Thursday, 31 May 2012

Hanafuda and the Seasonal Random Effect Device

I have a fascination with all different kinds of games. This blog is mostly about RPGs, but I also play a lot of wargames, some board games, and, especially, card games. Card games are, of course, very different from RPGs on many levels, but they have one deep, shared, philosophically important characteristic: without randomness they are nothing; indeed they are shit. With RPGs the randomness comes from the dice, with card games it comes from the shuffle and draw, but the principle is exactly the same. Indeed, I don't think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that card games and RPGs are basically the same pursuit: reacting to randomness. In this, they say something very profound about the nature of our lives. Yes, I'm being serious (mostly).

But I digress. What I really wanted to talk about was Hanafuda. Hanafuda is a Japanese card deck whose design is based on the months of the year; there are 12 suits, one for each month, each containing 4 cards. It looks like this:

Each suit is comprised of, usually, two "normal" cards, a "ribbon" card (either red or purple) and a one "special", though this varies slightly from suit to suit. The "specials" are as follows:

January: Crane with Sun
February: Bush Warbler
March: Military Camp Curtain
April: Cuckoo
May: Water Iris with Bridge
June: Butterflies
July: Boar
August: Full Moon with Red Sky
September: Sake Cup
October: Deer with Maple
November: Swallow, Calligrapher with Umbrella and Frog, Lightning
December: Chinese Phoenix

These are, as you can tell, very evocative in character.

One day, I plan to come up with a system for using Hanafuda cards in an RPG. I have a number of ideas, but one is the Seasonal Random Effect Device.

Here, each month in game time the DM or one of the players would randomly draw a Hanafuda card from the relevant suit for that month. If the card drawn is "normal" there is no effect on the game. If the card is a red ribbon, this has some positive blanket mechanical effect - perhaps, for some reason, magic is especially strong due to some motion of the cosmos, and all saving throws versus magic are at -1 for the duration of the month. If the card is a purple ribbon, likewise, there is another blanket mechanical effect which is negative - for example, maybe the weather is particularly bad (either oppressively hot, or unseasonably wet) and consequently everybody is weak and lethargic and function at an effective -1 to STR. Whatever.

If a special card is drawn, it means that at some stage during that month something related to that card has to be thrown in to the game by the DM. For the Cuckoo, this might mean that some ally or henchman of the PCs will turn traitor. For Military Camp Curtain, some sort of military event might take place. For Butterflies, it might mean that some major social event happens. For Boar, maybe some mighty spirit Boar will be spotted in the forest. This should be seen as something for the DM to riff on, rather than something fixed.

This would add a lot of flavour to an Asian-flavoured fantasy game. Something similar could also be done with the European Tarot deck and more European-style fantasy games, particularly, I think, Pendragon or Ars Magica.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Noisms' Reactivity Spectrum

People seem to have misunderstood yesterday's post, or misconstrued it, or not read it properly. Alternatively, it was poorly worded, although personally I doubt that. Here's something that will simplify. May I present:


No? I'll explain. On the left hand side of the spectrum are campaigns where the DM is totally reactive. This can be synonymous with player freedom, although this is a somewhat grey area and the mapping is not perfect. It is certainly synonymous with "front loaded prep" (i.e., the further left you go, the more the prep is weighted towards the period before the campaign actually kicks off).

The further you go towards the left, the more the players are driving the game; they choose what they want to do and where they want to go, and the DM just reacts to them. At the extreme left are the most sandboxy sandbox games, often using D&D or similar: the DM creates the world, or an area of the world, and it sits waiting for the players to appear and start doing whatever they want to do - going down dungeons, hexcrawling, interacting with the NPCs, whatever. (A lot of story games are also at the extreme left.) Another way of putting it is that here, the way events unfold tends to originate in the players. The dungeon does not come to them; they go to the dungeon. The hexes do not come to them; they go to the hexes. (In Soviet Russia, hex crawls on YOU.)

The further you move towards the right, the more the DM is driving the game and the more the players are reacting to it. This does not mean that the further you go towards the right the more the game resembles a rail road: rail roads do not feature on the the spectrum because they are not actually games.

Here, the players will have freedom, but their freedom tends to be constrained by what goes on in the world - in particular, it is constrained by the fact that events do not have an origin internal to the players, but external to them.That is, the further right you go, the less the players are the engine and the more they cede initiative. A superhero game would tend to be more towards the right, even if notionally it is "sandboxy" and there is no predetermined plot or end point; this is because superheroes tend to have to react to conflict that has an external origin. Superman does not hatch plots to fuck over Lex Luthor - the action originates externally to him. He has the freedom to foil Lex's plots in whatever fashion he likes, but still, he is not the one with the initiative.

The Samurai Sandbox leans towards the right. It is not all the way to the right; I would put it just slightly to the left of the "players partially reactive" line. This is because, in the Samurai Sandbox game, even if the players have very vague, very open, very ill-defined mission statements, the conflict they have to deal with is still largely of external origin.

To illustrate, let's use my "keep the peace in Tosa province" mission. This is a very broad goal which can be interpreted in any manner of ways, and certainly won't result in DM rail roading. But nevertheless, the game is still going to be one in which the players are reacting to events, conflicts and circumstances which originate externally. This is because you can't keep the peace if there is nothing threatening it (well, you can do, but it would be a rather dull affair); and because the players are the ones keep the peace, this means the threats have to have an external origin (bandits, wolves, ghosts, spirits, yakuza, Mongolian invaders, internal strife, whatever). The players are going to be in large part reactive.

They are not totally reactive of course - and any group of players worth their salt will be partially active and will still drive the game along in many other ways with their plots and schemes. But still, the majority of what happens in the game is going to arise outside of player action.

There is nothing wrong with this, of course, and there is no value judgement on Noisms' Reactivity Spectrum. However, as I alluded to at the beginning of the entry, the further right you go on the spectrum the more prep is likely to be evenly distributed from session to session, and the more prep is going to be involved. Not only does the DM have to create the set up before the campaign begins. He also has to keep coming up with many, and varied, threats, and he has to make the threats change and respond correspondingly as the players react to them. The campaign may be very fun, fulfilling, exciting and all the rest, but it is going to require considerably more work than the "pure" rogueish sandbox will to run.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Samurai Sandbox

In a fit of nostalgia (I miss living in Japan) I bought Bushido the other day. I haven't had time to read it yet (although I did abuse my office printing access by printing it all out and treasury-tagging it into booklet form). But I have had time to ponder one of the great imponderables: How do you run a samurai sandbox game?

Other people more intelligent and verbose than me have written before about what you might call the "Superman Sandbox" problem. This goes, roughly, as follows: Superheroes are by definition reactive. They stop crime. This means that superhero games aren't a good fit for player-driven, sandbox play - at least, not readily. It's difficult for players to be the engine of the game when they are mostly just waiting around for somebody bad to do something horrible so they can stop it. And it is difficult to prevent that sort of game turning into a big fat exercise in teat-sucking in which the GM is just dollopping out missions for the players to take on. What does Superman do in the downtime while he is waiting for Lex Luthor to come up with his next hare-brained scheme? He mopes around Lois Lane and rings his parents. Great session, guys. Let's fast- forward to the good bit.

You can, of course, run a superhero game in which the players are not just waiting around for the bad guy to do something bad, and in which they use their powers towards ends that are not necessarily all about stopping bad guys... But then, you're not really playing a superhero game anymore, are you? You are betraying the genre.

Samurai games have a similar sort of same problem, to a lesser degree. Of course, if your players are going to be yakuza types, or perhaps ronin, they are free to do whatever they want. But if you want to do things properly and run a game in which the players are samurai, this means they have to be the retainers of some lord or other, which makes it difficult for them to be free to pursue their own goals in a way that makes sense "within the fiction". They have to wait around to be ordered to do things. Or you have to betray the genre in some way and allow them a level of freedom they should not really have.

You might argue, and it is a fair argument, that the samurai game does not require the lord to be sending his retainers on missions all the time. It doesn't have to be so GM-centric. The lord might just give the PCs the responsibility for doing certain things, within the scope of which the players have all the freedom they want. "Keep the peace in Tosa province" is an ambiguous mission statement which the players can interpret in all manner of different ways, given a varied set of conflicts which the GM has dreamed up going on within the province.

But at the very least this still requires you to, as Zak puts it, design conflicts. You can't just do the ordinary kind of sandbox setup you would use for a game of D&D or Cyberpunk 2020 or whatever, drawing maps and creating lists of NPCs and interesting locales and then just set the players loose in it. Why? In D&D, that kind of setup works because you know the PCs have absolute liberty to do what they want, and you as the DM only have to react to them and ensure your setting reacts appropriately. In our "Keep the peace in Tosa province" scenario, you would be required to add an extra layer - the potential threats to the peace. This is hard work, because you don't have any idea how the players are going to deal with those threats, or in what order. They aren't just doing the rather predictable things that rogueish PCs will do in a game of D&D (delve into dungeons, go hex crawling, etc.). They are thinking of complex ways to resolve complex problems. And this puts a lot of pressure on the GM to be able to improvise and maintain a high level of preparation and thought, session after session.

To put it more simply, once you've done the setup for a D&D sandbox game, each session more or less writes itself. The players are doing things off their own bat and the DM is reacting. But in a samurai sandbox game, each session is something of a mystery (or, let's say, what is going to happen in the next session but one is a mystery). You, the DM, are creating things the players are reacting to, and they have many more potential reactions than you can really anticipate. To put it even more simply and reduce it ad absurdum, it is the difference between:

A: There is a dungeon. The players explore it. (D&D)
B: There are a group of bandits in the South-Western tip of Tosa province. The players...try to kill them? Arrest them? Go looking for more help? Decide to spy on them? Agree to turn a blind eye in return for a bribe? (Bushido)

One is relatively simple for the DM to deal with; the other is relatively complex.

Monday, 28 May 2012

No Abstract Wealth Please; I'm British

I ran a second session of Diaspora yesterday afternoon. I think my overall feeling is that the jury is still out. Some aspects of the game worked well, but others really didn't (although I have to hold up my hands and say that for some reason I felt really off form, like a striker snatching at chances).

What I dislike most about the system is that it abstracts wealth. The way economics works is, you have a "wealth track" which represents how financially secure you are. If it goes down to zero - you're out forever: fiscally dead, reduced to a lifetime of flipping burgers or serving as a debt slave, or whatever. (This in itself is something I strongly dislike, by the way - as long as a PC is alive I want his player thinking about ways to get out of whatever difficulty he is in. That seems like a large percentage of "the game". I recognise that there is a sort of 'story' oriented view that it is interesting to have available the negative consequence of being removed from the narrative permanently, but death seems to me to be the only genuine way of doing this. Though I digress.)

You take financial 'damage' by failing an assets roll. What this boils down to is, to see if you can afford something, you roll against your assets skill. If you miss the required target, you take hits to your wealth track. You can mitigate this damage by taking consequences - from the minor (you are worried about your finances and it might affect your concentration) to the major (you owe a loan shark a shit load of money), but you always get what you want to buy. This is supposed to represent an interesting choice (either don't take a risk and never get anything, or get whatever you want but take a huge risk, potentially involving what is effectively death, in the process), but at least to my gaming style it feels like it takes away something interesting.

That "something interesting" is that, by keeping wealth concrete and not abstract, you prevent players being able to get all the things they want - and this forces them to do interesting things to get the money they need to do that. Wanting better stuff is one of the key seeds from which adventure sprouts, to use a rather shit metaphor. You want a spaceship but don't have the credits? You go out and do whatever it takes to afford one - or you steal one. You want a sword +5 but you don't have the gold? You know there is one at the bottom of that huge abyssal chasm full of hordes of demons - so you go down. Maybe keeping track of gold pieces is a bit bean-counter-ish to some people (I get the sense the Diaspora designers are that kind of person), but it seems to me to be a vital element in giving the game any sort of engine and stopping the players being reactive.

Perhaps I am misunderstanding something, but I have to confess to feeling as if there is something crucial missing when wealth is abstracted in this way.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Chaos My Ride

I postulated a theory on Google+ just now: if you put the word "Chaos" before any animal, monster, or mythical being, it instantly makes it sound cooler.

Try it. Chaos dog. Chaos monkey. Chaos unicorn. Chaos goat. Chaos wasp. Chaos ghost. It never gets old.

To make an animal a chaos animal, take the ordinary version and then roll d3 times on the following table:

1. Extra hit dice
2. Can phase as a phase spider
3. Can breathe fire (2d6)
4. Can breathe ice (1d6)
5. Can breathe poisoned gas (2d6; save vs poison halves damage)
6. Can breathe lightning (2d6)
7. Can breathe CHAOS (3d6; save vs magic or be teleported d500 metres in a random direction)
8. Immune to normal weapons
9. Half damage from fire
10. Half damage from cold
11. Two heads
12. Three heads
13. Four heads
14. Extra pair of legs
15. Human hands instead of feet
16. Human face
17. Human nose
18. Can speak; always lies
19. Can cast a random spell once per day
20. Can cast a random cleric spell once per day
21. Can gate demons d3 times per day
22. Makes no sound
23. Translucent
24. Invisible
25. Blue
26. Red
27. Purple
28. Yellow
29. Zebra striped
30. +4 AC
31. Moves at double speed
32. Never surprised
33. Extra eyes
34. Deadly poison (save versus poison)
35. Spits acid (d6 damage first turn, d3 damage second and third turn)
36. Causes fear
37. Gaze petrifies as medusa
38. Can always detect nearest source of treasure
39. Can always detect nearest source of treasure; always goes in the other direction
40. Can cast darkness, 15' radius three times per day. Always does so when 'stressed'
41. Likes women, hates men
42. Likes men, hates women
43. Can fly

Bored now. Add your own.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Big is Beautiful

It's long been my view that TSR-era D&D, taken as a whole, is the most brilliant game there is. No - I don't mean the system is brilliant: it isn't. No sensible person would design a game that way nowadays, knowing what we now know about game design, which has undoubtedly got better since 1974.

D&D's brilliance comes from the fact that, plain and simply, it has the biggest "brain trust" of any game system on the planet. Like Manchester United, who can draw on football playing talent worldwide, or like the USA, which can siphon off the intelligent and talented multitudes from every corner of the globe, D&D has for decades been the biggest game around, and that means that it can draw on more creativity, talent and innovation than any other system.

The perfect example of this is, of course, the OSR and what is going on nowadays on Google+ (mainly, it has to be said, thanks to this guy more than anybody else). There are hundreds of extremely talented, thoughtful, entertaining and clever gamers pooling their ideas daily on teh internets, and the dead giveaway is that almost (though not entirely) all of it feeds into one game - D&D.

Far from seeing this as a bad thing, I embrace it. Perhaps if I wasn't interested in its own peculiar and idosyncratic take on the fantasy genre I would bemoan D&D's dominance. But I love it, so I don't.

D&D, you are the bestest game in the whole wide world.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Food and Drink have a Special Significance

I was involved in a forum thread on Japanese RPGs recently, and this naturally lead me to look up the Japanese wikipedia page for RPGs, or "TRPGs" as they are called over there. (This, oddly, is not an abbreviation of Table Top RPG, but of Table Talk RPG. As is often the case with loan words from English to Japanese, it turns out that it's not so much a loan word as word that has been borrowed in an inappropriate or unnatural fashion, at least to native English speakers' eyes.) 

Anyway, the most interesting section on the page is "TRPG中における飲食", or "Food and drink in TRPGs". Here's a rough translation:

In TRPGs, food and drink, focusing around snacks, have a special significance. Having food and drink while playing the game with friends lets you enjoy the flavours while livening up the conversation, and is another element of the fun involved. In Mishio Fukuzawa's "New Fortune Quest Replay" [whatever that is], snacks and drinks are listed in the book as "necessary items". Other TRPG books don't go so far as to say they are necessary, but many recommend them. 
In replay books [basically a sort of novelization of a game session - yes, really] there is not usually a commentary, so there is also no commentary on snacks, but in the Sword World replay "[Title Untranslatable Because I Can't Be Arsed, it's Something Like 'Rhapsody of the Marauders']", there is some out-of-character commentary by the players regarding snacks, such as "I'm going out to get some juice", or "I want some ramen". 
TRPGs are played with a number of people, and take a few hours, so food and drink is also used to alleviate the hard work. It is desirable for all participants, including the GM, to prepare and manage the food. If this is not observed, the other participants will likely judge the offender unfavourably and be unsatisfied. It is usual for all the individual participants to to bring stuff, because expecting one person to bear the burden of providing food and drink is rather onerous. 
It is important to watch out during play that food and drink do not become a hindrance, especially when using a board or maps and so on. For instance, drink might be spilled and ruin a character sheet. It can also get on ones hands and make them smell. When the game approaches a meal time, it is usual to have a break for a while and then start again afterwards.  
During online sessions there is no chance the other players will take your snacks, so you can enjoy them in comfort. However, you also can't take other players' snacks either.

Those Japanese, eh?

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Luck (Stat) in the Head

As long-term readers of this blog may know, I spent probably more of my formative years playing Cyberpunk 2020 than any other game. Cyberpunk 2020 is a kind of messed up system, very much "of its time", but one of its great qualities is its Luck stat, which is at least as systemically important as any of the others (Intelligence, Reflexes, etc.). Naturally, the tendency for beginner players and GMs is to treat Luck like a dump stat - give it 2 points, the minimum required, and use your points to improve your other skills. This is because Luck in the core rules is pretty useless - you just spend Luck points to get bonuses to rolls. Zzz.

I gradually developed a more expansive approach to Luck - so much so that anybody who treated it like a dump stat would be a fool, a fool I tell you. Luck in my Cyberpunk 2020 games became, essentially, a primitive form of FATE point, giving the players a kind of control over the narrative: if a player asks me something and I don't know the answer and feel like making one up would be arbitrary on my part ("Is there a CCTV camera nearby?", "Is there a stapler in the office?", "Is there a taxi passing by?") I have them roll a d10. If the result is less than their luck, they get the answer they wanted. If not, they don't. I might also use luck if I can't think of a way to resolve something (there's a car crash and the players didn't decide in advance who was in the passenger seat - they all roll a d10 and add their luck and the lowest is the unfortunate one who gets thrown through the windscreen).

I've always liked this approach, because it makes me feel like it aids my objectivity (I'm neither giving players what they want nor deliberately refusing them what they want) and I enjoy the thought that luck is an actual 'thing' that has real-world effects; there's not only an element of luck in the things that you do as a player (rolling dice to see if you succeed), there's also an actual, almost physical phenomenon in the world which shapes the destinies of the people in it. And because it tends only to be used for things that are relatively trivial ("Is there a taxi nearby?") but which could literally be the hinge between life and death, it feels true as an accurate reflection of the rather random nature of life. 

Monday, 21 May 2012

Let's Stat Up People Appearing In Old Paintings

See that guy in the foreground, on our left? Who is he? And if you were statting him up for the game of your choice, what would his stats be?

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Zonal Combat

What do you say we lighten things up around here and talk about abstract mapping?

Diaspora has an interesting approach to combat, which would work equally well with D&D - indeed any game system you can think of with a bit of tinkering. I've been tinkering with it. It goes something like this:

When combat looks likely, the DM draws a map, and then divides it up into zones. Zones are not a grid, and do not represent strict distance. Rather, they represent a combination of space, ease of travel, view, and time to pass through. Thus, an open field might be one zone, but a nearby cottage with three rooms might be made up of three separate zones, because the time it takes to sprint across the open field is the same as the amount of time it would take to move between rooms cluttered with furniture. Likewise, a thick forest full of boulders might be divided up into three zones, whereas an area of light woodland of the same "size" might just be one zone - representing the speed with which one can move through each area.

With me so far?

If there are borders between zones (a hedge, a wall, a ditch, a door) these have numerical ratings indicating how long it takes to pass through them. So a hedge might have a rating of "2", indicating that it takes 2 "zones" worth of effort to cross over. (You can climb over in the same amount of time it would take to cross 2 zones.) This is called the "pass value". 

Pass values can change if there is a doorway. If there is a doorway, the pass value is 0 - unless the door is shut, in which case it costs "zones" to open it, indicated by a number, called the "opening value". (A wall would cost 2 "zones" to climb over, so it has a pass value of 2, but it has a gate which would cost "1" zone to open, or an opening value of 1. So the hedge has a pass value of 2/1.) 

Each turn, the player gets one zone of movement and an action. The zone of movement might consist in eroding pass value (e.g. getting half way over a hedge with a pass value of 2), or opening a doorway (e.g. eroding an opening value from 1 to 0.) The action would be the usual sort of thing (cast a spell, attack, whatever). Or he can give up the action to make two zones' worth of movement.

A turn is however long it would take to cross a zone. This means that combat can scale up and scale down to suit the situation. A fight taking place in an area covering a square mile of countryside, or taking place in a few rooms in a hotel reception, would follow exactly the same pattern - it's just that the zones would represent different levels of abstraction. The zones in the former would probably be bigger by area on average, and a turn would be longer (maybe two minutes in the former as opposed to around 10 seconds in the latter). But the rules are exactly the same. Only two things would really change. First, the larger the zones and the longer the turns, the more abstract attack rolls (the attack roll would represent a period of maneuvering and trading blows), and the smaller the zones and shorter the turns, the less abstract attack rolls would become (the attack roll would represent literal single attacks). The other thing that would change would be pass value. A hedge separating two open fields, each about 100 square yards and represented by a zone each, would perhaps have to have a higher pass value than a hedge separating two small gardens of 10 square yards each.


Here, the open spaces are fields and easier to cross than the woodland areas, so their zones are spatially larger. The stream and hedges have a PV (pass value) of 2. The barn in the middle is its own zone, full of bales of hay. Red lines indicate zonal boundaries; green lines are hedges; blue is the stream; the black line is a road.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Lamentations of the Flame Princess and the Virtues of A5

I've been playing a bit of Lamentations of the Flame Princess [Grindhouse Edition] these last two weeks, and I have to say, I'm impressed: the game is intuitive, easy to use, retains basically all what makes D&D, D& fact, I'll go out on a limb and say it's what D&D 4th edition always should have been and what D&D 5th edition should be. (If I have a complaint, it's that the art feels like it's trying too hard to be shocking in places, though if that's your only complaint about a game...)

But that's not even the best thing about it. No, the best thing about it is that the rulebooks are in fucking A5. If there ever was a way in which God intended rulebooks to be set out, it would be A5 format paperback. Easy to flick through, light, will fit in a man-bag or brief case, and way more readable in bed or on a train than clunky A4 hardbacks. For that alone, James Edward Raggi IV, I salute you.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Do We Need Villains?

On this podcast Zak is asked what his favourite villain is. There is then some discussion of what makes a good villain, and the interviewer postulates that in a game, "the villain is the plot"; or, if I understood him correctly, a game is all about how the players react to what the villain does.

That's all very strange to me, and it got me thinking about villains in my games: in short, there aren't any. It's just not how I set things up. I start off with a big list of NPCs and they have their own motivations, goals and relationships, and some of them are very bad, but none of them are really villains in the narrative sense. They're not opposed to the PCs unless the PCs do something to piss them off or go out of their way to set themselves up in opposition to them. (In fact, in D&D in particular, the notion of a Big Bad Evil Guy never made any sense to me: this is a world where there are 20th level Lawful Good paladins, gold dragons, and kirin running about the place, right? So why would any BBEG even care about what this gang of 1st level no-hopers is doing? And why would those no-hopers have to get involved in the first place?)

But that's just in short; in practice, of course, villains emerge spontaneously through play, because if there's anything players are good at, it's doing things that piss off powerful NPCs. Once the game begins and the PCs are doing what they do, it is more or less inevitable that some NPC or other(s) will end up being "the villain" by default. This is as true of dungeoneering-type fantasy games ("Oh, we just pissed off the evil wizard") as it is of cyberpunk-type games ("Oh, we just pissed off the sinister faceless megacorp") as it is of SF ("Oh, we just pissed off those aliens"). In other words, villainy is something that comes about from the game, not something that is there from the start. It's bottom-up, not top-down.

That got me thinking further: is it, perhaps, inherent in role playing games there has to be a villain somewhere? That if there is not a villain from the start, ultimately the actions of the players will necessitate one emerging, unless they literally sit around doing nothing all day? Can there be any genuine interest without a villain existing at least as a corollary?

Monday, 14 May 2012

How to Get the Players to Stop Being Selfish

I don't normally read the columns (I have no idea what qualifies the people who write them to say anything authoritative about anything in the world, ever), but for some reason I decided to read today's. It is called How to Get the Players to Play More In-Character, and it strikes me as the perfect example of something that I've never really been able to understand: the idea that the GM in a gaming group has the responsibility for fiddling around at the margins, trying to come up with ways to incentivise things that should be basic requirements for gaming. Like he is the dad and the players are a gang of 8 year olds who haven't yet developed the rudiments of maturity. This all feeds back to something I've written about before, but why is it that for so many people the basic assumption is that it's the GM's job to cajole the players into just properly participating in the game?

To spin the question another way, why is nobody writing a column entitled "How to stop pissing off your GM and the other players at the table by completely failing to find the shred of human social skills required to realise that you are being a hindrance to the enjoyment of others?" You could call it HSPYGOPTCFCSHSSRRYBHEO, or something.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Creation by Question

I ran a first session of Diaspora today; it was entirely comprised of setting- and character generation, which went well - so far, the system looks interesting, and I can't wait to get it started and see how it works in practice.

What struck me while playing is that it's important for lots of questions to be asked during the game. That sounds like a banal observation, but it isn't: I'm not talking about the necessary sort of questions that players have to ask ("Where is the exit?" "What are the orcs carrying?" etc.) but questions which spur the questionee to think, and thereby create.

For instance, I was describing one of the worlds, in one of the systems we were creating, as being a water world, populated by Melnibonean-esque decadent epicureans. One of the players cut in, "Do they live on the surface in big floating cities, or under the water, or what?" And I was forced to think, "Well, where do they live?" And in answering the question more detail was added to the setting: creation by question in action.

There is a lot of power in this, and it applies not just during shared setting-creation type games like Diaspora: it applies in any kind of game - I'm reminded of a Yoon-Suin session I ran online in which one of the players asked whether hijras existed, and I had to think, "Well, do they?" The answer was yes, and another detail was added to the world. But it just as frequently happens during character generation too: "My character is about six feet, built like a brick-shit house, and he's carrying a glaive." "What does the glaive look like?" "Well....It's engraved with runic patterns." "What do they mean?" "Er...he doesn't know, it's a family heirloom and it's a mystery." And so on: questions have power.

I think this comes from the fact that, like using random generators, questions spur creativity through restricting the options. It is the same adage that I've used before: give a man a paper and pencil and say "write a story" and he'll take 10 times as long to come up with something than he would if you'd said "write a story about a murder", and it'll probably be 10 times less interesting. Likewise, saying to somebody "Come up with a world" is a thoroughly different proposition to saying to him: "What is the geography of your world like? Is there a desert? What kind of people live there? Are they warlike? Do they do drugs?" By restricting his creativity, you give it legs.

Friday, 11 May 2012

D&D: Enabling Amorality Since 1974

I played in Patrick's weekly LOTFP game on Wednesday. (There's an actual play here.) The highlight of the night was probably Patrick's off-the-cuff "Don't you die on me, man!" rule: if you are willing to shout "Don't you die on me, man!" at the top of your voice while stabilising somebody on negative hit points, you automatically succeed. It only works if you play in public, though.

But I digress. What I really wanted to talk about was amorality, and how D&D in particular (but role playing games in general) facilitate it. It really was remarkable how, literally within 10 minutes of joining the game, my character had conspired to loot a crypt, burgle a church, and murder an innocent old woman in cold blood for the crime of being a witness to our theft - and that such goings-on were treated as an almost mundane event within the context of the game (although the DM, to his credit, did disapprove of our awful behaviour regarding the old woman). That could almost be a motto for D&D, I think: the mundanity of amorality.

Let me make a few things clear before I proceed: first, I don't think this is a bad thing. Secondly, I'm well aware that D&D doesn't have to be played this way, often isn't, and perhaps shouldn't. And thirdly, I use the term "amorality" advisedly - what I am talking about is not so much evil or badness but merely the absence of ethical thought: a total deliberate abandonment of moral sentiments, almost nihilistic in its scope.

D&D enables amoral behaviour: that is my contention. It allows you to give voice and effect to actions and beliefs that you would never exercise in real life - in other words, to give free reign to your id without that pesky super-ego getting in the way. In this respect it is rather like Grand Theft Auto, or Grand Theft Auto is rather like D&D: it is a sandbox in which being bad has no real consequence, and your inner demons can come out and play.

There are, however, limits. There are behaviours and beliefs that are not even acceptable to air within the context of a game of D&D (probably rightly, in my opinion); there are lines that oughtn't to be crossed. And the laws of the jungle - a kind of quid pro quo altruism - intervenes too: players help each other in the hope and expectation the favour will be returned. So, despite the fact that my character partook in the murder of an old woman without a second thought, he was kind to the lantern-girl he hired to join the party in entering the dungeon, and assigned one of his dogs to protect her. When the idiotic fighter (complete with irritating 17-year-old player) ran off and fell down a pit trap, the rest of us helped him out because he'd sacrificed material gain in order to find us healing earlier that day. There are moral rules, of a kind.

This suggests that morality enters D&D alongside the "real world", when that intervenes. Player-characters tend to behave better towards one another than to NPCs, because what happens to them matters in the real world: they have players who are real people and who are really invested in them. And likewise, player-characters tend to behave well towards in-game children and animals, because cruelty to children and animals is so utterly unacceptable in our society that it cannot be seen as anything other than abhorrent and evil even in the context of make-believe. (Rightly, I might add.) This is also true "at the margins": rape and torture are likewise so unacceptable in our society that they can generally only be seen as evil in-game, again probably rightly.

Otherwise, all bets are usually off. As I said, I don't particularly see this as a bad thing: it is probably a sign of good mental health that you are able to let your id loose and reign it in at will. The capacity to switch off one's own capacity for moral thought is probably an indication that, otherwise, one's moral compass points in the right direction.

If this entry has been somewhat rambling, it is because it's been 3 weeks since I blogged, and my blogging muscles are atrophied. Bear with me: I'm like a footballer returning from a hamstring injury, or a Carlos Tevez-esque lay-off - I can't quite do the full 90 minutes yet, and need a 60th-minute substitution.