Saturday, 29 December 2012

On DMing Strengths and Weaknesses

I introduced my old friend Nate, who keeps an irregular blog, to RPGs around about a year and a half ago, and he is now running a LotFP campaign set in a fantastical simulacrum of real-world Finland. It is interesting to see somebody's DMing-style develop. I was in (I think) the first session of a game he DM'd, and so I have seen him progress from a novice to a regular, running proper campaigns. (Little Nathan has all grown up.)

What is most interesting about this is that I have noticed that Nate is very strong in two areas that I see as my weaknesses - creating very memorable NPCs on the fly, and creating a more fairy-tale kind of a mood. My NPCs tend to blend together, unless I put on a funny voice or accent, being universally sarcastic, cynical, mean-spirited, and rather unhelpful. (Except if they are women, in which case they are just overtly flirtatious, even if they are 80 years old.) I'm not sure why this is the case, but it's definitely the area I need to improve on most.

And the mood of my games leans towards the gritty; I don't do the fantastical very well. Nate has a good line in the fairy-tale-esque - I'm not sure how intentional it is, but there is a heavy dose of the Brothers Grimm and a (very dark and bleak) Hans Christian Andersen in his work. I like the tone of my games, but I would also like to be able to vary it, and bring in some fairy-tale flavouring from time to time.

It's interesting, don't you think, that learning from other people's DMing style is something that is almost never remarked upon in the RPG blogosphere? It's often noted that people who blog are very good at creating content (monsters, spells, maps, etc.) but very poor at discussing more fundamental issues like how to be a good DM. I'm reminded once again of Zeb Cook's advice in the 2nd edition AD&D DMG: "Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one". That must start off with learning from others, but in general it is something we tend not to talk about.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Annoying SF/Fantasy Movie Cliche #5,674

Watching the first instalment of The Hobbit reminded me of a cinematic cliche that never fails to irritate me, and which I always try to avoid in a game. It is as follows:

SF/Fantasy Movie Cliche #5, 674: "I am a powerful, vicious, skilful predator, but I will give you a chance to flee/attack while I roar and look scary for the cameras."

I have seen this moment in so many films I could not possibly count them. The hero is in peril, menaced by some powerful threat. Yet he does not know it. The enemy is creeping up on him unawares. Skilfully, silently. Soon, it will be in striking distance, and then it will be a simple matter to dispatch him effortlessly, quietly, and efficiently, like any true predator would.

But instead, the creature waits...and waits...for no apparent reason...until the hero finally turns around and notices it...whereupon, instead of administering the coup de grace and tearing out his throat, the creature just goes "RAAARRRRRRR!!!" and waves its claws around for a few seconds while the camera zooms in on its face - and the hero runs away or attacks, whereupon an exciting chase or fight scene ensues.

Sometimes it is even more patently absurd. This is probably the most egregious example from recent years. Watch what the red thing does when it has Kirk at its mercy, and tell me it isn't just plain stupid.

Solitary predators are efficient, cold, methodical, and stealthy, and even then they do not tend to catch prey very often - not even half as often as they try - because catching prey is really hard. If predators spent 10 seconds roaring at every single prey creature they wanted to catch, the prey would always run away and the predators would all starve.

Among the many, many lazy things that Hollywood directors and screenwriters do, this ranks pretty highly. In that one moment - the close up on the creature's face, the ferocious roar, the CGI saliva - a huge mass of cheap shorthand is communicated to the audience. Instead of building genuine tension and excitement through skilful direction we get a mere sledgehammer: THIS IS A SCARY MONSTER!

It it also often used as a naff plot device to get a character from A to B - in Star Trek, for instance, running away from the ice monster is how Kirk ends up bumping into Old Spock. It's because, you see, the director doesn't credit his audience with having an attention span longer than a gnat's, or himself with enough talent to maintain our interest without something loud happening on screen; it isn't enough to have Kirk just meet Spock. There has to be STUFF HAPPENING! at all times.

Predators don't roar at you. They aren't out to scare you. They're out to kill you. That's what they do.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

A Christmas Eve Review of The Hobbit For Your Edification

Amongst meeting family and friends I managed to fit in about 37 years to sit down and watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey today. Fuck me, that was long. I'm not sure in what universe Peter Jackson is living in if he thinks he needs 9 hours to tell this story - other than "MGM has been in bankruptcy proceedings-verse" - but financial returns are a reason to have 3 films, not to make them 3 hours each. This could quite easily have been 100 minutes long and been leaner, faster, and better.

This ties into my main criticism of the film, which I would say is probably in the 2-3 star range: Jackson is a good director who totally gets the look of Middle Earth, but not a natural story-teller who understands its tone. There was far too much exposition going on, so much so that it utterly swamped the story. Tolkien didn't see the need to detail the backstory of the dwarves at the beginning of The Hobbit, nor to explain who the Necromancer was, nor the history of the descendants of Thrain and their battles with the orcs; some of it he introduced in snippets through the story, some of it comes in exposition (but crucially, only once we are rolling along with the story and we already know and love the characters), and some of it remains unsaid. It's because he understood this was a story for children and such stories need to be entertaining and to cut to the chase. And I don't think anybody in the world has ever read that book and said "Christ, I can't understand what's going on here - this thing needs more info dump!"

Oddly, I think Jackson can learn a lot from pre-prequels George Lucas. When Lucas was penning the script for Star Wars: A New Hope, he well understood that backstory and exposition would get in the way of what he wanted to achieve: a pacey, exciting movie. He gives you all the information you need in the first 30 seconds, then just barrels along without stopping to tell you who Darth Vader is, what the Empire is doing and how long they have been around, what the Senate is, all that jazz. (You can't trust much of what George Lucas says, but he attributes this willingness to forego exposition to watching Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece The Hidden Fortress; watching 1950s Japanese cinema as a Westerner, you don't have much of a clue of the background to what you are seeing, but it doesn't matter a jot in terms of the story. George Lucas learnt that lesson, although oddly he somehow unlearned it later on, along with how to make an entertaining flick.)

I have other complaints - chief among them being the total lack of understatement, but that is probably a matter of taste; for me, one of the great pleasures of Tolkien's writing is that he doesn't go for the grandiose very often - only when it matters. The Hobbit is a delightfully understated book. It is only when you meet Smaug that it turns into an epic, and that makes Smaug seem genuinely epic. Peter Jackson starts with the epic at 11; there is nowhere you can go from here, and when every single moment of danger is met by one dwarf or another screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" (Jackson must have been the only person who watched Star Wars: Episode III and thought "That bit where Darth Vader stands up was awesome!"), when every single scene involves moody stares with a dramatic orchestral swell in the background, when every bad guy (except for the refreshing exception of the great goblin) bellows with exactly the same bassy rumble, when every climactic moment involves the dwarves getting yet another last-but-not-last-because-they'll-get-another-one-in-a-minute burst of energy... It all seems to merge together into one rather bland morass.

It looked pretty, and it was enjoyable on its own merits, but I feel like Peter Jackson and I simply like the exact opposite things when we look at Tolkien's work. Also, to those who have seen it, is it just me or do all the evil characters in the film have exactly the same face? The trolls, the orcs, and Gollum all seem to screw their visages up into precisely the same scowl the entire time. They need to get a new make-up guy in.  

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Yet More Extracts from My Game Idea Grimoire

It's been 3 years since I did a post like this. Time for another one. Some entries from noisms' Tome of Great Games That Will Never Be:

Catalogue 59q, book LVI, chapter 37, subsection XXI, no. 371 - Baltic pirates. The players are pirates in the Baltic sea circa 1380, preying on the merchants of the Hanseatic League, shagging whores in Mecklemburg, shagging sheep in Gotland, and saltboxing it up left and right.

Catalogue 17s, book III, chapter 94, subsection V, no. 14 - Amazon Cthulhu. Exploring the rainforest during the early 1900s, perhaps as missionaries to Indian tribes, perhaps as prospectors...but strange, ancient, alien things lurk in that jungle.

Catalogue 46p, book XIV, chapter 11, subsection I, no. 590 - I'm Your Farmer in the Town With No Cheer Quand On N'a Que L'Amour. A story game in which the players take their pick representing Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker and Jacques Brel; they have to outdo each others' tales of womanizing, alcoholism and night life to score XP. The one playing Jacques Brel has to do it in French.

Catalogue 82z, book IIX, chapter 9, subsection II, no. 103 - The First Norsemen in Iceland. Does what it says on the tin. The players are the first Norsemen exploring Iceland. It's more interesting than it sounds; there were weird fucked-up Irish monks living there first: where did they disappear to, and what did they leave behind?

Catalogue 17, book X, chapter 41, subsection XXXIII, no. 46 - Just this:

Thursday, 20 December 2012

On the Inevitability of Archetypes

We realised today, after playing a quick one-shot of LotFP, that the different members of my gaming group always seem to play the same character, in different forms.

N is always a murderous, sociopathic fighter. D is always a diffident rogue who acts based on obscure, whimsical motives. P is always a clever, cunning and amoral creep. And I am always a power-hungry religious lunatic.

We don't do this deliberately; it just happens. I'm sure we're not unique in this.

It makes me think of The Eternal Champion. Our characters are different people in different realities, and yet they are somehow akin. Like in The Years of Rice and Salt, they are a troupe of souls who somehow end up inhabiting bodies in the same area at the same time throughout the history of a thousand worlds.

It makes me want to run a game based on that concept, but I fear it might be a little too 'meta'.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Revisiting the World of Darkness

My relationship with the World of Darkness games (I'm talking oWoD here; I've not really bothered with any of the post-Rein-Hagen stuff) is a little conflicted. It's all so incredibly teenage, with everybody angst-ridden, rebellious, and surly-lipped. The naive right-on politics are writ-large throughout. The "gothic-punk" aesthetic does nothing for me. Of all mythological beings, vampires are the least interesting and compelling. So I am in large part disdainful of the whole endeavour.

And yet I own Vampire: The Masquerade, Changeling: The Dreaming, Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Wraith: The Oblivion, and many of their source books. I suspect that this is partially because when I was about 14 you couldn't walk into a game store without tripping over a mound of copies of Vampire: The Masquerade, so I ended up buying them almost by osmosis, but that's not the whole story - I love Changeling; it really captured my imagination even though nobody I knew wanted to play it (sniff), and despite its flaws we played the shit out of Werewolf during those years: playing angry people who are likely to turn into gigantic man-wolves and tear everybody around them to pieces at any moment is an incredibly fun concept.

The thing is, once you remove the annoying teenage-ness and the tiresome obsession with "story telling" from the Old World of Darkness, what you are left with is a group of very interesting and detailed quasi-settings for urban fantasy games that is tailor-made for the kind of city-based sandbox game I like to run. I say interesting, because at their core, the main Old World of Darkness settings are thematically very strong. Changeling brings the mystery, beauty and strange sinisterness of the fairy tale to the modern age, combining it with a sense of loss, of autumn approaching, of magic leaving the world. Werewolf is all about misanthropy, at its core - the misanthropy that many of us feel when we look around us and see the natural world in retreat and untouched areas of wilderness being flooded by tourists, rubbish and pollution. (I think the perfect tag-line for a Werewolf game would be the quote from Richard Dawkins, speaking about the disappearance of the Tasmanian Wolf: "Maybe they were a pest to humans, but humans were much bigger pests to them; now there are no Tasmanian Wolves left and a considerable surplus of humans.") Wraith is about death and what comes next now that we live in a world of agnosticism and the old sureties of heaven and hell are gone. Mage is about the pursuit of knowledge and power at the price of all else, about the triumph of a kind of uber-rationalism which seems curiously apt in the modern age.

Even Vampire, a game I never really liked, seems positively counter-cultural nowadays in the aftermath of the Twilight series. Stephanie Meyers has done to V:tM what V:tM did to the Hammer Horror vampires of yore, such that its cod rebelliousness has almost become genuine - if you are still playing V:tM nowadays then you are, in a weird way, being far edgier than you would have been in 1991. Something about that appeals to my contrarian instincts in a profound way.

Fuck it, I'll cut to the chase: I want to run Changeling, goddamit!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Being Arch

Alexis never fails to be interesting. The entry linked to is, I think, genuinely insightful in a way which is quite rare in the blogosphere: it made me think about something that I have never really considered before.

It's this: I think arch self-awareness in role players is often a cowardly defence mechanism.

First, it's important to say that I don't think game sessions should be totally po-faced, and I don't think anybody really thinks that, in the end. Games are fun and should make people laugh.

Secondly, it's important to say that British people are very uncomfortable with two things - genuine emotion, and seriousness. So whenever anything or anyone gets remotely clear to expressing any serious emotions of any kind, our immediate paramount concern is to somehow deflate it and deflect it, usually with humour and sarcasm.

This means that a certain amount of irony, humour and tongue-in-cheek remarks is inevitable in any game that I run; it would go against natural human instincts, and also my national, cultural background to do otherwise.

And yet, I do sometimes think that there is something cowardly about the arch way in which I and other role players sometimes operate: everything is approached from a slightly sideways, taking-the-piss angle, as if there is something difficult and terrifying about trying to take the endeavour seriously, and I think a large portion of the reason for this is simply that, if you play an RPG while simultaneously taking the piss out of yourself and being awfully self-aware, you are subconsciously reassuring yourself that you are not, in fact, the horrendous nerd that you might appear to be to outsiders. Although you are a grown man pretending to be an elf, you are a grown man pretending to be an elf and you are aware that it is ridiculous, and you are so comfortable with yourself that you can poke fun at yourself while you do it, etc., etc., and hence you lessen the sting of embarrassment that comes with that very nerdish act.

So there is a part of me that would like to be less arch and piss-takey about my games, sometimes. I don't mean for a second that I'd like them all to be that way. But I do think, wouldn't it be great to run a horror game in which the players genuinely got scared? Wouldn't it be great to run a fantasy game in which the players genuinely felt a sense of wonder and awe? Wouldn't it be great if in a fight the players felt a genuine sense of danger? Because in the end, I think most people who play RPGs would say that the really great campaigns and sessions that stick in their mind are those kind of games. But to run them requires a level of buy-in that my default ironic tone will not generally provide.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

I See a Tall Dark d20

I'd love to think of a solid ruleset for prophecies occurring in-game. For a long time I've been fiddling with various ideas (a huge d1000 table of random events which you roll and consult when a prophecy is uttered - the selected event then has a 5% chance of happening whenever a random encounter dice is rolled; or a random generator which would come up with results resembling the kind of thing fortune tellers might talk about - "a tall dark stranger", "a white cat on a table", "an old man with a dog", whatever - which you would roll and consult, and then if the players encountered such a thing in-game they would receive some bonus or penalty) but none of them seem quite right.

Recently it occurred to me that it might be best to simply write up a random generator which would generate "tall dark stranger" or "white cat on a table" type results, and leave it up to the DM and players how to interpret it. Once the prophecy is uttered, you know it will come true, and the DM has it as a kind of ace in the hole that he can bring into the game whenever he feels like it. But the meaning and effects are dependent on the players' reactions, the context, and what the DM thinks would be interesting.

Thus, a set of oracle results which I just threw together:

The idea being that you roll 3d10 and consult. The first two results provide an image ("you see a figure swathed in blood"; "I see a tower gleaming with light", etc.) and the third a feeling associated with it ("it fills you with a strange sense of peace"; "I feel a deep feeling of regret emanating from it", etc.), and the DM is free to embellish as he sees fit ("You see a figure swathed in blood. You can't see its face, because it is covering it with its hands. But its garments are soaked through with crimson. You have the distinct impression, somehow, that it hates you.")

Needs work to provide more bases and modifiers. The feeling column should likely be shortened or perhaps done away with altogether, so it can be left for the players to interpret. But the principle is there; the challenge is, of course, for the DM to work out when to bring it into the game - but that's the beauty of prophecy; you don't need to specify a time. The Mayans should have spotted that, really.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A New Purchase

Found in my FLGS for £8. It smells funny and has a thin layer of grease on the cover, but looks in one piece.  Who could possibly resist?

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

That Sword and Sorcery Vibe

Despite the fact that my campaign setting, Yoon-Suin, is very much in the weird fantasy vein, it also has realist furniture: there are cities, trade networks, religions and languages that are vaguely plausible, power dynamics that I think are somewhat akin to those which exist in the real world (or would exist in a real world ruled by slug-men, crystal dragons and kraken), and the magic level is fairly low - it mostly revolves around summoning, alchemy, and golemology, and pseudo-sciences like astrology and the creation of automata are prevalent.

Every so often I get the urge to run something more fantastical and irrational - something where magic is everywhere and poorly understood, where monsters are mythic and better understood by Freud than Darwin, where there are no farmers or cities because everyone is either Conan or The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Something illustrated by Frazetta, Brom, John Blanche, Dali and Brueghel the Elder, penned by Leiber and Vance, and printed in 1968.

It just so happens that I have recently come across Meanwhile, Back in the Dungeon, which doesn't exactly help. I mean, just look at this stuff:

Thursday, 6 December 2012

On the Philosophy of Randomizing Tables

Earlier today I was working on a new set of random tables (a random mercenary eunuch war-band generator, if you must know) and it occurred to me that there are two basic approaches to the creation of random tables, and they are as follows:

  • The realist approach
  • The instrumentalist approach
Under the realist approach, the creator sets out to create a set of tables which will generate broadly realistic results (obviously). Under the instrumentalist approach, the creator sets out to create a set of tables which will generate immediately and certainly gameable ones. 

Another way of putting it: When the random table was created, was the first concern:

a) Generating random results which, though clearly random, are nonetheless broadly reflective of "what might happen" in reality?


b) Generating random results which are "fun" and interesting for the purposes of getting the PCs involved in hijinks?

One easy test for determining whether the approach is realist or instrumentalist is whether any attempt has been made to assign some sort of distributional characteristic to the results. A classic example of a realist approach is the method used for creating a random encounter table in AD&D 2nd edition: you have a set of results from 2-20 as follows:

2 Very rare
3 Very rare
4 Very rare or rare (DM's choice)
5 Rare
6 Rare
7 Uncommon
8 Uncommon
9 Common
10 Common
11 Common
12 Common
13 Common
14 Uncommon
15 Uncommon
16 Rare
17 Rare
18 Very rare or rare (DM's choice)
19 Very rare
20 Very rare

And you roll d8+d12 to get your results. This creates a situation in which very rare monsters are encountered very rarely, while common monsters are encountered commonly. The results are realistic in some sense: this is important, because it makes sense that dragons are only encountered on special occasions whereas goblins are ten-a-penny - it would be unusual to have an equal chance of encountering both.

Classic examples of the instrumentalist approach are what are generally found at The Dungeon Dozen. For example:

In the Saloon  
1. Depraved cretins w/strong sense of entitlement (2d4)
2. Tavern sage holds down corner of bar: answers simple questions for a drink, buy a round for the house for more complex inquiries
3. Surly drunks embittered by years of being surly (2d4)
4. Some guy who's really loud and thinks he's hilarious
5. Raucous gaggle of pickpockets emboldened by drink
6. Black lotus addicts waiting around for their connection to show, rather edgy
7. The guy who has strident opinions on anything he happens to overhear, not a particularly deep thinker
8. Pack of ruthless, armed-to-the-teeth dwarfs celebrating successful delve
9. Inebriated laborers fomenting uprising, much speechifying and little regard for alternate opinions
10. Tattoo artist plying trade in well-lit corner: save vs. infectious diseases, heavily inked sycophants openly question the machismo of the un-inked
12. Off-duty assassins amusing themselves by subtly pitting various patrons against one another then sitting back to enjoy the ensuing mayhem
I know from personal experience, as I am sure you do too, that in a given pub you very often encounter 1, 3, 4, and 7, and very rarely 2, 8, 10 or 12; but here there is an equal chance of encountering any of them. Why? Because it is fun for the players to encounter 2, 8, 10 or 12, and they provide hooks for potential adventure - why make such potential gold a rare event?

There are horses for courses, so both approaches are more or less appropriate depending on the situation; but I've discovered that it is worth thinking about the implications before sitting down to write. Do I want my random eunuch mercenary war-band generator to be realist or instrumentalist? And what are the implications of the two approaches? These are actually non-trivial questions. 

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Non-Fantasy Influences on Fantasy Gaming

I watched Heat on TV last night, because it was on, and because even though I could almost quote the script word for word because I've seen it that many times, the central gun battle is still worth it. It struck me while watching it that, actually, it is very much the epitome of what I imagine a Cyberpunk 2020 game to be like (except without the internet and cyberpsychos, obviously); Bladerunner may be a good film but game I run are never like that - they match the grimy technoir of Heat much more.

That made me think of Blood Meridian, which I've always thought of as being, in its description of the Glanton Gang, the closest representation in fiction of what a typical group of D&D adventurers is actually like - compulsively violent, amoral, socially untied, and ultimately aimless - and also, in its almost random collection of incidents, the closest representation in fiction to how a wilderness/hexcrawl D&D adventure shakes out in practice. This despite the fact that it is a Western; there is no fantasy book that captures the feel of D&D like Blood Meridian.

That then made me think of James Clavell's masterpiece Noble House, the book which more than any other represents the Platonic form of the "web of human relationships" style game in my mind: everybody knows everybody, everybody has an agenda, everybody is plotting. The story is the people. If you could plan the perfect Amber Diceless game, it would be something like that.

And that made me think of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner, which say so much to me about what an urban dark fantasy game should be like despite being works of real-world documentary reportage.

And that made me think that much of the books I have read and films I have seen which have influenced my gaming preferences are often nothing to do with the fantasy genre. In fact, if I was going to provide a list of fantasy books which had influenced my gaming, I'd be much more likely to put various Fighting Fantasy books up there rather than anything actually literary in nature. I'm not sure what that says about me, but it is an interesting thought: was Gygax's Appendix N too restrictive? Should he have roamed elsewhere for works to include?

Friday, 30 November 2012


In the lush valleys of Sughd live a race of giant, intelligent arachnids: the ophiliones. Omnivorous, they are as likely to eat fungus or guano as flesh, but they will not reject an opportunity to devour succulent human meat.

In combat, ophiliones attack with their two forelegs, with which they attempt to drag prey towards the powerful maw. They are by nature cowards, however, and they have two detachable legs (which they can regrow) to distract their enemies as they flee.

Armour Class: 5
HD: 3+1
Move: 180' (60')
Attacks: 2
Damage: 1d6/1d6
No. Appearing: 2d6
Save As: F1
Morale: 6
Treasure: Nil
Intelligence: 8
Alignment: Neutral 
If both leg attacks hit, the ophilione drags the target to its mouth and bites for d8+1 damage; this hits automatically.  
If an ophilione loses 75% of hits hit points or more, it will flee and shed two of its legs. These legs fight on as 1 HD monsters, with AC 7 and doing d4 damage.  
A successful hit on an ophilione has a 10% chance of dislodging one of its detachable legs, in which case the leg will fight separately from the host as above. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

On Creating New Monsters

Creating a truly new monster is difficult, and perhaps impossible: there is some fundamental failure of human imagination which means that we are very often forced into the simple "giant this" or "this with a this" or "this which can this" paradigm; as in:

Griffin: a lion with eagle head and wings

Medusa: a woman with snakes for hair which can turn people to stone

Beholder: giant eye which can float

This is even true of people like H P Lovecraft, who is often set forth as one of the most imaginative and inventive fantasy writers of the past 100 years: in the end, for all that Call of Cthulhu is a spooky story which admirably communicates the Lovecraftian ideal of inscrutable and never-ending indifferent evil, Cthulhu is merely a humanoid dragon with an octopus head. He is a "this with a this", or, if you are being charitable, a "this crossed with this with a this". 

I've been sitting at my desk trying my damnedest to think of monsters that are truly novel, without antecedents - not composed of amalgamations or inspirations. Failing that, because of my human limitations, I changed tack and tried to think of existing monsters that have been created by fantasy authors or RPG bestiarists that I would call "new" - that were not based on the "this with a this" paradigm or regurgitation of folklore. I couldn't really do it; the only arguable, and honourable, exception I could think of was Geiger's Alien. 

Why is this so? Some limit imposed by our evolution, which means that setting aside brain cells for pure speculation is a waste of resources? An immutable law of the universe which states that it is not possible to imagine a thing which is not based on prior experience in some way? That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin; our imaginations are shackled by our nature, it seems. 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Actual Play: Blood & Honor Session 1

Three of us spent the afternoon playing Blood & Honor today. Billed as a game of "samurai tragedy in Old Japan", this is a game based loosely on Houses of the Blooded which can be described as an attempt to create a rules-lite story game that stays reasonably close to what feudal Japan was actually like without becoming pedantic. It mostly succeeds (although, as an appallingly arrogant Japanese language snob, I can't resist pointing out that much of the Japanese writing which festoons the sidebars is quite obviously written by a non-native using a dictionary).

In any event, I think the game gets the most basic things absolutely right. At the core of it is the idea that the Clan is everything and the individuals are nothing; the characters pool their honour and, ultimately, should be prepared to sacrifice their characters' lives in the name of the greater whole. That seems pretty authentic, and the mechanics generally work towards that goal rather well - although we made something of a hash of parts of the rules given that it was a first run through.

One of the most important elements of this is that the players create their Clan at the start of the game, which gets them hooked into its success right from the beginning. As well as choosing the name, the character of the Daimyo, and what resources it has, this also involve deciding which of the bushido virtues it values most highly, and the character of its samurai.

For instance, my players create the Kurohou Clan (they came up with the endearingly cheesy name "Black Pheonix Clan"). They established it was headed by a mad Daimyo who kept a reclusium in a cave behind a waterfall; that the local peasants are said to consort with demons; that the clan owns an item of pottery owned by the sun goddess, and that they have a famous Noh theatre group. They decided the province the Kurohou own is famous for its okonomiyaki. They specified it had a famous blacksmith, a large Buddhist temple, a gambling den, and extensive rice farms. And they established that the samurai of the clan are renowned for their impulsiveness ("Waiting for Luck is Waiting for Death"), their vengefulness ("Dig Two Graves"), their deceitfulness ("Fog Cannot be Dispelled by a Fan") and their liking for alcohol ("First a Man Takes a Drink"). Patrick is its spy-master or oniwabanNate is its executioner, or kaishaku.

Blood & Honor is all about narrative control: success in dice rolls gives the privilege to narrate what happens in the situation at hand, while failure means the narrator decides. This means that you can effectively let the game run itself if you're willing to improvise - I came up with a very basic starting scenario (a messenger arriving at the castle at dawn) and the players basically made up the rest as events progressed through use of privilege. The narrative ended up involving a plot on the part of two of the Daimyo's courtiers to conspire with the neighbouring Daimyo to overthrow the Kurohou, and covered, inter alia, one player disguising himself as an old woman; the employment of the local yakuza gang as hired thugs; a mass sword fight in front of the altar in the temple in which the kaishaku killed four enemy ronin single-handed; bungled haiku writing offending cute geisha girls; flirtations with a mad seamstress; coded messages; and a final confrontation in which the kaishaku lost his arm and the conspirators escaped while, oh, 20 people were killed in a swathe of blood and spilled entrails.

It was a great deal of fun, above all, even if at various stages we had to wing it with the rules. My favourite rules by far are for combat: you don't roll for initiative; it's just whoever says "strike!" first. And a samurai can kill non-samurai at will - you don't even have to roll for it. This is absolutely in-keeping with the source material and, for rather bloodthirsty groups like mine, fun in itself. (The glee with which unfortunate plebs were disembowelled, eviscerated, hamstrung and mutilated was something to behold.)

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Horses for Courses

I find myself increasingly wondering whether hipster story-games where the players get to control the narrative and are involved in the creative process are better for groups that are DM-heavy than "trad" games are.

The world of gamers, I think it's obvious, is divided into people who like to be players and people who like to DM. If you have one of the latter and a group of the former, traditional games work swimmingly, but if you have a group composed of people who prefer to DM, I think frustration can rather easily set in. When I am the player in a traditional game I become antsy and fidgety: I want the DM's role, because I want the really creative stuff and because my ego demands that I am the demigod (and demiurge) at the table.

Yet in my group, there are at least two other people who are (I suspect) rather similar to me. I wonder if, in the final analysis, games where the players are involved in controlling the narrative and helping create the world in some sense are more suited to groups like that, as they parcel out the traditional DMing responsibility and hence assuage the frustration of being just any old PC.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Three Yoon-Suin Hexes

The Jade Baths

A grand bathhouse stands half way between Charikot and Bharatput, where a hot spring broils up from the bowels of the earth. The oligarchs of the two cities, and the local chattaris, are regular visitors, and an ancient  gentleman's agreement maintains its neutrality even during the (regular) wars which ravage the Vale of Flowers. It is said that Tamangh Nikil and Udit Ghimere shared a bath there together a month and a day after the Udit clan had slain Nikil's grandparents, and the two did not come to blows or draw blades.

The bathhouse is decorated everywhere with jade panels, statuettes and crenelations, although it is made of dark cedar. At the gate stand two jade lion statues; these are jade golems (AC0, HD11, Attacks 3, DMG d10/d10/d12, damaged only by magical crushing weapons) which will protect the life of the bathhouse's owner and any who serve there. The current owner is Jal, a beautiful but apparently ageless woman with three triplet sons, Dilip, Hari and Laxman (each is a level 5 magic-user). There is at least half a million gold pieces' worth of jade on the premises.

Altar Meadow

Here, in a small vale in the foothills, there is a wide area of pleasant meadowland dotted with flowers. In its centre is an altar of pale granite, covered with lichen; faint etchings in Old Sangmenzhang Dwarven indicate that this was an altar for the cult of Marvindhra, a local dwarven demigod long dead. The altar is haunted by 6 dwarven wraiths [stats as standard wraith] who appear in a circle around it d4 rounds after it has been touched by hand; they are the servants of Marvindhra who await his resurrection, at which time they believe they shall live again. In the ground surrounding the altar are the remains of travellers who the wraiths have slain, and their belongings - a few assorted pieces of armour and weaponry and other equipment; approximately 200 silver pieces, 100 gold pieces, and 50 platinum pieces; and a suit of Banded Mail +1 and copper Ring of Djinn Summoning. The fact that these treasures lie beneath the soil is discovered on a roll of 1-2 on a d6 - roll separately for each party member.

The Mute Drifts

On the high plateau is an area of snow drifts around two miles in diameter; some quirk of topography creates a microclimate in which the air is perfectly still and no wind blows. It is so silent than any movement - even the crunch of a footfall on the snow - can be heard for hundreds of yards. A tribe of bhuta inhabit the area, taking advantage of these unusual conditions to surprise and attack travellers. There is a 2 in 3 chance that anybody travelling through the Mute Drifts will be spotted by these bhuta and attacked by 4d6 of them; the bhuta are never surprised, while their victims are always surprised. Encounter distance is calculated the normal way. The bhutas' lair is a series of caves carved into the inside of a crevasse; inside is a randomly generated treasure trove of type C, along with the bodies of 2d6 children encased in ice for later consumption.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

You Already Know What a Role Playing Game Is

In the past couple of days I have, for one reason or another, been leafing through several rulebooks - Unknown Armies, Apocalypse World, 3:16, and Call of Cthulhu, among others - and something I have noticed is that there is a tendency among modern rulebooks to either disavow any attempt to describe what a role playing game is, or at least to caveat that description by saying something along the lines of "you probably know what a role playing game is already..."

Hence, Unknown Armies (at least as far as I can see) does not even describe what a role playing game is in its introductory chapter. In Apocalypse World, we are told "You probably know this already: roleplaying is a conversation." Meanwhile, in 3:16, we get "3:16 is a role-playing game.There is a very good chance that you already know what this means. If so, please skip ahead to the next column."

I find this entirely understandable (because let's face it, if you're reading 3:16 or Apocalypse World or Unknown Armies, the chances are you're already au fait with RPGs) but also a little sad (because of the clear implication that people who design role playing games nowadays don't have a great deal of faith that they'll reach any audience outside of the hobby).

This doesn't mean that the hobby is in decline or failing to expand, of course - I think it has always grown primarily by word of mouth and people inviting newcomers along to join their group. It does speak to an increasingly clique-y approach, however: if you're in with the 'in crowd' (I use the term insofar as it is possible to use it in regard to fat nerds pretending to be elves) you'll be introduced to the hobby, whereas if you don't know anybody who is involved, you simply won't. This seems inevitable, and yet at the same time it doesn't sit right: there is a part of me, possibly equipped with rose-tinted glasses, which thinks a certain amount of ambition and hope seems to have drained from the collective subconscious of role playing gamers. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

In the Time of Byakhees I was a Deep One

That just struck me as a good title for a blog entry. I can't think of what the entry is, though.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Actual Play: Murderous Ghosts

I spent yesterday afternoon playing a game of Murderous Ghosts over a pint with this guy. Now I am blogging about it.

I think straight away it's important to say that Vincent Baker is a minor genius of a kind - or the closest thing that the world of RPGs has to a minor genius, anyway: he's a proper innovator. Murderous Ghosts isn't up there with his best efforts, but nor do I think it is meant to be; it's a fun little parlour game for one-shots that, ultimately, isn't really a role-playing game per se. It's more of a story-telling game in the sense that the two participants co-operate to make up a sequence of stuff that happens. The stuff that happens, at least in our experience, is that invariably somebody gets killed by ghosts in a subterranean location.

We each had a game as 'MC' and player. I was the player in the first game. Nathan came up with a spooky scenario in which I came across an underground factory peopled by its former workers, including a cleaner, secretary and manager. I was killed by the manager for refusing to go through an 'interview', though I suspect I also would have died if I'd chosen the opposite.

As MC, I came up with a scenario in which the player came across an underground facility that had been used by the government to create materials hazardous to life; the back story I came up with was that there had been some sort of accident down there and the government had locked the facility down and left the workers there to die. One of them had killed and eaten all the others but had eventually starved to death and was now haunting the corridors as a mad cannibal ghost. Nathan found almost none of this out, however, because he was killed and eaten by the ghost in short order after discovering a cache of human bones.

Murderous Ghosts is not a role playing game, and I think we discovered that it falls apart if you treat it as such. When I was the player, my immediate reaction whenever something creepy happened was "I go back to the surface to get the police", or "I do not go down the spooky corridor from which the weird noise is coming", or "I hide and wait until it goes away" - reactions which I had to override in the interests of the story. When it came to my turn to MC I deliberately rigged things so that the player had to explore the facility by using the hoary old horror device: a door which suddenly swings shut behind you and which you can't re-open. The player physically could not go backwards and could only go forwards until he had encountered the ghost (as clear a railroad as you will ever see).

This isn't necessarily a problem - the game does what it says on the tin. It is set up like an idiot-proof Choose Your Own Adventure with clear instructions about what to do, which makes it not all that far removed from a Fighting Fantasy book and the attendant problems associated with that medium; but if you think of it in those terms, it's an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Cthulubox and the Investigative/Quasi-Railroad Problem

I've been doing some thinking about how you might run an investigative game - Call of Cthulu being the paradigm example - in a sandbox style. The problem with that sort of game is that it is heavily reliant on the players responding to events rather than guiding them by themselves. Something, or somethings, have to happen for them to investigate, and by definition that means that the GM has to spend a lot of setting up quasi-railroads for them to follow.

I say "quasi-railroads" because providing players with something to do ("A young woman mysteriously disappeared last night and her mother asks you to investigate!") is not a railroad per se, but leads down a certain path which has only two outcomes - success or failure in finding out what happened. How you get from A to Z is not set, but you'll probably end up getting there in the end. And by the same token, you can create a huge rumour table all you like - a d100 list of strange occurrences for the PCs to delve into - but at the end of the day, as GM, you have to know where those strange occurrences lead: all you've done is create a list of 100 quasi-railroads, ultimately.

I don't think there is a way around the investigative/quasi-railroad problem - it is probably at its most pernicious if you want to run a police procedural, but it still means that any Call of Cthulu campaign is likewise going to be heavily GM-led, simply by dint of its nature.

One possible way to make a Call of Cthulu game more of a sandbox would be to subtly shift the starting assumption and make sure that the players begin with an understanding that their characters are deliberate seekers of dark powers and magicks who already have some idea that there is a wealth of forbidden knowledge out there - if they could only get their hands on it. Their investigations, in other words, would not be into mysterious events that the GM tosses their way, but an exercise in finding where all of this knowledge lies. They might start off in Providence, Rhode Island in 1922 with a web of contacts, and locations, which they can tap as resources in conducting their own self-centered investigations - my character has heard that it is possible to live forever, and now I'm going to find out how - and this would allow them to drive things along more autonomously.

This would require extensive preparation on the part of the GM pre-campaign - akin to the way I set up urban sandbox games in general (see entries passim here and here), only more so - and also a good, skilled GM who is able to think things up on the fly. As such it may be more trouble than it is worth, though I think it's something I could happily give a try to see what happens.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Revolutionary PC

It probably counts as a truism that sandbox games really work well when the PCs are rogues, and not when they are superheroes, or even heroes - and that this is down to logistics more than anything else: for a sandbox game to sing, the PCs need the initiative and need to be the engine.

I was struck, today, by the thought that ultimate rogue is really the revolutionary. I had this thought while reading the excellent Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. What a lot of people don't know about Stalin is that he began his Bolshevik career as a kind of Marxist-Leninist version of Robin Hood, with the Caucasus Mountains as his Sherwood Forest and his revolutionary comrades as his Merry Men. Except that rather than rob from the rich to feed the poor directly, he did it in a far more attenuated fashion: robbing the rich to feed the Bolshevik revolution, which would (come the revolution) result in food for the poor in the long run (except that it didn't, but we won't go into that). Most famously, he organised the 1907 Tiflis bank robbery, in which he and his gang stole around £1.7 million in broad daylight, killing 40 guards and civilians and wounding 50 more. The money was used to fund revolutionary activities throughout Russia - although it seems to have had a negative effect on Bolshevik popularity in Georgia, at least.

The picture painted of Stalin's young life is hugely romantic. He was head of a band of brigands, revolutionaries and gangsters, roaming the Caucasus, with a woman in each town, a glass of wine in one hand, a sabre in the other, having a roaring good time - and fermenting revolution on the way. It gives one a sense that being a Bolshevik was probably a whale of a time.

Being a revolutionary is extremely game-able - perhaps more so even than the standard murder-hobo routine, because these are rogues with a cause. Their chaotic money-making schemes, carefree adventuring and casual murder has a purpose. The players have to make careful plans, engage in all manner of derring-do, and roam about looking for adventure, just like they always do, but at the same time they have to think about how to help The Cause. A number of "revolutionary sandboxes" randomly themselves:

  • Genuine Robin Hood style outlaws: "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen..."
  • Druids and rangers protecting some natural wilderness from exploitation through terrorist action
  • Cyberpunk Marxist-Leninists undermining the capitalist system from within
  • Religious fanatics in a quasi-counter-reformation, avoiding the inquisition while trying to convert the world from sin
  • Suffragete-style campaigners trying to bring about Rights for Women/Men/Trolls/Ferengi/Werewolves/whatever
  • Psionicists in a land where WIZARDS HAVE BANNED PSIONICS

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Meet the New Wave - Same as the Old Wave

Following links on various blogs lead me here, which lead me here, and thence to here. (Now I am blogging about it here. The circle of life is, I think you'll find, a wheel of fortune.)

Half of the writer's complaint about modern SF is entirely valid: the absurd, bloody-minded obsession with The Trilogy or The Series. Tolkien probably changed modern literature more than any other single writer in the 20th century, and you can view those changes as being for good or for ill; but it is without dispute that he bequeathed to fantasy, and to a lesser extent SF, a certain awful legacy: we can't have proper stand-alone novels any more. They have to come in three volume packages, or worse. There is probably no single thing about fantasy/SF as a genre that annoys me more than this - if you can't tell me a good, satisfying story in 400 fucking pages you aren't trying hard enough.

The other half, I am puzzled by. It is best set out in this sentence:

There is a problem...with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction.

This connects to an earlier comment on the GRRM piece:

At the most basic level, if Martin can’t write movingly or beautifully about the strip malls of Burbank (and I’m certainly prepared to believe he can’t) then he has no business writing anything. He is basically saying he has no eye, no ear, no empathy. And that is why it is speaks to the problem of commercial fantasy in general.

Which seems to say the same thing in a different way: modern SF (and fantasy) needs to, in some sense, speak to the real world. And while SF perhaps achieves this more than fantasy, it still suffers from an artistic problem: it is mired in genre and stylistically and narratively conservative:

[D]espite Osiris's fundamentally progressive approach, both publisher and writer have made equally fundamentally conservative choices. For Swift, that is to play it safe artistically: the two placeholder protagonists representing philosophies as much as people, the interleaving chapters getting shorter and faster as they go, the third person narrative that cares a bit about voice but more about story. It turns out that at the novel's heart is not a question about how we live our lives now but instead a conspiracy. There is always a bloody conspiracy. Whether it is fantasy's palace intrigue or SF's corporate secrets, there is always a piece of hidden knowledge that will unlock the world. But, of course, there isn't. With wearying inevitability, the novel climaxes with a set piece action scene (it is safe to say such scenes are not Swift's strong point). In this way, the novel's potential ends up dribbling away down the plug hole.

I should say first of all that I am not one of those people for whom the word 'conservative' is an automatic negative and 'progressive' an automatic positive (which seems to make me bizarrely counter-cultural and radical among my peers, but that's another issue). Nowhere is this truer in literature. As an undergraduate I had to read Dos Passos, Gaddis, Stein, and plenty of other "progressive" writers (both politically and stylistically) and found little or nothing there to love; my general feeling about literature which is self-consciously "progressive" is that it tends to be cold, arch, and unentertaining.

Be that as it may, stylistic evolution is important; without it we'd still be reading Cervantes. (Though I have to say, as somebody who reads a reasonable amount of SF I just don't recognise the genre the reviewer is describing: it seems to me to be much less stylistically conservative overall than any other, but perhaps I am reading the wrong books.) What concerns me more is this idea that genre fiction has to "address" or "speak to" issues - be they to do with post-20th Century resource scarcity or anything else.

No, before you get ahead of me: this isn't one of those paeans to escapism. It has its virtues, but that's a conversation for another day. This is something more fundamental, to do with the nature of fiction and authorship, and it is this: professional writers of fiction are, probably, with the exception of movie stars and musicians, the least appropriately qualified people in the world to speak with any authority whatsoever about important 'issues', and yet we are expected to not only indulge them in their phony philosophizing and half-educated musings, but pay them for the pleasure of it - for the wonder of being enlightened by their ill-formed and incorrect opinions. Why on earth they should arrogate for themselves such a role is beyond my comprehension - except for the obvious armchair psychology of noting that writers tend to be college educated and "intellectual", and that sort of person tends to think that not only do they know best; everybody else should hear about it. "Issues writers" are like impotent, frustrated people who post on forums on obscure websites - the only difference being that, because they happen to be good at telling marketable stories, we're expected to take their impotent, frustrated opinions seriously.

Bruce Sterling once wrote that science fiction writers are court jesters. They caper about making fools of themselves, while occasionally uttering veiled words of wisdom and speaking truth to authority behind the veneer of a joke. I would go along with that, although my assessment is perhaps unkinder: there is no truth for writers to speak, and their wisdom can only be of that homespun, general kind which your grandmother has more of in her little finger.

When I read fiction books I do so to be entertained - that's what I'm paying for. I am giving you money in exchange for amusing, exciting, horrifying, mind-blowing and/or beautiful lies arranged in a certain order with a beginning, middle and end. I can make up my own mind about resource scarcity, and have no need whatsoever to hear what Paolo Bacigalupi has to say about it. In fact he's close to the bottom of the list of People Whose Opinions On Resource Scarcity I Actually Care About, just above Justin Bieber and the guy who's always hanging around the local supermarket and urinating on himself. Which is to say nothing about his writing skills, which may be excellent; it is to say only that they have no bearing on anything when adults are talking.

Professional writers make shit up for a living. Let's leave the "issues" to the economists, scientists and practitioners who actually understand them. Simply put: Tell me a good story that makes me glad to be alive in the world, and fuck everything else. Dance, Paolo Bacigalupi. Dance!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The Urban GM

I like running all kinds of game - from fantasy wilderness exploration to hard SF - but I've come to realise, on balance, that I am an urban GM. My favourite type of game takes place in a city. Moreover, it takes place within one city. Almost all of the things that I want in a game - a web of interpersonal relationships, a feeling of connection between characters and locations, growing familiarity among the players with people and places and themes, memorable recurring NPCs, and so on - are all enhanced in that kind of setting.

What I like most about the one-city, urban game is that actions have relatively immediate consequences, and those consequences are contemplatable by the PCs. Of course, actions have consequences in any game (or, any good game with a good GM), but in a city they are right there because of the density of population and the difficulty of doing anything undetected or unheard. Moreover, since in a city people know each other, information and events spread fast: to take a simple example, if the PCs kill somebody, it won't be long before other people know about it. They might not know who did it, but they'll know it's happened because in a city, bodies get discovered and almost nobody isn't missed when they're gone.

Because consequences are ever-present in an urban game, this means that the PCs constantly have to contemplate them - and this adds a deep and rich layer of strategy and tactics to their approach. To continue our example, if the PCs in an urban game want to kill somebody, they have to consider what that will mean. What are the chances of discovery? Who will be pissed off? Who will come looking for them? Will the police find out (if there are any)? What evidence might they leave? They have to plan their actions carefully, constantly aware of the ripple effects of causation.

All of this should be present in any game, but the urban setting lends itself to it like no other. This is why, ultimately, I think I will always be most at home with the one-city game, and why I will always be most comfortable with the systems which suit that.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Yellow City Personages

Lefu Yi the Tall - In busy markets, outside boutique tea shops, by thronged quaysides, or outside fighting pits, there are always entertainers: Jugglers, jongleurs, puppeteers, and clowns. Wherever people come together in the Yellow City, these types can be found.

Lefu Yi is never seen in such locations. He is always alone. You may seem him at twilight, lurking under a bridge over a deserted canal in some forgotten neighbourhood. Or in the early morning, standing in the doorway of an abandoned tenement by the river, glaring mutely at its grey, murky depths. Or during the monsoon season in the pouring rain, alone under a tree in the Old Town, soaked to the skin because of the paucity of his chosen shelter. But he always wears his makeup - his face is always the fullest, most crimson red. And he is never without his stilts, those bamboo crutches that keep him eternally two feet from the ground and give him gaunt, lanky appearance of a mantis.

Children and faint-hearted people are afraid of Lefu Yi, but to nobody's knowledge has he ever been harmful. Because he lurks in the city's dark and dimly remembered places, he surely knows many of its secrets; those who would learn the geography of the Old Town in particular would be advised to seek him out. He can be approached and will take payment for his knowledge, in gold or a gem. His voice is querulous and you must lean close, standing on tip-top, to hear it.

Tripti - Tripti is a hijra from the far North, from distant, mountainous Sughd. Like all hijra, she has the body of a man though she lives as a woman, and her strange androgynous beauty is famed throughout the city by those who are of that persuasion. She abstains from sexual matters, however, and because of her purity she is able to offer blessings to those who need it, as well as curses to those who would insult her - or to those whose enemies are willing to pay her.

She has of course never married, though it is well known that she is loved by the Lamarakhi trader, Bemsh Kwellaminamon. Bemsh is the headman of a barge-village which plies the God River between Lamarakh and the Yellow City, bringing precious metals and opium from the North and taking slaves upstream. He is a small, wrinkled, shrivelled man of late-middling years, possessed of a fierce, wiry strength and even fiercer wit. He is a man of considerable power and influence in Lamarakh, and particularly among the Lamarakhi traders who come to the Yellow City.

Bemsh has at least a dozen wives, perhaps more, but his true love - at least in his own mind - is the unobtainable Tripti. Undoubtedly, the hijra's unobtainability is nine tenths of the attraction.

Bemsh's oldest and most trusted trading contact in the Yellow City is the slugman, Po Lu. Po Lu is a scion of an ancient merchant clan which is itself part of one of the great cartels in the city - the Indigo Cartel. Po Lu is sarcastic, bitter, and incredibly old, but his one weakness is loneliness. Though constantly engaged in mercantile activities, he longs for discussion of history, philosophy, and art - and this Bemsh provides.

Po Lu is the patron of many archives, libraries, and museums. He is constantly searching for opportunities to add to his collections - and although he will accept only the rarest curios, he will pay vast sums in return.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Actual Play: GMless Risus Star Trek

Today Patrick and Nate and I got together for a game of Risus. Each of us are regular DMs, and none of the three of us could be bothered prepping for a game, so we decided on an ad hoc basis to do a GMless game of Risus. Patrick has a rubber dinosaur that he uses as an eraser; we decided that whoever wanted to grab the dinosaur could be the GM at any given moment, and that anybody could pass the dinosaur to somebody else to foist GM-hood on him. (Actually I think I'm the only one who started doing that.) We decided to play a Star Trek game - the basic idea was that we were a threesome of crew members of the Enterprise charged with finding dilitheum crystals on a volcanic planet: this almost entirely stemmed from the fact that I had an idea to create a character who was a vulcanologist who spent his entire life getting pissed off that people assumed he was an expert in vulcans when actually he was an expert in volcanos.

We had a good time. There is something about Risus that just works - a magic in simplicity. A lot of the fun of the game, it must be said, came from the idiotic characters we created. Patrick had a humanoid alien who could vomit multi-purpose chemicals but had a "weird life cycle" that meant at any given moment he might morph from a humanoid into a moth, into a caterpillar, or into a "noble insect-headed alien". Nate had an engineer who was an expert in "teching the tech" but who was also True Neutral and thus unable to ever involve himself in anything decisive. I was a three-eyed vulcanologist who knew nothing about vulcans but who was really good at scanning volcanoes and was born on a prison planet. Together we avoided radioactive feldspar and murdered an innocent entity with dilitheum for a heart, while pissing off Lieutenant Worf.

In any event, I think we proved decisively the adage that system doesn't matter. We had a notional rolling GM and played ridiculously hard-and-fast with Risus's already light rules, but in the end nothing mattered except that we enjoyed creating a stupid story that took the piss out of Star Trek: TNG while simultaneously paying tribute to it. You don't need a good system - you just need people who get along. And a willingness not to give a fuck when things make no sense.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Ron Edwards Interview

I've managed to track down this, an old interview with Ron Edwards that I heard back in 2006. It's worth listening to. I feel that, in the interests of balance, I ought to say that much as I dislike Ron Edwards' writing style and find much of what he argues about RPG theory trite and wrong-headed, I think that broadly he is on the side of the angels: he put his money where is mouth is (or was) and made stuff happen, and I like and respect that. Thanks to the Forge we got a lot of excellent games, and it was undoubtedly a net benefit to the hobby in promoting a "can do" attitude amongst its members.

The interview is also particular interesting in view of recent discussions about money and RPGs, too.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Cross My Palm With Silver

"Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money."

The idea of monetizing RPG products is somewhat divisive. Huge Ruined Scott has always been adamant, as far as I can tell, that his creations will always be available for free. Kent also has strong views that RPG-related stuff should be created and shared for free, and people who try to sell them are grubby, greedy and vain.

I have some sympathy with that sort of stance. I used to have a button for PayPal donations which I never really felt comfortable with and eventually removed, because it didn't sit right with me to imply that I expected anybody ought to feel that I thought I deserved money for this constant stream of bullshit I spew forth onto the internet. The clumsiness of that sentence is strong evidence for the argument that I don't deserve it.

Moreover, I think there is something honourable and good about creating things for others to use, for nothing in return. It is something to be encouraged.

And nor do I need the money. I have a good job. When I finish and release Yoon-Suin, it's not as if it will make a material difference to my life even if I were to charge money for it. I'll spend it on booze and women and just waste the rest.

On the other hand, let's not kid ourselves: I like money. And being paid for doing something is a nice feeling. It shows that your work is valued. I have done enough freelancing to be aware of that - working hard to produce something and sending it off for financial reward gives you warm fuzzies simply by dint of showing that your work is worth something. It wouldn't be human not to enjoy that feeling.

I'm also of the view that people value things they pay for above what they get for free. I've downloaded plenty of free products (lawfully) that I have never so much as looked at, because since they are free I subconsciously view them as throwaway. If I've paid for something, though, you can be sure I'll give it due care and attention.

"I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad."

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Confessions of an Ouija-Board Role-Player

In yesterday's entry Alex J left an interesting comment about Ron Edwards and ouija-board roleplaying (about 2/3 of the way through the essay: I recommend CTRL-Fing "ouija"). As he put it, poking holes in Ron Edwards' arguments, and particularly his writing style, is to engage in "cruel dead horse beating", so I'll skirt over the irritating and non-intuitive jargon, the arrogance, the pretentiousness, the mandarin insistence on using a particular terminology to describe every last piddling thing, the complete inability to communicate anything resembling a coherent argument, and the faux-familiarity. I'm interested in the notion of the Ouija-Board Role Player, because I'm pretty sure, based on Ron Edwards' description, that I am one of those:

How do Ouija boards work? People sit around a board with letters and numbers on it, all touching a legged planchette that can slide around on the board. They pretend that spectral forces are moving the planchette around to spell messages. What's happening is that, at any given moment, someone is guiding the planchette, and the point is to make sure that the planchette always appears to everyone else to be moving under its own power. 
Taking this idea to role-playing, the deluded notion is that Simulationist play will yield Story Now play without any specific attention on anyone's part to do so. The primary issue is to maintain the facade that "No one guides the planchette!" The participants must be devoted to the notion that stories don't need authors; they emerge from some ineffable confluence of Exploration per se. It's kind of a weird Illusionism perpetrated on one another, with everyone putting enormous value on maintaining the Black Curtain between them and everyone else.

That's exactly it, really, and I find that I like the description, as it captures the essence of what happens at the table, as I see it: one the one hand, although nobody says as much, what happens is purposive, and, at any given moment, somebody is controlling what happens and driving the action - sometimes the GM, but more usually a player, or all the players. They're "doing stuff", to put it bluntly. On the other hand, you get a "story" emerging from this process all the same, in a totally unpremeditated fashion, as a biproduct of that purposive behaviour, more or less by accident. And that isn't under the control of any one person at the table. It develops out of the ether of the interactions between all the participants and how they act within the game.

Of course, Ron Edwards is intending all of this as, basically, a description of bad gaming (he actually describes my view as that of "the most deluded role-player in the world"). Chiefly, this criticism seems to revolve around the failure to address "Premise", which is a concept he takes from Lajos Egri and which, even if you accept it as a useful tool in the context of dramatic writing, is not particularly suited to activities outside of that context. He also comes to the conclusion that people who experience ouija-board gaming are, basically, social retards who convince themselves they are enjoying themselves when they actually aren't, which I have to say I do not find incredibly persuasive. Then again, I am the most deluded role player in the world, after all.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Role Playing as Emergent Process

What does it mean to play a role in a role playing game? asks Brendan. This, I think, was written in response to all of this. And in turn, that reminds me of something kent wrote ages ago in the days when he used to write lengthy and interesting blog entries.

What is often missed in these discussions, it seems to me, is that almost everything that happens with your character at the table is emergent - it develops through play. This includes equipment, level, hit points, and all the other mundane system-related variables, of course. But it also applies to the 'personality' of the character too, in my experience. Generally, they begin life as ciphers - not quite blank slates, as you may have some vague ideas about the type of character they are - but almost.

Personality comes with interaction with the game world, the other PCs, and with NPCs. Characters get fleshed out by their life experience, in other words. As usual, the 2nd edition DMG has it right (albeit stated in the context of giving advice on what level new PCs should be introduced to a campaign):

If at all possible, start characters at 1st level. The lowest character levels are like the early years of childhood. What happens to a character during these first adventures will do much to determine how that character will be role-played. Did Rath the Dwarf save the day by fool-hardily charging into battle when he was a mere 1st level? If he did, the odds are good the player will try it again and will begin to play Rath as a bold and reckless fellow. 
On the other hand, if Rath was clobbered the first few times he rushed in, the player would begin to play Rath as a cautious, prudent fellow. Even the smallest events can have a great effect on low-level characters, so these events sharply etch the behavior of the character. Deny the player these beginning levels and you are stripping him of the opportunity to develop his character's personality.

It is through experience that PCs become fleshed out into real 'people', in other words, and starting off a new PC is like putting on a new pair of shoes. It takes a while to wear them in. This also means that players don't have full control over how their PC develops: the process is a pseudo-mystical mixture of design and the quasi-random emergent processes of interaction and events, with the primary emphasis on the emergent processes. This fact should be obvious to anybody who plays role playing games, I would suggest.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Boulevard de Temple

This is the first ever photograph of a human being, taken in either 1838 or 1839 in Paris, on the Boulevard de Temple:

It was a 10-minute exposure, so although the road looks almost entirely empty it was actually a bustling scene - it's just the traffic was moving too quickly to be captured. However, in the lower left-centre of the picture are two small figures: a man getting his shoe shined. He and the shoe shiner remained in place long enough to be captured.

There is something faintly disturbing about those two figures caught in time. Alone of all the many people who were travelling along the Boulevard de Temple in those 10 minutes - hundreds, perhaps thousands - only they have travelled down to us through the 175 years or so since the picture was taken. And by pure accident. They remind me of insects trapped in amber and preserved by happenstance for all of time.

If I was currently running an Unknown Armies or Call of Cthulu game, this photograph would feature in it. Who were these men, and is their apparently coincidental capture on film actually of cosmic significance?

Saturday, 27 October 2012

On Playing Roles

It's confession time: I've fallen off the wagon and have started playing Football Manager again. My free time is going to the hell where youth and laughter go - an endless series of boring looking menus, crappily animated match graphics and annoying features which is utterly loathsome and yet at the same time irresistibly compelling.

But it has me thinking about role playing in the wider sense. This is something I have talked about before in the context of wargames: the tendency for people who are engaged in any type of game to...well...role play. We all do it - doing a voice for the little top hat as you move it around the Monopoly board; uttering dark threats to our competitors and cackling like a maniacal dictator as we conquer Ukraine in Risk; imagining that our chess pieces are little warriors fighting it out on the chess board like that game Chewbacca and R2-D2 play on the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. Our imaginations demand it.

I always do the same thing when I play the computer games I play - which are almost always strategy games, admittedly. When I'm on Football Manager, I have to admit that, childish as it might seem, I am acting as an actual real life Jose Mourinho figure in my own mind - interacting with players and scouts; having rows with journalists; watching DVDs of the Marseille v Red Star Belgrade match from 1991 at 3am to gain tactical insights while my estranged wife texts her lover in another wing of my enormous Cheshire mansion; passing brown paper envelopes stuffed with £50 notes to referees' assistants under the table in fancy London restaurants; flying off to Milan for secret meetings with Silvio Berlusconi to see if he wants to make me an offer I can't refuse; attending a bunga-bunga party. Just playing the game is not only unsatisfactory, it is literally impossible. Your brain won't allow it. (Or, mine won't.)

The acts of playing a game and playing a role are somehow connected in our brains, it seems. Oddly, the same goes for sex. I wonder if there is something about losing yourself in a fun activity that allows your personality to slide - something about lost inhibitions and freeing one's mind and vaguely hippyish-sounding nonsense like that. I once read about a psychologist who noted that when people engage in a creative activity which they enjoy they lose sense of time and bodily needs and become hooked into that activity and totally focused: he called it a "creative fugue" or words to that effect, and I wish I could remember his name.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

What I Did Tonight

Tonight I jotted down notes on the following "things to go in the Yoon-Suin book":

  • Lunar observatory
  • Velvet worm breeder
  • Magical tattooist
  • Glacier spirit
  • Wishing pool
  • Silk weaver
  • Blessed hijra
  • Desert troll wiseman
  • Black powder artisan
  • Ape temple
  • Blessed carp pool
  • Butterfly breeder
  • Chrysanthemum orchard
  • Bronze dragon statue
  • Glacial waterfall
  • Elephant cult

I sometimes think I lead quite an odd life.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Taishou Cthulhu

Call of Cthulu's default time setting is the 1920s, and for good reason (it's not just that the 20s happened to be when Lovecraft was writing, although of course that's a large part of it). It's because the 1920s was the era of modernism, when rationalism was usurping tradition and old sureties, and this was what Lovecraft's horror chiefly played on. As David Barr Kirtley put it in a recent GGTTG episode, Lovecraft's stories are not about things like vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and other beings of legend - the existence of which is patently false and hence not very scary - but about powerful beings from space whose existence is believed in by your neighbours, and your neighbours might very well decide to kill you in those beings' name. The fear is not based on complete irrationality, but on something which could actually be true. At the same time though, of course, there is fantasy and mysticism in there too: there is a constant tension between the old ways of thinking and the new.

Lovecraft, in other words, despite his love of the past, was in his own way a quintessentially modernist writer, just as much as his contemporaries like Hemingway, Dos Passoss, Stein, Williams, Stevens, and so on. So the 1920s are the perfect fit for a RPG based on his work.

This makes me think that it would be interesting to run a Call of Cthulu game set in the Taishou period in Japan (1912-1926). During this era, Japan underwent a transition to a democracy, continued its near-wholesale adoption of Western technologies, cultural artefacts, and political philosophies, and developed apace. It was a modernist society par excellence.

At the same time, the Lovecraftian requirements of alienness and indifference would be perfectly complemented by having the PCs as Westerners in this strange land, where everybody is suspicious and odd anyway so how do you know who worships Cthulhu and who doesn't? Moreover, like the Nazis, the Japanese extreme right groups embraced weird mysticism and hocus-pocus to the hilt - one of their main factions was called the Black Ocean Society, for heaven's sake.

(I hardly think I'm the first person to notice this, of course, and I'm sure Chaosium already have a Japan supplement out there. It doesn't stop me pondering it as an idea.)

Coincidentally, and as a sort of adjunct to this post, there is a whole coterie of Japanese horror authors engaged in Cthulhu mythos fiction: there are four anthologies of their work published in English in the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series. I've yet to read them, as they're difficult to track down, but the reviews I've seen are stellar.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Early Lovecraft

On my long train journeys to and from work I've started ploughing my way through the complete H P Lovecraft on my Kindle. I read his major, established stories way back when I was a teenager, and several times since, but there are plenty of obscure pieces I have never really come across before, so I am gradually fighting my way through in chronological order.

It's fair to say it's a bit of a struggle. It's also fair to say that while Lovecraft matured into a great horror writer, in his early years his works were only a few steps away from being utter tripe: imaginative, yes; good stories, no; frightening, not in the slightest; unintentionally humorous, often. They have intriguing ideas and set-ups, but the execution is often amusingly poor. (A particular favourite in this respect is "The Statement of Randolph Carter", which manages to build up a considerable head of eerie steam before flattening you with a final sentence that has you struggling to contain snorts of laughter.) And it is absolutely staggering to imagine that nobody could see his plot twists coming from a mile away - viz. "Old Bugs" and "Memory".

I'm also not fond of the sub-Dunsany dreamscape type of stories from his earlier years: curios like "The White Ship", "The Doom that Came to Sarnath", etc. (Although I'm not a huge fan of his later works in this so-called Dream Cycle, like "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath", either.) They show a writer who was brimming with ideas but who still hadn't learned yet how to formulate them into a genuine story.

That said, there is something compelling about Lovecraft's vision even in his juvenilia. All the elements are there: the ancient mysteries, the sense of a vast body of knowledge existing somewhere that humans cannot comprehend, and above all the indifference of the universe to whether we live or die. That in itself makes it worth carrying on. It also made me fork out £21.99 on the Sixth Edition of Call of Cthulu yesterday in my FLGS, when another game I want to run is the last thing on earth I needed. 

Friday, 19 October 2012

Relevant to Your Interests

My friend Patrick, the "other DM" in my group, has announced the intention to publish a supplement for D&D, which he summarises as "Albino whales hunting phosphorescent shrimp in hidden oceans"; if that doesn't whet your appetite then quite frankly you ought to take a long, hard look at yourself and ask what you are doing with your life.

Also, Benoist, who is a difficult person to get along with and then some, has created a series of posts in which he builds his own megadungeon and describes the process. It is not just incredibly useful and detailed, but also - and this is very welcome after all of the idiotic controversy over rats and copper coins in recent weeks - genuinely inspirational: read it and rediscover your love for a good dungeon.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

What Comes Next

My PhD is now (finally) written and submitted, and I have had the subsequent, obligatory three week period of doing fuck-all creative. My batteries are recharged. I have no other responsibilities except my day job. It's time to finish a publishable version of my Yoon-Suin campaign setting.

Don't worry - there'll be no Kickstarter.

My plan has increasingly moved towards a tool-kit rather than a fully-fleshed out campaign setting: the conceit that I am aiming for is that you, the Reader, will be able to Create and Run Your Own Yoon-Suin with the use of the tools provided (a shitload of random tables, setting fluff for inspiration, and sample maps, NPCs, and locations). Most of these tools already exist for some areas of the map - the Yellow City and surroundings, and Silaish Vo and the Mountains of the Moon. They don't exist for others, however, so I have some work to do on that front. But in its complete form, what I produce will, I hope, enable a willing DM to take an overview of the entirety of the Yoon-Suin map, pick a region he likes the look of, and create his own  version of it in which to run games - with a little bit of work and lots of dice rolling.

My thinking behind this has two strands. First, I want to steer away from the ridiculous obsession with setting canon which can overcome these sorts of endeavours. And second, I want to avoid "doing your imagining for you" while still providing inspiration, ideas, and useful things.

But there will also be ready-to-go hex maps and dungeons for those who are lazy.

So watch this space. I've been posting in this blog about Yoon-Suin for 3 years now, by my reckoning. That's altogether too long. It's time to get this thing done!