Friday, 26 March 2021

The Reasonable DM

The English common law relies to a surprisingly large extent on a single magical word: "reasonableness". It appears everywhere. Businesses must make "reasonable adjustments" so that employees with disabilities can work without being at a disadvantage in comparison to other colleagues. To be recoverable, damages in negligence must be "reasonably foreseeable". Contract damages can only be awarded for losses "reasonably in the contemplation" of the parties as a likely result of breach. Exclusion clauses must pass the "reasonableness test". A public authority must not make a decision "so unreasonable that no reasonable authority" would impose it. I could go on. 

The virtue of "reasonableness" is that while it sounds very definitive, what is "reasonable" of course varies according to the eye of the beholder. Once you get into the realm of what is "reasonable", you are basically in the zone of the judge's discretion (although, of course, previous cases will tend to influence his or her decision). But this isn't such a bad thing. HLA Hart, probably the most influential jurisprude of the 20th century, used "reasonableness" as his example of what he called a standard rather than a rule. Real life is too complicated and messy to make hard and fast rules that will apply in every case. That will rapidly result in injustice and contradiction. It's often better for judges to have some flexibility by applying a standard - like reasonableness - instead. Not always, because if everything came down to what was reasonable, judges would simply be deciding each case on its merits, and that would result in an unpredictable and arbitrary legal system. But there is space for a bit of vagueness. 

The important point about "reasonableness", of course, is that it's not a floating signifier - it can't just mean anything. Its meaning is socially constructed, like that of all words, but that doesn't mean it lacks all objectivity. As Stanley Fish would say, there are a potentially infinite number of ways in which anybody could interpret "reasonableness" in any given context, but the great majority of these will be "ruled out" by social and cultural expectation. You could interpret a decision by a public authority to ban the use of all languages except Klingon in public buildings as a reasonable one. But nobody realistically would, because that wouldn't accord with the way society constructs the meaning of "reasonableness" in the main. The way English judges used to refer to this phenomenon was by talking about somebody called "the man on the Clapham omnibus". What a judge determines to be reasonable is what this archetypal figure (basically, a lower-middle class employee on the bus on his way to work) would consider to be reasonable on the basis of the facts presented. So whether or not, for example, a business has made reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee is not a total crapshoot. The judge is deciding that question in reference to what an ordinary, sensible person in possession of the facts would consider to be reasonable. That is socially constructed, but social understanding of words has an objectivity to it all the same.

Making a game of D&D work has a lot to do with the DM making decisions about what would be reasonable. Can my character do [x], where [x] refers to persuading somebody of something, telling a convincing lie, pulling off a neat combat move, reacting suddenly to an unexpected event, ducking behind that pile of crates, tugging a potion out of his backpack while simultaneously backing away from the dragon, or any of the other infinite number of things that a player will want to do in-game which aren't covered explicitly by the rules? Well, would it be reasonable for him or her to be able to do it? That isn't the doorway to arbitrariness. It is an invitation for the DM to make a sensible decision on the basis of the social expectation of what reasonableness entails. Far better this than the alternative, which is to try to make a rule to cover every eventuality - and a 20,000 page long rulebook, and an unplayable game, as a consequence. 

Monday, 15 March 2021

Oh Baby, Let Me Reminisce

Patrick put up a great post about the dimly-remembered origins of OSR blogging. I could of course have commented there - but why pass up the opportunity to get some of that sweet, sweet site traffic here? Let me instead ride on his coat-tails and provide some links to some of the dimmest, darkest corners of the deepest levels of the Old School Megadungeon. These are the blogs that inspired me when I was sitting in an office in suburban Yokohama thinking about D&D, just a kid with a crazy dream, and which eventually I decided to try to emulate in my own small way.

Trollsmyth's first post was in 2006, when the world was truly young - before our sanity was blasted by social media and YouTube, when One Direction were not even a twinkle in Simon Cowell's eye, and when 'Let It Go' was still 7 years from first being heard. It may not have been the very first 'OSR' blog, but it was certainly one of the great beasts of our early Triassic.

Sham is now only at best hazily remembered, a ghost of the ancient dead. But he lingers in the stories of old warriors as they gather around camp fires at night, whispering that he may yet one day return.

I would have said the same was true of chgowiz, who even nuked (most) of his old blog and left just a few dozen shattered fragments (you can find them by clicking through the 'older posts'), but it turns out he is still out there, presumably plotting his 'King Over the Water' style return.

Taichara had a great blog which has been through periods of immense melancholic silence, but never truly faded away; word is she is coming out with a book.

Rob Conley remains, still pursuing his controversial strategy of writing useful material people can actually put in their games, rather than the esoteric ranting the rest of us seem to specialise in.

Same goes for Kellri.

I wanted to find Melan's old therpgsite posts on the Tyranny of Fun and his childhood adventure gamebooks, and also Philotomy's Musings. But they all appear to be long gone now, washed away by the encroaching tides of time: look on our works, ye mighty, and despair! 

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

The Game Is The Thing

I've been neglecting the blog - a combination of house refurbishment and lots of extra work, but also DMing a regular weekly game. I've remarked before that regular play somehow correlates with a diminished need to think obsessively and write about gaming. This seems to be the pattern.

You notice this a lot with football pundits who never actually played the game professionally. I listen to a lot of football podcasts, mostly put out by pseudo-intellectual journalists who think about the sport far too much (Second Captains is the best, for those who are interested, despite Ken Early having gone so far up his own backside it's unreal). One thing you begin to notice after a while is the really absurd level of detail that is read into the tiniest and most trivial of events - and the contrast between the very simple but cutting observations that former players and managers tend to offer about the game. 

(My favourite is the story Roy Keane once told about Brian Clough - that the most profound advice the latter had ever given him was, "Make sure you always pass the ball to somebody on your own team." But I also love the story about Harry Redknapp telling Roman Pavyluchenko to "Just fucking run around a bit." Alan Shearer had similar sage advice: if you're out of form, just make sure you at least "run around a lot".)

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. I love listening to Ken Early dissecting 30 seconds of conversation between Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher over the course of 30 minutes, or delivering a 10 minute analysis of a tweet by Neymar. This is what being a fan is about. Immersing oneself, wallowing, in the glorious mud of truly purposeless ephemera. But it isn't really football.

The same is true of D&D. Ultimately the game is the thing, not the discussion of it. Sometimes it's easy to forget that, especially when you get out of touch with rolling the dice. In the modern age there is no excuse not to set up an online game and play. Do it - you won't be disappointed. 

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Going From New School to Old School in One Rule Tweak: The Case of Starting HP

What is the one rule tweak that one could make to 'new school D&D' (let's say, 3rd, 4th and 5th editions) to encourage old school play? Let's say one's aim was to do the least violence to the system by making the fewest changes imaginable - keeping everything the same but altering just one single rule. What would that be?

What trips off the tongue immediately is XP for gold. But I want to make the case that the one change in question would be going back to actually rolling the dice for starting hit points, as opposed to beginning with the maximum hp available. 

Starting with maximum hp as of right, as most editions of D&D have recommended or mandated since 2nd edition, is in my view possibly the most corrupting single rule from an 'old school' perspective, because of the way it transforms expectations. Maximum starting hit points makes the PCs more resilient, of course - they can survive more. But it also enshrines the expectation that they are tougher or more special than NPCs or monsters of the same broad rank. It bakes in 'plot armour': this is a story and these are the main characters, rather than the Just Another Adventurer archetype that old school games assume. 

And it bolsters the sense that there is something wrong or perverse about character death - like it is something to be avoided at all costs rather than the natural consequence of taking risks in the game (or mere foolishness). The idea that players should be protected from having hurt feelings because their new character has died is, frankly, patronising; far better the excitement that comes from knowing that dice rolls matter from the start.

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

[Yoon Suin 2nd Edition] Aphid Man

The 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin will soon be upon us. Flee in terror before its 12 adventure sites, many extra appendices, plethora of random encounter tables (finally!), new maps (by Tom Fitzgerland) and entirely revamped art (by Matt Adams), and its new monsters, like this one:

Aphid Man

A race of humanoids with spongy green, yellow, black or red flesh and the ability to propagate explosively. They are unintelligent, uncultured, and uninterested in anything except eating and birthing; left to their own devices, they will impoverish vast regions with their insatiable appetites. 

HD 1-1, AC 8, #ATT 1, DMG 1d6 (bite), Move 120, ML 7, Save as F1, TT None 

*Green aphid-men can squirt sticky sap at a single attacker within 12', hitting automatically and slowing it for 2d6 rounds; yellow aphid-men produce a foul-smelling oil on their skin which stings the eyes, meaning melee attackers suffer a -2 penalty to ‘to hit’ rolls; black aphid-men can suicidally explode, spraying a noxious fluid over an area 6’ in diameter identical to a stinking cloud; red aphid-men excrete a waxy fluff on their skin which permanently coats non-magical hand weapons and renders them blunt and unusable on a successful hit (though that hit still does damage). 

Usually encountered in groups of 20-200. One female can produce a precise copy of herself at any given moment, once a month; that copy is born pregnant with another copy inside her, which can be birthed after a week. 

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Ballet is as OSR as F*ck: More on the Appendix N of Appendix N

For familial reasons, I sometimes have to watch and pretend to be interested in ballet. Well, I say pretend to be interested; as time goes on, I have in fact become genuinely interested - and not just because I like watching attractive women prancing around in revealing clothes (although that is an added bonus). The level of skill, strength and prowess of professional ballet dancers is truly remarkable, and combined with the music of a genius like a Tchakovsky or a Stravinsky, the effect is often beyond words. Viz:

What is interesting about ballet is that it reveals another aspect of what I have previously called the Implied Appendix N, or indeed the Appendix N of Appendix N. The authors who inspired D&D did not come up with the pulp fantasy genre in a vacuum. They drew on an existing milieu of the fantastical which appeared throughout the history of Western art, going back of course to the dawn of time, but really coming to fruition in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Part of this, as I detailed in my earlier post, was the fiction of the likes of HG Wells, Jules Verne, RL Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H Rider Haggard. But it is also there in the tastes of the elite - opera and ballet.

Classical and romantic ballets, drawing as they often did on the fairy tales of Central and Eastern Europe, and existing books and stories, are filled with inspiration for the fantasy genre that we know today. There are princesses turned into swans by evil sorcerers (Swan Lake), human sacrifices to bring automata or golems to life (Coppelia), heroes stealing things from the lairs of immortal wizards (The Firebird), a woman being forced to dance herself to death in a sinister pagan ritual (The Rite of Spring), magical undead beings who can only be defeated in specific ways (The Miraculous Mandarin), violent, giant mice led by a mice king (The Nutcracker), evil hags performing mysterious charms and curses (La Sylphide) - not to mention evil fairies (Sleeping Beauty).

There is little in the world that is really sui generis - cultural artefacts always have precursors, and of course most of these ballets are not original in that they are based themselves on other works, myths and legends. I think there is a tendency among modern fantasy fans to tell themselves that the genre burst onto the scene with Tolkien, or perhaps earlier pulp writers. The truth, of course, is that all that is just topsoil and fantasy's roots go an awful lot deeper. 

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Wednesday Lunchtime D&D Call to Arms

In these literal and figurative dark times, what we need is the light of Our Lady of Dungeons & Dragons to shine forth upon us. In that vein, I'd like to run a campaign of D&D online, Wednesday lunchtimes, 12-2pm UK time. It will be a weekly game, probably starting next week (the 20th) or, failing that, the week after. 

I would like to run a megadungeon inside a giant tree, which I am currently mapping and keying. 

If you are interested, contact me at noismsgames AT You get special priority if you were in my Cruth Lowlands game from days of yore (you know who you are; I've lost everybody's email addresses). 

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Megadungeons on A1 Scrolls

Yesterday, I discovered that my stationery cupboard at work has a huge stash of A1 notepads. Of course, work stationery exists only to be pilfered, so I will help myself to one sooner or later, but a great idea (great to me, at any rate) popped into my head as well the moment I saw them: megadungeons on A1 scrolls.

I have experimented in the past with mapping dungeons on A3 paper because it allows you to easily include both map and key on the same page (the latter either situated in a box in a corner or as notes within/next to rooms), with space to breathe, cutting out the need to flip between pages or files. How much truer would this be of A1 paper? Especially if the whole thing (or at least an entire, sprawling level) could be made to fit on one sheet. If so, it would be a simple matter to carry round a megadungeon rolled up in a tube, whether as one sheet or several. Pop a sheet of house rules in with them, and you're ready to go. The advantage of the scroll is also that one does not need to unwind the whole thing - just the cross section where the action is happening. 

I would much prefer to run a dungeon from a scroll than from a book, if only for the vibe, man.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

The Forgotten Hobbit

I went with the family to visit my aged mother over Christmas. Having finished all the books I'd brought with me earlier than I expected, I was at a loss for bed-time reading, so I rooted through the shelves and discovered this old 1970s edition of The Hobbit:

You have to love that old school cover.

I probably last read The Hobbit about 7 or 8 years ago - enough time to forget lots of little details. As these came back to me, it gave me cause to reflect on the evolution of the fantasy genre; a lot of Tolkien's ideas have been picked up and run away with during the course of the last 50-70 years, but there are a number which simply haven't. Indeed, as you read The Hobbit now, you encounter many little throwaway lines that have had almost no impact on the development of the fantasy genre and which, if they had, may have altered its flavour considerably. For example:

Wicked dwarves allied with goblins. For some reason dwarves being the enemies of orcs and goblins has become a trope, but here on p. 58 of my edition we find: "[Goblins] did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everyone and everything, and particularly the orderly and prosperous; in some parts wicked dwarves had even made alliances with them." Although there are shades of Warhammer chaos dwarves and their alliance with hobgoblins, here.

Weapons which gain power when a particular foe is around. We're used to depictions of elvish weapons glowing to reveal the presence of orcs, and we're also used to weapons which eat souls or gain power from shedding blood, or whatever. But Glamdring gets sharper just because goblins are nearby. From p. 60 - "It burned with a rage that made it gleam if goblins were about; now it was bright as blue flame for delight in the killing of the great lord of the cave. It made no trouble whatever of cutting through the goblin-chains and setting all the prisoners free as quickly as possible."

Gollum wears trousers. Okay, so not exactly a trope, but I think everybody now has the image of Peter Jackson's Gollum in their heads when they now imagine the character. But he originally had pockets, and thus surely trousers. From p. 73 - "[Gollum] thought of all the things he kept in his own pockets: fish-bones, goblins' teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing..."

Giants. Even Tolkien himself seemed to forget that there were giants in Middle Earth once - they don't appear in The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion unless I am horribly mistaken. But they're there in The Hobbit. On p. 88 - "'I must see if I can't find a more or less decent giant to block it up again,' said Gandalf [referring to a mountain pass through which goblins are coming], 'or soon there will be no getting over the mountains at all.'" They appear to be good giants as well. 

Animal Fantasy. On p. 115 - "Inside the hall it was now quite dark. Beorn clapped his hands, and in trotted four beautiful white ponies and several large long-bodied grey dogs. Beorn said something to them in a queer language like animal noises turned into talk. They went out again and soon came back carrying torches in their mouths, which they lit at the fire and stuck in low brackets on the pillars of the hall around the central hearth. The dogs could stand on their hind legs when they wished, and carry things with their fore-feet." Later there are sheep serving dinner and ponies helping set the table.

Talking giant spiders. We're all used to giant spiders, but Tolkien's talk. Not for him the boring concept of 'Animal (1)' intelligence.  On p. 145 - "[T]hen in the silence and stillness of the wood he realised that these loathsome creatures were speaking one to another. Their voices were a sort of thin creaking and hissing, but he could make out many of the words that they said. They were talking about the dwarves! 'It was a sharp struggle, but worth it,' said one. 'What nasty thick skins they have to be sure, but I'll wager there is good juice inside.'

Elves who like a piss-up. On p. 164 - "Then Bilbo heard the king's butler bidding the chief of the guards good night. 'Now come with me,' he said, 'and taste the new wine that has just come in. I shall be hard at work tonight clearing the cellars of the empty wood, so let us have a drink first to help the labour.'" They end up getting shitfaced and blacking out. These are not your father's elves, are they?

The tone of The Hobbit is different because it's for children, of course, but also because Tolkien's ideas clearly developed a lot in between its publication and writing The Fellowship of the Ring. Who knows what would have emerged if The Lord of the Rings had never been written and The Hobbit had remained the genre's ur-text? 

Saturday, 2 January 2021

An Old Friend for a New Year

This year, I intend to do some real work on the Fixed World. Probably released via a Patreon (or similar) model, with each release being a segment of the map, pre-written content, and tables for generating more - enough so that you could easily run an entire campaign with the material provided in each one.

Here is a work in progress world map, at a 50-mile per hex scale. Not finished, because as if the whole idea wasn't absurdly ambitious enough, I want ultimately to try to detail the seas and oceans as well. I also need to fiddle around with the position of things and add pack ice and so on - and, more importantly, the 'time zones'.