Tuesday, 22 June 2021
Tuesday, 15 June 2021
Thursday, 10 June 2021
Today, a charming and interesting PC, who had taken on an unlikely leadership role in my weekly game and had literally just reached 2nd level after a heroic sequence of events, died meaninglessly in a random encounter with earwigmen.
My game is rich in senseless PC death. By my count we have lost 8 or 9 PCs so far, in something over 20 sessions. Some of these had reached level 3 or 4. None of them really died in grand circumstances - and a high proportion were killed by wandering monsters.
The deaths have been deflating. At times, old school D&D can seem nihilistic. Just as things seem to be going in one direction, a roll of the dice (I do almost all the dice rolling in the open) sends everything careering sideways - and sometimes seemingly backwards.
I am usually relatively sanguine about this, because deflation is a valid emotion too, and I remain convinced that the realistic possibility of PC death raises the stakes and makes the game feel more real. But I am also human, and I was gutted when that earwigman rolled maximum damage and did away with poor Pupli.
At times like this, it helps to remind oneself that, while it is an OSR mantra that the 'story' emerges through play and not by design, it is probably more accurate to say that story operates at a different level of abstraction to modern RPGs. Ever since the 'silver age' of RPGs, the idea has been that the story is about what happens to the individual PCs. In an old school game, by contrast, the story is really the campaign. Individual PCs come and go, but they are not the focus - the narrative is about the events that take place (in which the PCs, of course, play a role). Pupli the Etruscan 'Maru' of Nortia died today, but his player slipped into the role of one of the disciples that he had gathered, and events will take their course next week in the aftermath of his death.
This, in my view, ultimately instantiates a much richer understanding of story than that which is advocated in the mainstream. A PC dies and ceases to be of interest directly, but we become interested in his death and what it signifies, and this adds fresh layers. What will Pupli's followers do now that he has gone? Will his comrades try to avenge him? Suddenly there is more going on in the campaign than there was before, and this is what matters, because - to reiterate - the campaign is the story, and the story is the campaign.
Another way of putting this is that D&D is a bit like a soap opera, but with orcs. Individual characters arrive, and we might like them and grow to care about them, but they'll all go away again in the end (even Ken Barlow). The story is not about any particular one of them, and it survives their deaths, comas, accidents, etc. It's Neighbours that we watch, not "The Adventures of Felicity Scully". You would be hard pressed to argue that Neighbours or Coronation Street are not in themselves stories - Neverending Stories perhaps - merely because they have no clearly delineated beginnings, middles or ends, or permanent characters. Indeed, the fact that no character is bigger than the capital-S Story is a large part of the appeal.
Thursday, 3 June 2021
A cluster of skerries on the very outskirts of the OSRchipelago are glimpsed on the horizon. In low wind and bright sunshine, we guide our sloop, HMS Review, to the leeward and scan the shores with our telescopes for signs of life.
Dark Streets & Darker Secrets
Written in a month for NaGaDeMon (National Game Design Month), this is a stylish, nicely illustrated mash-up of Unknown Armies, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk 2020, and its ilk - you could probably also run World of Darkness style games with it, too. It is redolent of the mood and 'edgy' qualities which were de rigueur in the 1990s, though with self-consciously old school elements (random 'characteristics' of the Dark World, some of which are better than others; random adventure generators; disclaimers encouraging the DM to avoid the need to balance encounters and make things artificially fair). For something written in a month, it is an impressive feat.
A 'science fantasy adventure role playing game', Hypertellurians gets the Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon/John Carter/Barbarella/Original Series Trek tone exactly right in its art and mood. I forgive it its forgisms ("be a fan of the players and their characters"; "fail forward", "say yes", "don't hide the adventure"); I almost can't forgive the extensive deployment of the term "raypunk". I can't imagine ever playing a game in the kind of universe depicted here, just because I have other cups of tea available, but if I did, this is where I would turn. It has a fresh and exciting feel, and I applaud it.
This describes itself as 'old school roleplaying when the world was young' - that's right, it is a stone age RPG, though one that is very carefully thought-out and (it seems to me at least) well-informed. Not so much 1 Million Years BC, or Stig of the Dump - more Lavondyss, the middle story of Fifth Head of Cerberus, Helliconia Spring, those novels about neanderthals whose name I forget. The PCs are exiles from their tribe(s); it has spirit realms and rituals; extensive rules for psychobotanicals; a random wilderness generation method; images of waif-like girls covered in face-paint and tattoos. I very much like it and would run it: this is high praise, because as a general rule I don't run anything written by anybody else.
Vagabonds of Dyfed
This is one of (many) attempts to use PbtA rules to run games in a sword & sorcery setting, with OSR sensibilities. That I think this may be a quixotic effort (which is why I have never dabbled in Dungeon World) doesn't stop me admiring those who try. This one is perhaps most notable for being very "inside baseball" and folded-in; the first three or four pages, before we even get to rules or introductions, is an extensive apologia/justification for old school play which I can imagine being useful for somebody steeped in story games but totally baffling for somebody new to RPGs. Have we more or less abandoned the notion that anybody coming to our products nowadays will be a neophyte? This seems realistic, but I can't help but feel it presents us as being akin to one of those beleaguered religious communities who no longer evangelise but gradually grow old together and die.
Tuesday, 1 June 2021
What is a lazy bank holiday evening for, if not for putting up blog posts about obscure projects long-ago teased about and still only glimpsed on distant horizons when seen at all?
After five years of gestation, the form which Behind Gently Smiling Jaws will take is now firm in my mind. Here are some pictures to tease further:
Thursday, 27 May 2021
Comments on recent entries suggest that there is a need to clear something up about fantasy settings.
Look at the following spectrum:
Any fantasy setting can be placed somewhere on that spectrum. Across one dimension it serves, of course, as a proxy for quality. Urth is a powerfully rich, unique and dense setting and the books Gene Wolfe set there are wonderful. Krynn is derivative and the Dragonlance books are not very good.
But that is not the dimension that interests me. What I'd like to emphasise instead is that Urth is a very singular setting - unique, indeed, to the brain of Gene Wolfe and probably unreplicable (except in weak, uninteresting pastiche) by anybody else. Krynn, on the other hand, is a shared one. Yes, I suppose Maragaret Weis and Tracy Hickman came up with it. But it is founded on conventions that anybody who has read a fantasy book will recognise and which are, to a large extent, common property to fantasy fans. (And this is indeed why so many people have contributed to the Dragonlance series' over the decades without really changing the books' mood or character appreciably; Volume 51 of Kender, Gully Dwarves and Trolls is basically the same thing as Dragons of Autumn Twilight - different varieties of cheddar cheese.)
When it comes to novels, I want everything clustered to the left hand side of that spectrum. This is probably also true of those RPG settings which I know I will never play.
But when it comes to actual gaming, it is important that settings lean towards the right. Not all the way, by any means. But at least part of the way there. This is because RPGs and novels are fundamentally different things. Reading a novel is all about becoming involved in the singularity of the author's vision - or, at best, co-creating that vision in one's own mind and imagination. There, distinctiveness is what really matters, and singular settings are therefore best.
Playing an RPG, though, is about running a successful game. It's not chess, football or boxing, but ultimately it is still about communal fun. Sitting down at the table, the players are not simply engaging in exploring the DM's beautiful and unique creative product, but actively contributing. This requires them to have a certain footing on the same ground - to be deploying certain assets of shared property. The setting they are inhabiting does not have to be as derivative and bland as Krynn, but it has to take at least certain assumptions for granted in order for there to be long-term success.
Tekumel is perhaps the classic example of an edge case. It is a unique setting, for sure, but it perhaps has enough of the shared furniture of D&D - the quest for gold and XP, the basic system, the core conceit of exploration/dungeoneering/questing - to make it gameable. With Yoon-Suin I suppose I was aiming for something slightly to the right of that.
Another reason for preferring game settings to be on the shared end of the spectrum (rather than the singular) is simply that what happens in a game tends to do extreme violence - literal and figurative - to the setting, and the DM's tolerance for that happening if his game is set in an environment like Gene Wolfe's Urth is probably much lower than if it is set in a place like Krynn. In this respect, a setting like Krynn, the Forgotten Realms, and so on is a bit like an ABBA song - even if Piers Brosnan is singing a cover version in a crappy movie, it still kind of works on its own terms because those melodies are almost part of our cultural heritage at this point. But nobody wants to hear him singing Captain Beefheart.
Tuesday, 25 May 2021
[The Lyonesse RPG costs £59.99 in print+PDF and is 512 pages long. The Gaean Reach RPG costs £6.95 in PDF and is 108 pages. Dungeons & Dragons is available in various formats, and from various publishers.]
Emulating Vance has been a central element of RPGs since their inception; arguably, he is the most important single literary influence on D&D, and the sheer range and popularity of his novels has inspired RPG designers for decades. Two recent examples are the Lyonesse RPG and The Gaean Reach RPG, which between them neatly demonstrate the pitfalls confronting designers hoping to imitate or emulate Vance's fiction.
The Gaean Reach is the biggest sinner of the two. I must confess that I am not in general a fan of Robin D Laws' game design, and I particularly disliked his Dying Earth RPG (which also, of course, tries to imitate Vance). So my review is clearly coloured by my own personal preference. But with that said, I think there is something fundamentally misguided about the premise of the game, which it seems to me seeks only to achieve a thin, superficial pastiche of a small category of Vance's fiction in RPG form. Rather than drawing from what I would take to be the real joy of reading the Gaean Reach books - which is the way Vance glories in the sheer variety of the worlds he creates, and the variety of stories they allow him to tell (mystery, thriller, romance, space opera, revenge travelogue, picaresque, action) - the game instead, in true storygameish fashion, tightly focuses on providing the tools to just tell and re-tell a narrow and rather boring sub-Demon Princes tale of vengeance. We don't get the means to create a great interstellar sandbox to explore, with Vancian themes (more below). Instead we just get a way to randomly generate a bad guy ('Quandos Vorn') who the players are supposed to go out and revenge themselves upon. It's all very, to use that RonEdwardsism, "coherent".
In other words, we what the game provides is ultimately simply a way to artificially create a replica of the plot of a Demon Princes novel with our friends, together with the kind of overblown, pseudo-Vancian 'witty' prose which so marred The Dying Earth RPG. Reading it is like eating fish and chips in an 'English' themed pub in Tokyo: not as good as real fish and chips, and you don't really eat fish and chips in a pub to begin with.
If the problem with The Gaean Reach is its laser-like focus on pastiching The Star King, the flaw in the Lyonesse RPG is that it sits at the opposite end of the spectrum: it simply faithfully presents the setting of Lyonesse as a typical, bog-standard fantasy world - the kind of gazetteer that was ten a penny in the fantasy gaming scene during the 80s and 90s. Shorn of Vance's prose, ideas, and themes (again, more on that below), Lyonesse just isn't particularly interesting or different as fantasy settings go - and a rather detailed overview of it (combined with some rules) is all the book really provides. Are you interested in the five crimes that are punishable by death in each of the Ten Kingdoms? Do you really need to know that Blaloc is a 'sleepy, inconsequential kingdom'? Does it matter to you that 'richly coloured fabrics' are readily available in Port Posedel? Perhaps so, but I have to confess that reading the novels seems a more enjoyable and valuable activity - not to mention a better way of getting to know Lyonesse - and D&D a perfectly suitable system in which to run a game set there afterwards. If all I'm getting is a rather ordinary fantasy continent in which to set a campaign, £59.99 seems a steep price to pay. The book looks great, no doubt about it. But does it feel like Lyonesse? Not really.
But that brings me to my main point, which is that, for all people might endeavour to design RPGs set in Vancian worlds and emulate Vancian fiction, in actual practice it is 'old school' D&D which - at the table - captures the tenor, tone, and philosophy of Vance's work most perfectly. Whether by accident or design, what really happens when people sit down to play OD&D is that Vance's themes organically emerge. The sense of slightly arch and ironic detachment, oddly reminiscent of pre-modern fiction, eschewing interior monologue, or indeed the interior world of the characters, except obliquely. The sudden shifts in tone, from comedy to tragedy, from the sublime to the ridiculous. The matter-of-factness of violence and danger, which is always and everywhere underdramatised and all the more dramatic for it. The slight sense of gleeful schadenfreude that accompanies unfortunate events, particularly where the proud are brought low. The methodological individualism of Vance's worlds, where it is actions that matter and everyone is ultimately a master of their own fate. The fact that everybody, from the lowest shopkeeper to the mightiest villain, has motives, desires and interests of their own, rigorously pursued. Emulating Vance is about emulating those qualities of his fiction - the themes which he returns to in every novel, working and reworking endlessly into new and more interesting shapes - and D&D in my experience somehow manages it again and again at the table when the spirit of the original rules are adhered to. It's not, in the end, about aping Vance's plots and language, as The Gaean Reach RPG does, or simply using his furniture, as in The Lyonesse RPG. It's about a way of approaching the fiction that unfolds in play - and it's D&D that does that best.
Monday, 24 May 2021
One of my major long-term goals in life is to license Jack Vance's Gaean Reach concept and write a game for it. This is the closest I will ever get to living in a world in which interstellar travel is not only possible but common and reasonably priced - yet you have to physically go to a travel agent to buy a ticket (and read magazines in the waiting room while you wait).
I have written about this fairly recently, but the more that the internet permeates our lives, the more nostalgic I feel for the time before it existed. It is strange, but also perhaps strangely fitting, that science fiction - a genre about the future - should be the vehicle for that nostalgia. Rebooted and retrofitted to deliver not what could be, but what could have been once, and now never will. The future that could have been ours, before we got addicted to smartphones and decided 'likes' and retweets were more important than interstellar travel.
The beauty of the Gaean Reach is also that it is also what I think of as an 'Archipelago Setting'. It is not one region, one land, or one world, but really a setting comprising potentially almost infinite worlds, each capable of possessing great depth and detail (and also great superfluousness and superficiality). The point of an archipelago setting is that it can encompass more or less anything the creator comes up with - but it will have certain thematic undercurrents which link all of its mini-settings together. The Gaean Reach, for instance, possesses mind-boggling scope (the Alastor novels are set in a cluster of 30,000 stars with a population of five trillion, and that's just one of many books and series set in the Reach), but at the same time its many worlds and locations all feel as though they were created and conceived by one man - which, of course, they were.
Other archipelago settings which spring to mind are, of course, Iain M. Banks' 'Culture' books (which I have to confess never really gelled with me), Christopher Priest's The Islanders, CJ Cherryh's Alliance-Union books, the WH40K universe, and indeed many space operas. Interestingly, of course, D&D (certainly in its 2nd edition heyday) is in a sense a very diffuse and decentralised archipelago setting, in which everybody's Special Snowflake world is really just another sphere in the Prime Material Plane; in a more metaphysical sense yet, it is an archipelago setting whose islands exist within the heads of every DM who has ever though up his or her own world or region - with sometimes many such islands residing in one head all at once.
Thursday, 20 May 2021
I continue my voyage across the OSRchipelago (geddit?) with The Gardens of Ynn, by Emmy Allen. It cost me US$5 in PDF, and has 79 pages.
- The mood. There is, to my eye, a slightly (but only slightly) bleak and melancholic twinge to the Gardens of Ynn, but is very much in sweet spot for me, to the right of 'whimsical' but to the left of 'high fantasy'. It reads like it may have been written by, say, John Bellairs, Arthur Machen, Robert Holdstock or even Miyazaki Hayao; I want to say that it actually reminds me most of Little, Big, but I should more accurately put it that it reminds me of what I thought Little, Big would be like before I had the misfortune of reading it.
- The setting is briefly but beautifully described in three paragraphs, and then without further ado, we begin. From that point on, it's usefulness all the way down. This brevity is surely to be encouraged. What we have in our hands is, in fact, that rarest of treasures - a largely implied setting.
- And here there is much to admire, and imitate. Glass butlers and golem gardeners and walking topiaries and sidhe. Flocks of peahawks and candle-golems and bonsai turtles and unicorns. Hothouses, shooting ranges, ice rinks and mushroom beds. Wineries, fire pits, steam-pipes and towers. Kennels and hedge mazes and gazebos and mask galleries. These are a few of my favourite things.... Just list the words: I'm sold.
- It may be the only genuinely workable example of procedural adventure creation in the OSR canon? More importantly, it is a procedural adventure creation system that could undoubtedly be used generically - by simply swapping out the entries in the various tables for others - to create, for example, Mythago Woods, Viriconiums, Angband-style dungeons, dream worlds, Yellow City Old Towns, or any other environment which is subject to continual change and where fixed mapping is not desired. It is no small feat to think up such a system, especially one that is so easy and intuitive to use.
- The random tables of search results, treasures, sidhe alterations and the like are a delight - just about eccentric enough to, again, hit my sweet spot on the nose.
- The art is perfectly judged in tone, and perfectly deployed.
- Diagrams are not always necessary, but I think they would have been useful in elucidating the procedural generation process, which I found initially to be slightly opaque and awkwardly worded. Similarly, a imaginary, played-out 'example session' would have been helpful in - I am compelled to use the word - 'grokking' how the system of procedural generation works.
- A smallish quibble, but the one table which I think falls flat is the one of 'Rumours in Ynn', which often yields results I would imagine most sensible PCs ignoring. 'Rose-Maidens have been using blood to fertilize their plants. They're getting more vicious in their quest for more donors.' OK, I suppose we'll avoid Rose-Maidens, then. I want more 'hooky' rumours than this.
- A small thing (no pun intended), but the typeface used throughout is rather tiny and scrunched, and makes things hard to read in places - particularly for an old fart like me who likes to print out the physical book and read it properly.