Thursday, 20 September 2018

No Straight Thing Was Ever Made

I have always liked human characters, and human-centered fantasy fiction; there are lots of reasons for this, but I think fundamentally it is because there is something compelling about ordinary people in extraordinary situations (you might call that the root of all good fiction) and a fantasy setting is another layer of extraordinariness to stack on top of that. I was never the kind of person to favour playing a tiefling PC, for example. For me it was always much more interesting to wonder what it would be like to be a common-or-garden schmuck trying to get by in the multiverse.

(The same was always true of 40k, too. The Imperial Guard are the most interesting army, because the idea of ordinary human soldiers trying to take on chaos marines, tyrannids or eldar is itself simply the stuff of a good story.)

Let's face it, I also rather like the romantic mystery of the "other": dwarves, elves, etc., are much more compelling to me as inscrutable non-humans whose motivations and impulses might be gleaned from observation and experience but only very imperfectly. They are rendered much less interesting by having the human mind of an RPG player inhabiting them. 

That said, fantasy settings, particularly RPG ones, tend to revolve around four ways of presenting humans, all of which I think are honourable and good in their own way, but there is a neglected fifth option which would be worth exploring.

The first way of presenting humans is found in settings in which human beings tend to dominate because of some reason to do with their nature: they are more lively or creative, perhaps, than other races, or they are able to master commerce better, or there are simply more of them. Mystara overall presents humans in this way.

The second way is settings in which human beings are just another race jostling alongside others, a la Planescape or Faerun - you might call this the Mos Eisley cantina model. 

The third way is settings in which human beings are fighting for survival in a world full of monsters and horrible nasties, and indeed much of the excitement of the game comes from this - this is the "points of light" model found in 4th edition D&D and, I suppose, the Conan stories and sword & sorcery in general.

The fourth way is settings in which humans are the main focus simply because the setting is predicated on there being a human world and some sort of mythic otherworld along the lines of Mythago Wood or Narnia which can be entered but has a discrete existence of its own.

The neglected fifth option is the setting which takes seriously the question: what niches would human beings actually occupy in a fantasy world in which there were dragons, giants, elves and the like? What would human beings do in that kind of a world? Particularly one in which they were only a minor race, a bit like sverfneblin or gnomes in your standard D&D world.

Think of a civilization ruled by cloud giants. What would humans do in it? Humans are a lot smaller than cloud giants: maybe they'd be used for the delicate tasks - tailoring, lock-making, clock-repair etc. - that giant fingers are ill-equipped for. How about a civilization ruled by dwarves? Humans are more creative and artistic: maybe they'd be the entertainers, dramatists and painters. How about a civilization ruled by elves? Humans might be their warrior class, doing all the fighting for their risk-averse long-lived rulers (you could easily imagine elven city states fighting vast wars all entirely fought-out by human underlings). Maybe in a civilization ruled by derro or dark elves there would be space for human beings as tenders to the sick; no self-respecting derro is going to look after a fallen comrade, but humans might. 

In such a world, human PCs might be looked upon as vaguely exotic, but not very special, outsiders suited to certain roles but firmly on the periphery of society. How they navigate that world might end up being just as interesting if not more so than the dungeon-delving or whatever else they got up to. 

Monday, 17 September 2018

Occupations of the Poor

I've just finished reading Himmelfarb's The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. It's a great book that I would recommend to anybody, but a section on the anthropology of Victorian-era poverty, drawing heavily on London Labour and the London Poor, a collection of columns by the journalist Peter Mayhew, published in the 1840s, is particularly fascinating. I've got that book on order and will read and report back, but here are some of the contents cited by Himmelfarb; they are some of the "occupations" of the 19th century London poor - all of them very usable for a game set in Bastion, Sigil, or other pseudo-Victorian megalopolis:

Child-strippers - "Old debauched drunken hags who watch their opportunity to accost children passing in the street, tidily dressed with good boots and clothes" - their aim being to steal and sell those childrens' clothes, and ideally also their hair.

River-finders - boatsmen who would sail up and down the Thames, "hauling out the flotsam of wood which might be used for firewood or a baby's cradle, or the occasional corpse which could be turned in for a reward after the pockets had been picked"; they were apparently a hereditary class.

Street sellers of animals - "each with his own specialty (stolen dogs, birds painted to resemble exotic species, squirrels, rabbits, goldfish, tortoises, snails, worms, frogs, snakes, hedgehogs)."

Bone-grubbers - people who searched the streets for bones to grind for manure.

Pure-finders - people who gathered dog shit, to sell to tanners for purifying leather.

Sewer-men - those who entered sewers in search of coins, scraps of metal, bits of jewelry, rope or bones to sell on; they often had higher earnings than the best paid artisans and believed sewer fumes to have therapeutic qualities.

Mud-larks - "Children and old women whose job it was to dredge the mud left by the receding tide. Wading and groping in the mud for pieces of coal, chips of wood, scraps of metal, and bones, they passed and repassed each other without speaking, their eyes fixed upon the ground, their bodies bent over, clad in tattered, befouled rags, 'stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description.'"

Sifters - "half buried in mounds of cinders and ashes, sieving through them to separate the fine dust from the coarse both from other varieties of refuse. Garbed in heavy leather aprons, they wielded their sieves so violently that the noise of the sieves striking the aprons was like the sound of tenor drums."

Monday, 10 September 2018

Vignettes on Books

Chaucer, living in the 14th century, claimed he owned sixty books, which according to David Wright's introduction to my prose copy of The Canterbury Tales was "more than many university colleges possessed in those days." He may have been lying, but that almost makes the point even more forcefully: to him, having sixty books was something to really, really boast about.

I also recently read Tomlinson's Life in Northumberland During the Sixteenth Century (published in 1897 and sadly not even available as an ebook); in it, the author trawls through all of the wills made during the century to try to establish the number of books that existed in the entire county of Northumberland at that time. He lists comfortably less than fifty (not editions - fifty actual physical books) most of which are the Bible and almost all the rest of which are prayer books.

Before the printing press, books were rare. We all like the image of the wizard's study, lined with shelves stuffed full of ancient tomes on magic, alchemy, philosophy, ancient languages, monster lore, siege engines, and the like. There's nothing wrong with that. But in wider society books should be rare, special objects, almost unique, and very expensive.

Friday, 7 September 2018

GW and DnD: Fun Over Fairness

I recently played Kill Team, the new(ish) squad-based Warhammer 40,000 battle game. It has probably been approaching 20 years since I properly played a Games Workshop game, so it was interesting catching up on what has changed (you're not allowed to say "Imperial Guard" anymore; for some reasons Harlequins are an entire army list now) and what has not (no squats). What has certainly not changed is what you might call the Design Philosophy of Games Workshop Games.

The Design Philosophy of Games Workshop Games is: battles have to be fun from beginning to end, and closely fought. What this tends to mean in practice is that battles have certain characteristics which are at best orthogonal to and at worst antithetical to actual tactics and strategy, namely:

  • There's a huge element of randomness in everything, so in many cases cleverness is confounded by a bad dice roll here or a good one there
  • The battlefield is really small and crowded and there aren't many battle rounds, so there is no sense in performing reconnaissance or carefully deploying or even really thinking very hard about what's going on except in a rock-paper-scissors way (he's got a battle tank over there so I'd better try to get line of sight on him with this lascannon; he's got a squad of terminators over here so I'd better find a way to get my meltagun guys over there too, etc.)
  • There's no consequence to weapons fire except at the level of whether it kills somebody or not, so you can't really deny an area to the opponent or destroy scenery or interesting things like that, and so everything that you do in a turn tends to revolve around destroying the enemy things you can see
  • Initiative is random and doesn't depend on anything clever or stupid that any of the players has done, and makes a huge difference
I'm not complaining about any of that particularly - it's fun - but it does make "battles" in Games Workshop games more of an exercise in just throwing the armies together and seeing what entertaining stuff happens than a tactical wargame per se

When you think about it in those terms, Games Workshop battles are really pretty like the way combat plays out in D&D - not perhaps by design, but by the preference of most RPG players. The immense weight that can become attached to single dice rolls. The fact that, without a battle mat, the locations of the combatants becomes sort of notional and everyone can more or less get at everybody else at a moment's notice. The general (not total, but general) focus on both sides killing each other rather than other objectives. The largely random way initiative plays out.

This says a lot, I think, about both games and the way people tend to approach them: it's more important that fun stuff happens during combat than that final results are fair. It doesn't particularly matter that the conclusion reflects perfectly the actual approach taken both sides and their relative skills in planning and execution. It matters much more that PCs x and y did cool things to win the day; PC z made a save vs death successfully three times in a row; that random Imperial Guardsmen (sorry, Astra Militarium guy) somehow survived a lascannon hit; that snotling took down a Great Unclean One; and so on. The fun is not in finding out who is the best tactician; the fun is in finding out what happens. 

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Encounters with Drovers

From The Drovers' Roads of Wales, by Godwin & Toulson, 1977:

"Long before the American cowboys launched a thousand legends, or the Australian over-landers doggedly took their cattle across a continent, the Welsh were driving their little black runts for hundreds of miles, over the mountains and into the eastern parts of England.

"From the time of the Norman conquest to the middle of the last century, any traveller in Wales might find his way blocked by hundreds of cattle, large herds of sheep, pigs and flocks of geese. From the eighteenth century, turkeys were added to the stream of beasts on their way east to the rich men's markets.

"The traveller would not come on the droves unexpectedly. If he was within a couple of miles of a farm, he would hear them long before he saw them. It was a noisy cavalcade and deliberately so. The drovers, walking or riding at the side of the cattle, would give warning of their coming with yells of 'Heiptro Ho!' When the farmers of the neighbourhood heard that shout, they rushed to pen up their cattle, to prevent any unsold beasts from joining the drove to the east.

"The memory of the noise the drovers made lived long. It was an Englishman from Surrey who told the historian Caroline Skeel what it was like. She recorded his words in 1926.

"A great feature of the droves was the noise they made. It was heard for miles and warned local farmers what to expect. The noise consisted of the shouting of the drovers combined, I suppose, with a certain amount of noise from the cattle. But it was the men's voices that chiefly attracted attention. It was something out of the common, neither shouting, calling, crying, singing, halloing or anything else, but a noise of itself, apparently made to carry and capable of arresting the countryside. The horsemen and two of the cattle acted as leaders to the rest, and the men kept calling and shouting the whole time. As soon as the local farmers heard the noise they rushed their cattle out of the way, for if once they got into the drove, they could not easily be got out again.

"These strange shouts and cries were probably among the earliest noises that man made. Students of dialect believe that words and sounds which have undergone the least change throughout the centuries are those which have been used in relation to domestic animals. These are the working noises of primitive man, handed down from generation to generation.

"When the drovers eventually came into sight, those travelling in the opposite direction were confronted by an imposing procession; and as the slow-moving stream of animals and their attendant drovers, mostly mounted on sturdy Welsh ponies, could stretch for half a mile, they often had to wait twenty minutes or more for it to pass by."

An idea for your random encounter table, free of charge.

Some others: what creatures would halflings, giants, goblins, orcs, centaurs, etc., drove? And where would they be droving them?

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

What Are RPGs Like?

Scott Adams, whether you love him, loathe him, take him with a pinch of salt, think of him only rarely as that guy who did the Dilbert comics and are they still going?, is worth keeping tabs on for occasional nuggets of gold he comes out with. One of his best, which I've heard him say repeatedly on various interviews, but which I can only trace in written form to this blog post, is that analogies are over-rated and over-used. They are like a substitute for thinking - a short-hand way of convincing yourself you understand something when really all you have done is imagine something that reminds you of it. What's worse, they're the enemy of rational debate: "all discussions that involve analogies devolve into arguments about the quality of the analogy, not the underlying situation."

I thought of that quote while reading the comments to my previous post. Not to point the finger at anybody in particular - I was as guilty as anyone else - but just as an observation: discussions of "what RPGs are like" always and inevitably devolve into arguments between different camps who claim they are like video games, like board games, like music, like novels, like toolkits, and so on, and are never very useful as a result.

What are RPGs like? Well, they are like all those things and more, but the truth is, they're not really like anything else. They are like RPGs. Trying to explain what they are like is like trying to explain what sport is like; what board games are like; what novels are like, and so on. You can't do it as an abstract exercise. It has to be done in practice. RPGs, then, are like anything which human beings do - to actually understand what they are, they have to be watched or preferably played.

We have to be very careful of slippage into analogy, because analogies are dangerous: as Kundera, my favourite person to pseudo-intellectually quote, put it once, "a single metaphor can give birth to love." The context of that quote is a man who dreams up a metaphor for imagining how a woman entered into his life (if I remember rightly, he imagines her being like Moses in the bed of reeds floating down the river and he chances across her). It causes him to fall in love, because he is no longer thinking of the woman as herself - he is thinking about her Meaning and suddenly their meeting seems fated. Allow yourself to become convinced by an analogy and you lose perspective on the real phenomenon

The same thing can happen with analogies for RPGs. The analogy becomes reified and may prevent you actually thinking about what an RPG is in its own right. If you thing RPGs are like stories, you may slip down the dangerous slope towards plot and railroading. If you think RPGs are like music, you may slide into "gamer ADHD", always on the look out for the next cool release. If you think RPGs are like collectible card games, you may stray into an obsession with "builds" and mechanics. If you think RPGs are like video games, you may find yourself being reluctant to kill PCs or start contriving set pieces rather than letting them emerge naturally. And so on.

Rather than think about what RPGs are like, it is probably best to think of them as a phenomenon that is unlike other phenomena and see what works best from there. Instead of thinking of things that remind us of RPGs, maybe the useful starting point is emphasising how they are not those other things - books, board games, sports, video games, toolkits - and what that means.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Goodbye to All That

I find it hard to conceive of circumstances in which I will buy another RPG rulebook "in anger" - that is, with the intention of playing games using it. I have a burgeoning collection of old RPG books that I will never play but which I like as objects. But the thought of learning how to use a new system, even a simple one, fills me with dread, sorrow, anguish and ennui. I cannot be bothered. The only thing I am now really interested in is content: imagine things which I can't imagine. I make an exception for useful subsystems within the context of games I already know. But I will almost certainly never learn how to use another RPG system afresh. I've had enough of all that.

Is there a word for people like me? "Grognard" has too many connotations, and I'm not old enough. Maybe RPG luddite? RPG philistine? RPG conservative? RPG reactionary? None of these are right: I'm not against change in general. Nor am I against new things. I'm just against spending time learning new systems.

Perhaps there's another way of putting it: as time goes on I become less and less interested in the kind of dilettantism that modern life encourages. We have access to so much new entertainments, new information, new content, new distractions, that we naturally tend towards becoming dabblers rather than experts. When there are 200 different RPG systems at your fingertips, it's easy to dip in and out of them, maybe play a few sessions of one before getting bored and moving on to another, maybe just reading bits and pieces of the rulebook for fun, maybe just looking at the pictures - all without ever putting in the time and effort to make use of any of them properly. We don't develop long-term relationships of mastery or expertise with anything - just a passing superficial interest in vast oceans of stuff.

Which is better: to be really, really good at running D&D, or to have hundreds of RPG pdfs on your hard drive and to know enough about them to talk about them online?

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

The Lamarckian Orc

What if orcs evolved through inheritance of acquired characteristics, so that a one-armed orc produced one-armed progeny; a body-builder orc produced more muscular whelps; a studious orc produced more knowledgeable offspring, and so on? What if orc breeds branched off from each other whenever a group of orcs began to act differently, or were subject to different environmental factors, or decided to purposively evolve?

How long would it take for a group of orcs to evolve themselves - through learning, exercise, surgery, and so on - into species of thing altogether different, so that they resembled dragons, displacer beasts, pegasi, and so forth?

Perhaps less ambitiously, how long would it take for a group of orcs to evolve themselves into three-armed variants, two-headed variants, super-intelligent variants, magical variants, and so on? How extreme would orcish body-modification get if they thought they could pass on their modified forms to their children?

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Mapping a Giant Tree Trunk

I've had some preliminary thoughts on mapping a giant tree, beginning with the trunk. Have a look at the following diagram, which is a section of a trunk:

The main concept here is the wraparound. This is a cylinder stretched out flat into two-dimensional space. The line in the centre marks the notional mid-point. Somebody could climb horizontally from square C5 all the way through D5, E5, F5 etc. right to T5, then round the "back" to A5 and B5 and to C5 again.

Locations on the trunk are marked with different colours. Black spaces are entrances to tunnel networks which are burrowed or dug into the tree itself. Red spaces are lairs for monsters. Green blotches are patches of lichen or moss. Grey ones contain a building or other construction created on the side of the trunk itself (usually on a platform of some type). 

Brown squares indicate places where branches emerge from the trunk. Mapping branches is the next stage to figure out: it will have to involve an iterative process for determining branchings.

There is also the potential to hand draw other features such as cracks. 

Sunday, 12 August 2018

On the Virtues of Terseness

Having previously praised the likes of MR James, Roger Zelazny, and Clark Ashton Smith, I must now give the most credit where it is most due: to whoever is the lost genius who wrote the monster descriptions for the Roguelike *band games (if indeed it is one person and not an OSR-sized brain trust). These one (sometimes two) sentence pencil sketches are masterpieces of communication, telling you exactly what you need to know while being powerfully, sometimes almost poetically, evocative at the same time. You sir, or sirs, or sirs and madams, have had the most influence on the way I think about monsters and the way they are described.

All the Zangband monsters descriptions are here, where you can read them for yourself, but here are some illustrations; I defy you to come up with more efficient one/two-sentence thumbnails than these:

Battle Scarred Veteran: He doesn't take to strangers kindly.

The Clear Icky Thing: It is a smallish, slimy, icky blobby creature.

Kobold: It is a small, dog-headed humanoid.

The Novice Mage: He is leaving behind a trail of dropped spell components.

The Nether Worm Mass: It is a disgusting mass of dark worms, eating each other, the floor, the air, you....

The Cloaker: It resembles a normal cloak, until some poor fool ventures too close!

The Giant Octopus: It doesn't move very fast, but when it does, watch out!

The Phase Spider: A spider that never seems quite there. Everywhere you look it is just half-seen in the corner of one eye.

The Disenchanter Beast: It looks like an anteater, and there is a static feeling crackling around its long trunk.

The Wereworm: A huge wormlike shape dripping acid, twisted by evil sorcery into a foul monster that breeds on death.

The Basilisk: An evil reptile whose eyes stare deeply at you and make your soul wilt!

The Mithril Golem: It is a massive statue of purest mithril. It looks expensive!

The Ghost: You don't believe in them, and they don't believe in you.

The Ethereal Drake: A dragon of elemental power, with control over light and dark, the ethereal drake's eyes glare with white hatred from the shadows.

The Mumak: A massive elephantine form with eyes twisted by madness.

The Chaos Drake: A dragon twisted by the forces of chaos. It seems first ugly, then fair, as its form shimmers and changes in front of your eyes.

The Anti-Paladin: An embodiment of all the cardinal vices, he beholds you scornfully.

The Time Hound: You get a terrible sense of deja vu, or is it a premonition? All at once you see a little puppy and a toothless old dog. Perhaps you should give up and go to bed.

Okay, so the last one is three sentences. What I like most about these descriptions is that they don't try to replace the image you already have in your head: whatever image of a ghost, novice mage, giant octopus, mithril golem, cloaker or or battle scarred veteran you have in your mind already is more than enough. It's only where the name itself does not make the physical appearance obvious that an actual description is required. A useful lesson for bestiary writing, I think.