Friday, 28 September 2012

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Affection for Shit Characters

A phenomenon that I have noticed, over my gaming career, is that people tend to view randomly generated characters with more affection than ones they have built and predetermined, for instance through point-buy or allocation of stats.

It is important to distinguish what I mean, here. I don't mean that people don't like characters they create when they have full control over the process. I am talking specifically about affection - that feeling that you get for something that may be flawed, annoying, stupid, weak, imperfect, insipid, and so on, but which you come to like despite, and perhaps because, of those problems.

It's a feeling you can't get with non-random character generation; you can deliberately weaken your character in some way, but for some reason it just doesn't replicate that feeling you develop for your randomly rolled STR 7 fighter who survives to Level 2, or for your utterly uninteresting cleric whose stats are all in the 9-11 range but you make interesting anyway.

Why should this be? The parallels with human society are obvious: we don't create our family and friends. They come to us as they are and we develop bonds with them over time. Characters in games are a bit like that, it seems.

Medieval England Did Not Have Dragons

What's new, Monsters & Manuals? How's the world been treating you? You haven't changed a bit. Lovely as ever, I must admit.

Apologies for the hiatus. This has been the busiest summer for me ever - my PhD thesis is finished, I have a flash new job in a flash new city (well, Newcastle), and things are very much looking up, but it has been a time-sapping experience and I have done very little gaming and very little thinking about gaming. I've missed the blog, though, and it is good to be back.

Today, my topic for discussion is history. On a forum I frequent there was recently a little to-and-fro-ing about true population figures in medieval England, the number of manors and parishes in the Domesday Book, and so forth, and it made me think, with a strange clarity, what a bizarre pursuit historical research is when it comes to fantasy gaming. Why, as a DM creating a D&D setting, would you care what the population density of medieval England was as something relevant for your game, when medieval England did not have dragons, orcs, elves and magic in it? How can we possibly believe that the existence of such factors would not make a D&D world very, very different from medieval England in almost every respect?

The need for historical accuracy is one that I understand, but like almost everything else in gaming, it is an odd impulse when you think about it. If you are running a fantasy game, it actually makes more sense not to think about historical accuracy at all - the furniture of high fantasy requires a pseudo-medieval society which superficially resembles our own, but that resemblance must by necessity be entirely superficial. The moment you start thinking about accurate population figures and densities, trade routes and pricing, natural resources and so forth, you immediately have to consider: How would the existence of dragons affect this? What about magic? What about orcs? And suddenly you are not so much creating a fantasy setting as you are considering speculative, academic questions which lead to interesting pub or forum discussions but not much in the way of game-able content if you take it seriously.

To illustrate, think about what farms would look like if there were giant flying predators like dragons, griffins, hippogriffs and so on in the world. Nobody would keep cows or sheep, because they would be being eaten all the time. No cows or sheep means no leather or wool. Good luck trying to extrapolate a setting from that which you could base a game on. It's an interesting thing to think about while you're staring out of the window of the train on your daily commute, but it isn't something you could really play D&D with.

Fantasy gaming rests on a fiction: that you could have a society like England in 1200 AD which also has supernatural beings, magic, and active deities. That fiction, in turn, rests on the understanding that nobody thinks about it too hard.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Scenes from a Merseyside Gaming Emporium

I was moseying around Liverpool city centre today on the way to my office, and decided to head into Forbidden Planet - a chain of shops which sells mostly stuff that I don't think self-respecting adults should be interested in (action figures, Dr. Who DVDs, comics), fantasy and SF books, and - increasingly rarely - RPGs.

Before I went to live in Yokohama, way back in 2002ish, I remember Forbidden Planet's RPG section as being pretty extensive. It had, in large quantities, GURPS, old WoD, Call of Cthulu, MERP, D&D, RuneQuest, Shadowrun, Rifts, and so on, as well as more obscure stuff like Continuum. (Some of the books they had may have been out of print by that stage.) The shelf space was probably about 3 yards wide and a yard and a half high with two or three racks.

Now, there is only about a yard of shelf space on one rack. It contains, to my recollection (I may have missed something):

  • Pathfinder stuff (Christ, that rulebook is thick: do people actually read that?)
  • D&D 4e stuff, including the Red Box rip-off/revamp which I forget the name of
  • Mongoose Traveller (one copy of the core rules, nothing else)
  • the AD&D 1st edition core rulebook reprints for the Gygax memorial fund
  • Mouse Guard 
I find a couple of things quite surprising about this. First - no World of Darkness. I'm surprised that line has tailed off. Since I don't really play those games I can only speculate, but did the new WoD alienate old fans and fail to replace them, a la Dungeons ampersand Dragons?

Second, almost everything is either D&D or a D&D spin-off. The great alternatives of old - Rolemaster, RuneQuest, etc. - might as well not exist, for all you'd guess. This is doubly true of the other heavyweights like Call of Cthulu, GURPS, Shadowrun, and the like. When people say that it wouldn't matter if D&D went away, I have my doubts. Other games may fill the void, but it seems just as likely that the hobby would simply die as a going concern.

Third, Mouse Guard?

And finally: if you assume that shelf space maps perfectly to the number of players (which it probably doesn't) you would have to conclude that the number of RPG players in Merseyside has declined in the last decade or so by what, 90% or something?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Tuesday Night Yoon-Suin: Session 8

Adventurers Present:

  • Marich, Level 2 Magic-User [played by David]
  • Anil, Level 2 Cleric of Manpac [played by Patrick]
  • Manjeet, Level 1 Fighter [played by Nathan]
  • Retainers: Nagendra I, Nagendra II, Lokendra, Sinba
The session had ended last week with the adventurers hiding out with two Quaggoth sisters while invisible hounds roamed outside. After the hounds had gone they spent some time discussing the layout of Sangmenzhang with these sisters, but Manjeet managed to annoy them and a fight ensued: they were both killed. The players then ransacked the room and discovered a silver belt, studded with aquamarines. 

Anil, however, had disobeyed and angered his god, Manpac, by going against his command to ally himself with the Quaggoths. Manpac commanded him to clear Sangmenzhang of the undead dwarfs which infested it, to appease his anger. 

What followed was an extended exploration of the flooded area of the first level of the citadel, as a way to work around and find dwarven ghosts. This was largely unsuccessful, but a larger portion of Sangmenzhang was now mapped, a shaft down to another level discovered, and some more of its history made known - the group found what seemed to be an old chapel, with grooves worn into the floor from generations of dwarfs praying before the altars to the Yak and Scorpion gods. They also hit upon the good idea of scooping up some of the luminous jellyfish in the flooded area in a wine bottle and using them as an alternative light source, which came in handy tied to a rope and lowered into holes.

They also encountered giant exploding snails, another giant cave locust, and more flesh-eating maggots. Eventually they came across a barricade, which they dismantled, and discovered another adventuring party hiding in a room. Three of these four were dead, and one dying. They were emaciated, pale, and with blood and mucous pouring from their noses and mouths: suspecting disease or gas, the PCs and their retainers covered their faces as they explored the room. They found some treasure in chests - over 700 gold pieces - that these adventurers had apparently recovered. The one man still alive, apparently a magic-user, was barely able to communicate, but he managed to utter dire warnings about strange demonic hounds roaming Sangmenzhang and breathing poison gas.

The group decided to leave, taking the treasure and the dying man with them. Some efforts were made to heal him, but failed, yet he managed to cling to life [DM's note: he kept rolling 20s on his saving throws versus poison]. They decided to take him to the Walung monastery - the headquarters of the strange holy order who practice self-mummification - to see if they would heal him.

They carried him on a platter into the mountains, following what they hoped was the way to the monastery, along a hill path through thick cedar and bamboo forest. The path eventually forked, leading NW and SW; they went NW and the next day came across a strange, walled garden set away from the path. This was overgrown, and the gate long locked and rusted, but still contained chrysanthemum and rhodedendron bushes, and a strange, purple-breasted peacock and some peahens. The PCs elected to spend the night here, and push on the next day. 

But the next morning they asked the dying man - whose name, they found out, was Madhav - if he knew where the Walung monastery was, and he told them that, actually, it was to the SW. [DM's note: tee hee] On a whim, Anil decided that "rather than having wasted a day coming all this way" it was worth investigating the garden further. Famous last words. On entry to the garden, the peacock revealed itself to be something else entirely - with its tail, it hypnotized and paralyzed all except Manjeet and Nagendra I, who charged it and found themselves pecked and slowly petrified to stone. Things could have gone terribly, but the hypnotized ones managed to escape the garden after a time and set up a shooting gallery on top of the garden wall, correctly surmising that the peacock could not get up at them. They gradually shot it to death with slings and arrows, taking turns climbing onto the wall top to fire, and helping each other get down when petrified by the thing's tail. 

They were now faced with the conundrum of what to do with the petrified Manjeet (and Nagendra I). He would be too heavy and awkward to move, but they hoped that the Walung order might be able to save him. They decided to go back on themselves and head SW as quickly as possible. 

This they did, and the next day came across a clearing in the forest, containing a grassy mound covered in flowers. This was inhabited by an (apparently) friendly witch called Omrita, who told them that the peacock thing was actually a peacockatrice, owned by an ancient wizard called Chokgyur who had died centuries ago. Anil immediately - and quite logically - jumped to the conclusion that this was an undead wizard, in which he was entirely correct. The witch told him that Chokgyur was probably dormant at the moment, if the garden was overgrown, but one could never be sure when he would wake. She also said that the Walung might help them, but would probably demand a geas in return. 

In return for helping gather hallucinogenic mushrooms, she also agreed to read the slate book written in Late Sangmenzhang Dwarfish that they had discovered in the secret chamber in the citadel. She told them that it was a journal, and an account of the latter days of the citadel. The dwarfs had apparently divided into two hostile groups, one worshipping the Yak god, the other the Scorpion god, and they had fought a bitter civil war, committing horrible acts of torture against each other and summoning demons to fight alongside them in battle inside the mountain. The dwarf who had written the journal had left "the secret way", but did not detail how - this explained how the chamber the journal had been discovered in had been locked from the inside, with no apparent way out. 

The witch Omrita also told the group about a temple to the Scorpion god high in the mountains, where the necklace of the dwarf king Tenzin II could be found - though she heavily implied this would be very dangerous. She speculated that the Scorpion god and the Yak god were not really deities, but ancient spirits of the mountains which had been there even before the dwarfs had arrived. 

She allowed the group to try her hallucinogenic mushrooms. Marich and Sinba partook. David, Marich's player, rolled the reaction dice and got a mischievous/crazy face, which he interpreted as a bizarre trip showing visions of himself riding a raptor around the mountaintops. Sinba got a happy face, which Patrick interpreted as involving her father sitting her on a ledge above the valley and explaining to her that all of creation belonged to her. Marich would be able to cast Charm Person as a one-off, for one day only, the next day. Sinba would be able to cast Faerie Fire

Thoughts: A mixed session. There was a little bit of friction at the beginning, because - for some entirely unknown and unjustified reason, Nathan got the bizarre impression that I was trying to kill all of the PCs. Amazing, I know. At one stage there were also allegations of fixing dice rolls, from a number of parties. It was generally good natured, but still...tensions rose. The second half of the session went much better - though Nathan was again unfortunate to have a character removed from the action, not by death this time but by being turned to stone. 

There were some good creative episodes. Using the luminous jellyfish as a light was a great idea, as was correctly concluding that the peacock was in a walled garden for a reason - it couldn't get up on the wall, and hence the worst it could do to somebody on the wall-top would be to hypnotize them with its tail for a brief period. Eventually it would die from missile fire. I was also pleased with having Patrick and David narrate hallucinogenic visions for Sinba and Marich after eating the mushrooms.

I am going to have to think of a way to punish Anil, Patrick's PC, for failing to obey Manpac. He should have been forced into a difficult dilemma - to do what Manpac wanted and banish undead dwarfs, or leave Sangmenzhang for the Walung monastery to help Madhav, and risk further wrath from his god. Instead that got forgotten about in the heat of the peacockatrice fight and its aftermath. I owe the peacockatrice idea to Melan, regular poster at rpg.net and therpgsite.com, finest gamer in Hungary and author of the infamous "Tyranny of Fun" posts (see e.g. here and here; for some reason I can't find the original enworld post). 

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land

Do you have a strange, special snowflake campaign setting that steers away from D&D tropes? Would it make more sense for the PCs to be "strangers in a strange land" than natives, given that the players aren't going to get to know the setting well enough to behave like they're indigenous? There is plenty of historical precedent for groups of adventurers stranded in foreign lands of which they know nothing, with no way to get home. For instance:

The Russian Expeditionary Force in France was a brigade-strength unit sent from Russia to the Western Front to fight alongside France in the First World War. A considerable portion were Estonians. In one of those bizarre twists of globalization in which the First and Second World War abounded, a group of them ended up serving with the 1st Moroccan Division: Russians and Estonians in France, fighting with North Africans against Germans.

The Czech Legion was formed from Czech and Slovak volunteers and served with the Imperial Russian Army; after the revolution in 1917 they began to trek Eastwards through Siberia all the way to Vladivostok to get on board ships bound for France. On the way they tangled with the Bolsheviks and became involved in the Siberian Intervention, when Japanese, American, French, Canadian, British and Italian troops landed in Vladivostok to support the Whites against the Reds in the Russian Civil War. It is also said that, on the way, the Legion ended up in possession of 8 train carriages of gold bullion from the Imperial Reserve. It is also said that some of the Czechs remained in Siberia into the 1920s, and helped the Koreans defeat the Japanese at the Battle of Qingshanli.

After the surrender of the Emperor in September 1945, thousands of Japanese troops remained in China fighting alongside the nationalists against warlords and communists. Some were there for years afterwards.

The Blue Division were Spanish volunteers in the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. In total 286 of them were held captive after the way until 1954, when they were repatriated to Spain.

Basques from Northern Spain were fishing cod off Newfoundland from the beginning of the 16th Century; some even argue the Basques may have discovered North America before Columbus (though after the Vikings, obviously). Some of the earliest trade jargons in the New World were mixtures of Basque and local Native American tongues.

The notion of a bunch of rubes fumbling their way around a weird place they know nothing about, then, is remarkably common in human history. There isn't much of a better excuse to set players loose on a hex crawl than "you are stranded here for reason x, now what?"