effect; when he wakes, he will be profoundly in love with the caster. The spell will only take effect if the target has already met the caster; however, it is not necessary for the target to be in the caster's line of sight - only his location must be known.