Thursday, 23 September 2021

The Campaign Which Runs Itself

I'll keep this entry simple. The ideal campaign - regardless of setting, regardless of genre, regardless of system - is one which runs itself.

A campaign that runs itself is defined as one which, after the initial setup, creates its own adventures.

What this requires is really just four things:

1. Loose ends. The dungeon, hexmap, city, etc., in which the campaign is set needs to be liberally peppered with questions which you, the DM, do not yet know the answer to. At some point, the PCs will ask one of these questions. Because you do not know the answer, the range of possibilities is open-ended, and has no conclusion. What does this symbol on a dungeon door mean? The PCs ask the local innkeeper. He doesn't know, but he tells them there is a witch who lives on an island up the coast who might. What will the witch want in order to give the answer? When they get there, the PCs discover her son has gone missing, and will give them their answer if they can help find him. The PCs discover the son was kidnapped by pirates... And so on. 

2. NPCs/monsters with motivations. If most NPCs, dungeon denizens and so on are pre-prepped with motives or goals, adventure follows. If the gnolls are not just gnolls but have a rivalry with the local grimlocks, and are afflicted with a nasty disease, encountering them becomes not just a matter of "kill the gnolls, take their stuff", but a source of further adventure. And, of course, new motives and goals can arise. If the PCs kill some of the gnolls, or steal a treasure the gnolls had their eye on, the gnolls suddenly have powerful new motives.

3. Staying a page ahead of the players. Each session, afterwards, sit down and take notes about what happened. Come up with two or three hooks or events stemming from this. Make the world responsive. The PCs killed a nest of kobolds. Ok - next time they come by, the room is infested with scavengers, or dangerous mold, feeding off the corpses; or, Mama Dragon has come to find out why nobody attended her birthday party.

4. Don't be afraid to steal the players' idle musings and run with them. Players often speculate out loud about meanings, motives, explanations, histories. Don't make use of all of these. But riff on them - again, after the session, when you've had a chance to mull matters over. 

The goal is to get to the stage that you only need to spend 10 minutes between sessions, essentially on caretaking tasks, like a well set-up garden that needs just a bi-weekly mow with the lawn and some dead-heading to keep it beautifully maintained. 

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

The Quest to Sell

It is hard to avoid allowing treasure to become just a means to an end - namely, of course, advancement. I have experimented in the past with having antiques, objets de vertu, incense, clothing, honey and the like as treasure, and the logistics of trying to get these objects out of a dungeon can be an interesting little challenge in itself. But what I'd really like to do is to try to get away from coinage (not entirely, of course) and towards an understanding of 'treasure' as more frequently comprising unique or near-unique objects which are often only really recognisable to particular types of collector, and which it takes something of an effort to sell.

Put more simply, I like the idea of PCs finding (say) a rare vase by a known designer or from a known tradition of pottery, and getting a comparatively large sum for it if they can succeed in what I will call 'The Quest to Sell' - that is, the mission of finding one of the eccentric and possibly secretive collectors of the type of treasure in question.

Jack Vance is the master at suggesting the existence of these large, dispersed, and largely unknown networks of collectors and connoisseurs operating in the background of his imaginary worlds. Take this passage from Ecce and Old Earth:

The Way of the Ten Pentalogues ran beside the Bartolo Seppi Canal, and was lined with bistros, cafes, flower stalls, booths selling fried clams and potatoes in paper packets. Along the sidestreets dim little shops dealt in specialty merchandise: curios, off-world artifacts, incunabula; rare weapons and musical instruments pitched in every key imaginable. Certain shops specialised in puzzles, cryptography, inscriptions in unknown languages; others sold coins, glass insects, autographs, minerals mined from the substance of dead stars. Still other shops purveyed softer stuff: dolls costumed in the styles of many times and places, also dolls cleverly programmed to perform acts which were polite and acts not at all polite. Spice shops vended condiments and scents, oils and esters, of an interesting sort; confectionaries sold cakes and bonbons available nowhere else on Earth, as well as dried fruits, syrops and glazes. A variety of shops displayed models of ships, ancient trains and automobiles; while others specialised in models of spaceships.

The idea of the PCs coming back from an adventure laden with rare puzzles, dolls, glass insects and a rare weapon and having to go in search of a buyer is a delightful one, not least because it opens up an underlying world of additional adventure hooks. Vance goes on a few pages later, after his main character, Wayness, has entered a shop selling 'tanglets':

Wayness turned to look at the glowing green buckles, or clasps - whatever they were - on display in the window, each on a small pedestal covered with black velvet. Each was similar but notably different from all the rest.

"They are beautiful little things; jade, I suppose?"

"Nephrite, to be exact. Jadeite gives a different feel: somewhat more coarse. These are cold and unctuous, like green butter."

"What are they used for?"

"I use them to sell to collectors," said Alvina. "All authentic tanglets are antiques, and very valuable, since the only new tanglets are counterfeit."

"What were they originally?"

"At first they were hairclasps, worn by the warriors of a far world. When a warrior killed an enemy he took the clasp and wore it on the scalp rope of his hair. In this way tanglets became trophies. The tanglets of a hero are even more; they are talismans. There are hundreds of distinctions and qualities and special terms, which make the subject rather fascinating, when you acquire some of the lore. Only a finite number are authentic tanglets, despite the efforts of counterfeiters, and each one is annotated and named and attributed. All are valuable, but the great ones are literally priceless. A hero's rope of six tanglets is so full of mana it almost sparkles. I must take extraordinary care; a single touch sours the sheen and curdles the mana."

"Poof!" said Wayness. "Who would know the difference?"

"An expert: that's who, and on the instant. I could tell you stories for hours on end." Alvina looked toward the ceiling. "I'll tell you just one, about a famous tanglet: Twelve Kanaw. A collector named Jadoukh Ibrasil had coveted Twelve Kanaw for many years, and finally, after complicated negotiations, took possession of Twelve Kanaw. On the same night, his beautiful spouse Dilre Lagoum saw the tanglet and innocently wore it in her hair to a fete. Jadoukh Ibrasil joined his wife, complimented her upon her beauty, then noticed the tanglet in her hair. Witnesses say that he turned white as a sheet. He knew at once what he must do. Courteously he took Dilre Lagoum's arm and led her into the garden and cut her throat among the hydrangeas. Then he stabbed himself. The story is usually heard only among collectors. The general feeling is that Jadoukh Ibrasil did what he had to do, and at this point the talk becomes metaphysical. What do you think?"

"I don't know," said Wayness cautiously. "It may be that all collectors are mad."

Apart from the charm of this story and the sense it communicates of a deeply layered and inhabited universe in which there are far more things than it is possible for one mind to contemplate, let alone catalogue, it also fills one's head with ideas - the PCs as tanglet thieves, the PCs as tanglet counterfeiters, the PCs digging for tanglets, the PCs searching for Twelve Kanaw. The act, in other words, of looking for somebody to sell treasure too itself becomes a rich vein of potential further adventure. This is the kind of thing that makes a campaign run itself: PCs find tanglet; PCs search for somebody to sell it to; PCs eventually discover that there are tanglet collectors; PCs sell tanglet; PCs go looking for more; NPCs try to steal tanglets from the PCs...and so on and so on for session after session after session.

Another writer expert in this kind of thing, these dark hints of hidden webs of collectors, traders, counterfeiters, burglars and fraudsters operating beneath the surface of polite society and occasionally glimpsed by those in the 'surface world' is William Gibson: I'm thinking in particular here of the subplot of Pattern Recognition suggesting a global network of people who collect Curta calculators, of course. I'm sure such people exist. I doubt many of them are eccentric billionaires engaged in a complex cold war of assassinations, burglaries and heists against one another, but it is nice to imagine that they are.

Monday, 20 September 2021

The Three-Mile Tree Campaign: Update 1

Patrick S was interviewed in this Joe Rogan style marathon, and spent some of the first section describing my campaign. I have avoided APs for this game, but thought I would do some semi-regular updates on progress. Not all of it will be interesting, I suspect, but I will conclude each update with sections on rules tweaks and lessons learned. Here is the first update, in any case:

I have been running a weekly campaign since roughly the end of January. We have missed, I think, only one or two sessions in that time. That makes just over 30 sessions so far.

It is now Day 72 of the campaign, in-game.  

The campaign is set around a megadungeon inside the trunk of a 3-mile high tree, and the town at the tree's base, Abermawr. The PCs have explored most of level 1 (70ish rooms), a tiny bit of level 2, and a bit more of level 3. They have also carried out a daring raid further up, to a horizontal tower position on the tree trunk. And they have explored some of the area immediately around the tree and Abermawr, going as far as the village of Tremadog, whose womenfolk all disappeared after running away one morning with an army of dishy, silver-handed drummers. 

The players are Patrick StuartSolomon VKDan Sumption, and Theo. [Come on Theo, start a blog!]

Character rosters:

Solomon VK

  • Gnaeus, Roman Cleric, Level 4 [deceased]
  • Xanthippe, Roman Fighter and wannabe Amazon, Level 3 [deceased]
  • Aurelia, Brythonic Fighter, Level 3 [alive]
Dan

  • Amyntas, Macedonian Fighter, Level 1 [deceased]
  • Men-Kheper-Ra, Egypian Magic-User, Level 3 [?] [deceased]
  • Kemnebi, Egyptian Thief, Level 5 [?] [deceased]
  • David of the Web, Brythonic Thief, Level 1 [deceased]
  • Finan of the Hammer, Brythonic Fighter, Level 3 [?] [alive]

Theo

  • Argyros, Greek Cleric, Level 1 [deceased]
  • Bomilcar, Carthaginian Fighter, Level 1 [deceased]
  • Another Carthaginian Fighter whose name I forget, Level 1 [deceased]
  • Stymatos, Greek Magic-User, Level 2 [?] [deceased]
  • Octavius, Roman Cleric, Level 3 [deceased]
  • Flewyn, Brythonic Thief, Level 4 [alive]

Patrick

  • Laren Dar, Etruscan Fighter, Level 3 [deceased]
  • Pupli Artnli, Etruscan Cleric, Level 2 [deceased]
  • Wolvela, Brythonic Fighter, Level 2 [?] [deceased]
  • Padraig, Brythonic Fighter, Level 4 [alive, current Maru of Nortia]

The list of slain NPC hirelings and henchmen is truly too vast to catalogue, but the current roster is:

  • Vultumma, war pig
  • Bronwen, test pig
  • Laren, horse
  • Aron, adolescent boy, mostly looks after the party's house
  • Endelienta, elderly maid, also mostly looks after the party's house
  • Bolton and Regan, two of Finan's 'jumblies'
  • Yauseen, level 4 Assyrian Dwarf henchman, entitled to a half share of proceeds
  • Elen and Julitta, Aurelia's 'Amazons'
  • Illtud, Marcus and Hywel, Flewyn's Celtic cronies
  • Sal the Salamander, an amnesiac salamander

Sworn Enemies

  • A tribe of shrew-men, now all slain (or are they????)
  • A tribe of woodwoses - active enemies
  • A tribe of earwigmen - on-again, off-again foes
  • A crow-woman called Drest, lover of a crow-man wizard killed by the PCs
  • Phersu's gang, an NPC party, now all slain
  • Titus's gang, an NPC party, now all handed over as living sacrifices to the druidesses of Abermawr

Allies

  • The wizard Tathyw, expert in identifying magic items and purchaser of giant insect corpses
  • The wizard Alpin, rescued from robbers
  • Psionic freshwater shrimp, set free from within the tree
  • Salammbo, Carthaginian woman who owns the main hostelry in Abermawr
  • Sophisbana, Carthaginian woman who trades in jewellery and gems
  • Djem-Slen, a female elf spectre

Dubious

  • The druidesses of Abermawr, who respectively venerate the tree's Rootedness, capacity for Growth, great Strength, Cyclical nature, and the fact that it is Home to Many Living Things, and to whom collectively the PCs pay an 8% tithe on all treasure brought back from the tree.

Incomplete List of Major Achievements

  • Casting a porcupine-quilled demon into the sea
  • Slaying a seal-woman pirate queen
  • Ridding the lower reaches of the tree of foul invasive mold
  • Founding a cult based on the prophecies and incorruptibility of the first Maru of Nortia, Pupli Artnli
  • Rescuing the wizard Alpin, who was besieged by crow-man robbers
  • Building a temple that attracts converts to the cult of Nortia

Rules Tweaks

I would not call these house rules, exactly, but I have fiddle with some of the knobs, so to speak:
  • Death is at -1hp, unconsciousness at 0. I have previously sometimes allowed PCs to survive comatose beyond -1hp, losing 1hp/round until the negative respective value for their initial hit points is reached (so, for example, a character with 12hp would be unconscious at 0, dead at -12). I've decided that since this doesn't happen for monsters, and what's good for the goose is good for the gander, PCs should not have this 'grace period'. It has worked fine. Lots of PCs have died (almost one every two sessions on average), but this has just meant that the players have become invested in their overall enterprise rather than the fates of individual PCs.
  • Random initiative: both sides roll 1d6 at the start of combat and the side which is highest goes first. If one side is surprised, they automatically lose initiative after the surprise round. This makes winning surprise rolls very important (as it means getting two rounds of free action before opponents can react), but if the PCs plausibly make preparations for not being surprised, they automatically are not. (For example, walking into a room with spears prepared to stab anything dropping from the ceiling would automatically mean not being surprised by a giant spider falling on their heads.)
  • You have to bring treasure back to town to get the XP, rather than having to spend it, but you don't get XP for jewellery, magic items, etc., unless sold and converted into coinage.
  • XP for monsters kills is awarded on return to town.
  • Critical hits (natural 20) do double damage - roll once for damage and then double it, rather than two dice. This can make them super-deadly.
  • If you get lots of XP in one go, you can go up more than one level. So, for example, if you are a level 1 Fighter and get 8,500 XP in one session (unlikely, but you never know) you can go straight to level 4. This is actually important in helping new PCs catch up a little bit, XP-wise, with the existing ones.

Lessons Learned

  • You can easily run a weekly campaign even in the modern grown-up world of supposedly busy diaries if you put your mind to it and have some self-discipline. Most of what you're 'busy' with is checking emails, dicking around on social media, or watching Netflix. Don't deny it.
  • D&D is a lot better when run weekly, although the players still forget or misremember an awful lot in the gap between sessions.
  • You can't teach an old dog new tricks. There are lots of bells and whistles with roll20 but I basically do the same thing I do when running a game in person: scrawl basic maps with the 'draw' function, using letters to indicate where people are (F for Finan, A for Aurelia, etc.) and blobs to indicate objects.
  • Levels 3 and 4 may be the most 'dangerous' levels in that the players at that stage seem to become falsely confident about the robustness of their PCs, leading them to make foolish choices.
  • The PCs will always end up building things very early in the campaign - basically, as soon as they have disposable wealth - and if what they build is not a pub, it will be a temple.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

On Artpunk

"What is 'artpunk'?", Patrick S once notoriously asked. I don't wish to pick an argument, especially not 3 years after the fact. But I think we can come up with a better definition.

To me, the suffix "-punk" is hideously overused as a kind of shorthand for "you've seen this kind of setting before, but this is a cool/edgy version of it and the people in it have tattoos and piercings". (I'm not accusing Patrick of using it in that sense - just the people who come up with ridiculous neologisms like "islandpunk", "lunarpunk" and "mythpunk".)

What -punk, in the sense of cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk, etc., really means - if it is to have any coherent, sensible meaning - is that the fiction is about the alienation from, and subversion of, the particular technology in question. Think of William Gibson's cyberpunk stories: these were tales about the have-nots - the people who had been dispossessed by advancing technology, the preserve of the haves - and their attempts to deploy that technology in illicit or unusual ways for the furtherance of their own agendas. It was not so much an aesthetic as it was a viewpoint (the future from the "belly up", as Bruce Sterling put it in his famous introduction to Burning Chrome). You might call it the use of the thing against itself.

Hence, a genuine steampunk setting is one in which steam technology has made a small percentage of the population very rich, but the fiction is about criminals, crooks, ne'er do wells, and rogues who cunningly deploy (or abuse) the technology to grab some of the 1%'s wealth for themselves.

What, then, is artpunk? Well, there is a lot of good art and layout around nowadays, even within so-called DIY D&D  - stuff that makes its creators comparatively large sums of money on big scale Kickstarters, and is expensive to consume. Think of that as a technological development in the sphere of art. If that is the case, then what is artpunk if not the subversion of that mainstream, glitzy, expensive-looking aesthetic - a deliberate eschewment of accepted artistic standards as a rebellious aesthetic choice of its own?

Seen in that way, Patrick and Scrap's stuff is probably the epitome of artpunk: it is art produced with exceptional skill and talent (in my view) but which goes out of its way to avoid looking pricey. At the same time, so are the entries to Prince of Nothing's "No Artpunk" contestMike's Dungeons and rather a lot of the things reviewed on tenfootpole: work by the artistic have-nots, who nonetheless are attempting to do interesting and perhaps deeply unartistic things with the art contained in their output.

In a funny sort of a way, the images in OD&D themselves bore the seeds of artpunk - protoartpunk, if you will. These are not the product of the artistic "haves". This is the work of the artistic "have-nots" who are going to have a piece of the action anyway. Now that's punk.



Tuesday, 14 September 2021

RPG Player Characters and the Patch Adams Problem

When I used to play RPGs as a young teenager (and, later, in PBEM and PBP iterations) the idea was always to come up with a PC who could essentially be the main character of a novel. They had backstories, they had detailed appearances, and they had personalities. "He's witty and incisive!" "She's grim and brooding!" "He's eccentric and strange!"

I understand that this is as big an element of the hobby as it ever was, perhaps more so, and that in fact creating interesting PCs is a significant chunk of the fun of things for a lot of people (indeed almost a hobby in itself).

The problem that I always encountered was that the PC as envisaged by the player during character generation is often a very different beast to that which emerges at the table. Put bluntly: maybe your PC as you imagine him is witty and incisive. But maybe you can't pull off witty and incisive. Maybe your PC actually comes across as a boorish, overbearing idiot. 

I would like to christen this the 'Patch Adams Problem'. Have you ever seen Patch Adams? Don't. While it is not perhaps the worst film I have ever seen, it is offensively bad, the least desirable kind of bad, not so bad that it's good, but so bad that it makes you feel a worse person for having watched it. Peter Sellers is once said to have replied, after being asked whether he would do anything differently if he could live his life over, "I would do everything exactly the same except I wouldn't see The Magus." The experience of watching Patch Adams reminded me of that.

The film has many flaws. But at the heart of its badness is the character of Patch Adams himself. The creators of the film envisage our 'hero' as funny, intelligent, kind, beloved by children, esteemed by his peers as a charming eccentric, and filled with an optimistic passion to help others. And that is indeed the person that the cast of characters seems to be reacting towards. 

But this is not what we, the audience, see. What we see is actually an unfunny, obnoxious, creepy, lecherous, leering, sanctimonious, belligerent oaf, perhaps actively malevolent, but certainly narcissistic and blinkered, and bloody-mindedly focused on pissing off everybody around him for no good reason whatsoever. The film is littered with arguments between himself and others, and in almost literally every single one of these disputes, we find ourselves agreeing wholeheartedly with whoever Patch Adams is arguing against. Yet at the end, it is he who triumphs. It is a bit like a filmic version of A Confederacy of Dunces, except nobody who made it is in on the gag.

The point, of course, is that if you are going to pretend to be a funny, intelligent, brooding, menacing, insightful, charming or creative character, you had better actually be funny, intelligent, brooding, menacing, insightful, charming or creative when in character. And the one most certainly does not necessarily follow from the other.

The approach which old school play tends to favour, and I think by far the most sensible, is to begin as more or less a blank slate. One can paint in broad brushstrokes, certainly at the physical level. And the PC's stats may suggest lack of intelligence, a muscular frame, etc. But it is best for the PC's personality to emerge as you get to know her, and as events shape her. Often, it will turn out that her personality is a lot like yours. But at least if it is she will seem like a genuine person and not a poor copy of some figment of your imagination.

The Modern Dungeoneering Campaign Needs To Be Crunchy

Outside of my house there is what the locals nonchalantly call an old 'mine tap' - the entrance to a former mine. You wouldn't know it, as it is underneath the road and completely covered in tarmac. But it is there all the same, the mine itself having apparently been decommissioned in 1935. This worried us when we were first thinking of buying the place. Then we learned that the entire area is riddled with these old mines and, as the estate agent put it, if it was a problem for us it would be a problem for the approximately 10,000 other people who live around us too. I'm not sure why that reassured us, but it did.

In any event, it conjured up an image of an entire hillside (the town in which I live spills down the whole side of a steep escarpment) burrowed through with tunnels, the existence of which is at best at the fringes of the awareness of the locals, and which is accessible perhaps to a small circle of secret urban spelunkers. 

I was going to say that this screamed D&D to me, but that wouldn't be strictly accurate. It screamed 'modern dungeoneering', but D&D is a singularly bad system for modern settings. This is something I am sure have written about before, though I can't quite remember where, but the abstraction of D&D combat and the concept of hit points disintegrates once guns are involved, and the 'feel' in play of levels, XP and so on is all wrong for the real world; anyone who doubts this need only try to run d20 Modern, the game that time forgot. 

No: the closer an RPG setting is to our own experience, the more crunchy I think it needs to be. We can suspend disbelief about all manner of things when dragons and magic missiles are there to be imagined. When the game is set in our reality, in contemporary society, we are keenly aware of what is and is not possible. We want a system that reflects that - at least if action and derring-do are going to be involved. Our thoughts turn to GURPS, to CP:2020, to the Hero System, and so on. We want things to feel as though they matter, because to us the real world matters - we experience it not as imagination, but as 'lived experience', and loose approximation won't do. 

What lives in the old mines buried beneath a city? Ghosts, giant vermin, cultists, murderers? No doubt. A slumbering god? Quite likely. Demonic entities awakened by the sound of mining, Moria-like? For sure. But what is the PCs' aim? Not amassing gold, perhaps - not literally, anyway - but once one has access to the mines, the geography of the town is entirely rearranged; one is not bound by roads, walls, pavements, fences, but by the tunnels themselves, and the tunnels might go anywhere. The ability to appear and disappear as if from nowhere is surely a burglar's dream - not to mention an assassin's, paparazzo's, or private investigator's.

Monday, 13 September 2021

The Tournament of the Gods, First Round (4) - Myconids and Aerial Servant

Dawn, hitherto a mere rumour heard in paler blue, now breathes her message in pink and orange whispers faintly echoing in the bellies of distant clouds. The Droll Knave, through guilt or caprice, has been to the citadel and returned with apricot brandy for Lap-Laz and damson wine for the rest. The gods reconvene at the purple blanket in solemn conclave, as though the dim glow of the approaching morning has brought with it decorum in its exposure of all to the light.

A gaunt figure stalks one side of the arena, long-limbed, long-bearded, long-fingered. Gessum of Gold, whose many necklaces, bracelets, anklets, rings and brooches gaily gleam in contrast to his slate-like eyes, his thin unsmiling mouth, his grubby yellowed fingernails. 

"Who will oppose me on the Purple?" he says. "So far none have impressed."

At that, a murmur passes over the lips of the assembled deities. Gessum. Will he ever change? But there is a challenger all the same. A commotion at the back of the crowd and a fish-like figure flaps forward. The newcomer's eyes gaze blankly in opposite directions from the sides of her thin, mouthy face; she twists her head this way and that so she can fix Gessum with first one eye, then the other. This is Appappappa the Trident-Bearer; she leans heavily on her barbed weapon as though ill-equipped to support herself on land. Salt water drips from her fat belly and darkens the purple in blotches.

"I will oppose."

She slowly turns and gestures with webbed hand to the dewy grass at the edge of the blanket. The gods watch as pallid shapes sprout like many phalluses from the soil, and then unfurl; toadstools, eyed and mouthed, with limb-like appendages and the stench of dank earth. "My champions," Appappappa announces as she sweeps them onto the Purple, twenty of them, in five clearly delineated groups of four - each of whose members is larger than the last. "May they triumph."

Gessum watches with creased lip. "Good," he says, and claps his hands together, once, his jewellery jangling. At first, nothing appears to have happened and the other Gods watch in silence. But then the slim miser leans a little forward and gives the void before him a gentle puff from the lips, the heat from within him misting in the chill pre-dawn air. A male figure forms from it: pale blue, legless, ethereal; it glides gently to the ground as gossamer.  "And we commence."

Yet Lap-Laz has already raised an arm in outrage and stepped onto the Purple. "Now look here!" he spits. "What can the Trident-Bearer's minions do to harm that phantom of the air? A precedent has been established on this point!" 

"Quite right," come voices in support. "We seek sport, not the mere spectacle of violence."


The Elder Sister has been sitting cross-legged against a cherry tree and feeding her victorious slaves with honeyed calvados, poured into her shield for them to lap up like dogs. She stands and declares, "Since in the last bout it was I who benefited, I feel it is incumbent upon me to pass on the advantage." From the air she plucks something small, delicate and silvery, and casts it at Appappappa's feet. "Arm your champions, Trident-Bearer."


The weapon she has provided befits her: a tiny bastard sword of platinum. But Appappappa does not yet bend to take it. She turns to fix Lap-Laz with a single blank eye. "Watch. My strongest are strong." 


The mushroom men are already advancing. Their tactic is simple. Unable or unwilling to break up their groups of four, they move forward in their five units like the fingers of a hand. The thumb comprises their biggest and strongest. The aerial servant wheels to meet it. Whether it is confident or afraid, aggressive or calm, is impossible to tell. Its countenance is as impassive as the greyest, dampest mist.


The four biggest myconids encircle Gessum's aerial servant. The gods squatting closest to the blanket bend forward; those behind strain to watch. Are the Trident-Bearer's champions as strong as she believes?


Yes. The myconids flail with club-like fists. Two pound the misty form of their floating enemy - it hisses and gasps in the shock of pain. This, it was not expecting. Lap-Laz lets out a whoop! But if the mushroom men are strong, the servant is stronger still. It reaches out with arms bearing the hideous force of the wind; grasping one of the fungus men who face it, it tears him in twain down the middle with a single brute yank.


There is a fight on. The gods are happy. Somebody calls out "Are you impressed yet, Gessum?" Others raise their voices in laughter. Gessum's lips shrivel even further to the point of a narrow line cut across his chin. He strokes his beard with ringed fingers. 


Unperturbed by the death of their brother, the three biggest mushroom men who remain continue to club at the aerial servant with chitinous fists. Two again bash its body and it quails, flailing wildly with a slap that brings one of the myconids stumbling to its knees, though not dead. It is clear that the thing is desperate and distressed; though its face is as implacable as ever, its movements are not. It understands it faces its end, and a rapid one at that.


The other mushroom men crowd in now from the rear. They lack the power to harm Gessum's champion. But they seem to feel their presence is requested or required. Ordinary emotions are not known to them - not the triumph of victory nor grief for death. Rather, they are aware only that they must bear witness to what transpires. And with the gods they watch as their three mighty brethren beat the aerial servant's form so thoroughly that it disintegrates beneath their blows - as though their sheer force have rendered its body momentarily corporeal so as to more thoroughly destroy it.


The brief pause that follows is ended by a sharp cough from Gessum of Gold. "I am embarrassed," he tells Appappappa. 


For her part, Appappappa twists her head so as to regard him through the left eye, then right, as her champions retreat once more into the soil to await their next call.


The Skurtch is sitting on a tree branch overhead, holding a goblet. He belches and a slick of mead spills down his chest and belly as he guzzles. "That was barely begun before it ended. Who's for more?"


But it is then that somebody - perhaps more sober than the rest - hisses from the edge of the crowd, "Silence. Sleep stalks us!"

Friday, 10 September 2021

I Was Interviewed and You Can Watch and Listen to It

Dave Greggs/Her Christmas Knight, of the excellent Grand Commodore blog (at the cutting edge of the 'post-OSR' or whatever you want to call it), interviewed me the other weekend. It was a really enjoyable conversation, for me, and we covered all sorts of ground. 

You can watch it here:


I've had a haircut since then, so don't worry.

Monday, 6 September 2021

You Weren't There, Man - On Exclusion in the Early Days of the OSR and the 'Defensive Posture'

I hesitate to publish this post, given the high likelihood it will give rise to outrage, but it is my earnest belief that this current, overweening predilection for dividing ourselves into competing camps and seizing each other by the throat is only going to be overcome if sensible people continue to attempt to engage in rational, good faith discussion in the centre ground. I will provide the (sadly, necessary) caveat that nothing contained in this post is designed to excuse or justify - only to explain, in order to suggest ways forward. So, here goes: 

I was not there at the very beginning of OSR blogging, but almost: the first post I wrote was in May 2008, and I was involved on rpg.net and in commenting on OSR blogs for some months before that. So, while not perhaps there at the big bang, I was present to observe the sun and inner planets forming.

So it was with some interest that I read Zedeck Siew's reminiscences about the phenomenon:


That community was ugly. Many alt-right-leaning white dudes. It sheltered abusers, like Zak S – a person who, to my shame, I’d been a fan of. 

That community was good. Many key figures were queer / trans. More so (to my impression) than any other RPG community (even other indie groups). Non-white folks, like me. 

The popular TTRPG eye remembers the OSR for its ugliness, not its inclusivity. Probably because the assholes were loud. And because the non-white / cis / het-ness of folks was rarely advertised as a community selling-point: “Look at how diverse we are!”

First, I do have to get one thing out of the way. I understand the point Zedeck is trying to make here in good faith - inclusiveness is good, which I agree with, and which is what this post is all about.

And it is also probably unfair to single him out for criticism in respect of these comments, because there are worse offenders. But I do feel at the outset that it is necessary to say that implying that a person's moral worth is contingent on immutable characteristics is something we should all just agree is wrong. I get that part of the extreme woke shell game is the absurd notion that for white people to complain about bigotry against them is to display 'fragility'. But it would never be acceptable to say that a community was 'ugly' for its association with any particular group of people other than 'white dudes', and this means that it shouldn't be acceptable to say that with regard to them either. If you object to a surfeit of 'alt-right-leaning' people, that's fine, but let's just leave it at 'people' without attaching particular race and sex to it. That kind of thing is a pollutant of the American culture war that all the rest of us could do without.

For what it's worth, I agree entirely that there was an undesirable surplus of alt-right blowhards (an American phrase which I love) on G+, but there was, frankly, a surplus of blowhards of all political stripes there and their absence from my life after the demise of that network is a great blessing. 

Second, though, this thing about the OSR being exclusionary, especially in its early days, comes up a lot, and I think deserves more careful thought than it is usually given. Because I do agree that there were exclusionary currents within it, and also that those currents tended to have discriminatory effects that were, needless to say, bad. But I also think we need to properly explain where those exclusionary currents mostly came from, in order to move beyond them. Condemning people as racist/sexist/transphobic/whatever probably doesn't help matters unless it is truly warranted, because when people know they personally do not bear any animus to people of other races, sexes, etc., the accusation just serves to annoy them and entrench hostility. 

So, let's try to actually do that: what were the roots of exclusion in the early days of the OSR? 

Well, first, of course, it should be said that there is a much-too-large mass of people who make racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., comments on the internet. Some of them probably have personality disorders; almost all are probably deeply unhappy and isolated; a lot just think it's funny to offend others. Sadly, I don't think that there is a huge amount that the rest of us can personally do about that other than block their comments where we can, and call them out where we can't. I used to be bad at doing those things; I am trying to get better at it. (Regular readers will hopefully have noticed that there is now a more or less complete absence of the Candyman - you know who I mean - from my blog comments.) 

I do not deny that these people exist; I do not deny their presence is unhelpful; I do not excuse or justify anything they do except to make the Christian plea to remember that whenever you encounter an obnoxious adult it is almost always the case that they were once a very miserable child.

However, I don't think that they were or are the biggest exclusionary force out there, nor the biggest source of discriminatory effect (as distinct from the biggest source of discriminatory intent).

By far the biggest source of exclusion, and by far the most influential, was what I will call The Defensive Posture.

Those who, like me, were around in those very early days will remember that there were an awful lot of grognards, ten a penny in 2008, who had profound objections to Johnny-come-latelys getting interested in 'their' OD&D. These grognards were a formidable group of gatekeepers in their own way, and many of them truly resented anybody playing 2nd edition AD&D or BECMI, let alone Labyrinth Lord or, heaven forfend, LotFP. For them, the one true way was to have been born in the late 50s or early 60s, to have been there in the mid-70s when D&D had first come out, and to have been playing it ever since. If you were not within that anointed clerisy, then you were at best to be pitied, but generally to be despised. It didn't matter what sex or race you were (in fact, tears of joy would have come to the eyes of many of these fatbeards at the prospect of actually being able to game with a woman). It was about whether you had been with Napoleon against the Austrians at Austerlitz, or rather with the true faithful against Zeb Cook, and that was that.

These grognards adopted the Defensive Posture because they felt, irrationally but perhaps understandably, a sense of possessiveness about 'their' game, deriving from the fact that they had lived through decades of shame while keeping alive the flame of the hobby. It is perhaps difficult for anyone born after, say, 1995 to understand quite how mainstream society behaved towards 'geeks' or 'nerds' in the 70s-90s. But it was a constant source of bullying and violence; there was no sense in which being interested in nerdish pursuits was in any way defensible to one's peers in those days. I knew a boy in school who was beaten up with bricks on school premises and had to be taught separately to the rest of the pupils for his entire school years for his own safety because he had committed the sin of being interested in chemistry; this didn't strike any of the rest of us as being at all unusual, if a trifle unfair. His mistake had been in failing to adequately 'pass' as a non-nerd. That's just how things were in those days, before Harry Potter, the LotR films, the Big Bang Theory, and so on had begun to make 'geek' a thing. (I don't mean to suggest, by the way, that being bullied for being a geek was in the same paradigm as the homophobic bullying which was sadly also rife in those days.) 

Wrongly, but I don't think motivated in any way by malice, the Defensive Posture therefore manifested itself in a certain hostility and resentment towards newcomers to the hobby who were perceived not to have been through the crucible of being into RPGs during that earlier, darker, time. The old schoolers simply felt that these newcomers necessarily lacked a certain gravitas, or commitment, by virtue of not having 'been there'. It is not a justification of that approach to say that it is to a certain extent understandable that human beings sometimes react in that kind of a way, and to say that we are all of us flawed and, at times, motivated by jealousy and childish impulses. 

The real problem with the Defensive Posture, of course, is that it did undoubtedly have a discriminatory effect towards women, trans people, people of colour, and so on, albeit one which was, to use modern parlance, indirect or 'structural'. Most of the grognards would have bristled at the suggestion that they would have had any problem playing D&D with somebody who wasn't a straight white male. And that wouldn't have been pretence: it was all true. But given that most people who were into D&D in the old days happened to be white men, and given that a lot of the newcomers were not, the result was discriminatory all the same. The grognards weren't for the large part excluding people out of discriminatory intention. But the exclusion had discriminatory effects. 

At the start of this post I said it was important to try to understand the reasons for social phenomena, because it is only then that we can get past them. And the good news is that we can, and to a certain extent have, get to a point where the Defensive Posture is no longer a potent force in the hobby. It probably does still exist on certain forums. But I see it less and less. For those of us who have been around now for a long time and have become long in the tooth, the lesson is to try consciously to avoid adopting the Posture in our own humble ways - to remember that just because somebody didn't happen to experience life as it was 25 years ago doesn't make their commitment to, or enjoyment of, the hobby any less valid. The lesson for everyone else is that old leopards can actually change their spots in the end. Which is not to excuse past indiscretions, but to end at least on an optimistic note.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

On High Concept Campaigns and Plot Immunity

Is there a lagrange point between old school play, which emphasises emergent narrative, sandboxes, and letting the dice lie where they fall, and the mainstream of the RPG hobby, which is all about pre-plotted story, pre-determined outcomes, character development, and fudging?

Such is one of the great unexplored regions of the hobby; we know more about the surface of the moon or the depths of the ocean floor than we do about this strange realm, populated - it is believed - only by small, wandering tribes of uncontacted peoples, who we dare not approach lest they succumb to the diseases of urbanity or impale us on spears.

One of the weaknesses of old school play is that it is resistant to high-concept campaigns. I am thinking  here, for example, of ideas such as:

  • The PCs start off having been cursed, and have to find a way to escape their fate
  • The PCs start as people whose family members have been kidnapped or enslaved, and are trying to rescue them across a vast, dramatic and wild continent/interplanar region/whatever
  • The PCs are trying to find a cure for a terrible disease sweeping through their home city
  • The PCs are tasked with mapping an island which has just appeared in the middle of an ocean
  • &c.
This kind of idea can probably be realised given most 'old school' postulates (a sandbox strewn with clues and red herrings; a way of producing random events and complications; a strict commitment to the consequences of player action; a hexmap filled with interesting and diverting stuff; and so on) except when it comes to PC death. This is because if PCs are dying with some regularity there is a need to continually introduce new ones, and it begins to stretch credulity, and challenge the basic concept of the campaign, to incorporate these people into the overarching theme. Are all new PCs who appear also cursed in the same way as the original ones? Have all new PCs had a parent/sibling/spouse/cousin kidnapped by the dastardly interplanar bandits? Are all new PCs from a place where the same disease is spreading, and have they all been tasked with finding a cure? Where do new PCs appear from when the original crew were explorers who were specifically exploring a mysterious island? Yes, there are ways of answering these questions, but when forced to do so repeatedly and consistently, repetitiveness and silliness will result. 

One element of mainstream doctrine that OSR play might therefore adopt is plot immunity for PCs - relative or absolute. How would a campaign play out if all the elements of an old school campaign were present, but it was made clear from the outset - to DM and players alike - that the PCs could never die? When reduced to 0 hit points they suffer some malady or are knocked unconscious or suffer some great hindrance, but always remain alive? I am curious to know if anybody has ever tried this, and if they have, what the results were.

It seems to me that the game would lose dramatic tension, but that this might be offset against the fun of trying to complete the task at hand against adversity and exploring an interesting setting - and also being able to follow one's character, Pendragon-style, across time.