Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Making as well as Doing

I'm currently reading TH White's book about falconry, The Goshawk. It's a great book. A beautiful, sad, meaningful book. A book that every one of you should read. One of those books which you come across from time to time and think, "How come I've never even heard of this before? Why have I never heard anyone raving about this?"

Anyway, it's full of grist for the RPG mill, but I loved this line, which I think sums up what is fun about this hobby.

"Regarding these arrangements after many hours of scrubbing with a file, one could say to oneself warmly: I have created. Indeed, one of the great beauties of falconry was that one was allowed to invent things in the first place, and in the second place to play at Red Indians with them, whatever one's age."

Setting aside the old fashioned phrasing, if you replace the word 'falconry' in that sentence with 'role playing games' I don't think the paragraph would lose anything. The hobby allows you to invent things in the first place, and in the second place to play with them, whatever one's age. It's not just the gaming, it's the way you can say to yourself warmly after drawing a map, drawing up a table, statting out an NPC, "I have created". Like all the best hobbies, it's as much about the process of making as it is of doing. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Arch-Mage Tower Generator and Yoon-Suin Update

Enough with the politics. Here's a table from the Yoon-Suin Gazetteer. This is what's consumed much of my summer: formatting tables like this. About 250 pages of them. I am to all intents and purposes finished, but I need to put the art into its various placeholders. I don't anticipate this will take very long, but I've learned a dark secret during the course of this project, and it's as follows: everything to do with layout is a massive faff, and while that is something you expect, you can never expect the level of faffing around that will be required in practice. So I expect a whole host of unexpected problems to suddenly unearth themselves in the course of this final furlong.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Sorry about the politics, but it's time to talk about Scotland

I think it's bad form to post about politics in a non-political blog, but Patrick did it and anyway, this is a once-every-three-centuries event, so I feel it deserves special comment. If you don't want to read a political rant don't read any further, and rest assured you have until the year 2321 to wait for another.

On Thursday, people living in Scotland are going to vote on whether they want Scotland to be an independent country. I have no idea how this is seen around the world, but I expect that it is largely based on misunderstandings about what Britain is; my perception, from talking to non-British people, is that everyone seems to think that the Scots are some sort of historically-oppressed minority group who were conquered by the English centuries ago and have been chafing under the yoke of London ever since. This is what led a Japanese person to message me earlier to ask why British people are opposed to Scottish independence, when Scotland would be so much better off having "freedom".

As I patiently explained: a) if Scotland has ever been conquered by the English it's through the very roundabout way of the dastardly, perfidious English somehow conniving for their queen to die heirless so a Scottish relative could take the crown; and b) you're surely thinking of the Welsh.

I blame Braveheart.

Scotland and England are essentially equal partners in Britain. Not in terms of population, because England's population is so much bigger, but constitutionally: they are two separate nations with separate crowns which are united in one monarch. They have separate legal systems, separate powers to print currency, and, since 1998, sort-of separate parliaments (Scotland has its own parliament, and there is also parliament in London which is for the whole UK; there is no English parliament of its own). What this means is that the Scottish independence referendum resembles, more than anything else, a divorce. It's two nations which have been bound together for 300 years breaking apart.

Like any good divorce, then, England is going to have to accept the result. You can't force somebody to stay married to you if they don't want to any more. That's not a recipe for happiness. You have to dust yourself down, pick yourself up, and start again. And England will do that. But it's an emotional blow that is going to take a long time to recover from.

I wasn't expecting to feel as emotional about this issue as I do. But as the date draws closer, I get increasingly distraught about it. You see, I'm half-Scottish. My dad is from Glasgow. I've never, ever defined myself as being English. Like a lot of people in this sceptered isle, I would always say that my national identity is British. I consider myself to be a product of the union between the different peoples who call the British Isles home - my English mother's father is of Irish heritage, and my dad's mother was Welsh. My mongrel background is represented in the mongrel nature of the country which I'm from: a muddled but largely successful amalgamation of ethnicities - a family, even. A group of nations who ended up having to share this cold, rainy little island and have learned to do so after many generations. A hard-won and delicately assembled arrangement which has taken centuries to evolve through blood and war.

But if people living in Scotland vote 'yes' on Thursday, what then? A dividing line comes down. From that point on you can no longer be British. You'll have to be Scottish or from "the other bit". I'll have to be Scottish or from the "other bit". My identity is going to have to change. Forget the economic arguments; this is something deeper. The Scottish nationalists are foisting an atavistic, prehistoric decision on me: I'm not going to be allowed to have the positive, forward-looking, civic association of Britishness any more, but only the backwards-looking, crude nationalism of Englishness or Scottishness. Why is this very significant thing so absent from the public debate? Why aren't Alex Salmond and the rest of his cronies being identified as what they are: enemies of progress and utter arseholes to boot?

The beauty of Britishness has always been that it isn't an ethnicity. It's an identity that anyone can have if they live here. That doesn't always work perfectly but it's as close as you get to New World, American- or Australian-style integration in Europe. We don't have the baggage of non-existent ethnic purity. Our union itself embraces diversity because it brings different ethnicities together and makes none of them synonymous with the State, and has done this since its inception. A 'yes' vote on Thursday is going to trash that.

Make no mistake about it. Nationalism is always and forever dark, restrictive, introspective, and mean-spirited. Its nature is division. And Scotland is waltzing into a future of nationalism without even apparently being aware of it - or the fact that it condemns not just itself but the rest of us British people alongside it.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

On Bad DMing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Ryuutama and the Tiresomeness of New Systems

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

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

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

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

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