Wednesday, 31 August 2016

It was kind of like a dragon, but also kind of like a neogi

Yesterday was spent at the beach. One of the great things about living in the North East of England is that it's one of the few areas of the British Isles where you can genuinely get away from it all: this was the August Bank Holiday, probably the most hellishly busy day of the entire year, when the entire population of the country hits the roads (except the sane but boring ones who stay at home and congratulate themselves all day that they aren't currently stuck in traffic). And yet we had miles of white sand more or less to ourselves. Just us, some seals, some dolphins, and the pure blue sky. Between Newcastle and Edinburgh there is a vast swathe of coastline where almost nobody lives and which everybody bypasses on the way to somewhere else; I know of very few other places on this overcrowded and bustling island like it.

This makes it a great place for encountering wildlife. I am not quite ready to admit to myself yet that I am very attracted by the prospect of bird watching (except when out shopping, huh huh, etc.). But regular readers of the blog won't be surprised to learn that my idea of a good time is being in the middle of nowhere, smartphone safely left at home, not a human soul to be seen, and a decent pair of binoculars to try to find me some wild animals to look at.

Yesterday I saw something I'd never seen before. It was hanging around on the beach, had fairly long legs and a reasonably long bill, so it was definitely some sort of snipe or other wading bird. It had black eyes and a sort of ruddy almost rust-coloured body. I had no idea what it was. It was quite "confiding", as I think naturalists put it: it didn't seem massively bothered about our presence. I had no idea what it was.

I got home and after a fair amount of digging I eventually came to a tentative conclusion that it was a knot in its breeding plumage, which is brick red. But knots aren't supposed to be found in the area, and are only supposed to winter in the UK (I think). And the photos sort of look like what I saw, but also sort of don't. And now 24 hours or more have passed, to be honest my memory of it is getting sort of hazy.

Why is this relevant? Imagine you were living in a fantasy world which had orcs and hippogriffs and dragons and su-monsters and ankhegs and all the other many different kinds of monster which could conceivably exist. You see something you've never seen before. Maybe only briefly, or in the distance. Or maybe just fleetingly, because you are busy running away and shitting yourself. Or maybe in the near-pitch blackness of a dungeon, by torchlight. Two weeks later you arrive back in civilization, half-starved and filthy. You go to the local guild of sages or whatever to try to find out what it was: but all you can summon up is a vague and not massively accurate description.

A big problem with RPGs is that they don't model PC knowledge as distinct from player knowledge very well. Typically this just has to function on the honour system (the player knows that trolls can't regenerate fire damage, but to make things interesting he acts as though the PC doesn't). But let's try:

The "It was kind of like a dragon, but also kind of like a neogi...." Rule

If a group of PCs encounter a monster on a one-off and do not kill it, there is a chance they will be unable to give an accurate description when asking a sage, guide, or other knowledgeable person about it later. For every day after the encounter, roll a d10. If the result is a '1', the PCs' subsequent description is inaccurate and the knowledgeable person identifies it falsely. He or she tells the PCs it has a different set of abilities and habits to those that it actually has.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Olympiodorus the Younger, With Ornithomimisaurians in the Memories of Ruin

When Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani came to the memory world of the crocodile he traveled far and wide before eventually settling in the crocodile's memories of the chaotic aftermath of the catastrophe which put an end to what men now call 'dinosaurs'. There, he began to impose an imperfect order, truth, and peace of a kind - bringing to that troubled world an understanding that, through union with God, life can reach a higher state.

But Abu-Yaqub al-Sijistani brought his own memories, memories of dreams, and dreams of memories. with him to that place. And in the strange alchemy of the crocodile's mind, elements and fragments of those memories seeped out and became 'real' - or as 'real' as anything can be inside the thoughts of an impossibly ancient reptile.

One of those memory fragments appears in the form of Olympiodorus the Younger, who al-Sijistani heard of in his youth: the last pagan philosopher priest in old Alexandria. As a student al-Sijistani imagined Olympiodorus as venerable, obstinate, mournful and wicked - a King Canute of the Alexandrian School, stubbornly clinging to power in the face of the monotheistic Christians and Jews. Above all, a Theurge, devoted in his religious life not to the peace that comes from one-ness with God, but rather harnessing the power of his many pagan deities in order to invoke it in the real world. An animator of statues, maker of rain, and discoverer of mysteries.

Since this is how al-Sijistani imagined him, that is how Olympiodorus the Younger now appears in the crocodile's memory world. An old, sad, and evil sophist who grieves for his lost way of life yet insists on the magical power of his theurgical rituals. Perhaps because of this, he is accompanied everywhere by six memories of therapod dinosaurs - bipedal, ostrich-like, feathered ornithomimisaurians which survived the catastrophe and like him are a mixture of grief for what is lost and blind faith in their own ferocity and strength.

Where Olympiodorus the Younger makes his home, he carves simplistic statues into the rock and animates them into crude life. These things serve his needs: building, gathering food and water, and, if necessary, fighting. They are engaged in a project to carve a more advanced human-sized marble statue of a woman to serve Olympiodorus as a wife. She is nearly-completed and will soon be ready for animation. In the future, Olympiodorus plans to have his servants carve for him a small host of such statutes, that he may pass his knowledge onto them before he dies.

Olympiodorus the Younger

9th level magic-user. 27 hp, AC 14, AB +2.
*Summons spirits to cast 'spells' - can cast any spell available to a 9th level magic-user.
*Can summon rain-storms once per week through a 10 minute ritual. These storms last for 1d6 hours, affect everything within a 1-mile radius, reduce visibility to 10' and have a 1 in 6 chance of causing a landslide every 10 minutes. Landslides do 3d6 hp damage (half on a successful save).


Bipedal, fast, feathered and ferocious. They are up to 8 metres in length from nose to tail tip, and extremely strong. If necessary, Olympiodorus will ride one. They are strongly drawn to the wicked and sorrowful old man, and are beginning to understand some of his teachings.

6+6 HD, AC 16, AB +7, ATT 1d6+3 bite, 1d3x2 claw scratch, 1d6 tail.
*Can cast a single randomly-determined 1st level spell, thanks to their education in theurgy.


Slow and brutish, but possessing a certain crude minimalistic grace. There are 16 of them.

1+1 HD, AC 18, AB +1, ATT 1d6.

Wife Statue

The wife statue stands almost completed, although the legs are still stuck in a chunk of marble, the feet not yet carved. The marble used for her is impossibly valuable, but she weighs well over a ton. In extremis, Olmypiodorus will animate her. The ritual for this takes one hour; when animated she will be able to attack anything in range with her arms (AB +4, doing 2d6 damage).

Friday, 26 August 2016

Saaquaalaalit of the Blue Papaya Moon

An old and gouty su-monster princeling sits in his garden, under the shade of a veranda made from ebony and pink and yellow flowers, fanned by fat human female slaves. As the fifth son of his family he is freed from the responsibility of rule; his only duty is to ensure that he does not squander all of the vast fortune he has inherited.

As with all su-monsters, the human invention of alcohol fascinates and dominates the hopes and desires of Saaquaalaalit of the Blue Papaya Moon. It is the means by which he dulls his psionic senses, which otherwise painfully and inexorably expand their tendrils to the point of sleeplessness and deep anxiety and depression. Alcohol is the balm by which he salves the wounds in his brain. Yet he also belongs to a growing number of the su-monster aristocracy who enjoy liquor in its own right - the scent, taste and sensation on their simian lips and tongues.

While once he enjoyed all manner of entertainments of the flesh and mind, Saaquaalaalit uses his wealth nowadays for one purpose alone: increasing his collection of wines and spirits. His cellar covers acres; extensions are constantly under construction by his army of slaves. Traders come from all over the Fixed World to give him samples of their wares in the hopes that he will purchase more. In the hills and valleys around his belvedere throngs of human 'expert' vintners (some genuine, many silver-tongued quacks) organize gangs of workers planting vineyards. Vast swathes of hillside are scraped and carried away for replacement by supposedly more productive soils. All of this labour comes to nothing: Saaquaalaalit has drunk so much and become so fussy and discerning that he can only be satisfied by the rarest, strangest, and most distant of drinks.

There are great opportunities in Saaquaalaalit's employ, then, for those brave and resourceful enough to find such rarities. The rewards are potentially near-endless. But potential candidates are wisely warned that Saaquaalaalit of the Blue Papaya Moon is well-acquainted with disappointment, and dislikes it intensely.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

When PCs Act Morally

Long-term readers will know I am a big fan of the podcast Econtalk. If you consider yourself to be a thinking person, you ought to be listening to it - Russ Roberts is in my opinion the best interviewer currently working today, and his guests are fantastic. This week sees a regular guest, Mike Munger, taking on the topic of slavery in the antebellum Southern US. It is exceptionally interesting and you should listen to it now.

It coincides with slavery appearing in a recent game I was involved in. My character in the game (a mute white ape) is the slave of another PC. Slavery in the setting is also a completely ordinary thing with no real moral opprobrium attached, and slaves appeared in the first session. And the session itself already had me thinking quite a bit about slavery - because my character had quite a strong reaction when he came across some captive slaves and decided to lead a bit of a rebellion of sorts - and I started wondering why I had gone down that road. If slavery is normal in the setting, and my character himself is a slave, was it really a very realistic or setting-sensitive thing to try to foment slave rebellion?

Let me say straight away that I don't have a problem with slavery or other "dark" topics appearing in games, particularly. I am not one of those people who thinks that fiction or imaginary worlds really matter and nor am I massively squeamish. Grown-ups, and adolescents to a lesser degree, are perfectly capable of dealing with subjects like that sensibly, and even if they don't, I don't care as long as they don't actually go around physically enslaving people.

Let me also say straight away that, let's face it, Yoon-Suin is full of slaves and slavery is completely normal there. PCs can even trade in slaves if that's what they want to do. If conspiracy to commit imaginary slave trading is a crime, I must plead guilty of it.

But that said, I think (and this is a new thought for me) I want to make a moral statement of sorts: there is always space for PCs in games to push the moral envelope of the setting. In other words, while a fantasy setting may be based on all manner of repugnant assumptions - slavery is okay, torture is acceptable, genocide is a leisure activity - I think it is cool for PCs to challenge them, even if it might not appear totally realistic.

That's because, to put it in the context of the Munger Econtalk episode, I suppose I am a Smithian rather than a Humean. Hume was a moral positivist in the sense that he seemed to think that basically any norm can arise in a given society - you can get a society that exists in which people think that slavery is not just a necessary evil but a good thing (the antebellum South being an example) and there is no real external standard to judge this against. Adam Smith wasn't so sure. He understood that such societies could arise, but he also thought that those societies could be judged against abstract moral standards and that you could get at those abstract moral standards if you imagined what his famous"impartial spectator" might think. While your imagining of an "impartial spectator" is itself influenced by custom, culture, fashion, and so on, there is an impartial spectator of posterity who is better positioned to judge. While most white Southerners convinced themselves that slavery was good, some were able to consider the institution as though an impartial spectator looking at the practice through the lens of posterity - and freed their slaves as a result. They were able to see that an impartial spectator looking at them from the future would see an inconsistency in the institution of slavery: that it couldn't be justified even accepting its initial premises. (This is a sort of reformulation of Montesquieu's thought experiment: get everyone, slaves and slave-owners, in a room and mix them all together. Now tell the slave-owners that once everybody leaves the room, it will be randomly determined who gets to be a slave and who gets to be an owner. If slavery is such a good thing, they'll be fine with that, right? You can get this concept even if you have been brought up in a slave owning society.) You cannot really be a Christian or a good person or a believer in freedom and also own slaves, and you can understand that if you judge your own beliefs taking the perspective of a person outside of the culture and time in which you live - even if that person is imaginary.

Can a white ape slave in a nightmare sea do the same thing? Can he look at the practice of slavery, which he has known all his life, as though an impartial spectator looking at it through the lens of posterity? Can his owner and other characters around him, who are not themselves slaves?

I like to think so. Not that they ought to, of course (I am not being a bore about this). Nor should they do so in a way that will fuck up the setting, or get in the way of what the DM wants to do, or annoy the other players. But there is a justification, I think, for a PC to act outside of the moral box in which he exists within the setting.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Selling Mezcal to Merrow: Oenophiles in the Fixed World

Earlier this year I was posting a bit about something I was calling "the Fixed World" for want of a better name. The main post you need to read is probably this one. Yesterday's post got me thinking about The Fixed World again. Specifically, how to run an oenophile campaign in it.

Take a look at the map with major alcohol-producing regions marked on it, 1-15. In most areas humans are not the dominant species, but eke out a living - either as slaves or at the sufferance of the creatures which live nearby.

The colours are are a bit off in places because I was fiddling around with the opacity of the layers, but hopefully it's clear.

Areas 1-4 are the major wine-producing regions. These are areas that are warm-ish and get decent amounts of sun, but not cripplingly hot or humid.

Area 1 is in an area where it is always autumn and always daytime. This is good wine weather - warmish with plenty of sun and sometimes wet, but not too hot. It is also the major area of human habitation. The human polities here are like those of Central Europe or the North East of the Asia-Pacific Rim. 
In Area 2 it is always evening, and always summer. Warm weather prevails here, and there is also lots of sun for plant life to flourish. I imagine it as Mediterranean in character - pseudo-Italian city-states, perhaps. Or Levantine. Or both. 
In Area 3 it is likewise always evening, and always summer. In the notes for the setting, 'H' is described as being populated by Tabaxi and lizardman tribes. I am thinking of a society with a caste structure - a Tabaxi civilization with lizardmen fighters and human underlings. The humans produce wine for trade with other societies. 
In Area 4, another region where it is always evening and always summer, is a region ruled by what I described as "Su-monster psionicistocracies". Perhaps su-monsters, being fairly closely related to humans, are able to feel the effects of alcohol, and treat it as a blessed relief from the curse of psionic awareness?

Next we come to the major rum-producing regions. These are the areas which are always summer, and always day-time: hot, humid and sunny all the time (except for rainstorms) and excellent for sugar cane.

Area 5 is ruled by "Harpy Queendoms". But there are also lots of tiny human groups living around the coast, too - something like the ancient Greek city-states, or the pre-Columbian Caribbean. They are specialists in the production of rum, for which they are greatly admired. 
Area 6 is an archipelago ruled by Rakshasa. Naturally their human slaves produce sugar and rum. Rakshasa do not feel the effects of alcohol but are connoisseurs of the flavour. 

After the rums are the areas specializing in mezcal and similar. Hot dry zones where it is always summer and always daytime, where there are lots of cacti.

Area 7 and 8 are vast savannahs and semi-deserts roamed by dinosaurs who are domesticated in Gith sultanates. The Gith drink extremely strong mezcal and tequila brewed from many varieties of spiny cactus. 
Area 15 is the centre of a continent where "plants grow to huge sizes - skyscraper-sized trees; grass the size of trees in our world - and the mighty forests throng with giant insects, grippli, tasloi, bullywugs and the like." In the middle is a great plain where the grass is as tall as trees and there are special cactuses as high as towers. People travel from the human polities around Area 2 on arduous and dangerous journeys to harvest their nectar to use in extremely rare and expensive mezcal brews.

Next we come to the whiskys and similar - Areas 9 and 10, which are temperate, bordering on cool.

Area 9 is where it is always dawn and always summer. This makes it misty and foggy - a land of fog giants, mist dragons, ettercaps and so on. The fog giants, of course, make whisky, in huge stills.  
Area 10 is where it is always autumn and dusk. It is chilly but not freezing; dim but not dark. It is a mountainous land ruled by dragons and aarakocra, but there are valleys and islands where human habitation is possible. In bleak dwellings, to make their miserable lives just a little brighter, the people distill whisky. This is Scotland, basically. 

And finally, we come to the exotics - liquors which are not brewed on our own dear Earth, which are found in Areas 11-14.

Area 11 is always winter and always night. It is inhabited by little except xorn, xaren, hook horrors and the occasional lich. But there are some archmages, sorcerers, and mystical cults where people brew strange alcoholic beverages from the bacterial growths under the rock, which live off minerals and salts. (These drinks are probably described as having great "minerality". You get that one for free, wine buffs.) 
Area 12 is always night and always spring. It is dark, but warm enough for there to be fungus, which are harvested in the underdark by Sverfneblin. If anybody can dodge all the quaggoths, grimlocks and troglodytes who live on the surface, they may discover fascinating new taste sensations among the fungus liquors of the deep gnomes. 
Area 13 is always winter and always night. Under the surface live derro; above ground are deadly puddings and oozes, often lying dormant for centuries until a meal passes by. The derro surely distill alcoholic drinks of some description - they are dwarves after all. Maybe from the blood of their slaves? 
Finally, Area 14 is an archipelago where in the South it is always winter and dawn. Merrow rule the pack ice around it, and paleosiberian-type tribes live on the land, with stone giant overlords. They create liquors from the lichens and molds which cluster the rocks. 

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Oenophile Campaign

When I was writing my epic thread on about the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual (which you can download here), a recurrent topic was the idea of an "egg thief" game. There are so many monsters in that book for whose eggs the authors went into great depth about the number, prices and uses, that it seemed you could easily create an entire campaign in which the PCs were freelance or privateer monster egg collectors. All you would need is a big map containing lots of monster lairs and other locations of interest, places to make inquiries, and lists of potential buyers in far flung locations (the Sultan of Mandalaram, who collects hippogriff eggs; the Shogun of distant Yamato, who will pay 5,000 gp for a hook horror egg, etc.). And hey presto, you are up and running; there would obviously be more to it than just hunting eggs, but it's quite a powerful "high concept" for a campaign.

What the "egg thief" conceit basically is, is an excuse for the PCs to explore a sandbox beyond just "getting cash through adventure" - which is almost always reason enough, but a little bit thin. Egg thieving is a close cousin of "getting cash through adventure", of course (it ultimately amounts to the same thing in a more specialised way), but you can easily think of other purposes for messing around in a sandbox.

Because I am a lover of whisky, beer, rum, wine, and indeed anything else which has alcohol in it, and because I fancy myself to have something of an educated palate for the finer things in life (red wine goes with fish, right?) I have sometimes thought about something which I call The Oenophile Campaign,

What this involves is a map of an exotic fantasy world with all of the potential wine-producing (or whisky-producing, or rum-producing, or anything-else-producing) regions highlighted. The PCs are either themselves collectors, or agents working on the behalf of rich collectors, and their job is to sail the oceans, going from place to place in search of different drinks. Naturally, all these places are incredibly dangerous and full of weird and wonderful monsters and whatnot, and getting to the vineyards - guarded by ankhegs or blue dragons or on the back of a zaratan - is very difficult. But rather than being explicitly about killing things and taking their stuff, the aim is really about derring-do in the name of collection (while still implicitly being about killing things and taking their stuff, of course).

Such a campaign would probably be more like a game of Traveller than D&D in its spirit (pun intended). I'm picturing a huge archipelago of islands, a bit like in those Ursula Le Guin books, each with different varieties of wine or other specialist liquors (Creme de Urine des Ettercaps, anyone?), with the PCs sailing between them. A sort of D&D version of Hairy Bikers, I suppose.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Dreams of Devoured Corpses

One of the areas of the dungeon in Behind Gently Smiling Jaws is comprised of the memories the crocodile has of the aftermath of the great catastrophe which caused the extinction of most of the dinosaurs. I wrote about it here. This is one of the locations:

In the mountains lies a a small deep lake where rainwater has collected, with sheer cliffs on three sides and a small rubbley beach on the fourth. In the depths of the water live turtles, memory things from the crocodile’s distant visions of post-catastrophic days. In its dreams, it sees them still: small and snub-nosed and gleefully feeding off the corpses of creatures killed or starved in the disaster. In its nightmares, the corpses awake, lurching towards it, attempting to grasp it in a rubbery, clammy embrace, with the turtles still snapping at their decaying flesh.  
Whenever the lake is visited, roll a d6 and consult the following table. The result indicates the type of corpse that is floating under the surface of the water, being consumed by the turtles – it awakens inevitably after 1d4 rounds.  
1 - Therapod. AB +5, HD 6, AC 14, ATT 2d6 (bite) 1d6 (tail).
2 - Stegosaur. AB +4, HD 8, AC 16, ATT 2d6 (tail).
3 - Ankylosaur. AB +4, HD 7, AC 20, ATT 1d6+4 (tail).
4 - Ceratopsian. AB +5, HD 6, AC 16, ATT 2d6 (gore, does double damage on a charge).
5 - Sauropod. AB +3, HD 10, AC 14, ATT 3d6 (trample).
6 - Ornithopod. AB +4, HD 5, AC 14, ATT 1d6+2 (tail) 1d4 (head butt).  
The corpse issues a weak, melancholy howl which strikes the listener with an unutterably bleak apathy as the cruel caprice of the universe is revealed to him (loses initiative automatically for the remainder of the day and move at half the normal rate unless saving successfully vs magic).  
4d6 turtles remain clinging to the corpse as it emerges from the water. Each can spring off the corpse to attack, delivering a single bite, before scuttling back to the lake. Bites are at AB +2 and do 1d2 damage. The victim must save vs poison or become diseased and lose 1 point of CON for 2d6 days; death occurs if CON drops below 3, and a random limb is lost if CON drops below 5. After 2d6 days CON points are recovered at a rate of 1 per day.  
The corpse collapses and falls apart after 1d3x10 minutes. 
If the corpse succeeds in killing a living thing it will grasp the body and attempt to drag it into the lake to be devoured by the turtles. If this happens the victim's essence remains trapped in the crocodile's memories. [NB: There are rules for what happens in these circumstances. In essence, there are mechanisms by which dead PCs and their equipment become part of the crocodile's memories and proliferate within them.] 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

I Wish I Did Not Know About "Steven Universe", or the Place Where Nerds and Sport Collide

Because I created a 'zine called "The Peridot", I set up a Google alert in order to get notifications if anything is talking about it. The overwhelming, overwhelming majority of the notifications I get are not about the 'zine, nor about peridots as in the semi-precious gem (as you might reasonably expect), they are about something called "Steven Universe", which apparently has a character in it called The Peridot. You can read about it here, if you are interested. I had no idea this thing existed prior to setting up the Google alert; I have never watched it - so it is arguably unfair of me to dismiss it out of hand - but I am going to go out on a limb and say that I am completely justified in doing so.

But ho hum. This blog entry is not (solely) about me taking a dim view of some cartoon series which has no effect on my life whatsoever beside the occasional irksome email in my gmail inbox. No - this blog entry is about this story, which came with today's Google alert: Yes, that's right: somebody connected with the show (which is, let's be clear, supposed to be a programme for children) has been harassed off Twitter by grown men and women (though I use that term loosely) simply because of what has happened in it. Viz:

Lauren Zuke, one of the storyboard artists and writers for "Steven Universe" decided to leave Twitter and delete her account after she experienced harassment from fans of the series who accused her of queer baiting.  
Queer baiting is a term used to describe what LGBT fans perceive to be a media creator's attempt at wooing LGBT fans with no clear intention of showing a consummated LGBT relationship on television. A thread on Reddit reveals that a group of aggressive "Steven Universe" fans supporting the Peridot–Amethyst pairing (otherwise known as "Amedot") in the series believed themselves queer baited after the "Summer of Steven" episode "Beta" aired showing Peridot moving in and doing well with Lapis Lazuli, a newly converted Crystal Gem.  
 Zuke had shared art supporting a hinted romantic relationship between Lapis and Peridot (otherwise known as "Lapidot" to some) after the episode aired. This angered "Amedot" fans, believing that not only was Zuke queer baiting them but that the artist was favoring one ship over the other.

You see this sort of thing a lot, of course - it isn't really news, as Leslie Jones will tell you - but for some reason this instance of the phenomenon (I suppose "twitter mob idiocy" is the correct term?) particularly makes me wonder whether we are living in a sort of Last Days of Rome era, with the Visigoths and Huns waiting for us just round the corner with clubs. I mean, really. Let's count the layers of sheer awfulness here:

1) Grown men and women being so emotionally invested in a kids' TV series that they are willing to abuse somebody over it.
2) Grown men and women feeling so entitled, so childish, and so self-centered that they actually believe that they have a right to have a work of fiction reflect their own specific desires rather than that of its creator.
3) Grown men and women thinking that fiction ought primarily to serve political or cultural ends rather than those of plot, character development, drama, etc.
4) Amedot. 'Nuff said?

What is it about modern fandom that makes it so shrill and hateful? Is it simply not having enough going on in your own life that you have to invest your emotional energy in fiction? A lack of perspective brought on by lack of human contact?

Those seem too simplistic. What I've noticed about episodes like this is that they are basically nerd-dom's answer to the way in which football (that's "soccer" if you're reading across the Pond) fans behave. At the average football match it is perfectly normal to be surrounded by grown men and women who feel that it is not just acceptable but their right to hurl barbaric abuse at referees and linesmen, call opposition managers pedophiles, make threats of violence, and otherwise behave like a sort of unholy combination of a 13 year old boy and a gibbon in heat. It's all part of the pantomime of the experience, of course, and mostly harmless, but it seems to come from the same place that online abuse of actors or writers does. In the same way that fans of Steven Universe want the plot and characters to reflect what they want, and become aggravated and lose all sense of proportion when that doesn't happen, football fans want their manager and players to do exactly what they feel that they should be doing, and turn into shit-flinging chimps when they don't.

I don't feel enough of a qualified social anthropologist to explain this phenomenon in words, so I will summarize my argument with the following handy diagram, which I recommend you study in detail:

Monday, 15 August 2016

Rewarding Player Skill and the Myth of Realism

I like martial arts and combat sports, and have practiced a few of them. I enjoy fighting. I enjoy watching it too. I always look forward to the Olympics, as it gives me the chance to sit on the sofa and binge-watch top level judo over a period of days, as though stuffing massive dogi-wearing chocolate eclairs into my face like some sort of combat-sports-watching beached whale.

I also like wargames. Pretty much the only computer games I play are ones that involve military strategy and huge numbers of slain pixel soldiers set to a backdrop of Barber's Adagio for Strings.

What combat sports and wargames have in common is that they're not very realistic. Let me explain. I watch a lot of youtube videos about martial arts. One thing you'll have noticed if you do the same, is that youtube is absolutely awash with aggressive commentators explaining why martial art x or y "sucks", typically in comparison to the muay thai/Brazilian jiu-jitsu combination practiced by most cookie-cutter modern MMA fighters. These are people who have fallen for the clever marketing of the Gracie family and the later promoters of the UFC, K-1 and similar, which makes a great show of how "realistic" their product is in comparison to, say, judo or tae kwon doe. I will restrain myself from ranting about the problems with this attitude and the sociology of it - suffice to say, teenage boys seem to strongly believe that some combat sports are more "realistic" than others.

But no combat sport is really very "realistic". Striking sports - whether karate, boxing, tae kwon doe, or whatever - almost always insist on the use of gloves (as much to protect the fist as the face). The rare ones that don't (kyokushinkai karate is the only one I can think of) prohibit punches to the head. Grappling sports, like judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu or greco-roman wrestling, typically prohibit strikes and various techniques which an opponent would almost certainly use in a real life-or-death fight (like eye gouges, groin kicks, etc.). MMA may look more realistic than judo, but that's just a clever illusion - a UFC fight is as unrepresentative of the conditions of a street fight as is a bout of Olympic tae kwon doe.

Similarly some wargames try to produce a veneer of realism - I'm thinking of things like Advanced Squad Leader or the modern updates of computer games like Steel Panthers (which is still modded to this day). Don't get me wrong - I yield to no man in my love for that sort of thing - but again, one has to be very careful about claims of representing reality. Those games may be detailed and complicated, but the conditions that they represent (rough parity of forces or ways of balancing delay vs attack, etc.; emphasis on tactics and lack of emphasis on logistics; failure to replicate individual initiative and cowardice, and so on) are not "real".

The desire to have "realistic" combat, then (one which I feel myself, I think it is important to confess), is a red herring. What is important, rather, is combat which is interesting and detailed enough to reward a good player. It doesn't matter that judo is not particularly realistic; what matters is that it is a tactical and detailed sport in which the best fighter in the bout typically wins, by making the most of his technique and physical strength. Similarly, it doesn't matter that Steel Panthers: World at War is not really a "real" representation of a World War II battle; what matters is that there is a lot of depth to it - such that the most intelligent and thoughtful player typically wins.

Why am I talking about this? The same is true when it comes to RPGs. Some RPG combat systems appear to be more realistic than others - and many, indeed, make explicit claims in that area (I'm thinking of Cyberpunk 2020 and the more recent Blade of the Iron Throne, as well as Rolemaster and Runequest). But I'm increasingly of the view that is a quixotic goal. The reason why Cyberpunk 2020 or Rolemaster have interesting combat systems is not really because they are "realistic", but rather that they are detailed and complex to a sufficient degree to reward a player's intelligent play. Their choices and ideas and decisions really matter, and matter in ways that are predictable (or retrospectively reasonable).

This is also why D&D, in the hands of a weak or mediocre DM and players, has such a dysfunctional and bland combat system - it is not in itself enough to reward intelligent play. (If anything, it does the opposite - if you have better AC and more hp and do more damage than the opponent then you will win, and the process is effectively mechanical. Just keep rolling the dice until you win.) Of course, in the hands of a decent DM and players, the combat system works well, because it is simple enough to add lots of complexity in the form of movement, improvisation, tool use, good planning and so on. But in the abstract, at first glance, its combat rules are simple and robotic. Their virtue, if they have one, is that they are easy and transparent enough to get out of the way to allow the players and DM room to improvise and put their own detail into what is happening.

What's important in an RPG combat system, then, is not how realistic is but how much it rewards player skill. Does it have the right level of detail and complexity to make player choice and player thought matter? 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The Mystery of Ideas

A big part of being a DM or of writing gaming materials is simply sitting down, staring at a blank sheet of paper or screen, and trying to think of an idea. Sometimes the ideas just flow and you enter a kind of creative fugue state in which time seems to both stand still and yet pass with bewildering speed.

But at other times you simply cannot think of anything. It is like trying to tug free a zip which has caught. You struggle inanely. You are trying your very hardest, but you are making absolutely no discernible progress.

Take a look at this sketch map of a section of a dungeon I have been working on.

I spent this morning briefly jotting down the contents of the 31 rooms. I whipped through most of it in a breezy fashion, taking at most 20 minutes and barely even thinking at all, but then I got to areas 26, 27, and 28, and got completely stuck. I sat for at least half an hour transfixed - I did nothing at all except look at that area of the map, rub my temples, and try to summon something up. Eventually I did manage to get something down, but it still seems half-arsed to me: a repetitive by-the-numbers encounter with a boring monster which I will have to totally revamp for the final version.

It is almost as though actually thinking up ideas is hardest when you are trying to think of them. If you simply go for a stroll and let your brain act as a kind of cosmic sieve (I like to imagine the brain in such circumstances as being a bit like one of those neutrino detectors buried underground, simply passively letting background radiation wash through it and occasionally going "Oh, there's a neutrino. Oh, there's another one") then in no time at all you'll have more ideas than you know what to do with; you will have a hundred and have forgotten fifty by the time you get home. But if you sit down in front of a computer and tell yourself: "Think of an idea!" you freeze like a rabbit confronted by a stoat.

Ideas, then, are also a bit like eye floaters - those little blobs which float around on your eyeball and which you can often see around the periphery of your vision when you aren't really concentrating on anything. Try to focus on them and they dance out of view. But look away and it's almost like they dominate your vision.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Benign Dissonance and Genre

If you like music, you really ought to be listening to the podcast Sodajerker. I've been catching up on old episodes, and yesterday listened to the one featuring Jimmy Webb. It's well worth hearing. Not only is Jimmy completely charming and compelling to listen to (and inclined to ramble very amusingly), he also reveals himself to be a fan of Robert Heinlein ("The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" - I guess I'm pretty thick not to have ever picked up on that) and SF in general.

He also very interestingly and eloquently discusses the importance of surprising the listener in a song - what he calls "benign dissonance". You have to meet the listener's expectations to a certain degree - atonality is a dead end. But without a little bit of dissonance, without at the same time defying his expectations also, you're on a hiding to nothing. You produce very dull and repetitive work. I agree with this. The example the interviewer uses is instructive: in the song "Up, Up and Away", which I'm sure you're all familiar with, there's a very obvious point at which an inferior songwriter would have written "Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon..." and the song would have been adequate. But Jimmy throws your ear off by including an extra "beautiful" in there, so it goes "Up, up and away in my beautiful... balloon". This, to my ear (nobody mentions this in the podcast) gives the song a strange tinge of melancholy that it wouldn't otherwise have. A sort of dreamy wistfulness.

Anyway, this concept of "benign dissonance" got me thinking about doing the same things in games - striking the balance between dissonance and being also pleasing is difficult, but important.

Think about an encounter with a medusa. A bog-standard medusa is just that: bog-standard. The players will know what it is as soon as they see the statues and the woman with snakes for hair. A good DM will make a good encounter anyway, but the potential for an "Oh, it's just a medusa" reaction from the players is obvious.

Now think about an encounter with a medusa which is too dissonant. You can have fun trying to think up your own example, but let's say that instead of turning people to stone, she turns them into carrots. Okay, it surprises the expectations of the players but it is the non-musical equivalent of atonality. It's not interesting.

But approaching a medusa encounter from a "benign dissonance" perspective results in productive outcomes. The medusa wants to be "cured". The medusa has a husband who always goes blindfold. The medusa doesn't turn people to stone - she turns them into amethysts which explode when touched. The medusa is just a child. And so on. You have to turn the dissonance knob to a 5, not to an 11.

It should go without saying that practice and intuition play a big role in how dissonant you should get with your benign DMing dissonance. But it is a persuasive way to conceptualise what it is that makes RPG material good, rather than mediocre.