Tuesday 30 December 2008

In which I provide a series of links to items of interest on the world wide web

  • Shameless plug: I've started a new blog for my more academically related articles. If you're interested in international law, or just want to read the pseudo-intellectual ramblings of a legalistic twit, take a look. It's called Anti-ideoligism and there's a grand total of one entry so far.
  • Amityville Mike has created huge, FREE blank hex maps for you to download and use. What a star.
  • Eye Candy for Bibliophiles is one of the best picture-based blogs on the web. Dozens of classic fantasy book covers, many of them first editions, all of them beautiful, every single day. Subscribe to it at once.
  • There is proof of a kind that WotC missed a trick in getting rid of gnomes, and should have chucked half-elves instead.

Monday 29 December 2008

[Alignment Breakdown V] True Neutral

True neutral characters sometimes find themselves forced into rather peculiar alliances. To a great extent, they are compelled to side with the underdog in any given situation, sometimes even changing sides as the previous loser becomes the winner. A true neutral druid might join the local barony to put down a tribe of evil gnolls, only to drop out or switch sides when the gnolls were brought to the brink of destruction. He would seek to prevent either side from becoming too powerful. Clearly, there are very few true neutral characters in the world...

- 2e Player's Handbook

...And clearly this is ridiculous.

Let me start off by saying I don't see something inherently ridiculous in the idea of there being certain entities who would wish for the universe to exist in balance between good, evil, law and chaos. It's an old, old idea - indeed one of the oldest ideas of fantasy literature - and it has a certain rationality: too much good and too much law can be bad things. (Just as the extremes of the political left and the political right loop round and bleed together at the boundary, we can envisage the purest good resulting in just as much wrong as the worst evil, even if the root motivations are different.)

There is, however, something ridiculous in the idea of a single druid suddenly switching sides in a given conflict in order to perpetuate it indefinitely - "It's okay, Mr. Gnoll. I'm with your lot now, honest. Well, at least until you regain your strength...then I'm back with the Baron." It's a classic case of confusion of the microcosmic with the macrocosmic: a little like a government basing its climate change policy on the sunny weather today, and then, when it rains tomorrow, drafting a new bill altogether.

No, surely if True Neutral characters in the classical sense are to work at all, they have to take a long term view of general trends. It isn't about maintaining the balance of power between some minor aristocrat and a gang of gnoll bandits. It's about judging the sweep of history and acting at crucial moments to try to influence the broad progression of events. True Neutral characters in this sense are a bit like Benjamin Disraeli, pursuing a policy of Splendid Isolation; stay aloof from the affairs of the world, unless it seems that Prussia is gaining the upper hand against France - and then, if possible, strike to maintain the balance.

This sort of character could be extremely enjoyable to play, and a whole campaign could be centred around the concept, but it would have to be a one-alignment affair, with the entire party working in concert - because otherwise what reason would non-True Neutral characters have to cooperate? And the set-up would require a campaign world of such political detail that most DM's would balk at the prospect. Worst of all, the temptation to set up a story arc and firm railroads would be too much for even the staunchest of us to resist.

Much easier and more sensible to conceptualise True Neutrality as Apathy, I feel. Although now that I think about it, I don't much care either way.

Friday 26 December 2008

Music to Play Games By

Apropos of nothing: albums for gaming sessions, broken up by genre.


The Predator - Ice Cube. One of hip hop's best albums. Released just after the Rodney King riots, it's all about alienation, violence and anger: "Nobody I know got killed in South Central LA/Today was a good day." You don't get much more Night City than that.

Blue Lines - Massive Attack. The whole thing is infused with urban angst and underlaid with weird, unfocused tension, from the sinister dub of Five Man Army ("Money money money.../The Root of All Evil") to the driving minimalism of Lately ("Summertime always gives me the blues...")

Rhythm and Stealth - Leftfield. An hour of brutal breakbeats and trip-hop to build up an atmosphere of impending, then breaking, doom.

Post Apocalypse

Organisation - Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark. Not just for the opening track, Enola Gay ("Enola Gay/Is mother proud of Little Boy today?/Oh this kiss you give/is never ever going to fade away"), which is perfect for obvious reasons. The album also has a nicely muted, vaguely menacing feel to it - just right for when the bomb has fallen.

High - The Blue Nile. An hour of sparse, melodic background swell, with just enough painful emotion to prevent comfort from settling in.

Beyond Skin - Nitin Sawhney. Like 'Organisation' this one has tracks written explicitly about nuclear war (the final track begins with a sample of Edward Murrow reading Now I Am Become Death, and two others were written as responses for the successful test explosions in India in the late '90s) but even if that weren't the case, the mournful, elegaic feel would be a fine backdrop for a session of Mutant Future.


The Rite of Spring - Igor Stravinsky. It could equally have been The Firebird, but this just pips it as Stravinksy's best, I think - and there was never a more fantastical composer, except perhaps for Sibelius. This is a frenzied, dark, brooding masterpiece for a gritty Lord of the Rings style game. And don't mention the Disney version.

Adore - The Smashing Pumpkins. Not their best by a long shot, but still a great, weird, gothic album for a session of dark fantasy gaming.

Peer Gynt - Edvard Grieg. So well known it's almost a cliche, but it captures the feel of a fantastical adventure perfectly - with In the Hall of the Mountain King the highlight.

Urban Fantasy

Superunknown - Soundgarden. A rock classic, with just a twist of darkness.

Showtime - Dizzee Rascall. Not as raw as the debut but much better for it, this is the sound of Britain in the 2000s - antsy, uncomfortable, frenetic, cocky.

Cole's Corner - Richard Hawley. A gorgeous, lush, night time record which evokes dark cafes looking out onto busy winter streets.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

[Alignment Breakdown IV] Neutral Evil

Neutral evil characters are primarily concerned with themselves and their own advancement. They have no particular objection to working with others or, for that matter, going it on their own. Their only interest is in getting ahead. If there is a quick and easy way to gain a profit, whether it be legal, questionable, or obviously illegal, they take advantage of it. Although neutral evil characters do not have the every-man-for-himself attitude of chaotic characters, they have no qualms about betraying their friends and companions for personal gain. They typically base their allegiance on power and money, which makes them quite receptive to bribes. An unscrupulous mercenary, a common thief, and a double-crossing informer who betrays people to the authorities to protect and advance himself are typical examples of neutral evil characters.

- 2nd Edition Player's Handbook

Neutral Evil is, I think, the easiest alignment to play and play realistically; we all know people who fit the stereotype of a stop-at-nothing self-aggrandising swine, and if we are honest we would probably admit to containing a healthy dose of such impulses ourselves (at least at a subconscious level). And it's undeniably true that Neutral Evil characters are also among the most fun, because everybody loves an unprincipled rogue, and everybody loves a rotten scoundrel even better.

The DSM describes a mental illness called Narcissistic Personality Disorder, described in the following way:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

(3) believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

(4) requires excessive admiration

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

And that is, almost to a T, how I think a Neutral Evil character should behave.

An old favourite Neutral Evil character of mine is Alan Rickman's Sherrif of Nottingham from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He epitomises the bad guy who the audience secretly roots for, while never making concessions to compassion, sympathy or scruples. He's the kind of man who'll kill his own family members, burn down villages of innocent forest dwellers while nonchalantly picking his teeth, and give alms to beggars just to ingratiate himself with young ladies - every single action he takes is in the name of self-advancement. If only all Neutral Evil player characters were that fun.

Monday 22 December 2008

Weekend Thoughts - Tentpole Dungeons and The Changing Face of the Future

I'll continue the alignment rundown tomorrow, but I just wanted to jot down some thoughts I had over the weekend, while alternately hungover in bed or on the train to and from London. The first relates to what Greyhawk Grognard refers to as Old School Campaign Tent Poles - that is, megadungeons which function as tentpole adventuring locales for a campaign:

Adventurers are free [he writes] to delve into its mouldy depths if they choose, but they're just as free to poke around in the local town or city, hie off into the wilderness, or explore smaller dungeons that the DM should properly have waiting for those eager for a change of pace.

But what I think is important is that the tent-pole dungeon is there, for those days when the PCs weary of tracking down clues and following whatever plots they have been pursuing throughout the campaign. The tent-pole should, I think, be a sort of refuge from such things, existing in the world but not of it, a place where the PCs can set aside their plot-induced cares and just go someplace, kill things, and take their stuff.

This sort of thing is enough to get the pulse of any DM (or player, really) racing: doesn't it just make you want to get up right now, grab some graph paper and a pen and start mapping?

James Maliszewski writes that "2e was an era that moved away from tent pole megadungeons as a principle of setting design" and I agree with him, but I also agree that "most of the 2e settings could be retooled to support a tent pole megadungeon" - which sounds like a task I'd like to work on someday, specifically for my favourite setting of Planescape. Indeed it strikes me that Planescape is one of the more obvious megadungeon-friendly 2e settings; not only do you have the Mazes, Sewers and Hive in Sigil, you also have the 16 gate towns in the Outlands (each of which could have a uniquely flavoured megadungeon under its foundations), the Spire (with an infinite pit at its foundation?) and an endless multiverse in which to plonk down whatever you like. You could even envisage entire Planes as megadungeons - what else is the Abyss, after all, but an infinite labyrinth full of monsters, death and treasure? Ditto Pandemonium.


My second thoughts for the weekend related to Cyberpunk 2020 and alternate visions of the future. Some time ago I was thinking about this in very vague terms, and actually wrote a post about it - as well as starting off an interesting (for once) rpg.net thread. At that time, I was thinking in terms of what was realistic - i.e. what we might reasonably expect the future to be like from our current standpoint, as opposed to that of the 1980s. But I recently read Pashazade, a book by John Courtenay Grimwood, which had been sitting on my shelf for years. It is the first part of the Arabesk Trilogy, and is set in an alternate future (rather than alternate past), where WWI never got off the ground and the Ottoman Empire still exists. The action centres around Alexandria (El Iskandriyah) in the mid 21st century, and the setting is like a William Gibson novel but with North African Islam as its backdrop rather than LA or Japan. The book isn't great, but the setting is, and it got me thinking about non-European and non-Japanese cyberpunk futures. India, Brazil, Russia and China are obvious candidates for future Megapowers, and near-future games set in worlds dominated by one or the other (or all) would just be fantastic to create and play games with.

Once again I regret there isn't enough time to do all of these potential projects and keep abreast of work and a social life. How unfair that we don't have a few extra hours each day.

Thursday 18 December 2008

[Alignment Breakdown III] Chaotic Good

Chaotic good characters are strong individualists marked by a streak of kindness and benevolence. They believe in all the virtues of goodness and right, but they have little use for laws and regulations. They have no use for people who "try to push folk around and tell them what to do." Their actions are guided by their own moral compass which, although good, may not always be in perfect agreement with the rest of society. A brave frontiersman forever moving on as settlers follow in his wake is an example of a chaotic good character.

- 2nd edition Player's Handbook

Chaotic Good was traditionally my favourite alignment; in fact I've probably even now still played more Chaotic Good characters than anything else, although these days I try to spread myself around a lot more. Actually in my experience it's the most popular of all the alignments, probably because it allows players to be Good without forcing them to be too Moralistic - and that's exactly what the majority of D&D players seem to want. It is after all the most fitting attitude for a traditional 'Good Guy Adventurer' type to take, representing unwillingness to conform and dislike for law, combined with a strong sense of right and wrong. It's the alignment of the rugged individualists of American and Australian legend who settled the 'wild' reaches of their respective continents (though let's mention the natives, thankyouverymuch) and wanted nothing but land, liberty and good neighbours - and those types happen to make very good Adventuring Heroes.

Of course, this overaccuntuates the Good while playing down the Chaos. The alignment could imply something more deliberate - for example good hearted but dyed-in-the-wool anarchists from the Parisian Left Bank, or non-racist libertarians shut away in rural Idaho, or anarcho-capitalists/individualist anarchists like Murray Rothbard or Lysander Spooner. That is, people who have a moral belief in disorder as the best way for everybody to live - and who see in government nothing but tyranny and evil. Though perhaps this is to overegg the Chaos at the expense of the Good: in the rhetoric of people like Rothbard, von Mises and McElroy it's often harder to discern the Goodness in amongst all the What's Best, which means something slightly different.

The ideal mix of course is the Han Solo or Robin Hood type; the man who stands against government brutality and defends freedom while never losing a sense of justice. But in a game in which revolt and guerilla warfare is not the aim, it can be difficult to make such characters work - we know why the Neutral Evil guy is after the dragon's treasure, but why would Han Solo give two hoots? Funding the rebellion perhaps, but how long does that last as a justification before it gets old?

In retrospect perhaps it is for the above reasons that the Rugged Individualist is usually the Chaotic Good character type of choice. Because Individualist Anarchism and robbing from the rich to give to the poor are all very well, but they don't seem like satisfactory reasons to pillage vast subterranean labyrinths.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

[Alignment Breakdown II] Chaotic Neutral

Chaotic neutral characters believe that there is no order to anything, including their own actions. With this as a guiding principle, they tend to follow whatever whim strikes them at the moment. Good and evil are irrelevant when making a decision. Chaotic neutral characters are extremely difficult to deal with. Such characters have been known to cheerfully and for no apparent purpose gamble away everything they have on the roll of a single die. They are almost totally unreliable. In fact, the only reliable thing about them is that they cannot be relied upon! This alignment is perhaps the most difficult to play. Lunatics and madmen tend toward chaotic neutral behavior.

- 2nd Edition Player's Handbook

There's always been something ridiculous about Chaotic Neutral as it is described in the above quote: lunatics and madmen are surely a different kettle of fish altogether - that is to say not in control of themselves, and therefore alignment-less. I prefer to think of Chaotic Neutral types as people who aren't necessarily malicious but who nevertheless prefer not to abide by society's rules. This doesn't mean self-conscious, "I'm mad, me!" buffoonery, but can actually ecompass quite a range of behaviours.

First is the Nihilist Type, or people who absolutely refusal to engage with society, because
they see no purpose or reason in the universe, and therefore choose to set themselves apart from it. A good example in fiction is Bartleby, the Scrivener, whose only response to any request is to say, "I would prefer not to", and who eventually retreats into catatonic slumber and possibly death after refusing to eat. The members of the Bleak Cabal can be said to be the epitomy of this brand of Chaotic Neutral.

Second is the Hellraiser Type, or those who see themselves as completely unfettered by society in their pursuit of pleasure; they are not necessarily explicit hedonists or libertines from a political standpoint, but their beliefs and actions amount to as much. Hunter S. Thompson is the epitomy of this kind of Chaotic Neutral - "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me." There is no malice in such behaviour but nor is there goodness.

Third is the Discordian Type - that is, those people who believe in 'Chaos' as a philosophical construct and seek to perpetuate it. These very rare characters aren't the tiresome kind of person who insists on being 'zany' and tries altogether too hard. They positively work towards disorder for its own sake, and are deadly serious about it. The Doomguard, who believe in 'preserving' entropy, and the Slaadi, who embody discord, encompass this kind of Chaotic Neutrality.

The main thing to escape from, when playing a Chaotic Neutral character, is the use of that alignment as an excuse for being unaligned - which is what in my experience it comes to signify. Like the other 'neutral' alignments - LN, NG and NE - the important point in CN is not the Neutrality but the 'active' alignment, in this case Chaos. For the Chaotic Neutral, morality is irrelevant and disorder is everything; it is in fact the most extreme alignment, rather than the least meaningful. And it is this which makes it the most difficult to play, not that it is the alignment for "lunatics and madmen".

Monday 15 December 2008

[Alignment Breakdown I] Chaotic Evil

Outraged at the totally true but tactless accusation of cowardice, the chaotic evil character snaps back, "Look, I was doing an important job, guarding the rear! Can I help it if nothing tried to sneak up behind us? Now, it seems to me that all of you are pretty beat up--and I'm not. So, I don't think there's going to be too much objection if I take all the jewelry and that wand. And I'll take anything interesting those two dead guys have. Now, you can either work with me and do what I say or get lost--permanently!"

- AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook

When it comes to misunderstandings about alignment, I think Chaotic Evil stands out as the point at which most of them intersect. There was never a better excuse (except perhaps for an uber-moralistic paladin) for a player to act like a complete ass than by creating a Chaotic Evil character, and nor was there a better excuse for a DM to behave like an unreasonable dictator in banning such characters outright. But Chaotic Evil is just as interesting an aligment as any other if it's played thoughtfully, and I think a lot of the problems associated with it arise from the fact that most of us started playing AD&D when we were about 11 years old. 11 year olds don't do subtelty: if you're Chaotic Evil, it means you're a vicious and uncontrollable psychopath. But it also stems from quotes like the one above, which don't do a subtle reading of alignment any favours whatsoever.

First things first, a Chaotic Evil character is as intelligent and self-aware as any other. Bad people don't generally put their lives in unnecessary danger by flagrantly breaking the law when there is a chance of being caught, pissing off their friends, and starting fights with whoever they meet. A small minority of socially inept psychopaths may do those things, but for the vast majority of Chaotic Evil people, law-breaking is done only when discovery is unlikely, friends are viewed as a valuable resource, and sadism or brutality is meted out to the weak when victory is assured and there is little chance of retribution. Stupid Chaotic Evil characters will make errors of judgement, but there is no reason to assume the intelligent will do so.

Secondly, Chaotic Evil characters are still people. They become lonely, stressed, annoyed, and upset just as those of other alignments do, although they may react in very different ways. The 2e DMG actually says as much when it gives the example of a bored Chaotic Evil mage at the local inn, who's just after some drink and company for the evening. He's not about to turn anybody into a cockroach or pull somebody's finger nails out for his own amusement, and probably poses no threat at all in that setting.

But thirdly, and by the same token, Chaotic Evil characters have no regard for laws and morality except for that imposed on them by force, and they care about nobody other than themselves. The Chaotic Evil mage who enjoys carousing at the local inn may have a magically concealed dungeon in his tower where he can get up to whatever he wants to get up to, safe in the knowledge that he won't be discovered. Intruders might well find themselves hanging upside down from the ceiling and having their hearts carved out with a rusty spoon, or being gnawed to death by half-starved beavers. Chaotic Evil characters can be as sadistic and as brutal as they like when they know they can get away with it. The classic example of the Chaotic Evil character behaving in this fashion is the Stuntman from Deathproof, who kills because he has found a way to do so with impunity (or so he thinks).

What this means is that Chaotic Evil characters can be perfectly functioning members of an adventuring party so long as they can see a rational reason for cooperating with the other members, or can be forced into doing so by some kind of threat. And since most of the time adventuring parties do have rational reasons for cooperation - maximisation of profit - the issue of Chaotic Evil characters screwing everything up should rarely arise. Potential for conflict is more likely to come from issues such as what to do with prisoners and whether to help those in distress.

The scenario portrayed in the quote from the 2e Player's Handbook at the top of this entry is therefore unlikely to ever occur - because what Chaotic Evil character would be stupid enough to make enemies of his comrades in such an obvious way? The answer is that none would, except one grotesquely stupid or else obscenely powerful; somebody like Blackbeard the Pirate may have been able to browbeat his minions into obedience in such a way, but even he relied more on the carrot of treasure and women than he did on the stick. Because how long would he have lasted if all he did was try to keep all the treasure to himself?

The idea that Chaotic Evil characters are likely to make a game unplayable or un-fun doesn't stand up, for me. I think this misperception has arisen because of quotes like the one in the 2nd edition Player's Handbook, and because D&D players are mostly geeks - some of whom are not equipped with the social skills necessary to a) play sensibly or b) deal with people who can't play sensibly.

Sunday 14 December 2008

The 'Thorny Issue' of Alignment

I wrote a little throwaway post a few days ago offering examples of Chaotic characters from real life and fiction; I was going to do one for Lawful and Neutral alignment types too, but then I read a recent article on Turbulent Thoughts regarding the topic, and it got me thinking about it in a little more detail.

To sum up my own position: I'm a believer in (as that great philosopher Dante Hicks once put it) taking a shit, or getting off the pot. That is, either make a decision to do something and carry it through all the way, or don't bother at all. This philosophy has a great deal to say to the 4e designers, and nowhere does this apply more than in the field of alignment. They had their chance to excrete alignment completely; they had their chance to get off the pot and keep it as it was; instead they did neither, and ended up with thoroughly soiled pants. The 4e alignment system is a remedial red-headed stepchild of the old structure, ill-brought up and without any clear place in the world, and the designers should have had the balls to throw the baby out with the bath water. And that makes three analogies for the price of one - so don't try to tell me I'm not providing value for money on the metaphor front.

I'm not wedded to alignment at all; I've played enough non-D&D games to know how unnecessary and weird the whole thing is - a sort of hang-up from Moorcock which morphed into a creaking quasi-religious philosophical framework over the years. The Planescape campaign setting should in fact have proved that D&D characters at least didn't need alignment, in its rather more sophisticated and practical view of their motivations. Yet there is something oddly compelling about the old diametric structure. The symmetry itself is appealing, but I also like the attempt it made (whether conscious or not) to create a set of ethics which had absolutely nothing to do with real-world politics or religion. It's a fantasy belief system for a fantasy world, and that in itself is highly interesting. And while it has little worth as a way of policing players, it does at least prevent politics from ruining a gaming session. I've met enough idiots from both the Left and the Right who'll take any opportunity to spout out bilge, and in my experience the D&D alignment system distracts them from doing so where other games can often fail.

The key to sensible alignment lies, I believe, in not seeing it as an explicit way of thinking of the world, but rather an implicit one. People don't see themselves or their behaviour as Chaotic Evil or Neutral Good, even if it is - indeed, those terms do not exist as ways of describing people or the world. They are rather metaterms for groups of philosophies and behaviours to which actors unintentionally subscribe, perhaps known only to the Gods and whoever governs the multiverse. Thus an Epicurean pleasure-seeking anarchist sees himself as "a libertine", rather than "Chaotic Neutral", but he is nevertheless considered "Chaotic Neutral" by the laws of reality and the 'powers that be' across the universe. It is those immutable and unkown laws which deprive a ranger or paladin, unbeknownst to him, of his powers when he has crossed alignment lines too many times.

From tomorrow I'm going to start a ten-post marathon run-down on each alignment and how I see it. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Saturday 13 December 2008

[Inspirational Pictures IV] It's 8:15, and that's the time that it's always been...

It's a post-apocalyptic theme for the inspirational pictures this time around.

A very famous scene, but worth reproducing. Post-apocalyptic gaming should be all about recognisable symbols laid low. I'd particularly like to run a game set around Tokyo Tower, circa 2025, after the day the earth stood still.

Dresden, 1945. This picture was taken after a firebombing; it could be the morning after, but it could be a century later and there haven't been enough people to repopulate.

Omega Man?

Friday 12 December 2008

Dungeons and Dragons On Screen

For whatever reason, there's been some talk of a D&D film on internet land. Why on earth people are even willing to discuss the prospect is beyond me; the abysmal offering last time around (Jeremy Irons, hang your head in SHAME) should be enough to forever render that topic verboten. Apart from that I rather agree with Jim that film means narrative, and since roleplaying games and storytelling are antithetical there's no hope of such ventures every working. Well, no, I don't quite agree with that; let's put it: Roleplaying games and pre-determined narrative are antithetical. I think there's a place for looking back at a gaming session or campaign and retroactively viewing it as a kind of combined storytelling effort. But it has to be retroactive - injecting story into the midst of play is a bad idea, and certainly trying to crowbar a gaming session into the form of a film would be a recipe for disaster.

Frankly I shall find it hardly surprising if there is never a good D&D movie, for three excellent reasons: 1. Fantasy films are pretty much always dreadful; 2. So are D&D spinoffs, like the Drizzt and Dragonlance series of books; 3. So are films about games of any description. (Well, the first is always true at least for traditional fantasy, that is, setting aside stuff like Pan's Labyrinth). About the only fantasy series I can think of that has been worth watching was The Lord of the Rings, but even that, in hindsight, was a lot of style over substance and a bit of a missed opportunity. I've never read a D&D novel that has been anything better than "passing the time" quality. And regarding films set in games: Jumanji, need I say more?

Another excellent reason: The very idea that a D&D film could possibly work as a concept is mistaken, because it is starting from the wrong set of assumptions. Namely, it is taking as its launch pad the concept of a "D&D movie", rather than a desire to tell a story. Telling good stories is what good films do. Trying to cinematise an idea or concept isn't. (This is why films that are concepts more than they are stories - Charlie's Angels, for example - are such dreadful bollocks.)

I am hoping that this fact will enable two highly anticipated projects that are in the pipeline to buck the trend. The first is the Guillermo Del Toro Hobbit films. The second is the pilot for George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire on HBO. The signs suggest that both of these could work, but I'm cynical enough to expect the worst. The advantage they both have going for them is that a) they're based on good stories, not concepts or brands; b) they are based on great novels, not games; and c) they have nothing whatsoever to do with D&D. Here's hoping.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Blake in the Dungeon (II)

After a hundred steps I grew aware
Of something crawling in the lane below;
It seemed a wounded creature prostrate there
That sobbed with pangs in making progress slow,
The hind limbs stretched to push, the fore limbs then
To drag; for it would die in its own den.
But coming level with it I discerned
That it had been a man; for at my tread
It stopped in its sore travail and half-turned,
Leaning upon its right, and raised its head,
And with the left hand twitched back as in ire
Long grey unreverend locks befouled with mire.
A haggard filthy face with bloodshot eyes,
An infamy for manhood to behold.

-From City of Dreadful Night by James Thomson

Nebuchadnezzar, the Mad King

Roaming in the wilderness is a thing which was once a man, and not only a man but a king. His name was Nebuchadnezzar, and he was cast out of his throne by the Gods themselves. They doomed him to roam like a beast in the wild, never resting in the same place, until the world's end. Time has rendered him insane; his mind is like that of a frightened and angry ape. But what he did to deserve this punishment has long been forgotten.

Nebuchadnezzar is most often found in the twilight or the early morning, lapping up dew from the grass. Some vestigal instinct of shame seems to terrify him of human contact, and he will quickly flee from any humanoid being. His senses are incredibly keen and he is rarely surprised (only on a roll of 1). However, he can sometimes be tempted by food; he has a special liking for raw animal meat.

Nebuchadnezzar has almost forgotten how to speak, though he mutters to himself continually in isolated phrases of the Chaldean Aramaic tongue. These phrases are usually nonsense. It is said, however, that occasional meaning can be discerned in his ramblings; hints of great secrets from the ancient land which he ruled - like the location and nature of ruins and treasure.

Nebuchadnezzar does not fight unless he is cornered and forced into self defence.

Intelligence: Animal (1)
Alignment: Neutral
AC: 5
Movement: 15
HD: 4+1
THAC0: 15
No. of Attacks: 3
Damage/Attack: 1-4/1-4 (claws), 1-6 (bite)
Special Attacks: Nebuchadnezzar is infected with rabies, though he does not display the symptoms himself. Anybody who is bitten by him must make a Constitution check with a -3 penalty or be stricken by the disease, which will kill the victim within d3+2 days.
Special Defences: None
Morale: Unsteady (5-7)

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Monsters & Manuals Gets Its First Award!

Matt, also known as arcona (of The Dwarf and Basilisk fame), has very kindly given my blog a Superior Scribbler Award. Matt must have been at the absinthe again, because he had this to say about my unhinged ramblings:

I’m gonna call it right now. With all apologies to James at the infinitely readable Grognardia, THIS is the best RPG blog on the net (plus Brian already gave Grognardia a SS Award). Well written and straight from the heart, M&M has a good mix of games outside of D&D being discussed, in addition to a number of downright barmy ideas/monsters/scenarios/etc that one can’t help but admire. Perhaps the only blogger I’ve ever seen that actually posts thoughtful photo dumps too (with more apologies to all the guys who post babes in chainmail bikinis every other day).

Should we be worried about the man's mental health or what? In seriousness though, Matt was very kind to say such things. Cheers.

Anyway, according to the rules I now have to nominate five other blogs. This is a difficult task, as I have 69 RSS subscriptions in my Google Reader tray. Many of those relate to cricket, however, which I'm sure has limited appeal to my mostly American readership, so I suppose I'll at least be able to narrow it down to the 30 or so RPG related blogs that I regularly dip into. (I should say first of all that I would ideally nominate every blog I read for an award; that's why I read them, as opposed to the horrendous shite that gets purveyed around much of the blogosphere. Also, I've deliberately chosen blogs that haven't already been nominated, which rules out the excellent Grognardia, Sham's Grog and Blog, and of course The Dwarf and the Basilisk.) Well, here goes:

My Superior Scribbler Awards

Exchange of Realities, which dubs itself "an attempt to bring the worlds of table-top roleplaying and writing closer together by illustrating techniques usable in both formats." Always interesting and readable, it's given me lots of inspiration and ideas about putting a new spin on gaming. The author, Ravyn, is also I think one of the most skilled and intelligent bloggers in terms of writing ability, and her stuff is worth reading for that reason alone.

Worlds in a Handful of Dice is the work of Jukka Särkijärvi, a Finn with a better command of the English language than 90% of its native speakers. He's a writer of excellent rants, thoughtful commentary, and industry insights that are always compulsively readable. The only criticism it's possible to make is that he doesn't update regularly enough!

World of Thool, which is just the kind of blogging I like to read - an ongoing account of the creation of a campaign setting, from the ground up. What helps is that Scott, the author (well known from his now apparently defunct Wilderlands of OD&D) is clearly slightly bonkers - in the best possible sense of the word - and his eponymous setting has the sort of hallucinatory genius which that kind of madness brings.

Another excellent but too damn infrequently updated (post more, Max, damn your hide) blog is Malevolent and Benign, which more than makes up for this one shortcoming with always funny and interesting posts. Max is one of the few bloggers beside myself and Jeff Rients who seems to ever mention Risus, which is in and of itself important, but besides that his work covers everything from Encounter Critical to Mutant Future to spooky Doo-wop music, and much more besides.

Advanced Gaming and Theory, which I never seem to comment on but always keep up to date with. The blog is a witches' brew of gamesmastering tips, actual play reports, new ideas, and the occasional rant, all of it good - although in keeping with most of my other selections, it needs updating more often!

I'll now set about informing the blog writers and putting up this nice little picture in my sidebar.

EDIT: Like a chump, I forgot to add the rules for my awardees. Here they are:

  • Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends.
  • Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.
  • Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to this post, which explains The Award.
  • Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List (scroll down). That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!
  • Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.

Monday 8 December 2008

Blake in the Dungeon (I)

A while ago I wrote two articles about Jorge Luis Borges and D&D. Another of my favourite weird writers is William Blake, whose insanity-fuelled visions seem perfect for a more 'fantastical' or horror-oriented campaign.

Here's an idea.

Blake, for the only time in his life, saw a ghost... Standing one evening at his garden-door in Lambeth, and chancing to look up, he saw a horrible grim figure, 'scaly, speckled, very awful,' stalking downstairs towards him. More frightened than ever before or after, he took to his heels, and ran out of the house.
- Alexander Gilchrist

The flea communicated to Mr. Blake what passed, as related to himself, at the Creation. 'It was first intended,' said he (the flea) 'to make me as big as a bullock; but then when it was considered from my construction, so armed—and so powerful withal, that in proportion to my bulk, (mischievous as I now am) that I should have been a too mighty destroy; it was determined to make me—no bigger than I am.'
- From Blake's Obituary

Fleas are inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood thirsty to excess.
- William Blake

The Ghost of a Flea

The Ghost of a Flea is the spirit of a parasitic louse made into man-shaped flesh. Thoroughly insane and thirsting only for blood, its origin is unknown. It pursues its goals with the single-minded obsession of an insect. However, its behaviour sometimes hints at a horrible and higher intelligence.

The Ghost of a Flea must be called into a given reality by a mage of 8th level or higher, through the use of a Summon the Ghost of a Flea spell. The summoning involves the drawing of a circle of iron filings and the sketching in those filings of certain astrological symbols; the casting takes four hours. When finally the spell is complete, the Ghost of a Flea steps into the circle as if moving from behind a dark curtain. If there has been any error in the casting of the spell (INT check), the Ghost will immediately attack the caster. Otherwise,
the spellcaster is safe, and the Ghost can be communicated with.

The Ghost of a Flea wants nothing else other than to leave its circle of summoning and find something on which to feed. A cunning spellcaster can strike a bargain to lead the Ghost to sources of blood in return for information; there is a 33% chance that the Ghost will know the answer to any question that it is asked. Any number of questions can be asked. However, the Ghost will always insist on one clause to any bargain it enters into: that it must be given living blood within one hour of being asked the first question put to it, otherwise it will devour the questioner. Nobody knows from where the Ghost gains its knowledge, though it is believed that it comes from the Devil himself.

Once the bargain has been fulfilled the Ghost of a Flea returns to wherever it came.

The Ghost is seven feet tall and massively built, with huge cord-like muscles under the surface of its black-gold skin. Golden lidless eyes stare out of its face. Its features are crude and misshapen, and its tongue is long like that of a dog; it lolls out of its mouth at all times. The Ghost's fingers are long, thin, and clawed.

The Ghost of a Flea

Intelligence: Average (8-10)
Alignment: Chaotic Evil
AC: 0
Movement: 15 (Jump 30)
HD: 14
THAC0: 6
No. of Attacks: 3
Damage/Attack: 1-12/1-12 (fists), 1-20 (bite)
Special Attacks: If the Ghost of a Flea hits with both its fists, it has grabbed its opponent and its bite will hit automatically for maxiumum damage; alternatively it can throw its opponent 15 feet in a random direction, causing 1-10 points of damage and stunning the target for d6 rounds. It can also perform a leap attack, jumping 30 yards and striking with both fists for double damage (though without the bite attack).
Special Defences: Can be hit only by enchanted or cold iron weapons.
Morale: Fearless (20)
Other: As soon as it has made a kill, the Ghost of a Flea will attempt to make off with the body in order to consume it in peace. It can carry any weight without encumbrance penalty.

Sunday 7 December 2008

Chaotic Alignment Archetypes

Chaotic Evil

- Gilles de Rais, pedophile, child-snatcher and murderer of 80-200 young boys. Took his greatest pleasure in letting his victims know that they were to die.
- Hannibal Lecter, from Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. "You can't reduce me to a set of influences." (The character was unfortunately ruined in the later books.)
- Iago, from Othello.
"Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word."

Chaotic Neutral

- Hunter S. Thompson, American journalist and narcotics lover. Most of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was true, you know.
- Q, from Star Trek: The Next Generation. 'He's devious and amoral and unreliable and irresponsible and definitely not to be trusted.'
- Lord Byron, 'Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know'.

Chaotic Good

- R2D2, from the Star Wars films.
- Tom Bombadil, from The Lord of the Rings.
- Asterix the Gaul.

Saturday 6 December 2008

Just Because

Author blogs are usually pretty awful affairs - rarely updated, and when they are, you get about a line. I've just discovered M. John Harrison's, and it seems at least slightly more interesting than most. This entry made me laugh:

Earlier this year C, who is 100% a literalist subeditor, managed to get through several HPL stories, including “The Haunter of the Dark” & “The Colour Out of Space”, as bedtime reading, without having a moment’s insomnia or a single nightmare.

“So, this ‘Goat with a Thousand Young’ business,” she says: “What’s scary about that ?”

I try to explain that it can’t really be a goat. It’s an attempt to describe something by one of its qualities, or–worse–to encode some quality it possesses which can’t be described any other way.

She says: “Bollocks. Goats can’t have a Thousand Young. & anyway, why’s that frightening ?” She’s Lovecraft-proof.

At 17, I couldn’t have the books in the house. If I owned them I’d read them. If I read them, I wouldn’t sleep for days. When did they stop doing that to me ?

Thursday 4 December 2008

Dead Magazines

On balance the internet is undoubtedly a good thing, but it is responsible for a lot that's wrong with the world. One of its greatest sins is that it drove the final stake through the heart of the print RPG magazine. Not even monolithic house organs like Dragon and Dungeon could resist its energy-draining wight touch.

The saddest loss of the print-net war was a magazine called Arcane, which for about two years in the mid 90s constituted my regular fix of RPG reading. Not only was it eclectic and general (its articles covered everything from D&D to d6 Star Wars to Harn to WoD), it was also written with the wit and verve that Future Publishing was rightly famous for in the 1990s. (Some of Arcane's regular contributors were or had been staff writers for other great and now sadly defunct FP titles, such as the unrivalled Amiga Power.) Even though I haven't even clapped eyes on a copy in around ten years at least, I can still remember some of its classic articles, and I credit it with more influence on my gaming habits than just about anything else.

There's often talk about the 'death of the industry' and the declining cultural importance of RPGs. Young people prefer World of Warcraft, it seems, and nothing signifies this more than the disappearance of magazines like Arcane. But was this trend a cause or a symptom? Which came first: the death of the magazines or the zenith of the industry?

Japan 2028 (Part II: Hitotsuyanagi Group - Corporate Profile)

A continuation of yesterday's post. I might leak out a few more of these little titbits (or what one American girl I used to know would charmingly refer to as "tidbids") on my 'Japan, 2028' Cyberpunk 2020 setting over the coming days and weeks.
Hitotsuyanagi Group (一柳グループ) - Corporate Profile

Hitotsuyanagi is one of the so-called 'new zaibatsu' which arose during the years directly leading up to the Great Kanto Earthquake. Founded in January 2009 by Toshiro Yanagisawa, it was originally a bio-technology firm operating out of the Yokohama docklands. Somewhat insulated from the damage caused by the quake and the chaos of the years that followed, it grew rapidly at the expense of Japan's collapsing old giants, though Yanagisawa's motto has always been 'intelligent expansion' and the Hitotsuyanagi Group is one of the smallest of the new zaibatsu in terms of employees and turnover. Its member companies are those specialising in ultra high technology fields such as genetic manipulation, cybernetics, nanoware and biochemical warfare.

Its companies employ around 74,000 personnel, not including a private 'security wing' consisting of a motorised infantry brigade of around 8,000 men, with an attached squadron of gyrocopter gunships. Hitotsuyanagi's military is the smallest corporate army in Japan, though it has a reputation for efficiency and brutality. Many of its members were originally soldiers of fortune, with the majority originating from Brazil and Peru and the rest South Africa, Fiji and the Former Australia.

Kimura Biotech Corporation (Kimura Seimeikougaku Kabushikigaisha, or Kimura Seimei for short) is a key member of the Hitotsuyanagi Group and the favoured supplier of biological warfare components to the Armed Forces of Japan. Because of this, it and the other Hitotsuyanagi companies enjoy high levels of freedom and influence within Japanese politics and industry. Toshiro Yanagisawa is a prominent member of the so-called 'Wednesday Club' (Suiyoukai) of industralists, generals and politicians who meet on the first Wednesday of every month at the Tokyo Hilton hotel to formulate government policy.

It is well known that there is a considerably less than cordial relationship between Yanagisawa and the head of the Hoshino Group, Yuutaka Hoshino - who also happens to be a member of the Wednesday Club. The men loathe each other. The rivalry stems from before the war, when the Hitotsuyanagi Group launched a 'dawn raid' hostile takeover of a medical research company which Hoshino had been just about to approach. In retaliation Hoshino arranged the corporate defection of two of Kimura Seimei's top researchers to one of its affiliates, in a botched move which resulted in the destruction of a Kimura facility and several deaths. Since that time there have been a dozen assassinations and three car bomb attacks, widely attributed to the rivalry between Toshino Yanagisawa and Yuutaka Hoshino.

Yanagisawa has made it clear that the Hitotsuyanagi Group (like the vast majority of the new zaibatsu) is actively working towards an end to the occupation of Western Japan. What the clause 'actively working towards' refers to is unclear.

Monday 1 December 2008

[RPG Blog Carnival] Transitions and Transformations - Japan 2028 (Part 1: Overview)

I was thinking of posting this anyway, but it turns out the RPG Blog Carnival for this month has been given the title Transitions and Transformations, and it definitely qualifies for that. So what the heck.

This is a Cyberpunk 2020 setting that I developed a year or so ago when thinking about running a game for the local gaming group. For one reason or another I ended up doing something else instead, but I liked the setting so much I kept it. Today I'll put up a historical overview; tomorrow a 'current situation' one will follow.

Japan, 2028

It started with the Great Kanto Earthquake (Kanto Daijishin) of 2010. The quake, centred on Chofu - a satellite city of Greater Tokyo - measured 8.9 at the surface on the JMA's seismic intensity scale, and caused an estimated $6 trillion in damage (with over 900,000 deaths). Tokyo was effectively levelled, although certain quake-resistant high-rise buildings in the Shinjuku and Tokyo-station areas remained standing. Most seismologists consider it extremely fortunate that the quake did not trigger an eruption of Mt. Fuji, which underwent a period of activity shortly before and after the quake. If that had happened, the consequences for Japan would have been utterly catastrophic, as opposed to merely disastrous.

But disastrous they were, and in the aftermath the archipelago underwent a period of political upheaval which rivaled the quake itself in intensity. The years between 2010 and 2015, known now as the Great Tumult (daikonran), saw an estimated 18 different governments and a huge growth in membership of extremist splinter groups from the Japanese Communist Party (Nihon Kyousan-tou) and the New Komeito Party (Shin-Komei-tou), amidst economic collapse and localised starvation. 2015 saw the deposition of the ruling LDP government and the execution of the Imperial Family by the military wing of a group called the Nishi-Funabashi Socialist Party, who modelled themselves on the proletarian revolutionaries of the 1917 Bolsheviks. Their provisional government, set up to "create democratic structures to usher in the new socialist era", lasted 34 days, during which time they accomplished little other than the murder of some 160 Diet representatives and the Governor of Tokyo. On 6th September 2015 a motorized infantry division of the Japanese Self Defence Forces, backed by US air strikes, launched an attack to regain control of the capital, and within a week most of the other SDF units in the Kanto region had joined them. After a 20-day street battle, reminiscent of the destruction of the Paris Commune, approximately 70,000 of Tokyo's citizens had been killed and the country had a new military government. By 2016 that government was firmly entrenched, though now officially ruled by the centre-right Buddhist New Komeito Party.

Stability followed, and by 2020 Japan had regained some semblance of a functioning modern state. In 2019 the Izu-shoto Autonomous Economic Region was set up in the volcanic islands stretching to the South of the capital. Essentially a playground for Japan's new conglomerates (the shin-keiretsu such as Hoshino, Shinrai, Hitotsuyanagi and Rakusho), the AER is a tax-free haven for research and development which has reinvigorated Japan's image as a high-tech economy.

But the outbreak of war between the People's Republic of China and USA, precipitated by the seizure of Taiwan, saw Japan once again dragged into chaos. Both it and the United Republic of Korea, as the USA's key allies in the region, quickly became involved in the fighting. In March 2022 the first PRC Marines landed on Ishigaki-jima in the Okinawa archipelago, and the last US base on Okinawa was destroyed before the end of the year. The PRC juggernaut continued through to the mainland islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, ironically basing their invasion plan on Nimitz and MacArthur's Operation Olympic. With Japanese industry crippled and organised defences failing, the US Army and the military of the Republic of Korea launched their own invasions of Honshu to prevent the entire country falling under the occupation of the Chinese. They halted the invasion at a line running across the extreme North of Kyushu and Shikoku, and a general armistice was signed on Christmas Day, 2026. Over a million Japanese had lost their lives.

Since that day, Japan has remained divided, and there is little sign of either Chinese, Korean or American troops leaving their occupied zones. Ostensibly the Koreans and Americans cannot leave while the Chinese threat remains, but many in the islands now suspect that retaining control of Japan is as much a priority as protecting it. While the Eastern half of Honshu and Hokkaido retains its independence and has undergone something of an economic revival in the past year and a half, the rest of the islands were devestated by war and miliary occupancy and have little hope of restoration.

The main 'winners' of the war were undoubtedly the shin-keiretsu. As the primary suppliers of the reformed Military of Japan, their economic strength and political importance have increased immensely. Independent competitors have almost entirely disappeared and the Izu-shoto organisations have taken on the power and significance of the zaibatsu of old. Most commentators believe that they are already working towards bringing about independence for the entirety of Japan, whether through stealth or force. With future conflict considered a certainty, it seems clear that the shin-keiretsu will be at the heart of it.

Friday 28 November 2008

Of All the Girls I've Loved Before...

Sourcebooks. Some are bad, some are good, most are indifferent. Here are my favourites.

1. Pacific Rim Sourcebook for Cyberpunk 2020. There are lots of flaws in this book, not least that the section on Japan is far too long and those on the really interesting countries (Korea, the Phillippines, Indonesia, Myanmar) are far too short. But it does a brilliant job of setting out a detailed, cohesive, believable futuristic Pacific Rim - not at all far-fetched, and with just a touch of imaginative flair. The post-apocalyptic Australia in particular is a great Mad Max rip-off and a perfect place for a down and dirty Cyberpunk 2020 campaign. The book also contains an expansion for the detailed martial arts rules for which the game is rightly famed, together with glossaries of major East Asian languages (although I'm not sure how accurate they are if the Japanese one is anything to go by) and lots of new guns.

2. The Planewalker's Handbook for 2e AD&D. This is definitely my favourite TSR-produced sourcebook, mainly because I love its scrapbook, ad hoc approach, where on one page you'll find rules for Genasi player characters, on the next baatezu green steel, then a kit for wizards who fly around in hot air balloons after that... It's like a treasure trove. Not only that, it contains the rules for Belief Points, which were one of the major innovations in late-era TSR D&D and just about perfect for the Planescape setting.

3. Changeling: The Dreaming, The Player's Guide. Changeling: The Dreaming was always the most interesting of the World of Darkness settings (in fact the only one I ever really liked), and the player's guide was like the icing on the cake - more detail about the major races, plus a whole shedload of material on Native American fae. Best of all was the final section on the Autumn People; the idea of individuals who can kill fae through their sheer banality was way more scary in its own way than anything in Vampire or Werewolf.

4. The Orcs of Thar, for BECMI D&D. Evil humanoid races as player characters for classic D&D. Need one say more? Well, throw in rules for humanoid shamans, a ridiculous board game that nobody ever played, background info on all the races, and sheafs of maps. What more could a person want?

5. The Northwestern Middle Earth Map Set, for MERP. One of the cornerstones of being a Tolkien fan is the love of the geography, and one of the main pleasures of that occupation is poring over maps and imagining what might be found in the places illustrated. This book fulfils that need to connect with Middle Earth cartography in style.

Dice Man

These were posted earlier today at Grognardia, but just in case there are any readers of my blog who don't also visit that esteemed online resource (unlikely), here is a two part film about dice.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

What the Public Wants is the Image of Passion, not Passion Itself

One more thing: don’t spend too much time merely reading. The best part of this work is the play, so play and enjoy! - Gary Gygax

In another life, I took what literary theorists said seriously - seriously enough at least to disagree with many of them and consider them a blight on humanity; very well educated but fundamentally not-very-intelligent people are responsible for a lot of what's bad in the world. George Steiner in particular always struck me as a very eloquent and very widely read fool, but I reserved a special place in hell for Roland Barthes, a man I considered not far removed from Satan. I was a very angry and far-too-intellectual-for-my-own-good 20 year old. (One of my favourite quotes is by the writer Jonathan Franzen, who said that he spends around ten minutes a day fretting about the fact that, when he was in his 20s, he used to spend ten minutes a day fretting about things like the fact that Americans have substituted medical products for genuine psychological healing. I understand what he means in a very deep and meaningful sense - why was I so serious about things like that?)

Anyway, these days I'm a lot mellower and I think I can see a little bit of what Barthes was getting at, especially regarding Death of the Author. This was a famous essay by him in which he basically argued that in interpreting a text, it is the text and the reader's understanding of it alone which matters - not the author's intent. As soon as the author has produced a piece of writing he no longer owns it and no longer should be seen as having any relation to it - it is not his or her history or views which inform analysis of it, but the reader's. And each new reading by each new reader, or even each re-reading, is a new interpretation of a new text with a new meaning.

We can see this process in Dungeons & Dragons, you see. When Gygax and Arneson and their circle created the game, they had an idea of what they wanted to do, and a whole history of reading and playing and thinking behind that idea - a witch's brew of Tolkien, Moorcock, Howard, Leiber, Avalon Hill and a thousand other cultural artefacts from their own experiences. But if we interpret that in light of Barthes, where the author has 'died' the minute he has produced the text (and I should say straight away at this point that I refer to this in a purely metaphorical sense which has nothing to do with Gary Gygax's actual regrettable and very sad death), we should really throw all of that out of the window and ignore it. The text of Original D&D and 1e are for us to take meaning from for ourselves, irrespective of the intentions of the authors; if we want to use it to play games utterly different to what they envisaged, then we can do so. In fact, it could be argued that we ought to do so.

This is one of the reasons, really, why I'm not a great fan of stick-in-the-mud-ism when it comes to 'old schoolers', although I've never previously thought to articulate it in reference to Roland Barthes! The vast majority of old schoolers are, of course, creative individuals who just like to play. But there is a certain section who seem unduly wedded to what the orginators intended and to their vision of the game. Indeed I wrote a long rant about the very topic back in June, which I still mostly agree with, even if the painful stridency of the piece irks me. (I think I tend towards the painfully strident a little too much.) Gary Gygax and his generation created a great game, but it's not theirs anymore; they were the 'scriptors', to use Barthes' term, but we are the readers, the interpreters, and the ones who give the game meaning for ourselves. If we want to use the OD&D rules to play a campaign about mutant monkeys invading the star ship Enterprise at the edge of the universe, or about heroic halflings saving the world from the Dark Lord, then we should just go for it and devil take the hindmost.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Beware the Were Stuff

Here's what we're lacking: a random generator for lycanthropes. (Okay, okay, for the pedants out there: therianthropes). Let me be the one to provide it.

Therianthrope Generator

Step 1: Determine human form.

Roll a d10 and d6+2 to determine class and level.

1-3 - Fighter
4-5 - Thief
6-7 - Wizard
8-9 - Cleric
10 - Bard

Then roll a d12 to determine alignment.

1-8 - Chaotic Evil
9-10 - Neutral Evil
11 - Chaotic Neutral
12 - Chaotic Good

Step 2: Determine Animal/Hybrid Form.

In animal form, the therianthrope will have an AC d3 points better than the standard for its type, and damage per attack is that of the standard animal +2. HD are that of the character class level of the human form (for example, 6 HD for a level 6 human), and movement is the same as the standard animal type.

In hybrid form HD and AC are boosted by 1 point above that of the human form, and the therianthrope can use either weapons or the natural attacks of the animal form (but not both).

Spellcasters may not use magic in their animal form.

Roll a d20 and consult the tables for the base animal type. Damage, AC and movement are of the standard animal.

1 - Gorilla (DMG 1-4/1-4/1-8, AC 6, MOVE 12)
2 - Yak (DMG 1-3/1-3 or 2-8, AC 7, MOVE 24)
3 - Hyena (DMG 2-8, AC 7, MOVE 15)
4 - Crocodile (DMG 2-8/1-12, AC 5, MOVE 6/12 SWIM)
5 - Hippopotamus (DMG 2-12, AC 4, MOVE 6/12 SWIM)
6 - Jaguar (DMG 1-3/1-3/1-6, AC 6, MOVE 15/6 CLIMB)
7 - Orang-Utan (DMG 1-4/1-4/1-6, AC 5, MOVE 6/12 CLIMB)
8 - Secretary Bird (DMG 1-3/1-3/1-4, AC 6, MOVE 12/FLY 24B)
9 - Cassowary (DMG 1-3/1-10, AC 6, MOVE 18)
10 - Dingo (DMG 2-6, AC 7, MOVE 18)
11 - Tasmanian Wolf (DMG 2-8, AC 7, MOVE 18)
12 - Gila Monster (DMG 1-4, AC 6, MOVE 6 - Special attack: Poison, which causes d6 STR loss, d12 hit points damage, and paralysis for d3 hours on a failed saving throw)
13 - Komodo Dragon (DMG 1-8, AC 5, MOVE 12 - Special attack: Potentially fatal disease which causes death after d6 days on a failed save, or d6 STR loss on success)
14 - Hunting Dog (DMG 2-8, AC 7, MOVE 18)
15 - Baboon (DMG 1-3/1-3/1-6, AC 7, MOVE 15/CLIMB 12)
16 - Condor (DMG 1-4, AC 6, MOVE 3/FLY 36D)
17 - Warthog (DMG 2-12, AC 6, MOVE 15)
18 - Cheetah (DMG 1-2/1-2/1-8, AC 5, MOVE 15/SPRINT 24)
19 - Lion (DMG 1-4/1-4/1-10, AC 5, MOVE 15)
20 - Snapping Turtle (DMG 1-6, AC 4, MOVE 6/SWIM 15 - Special Attack: On a successful bite, can cling on to cause 6hp damage per turn; 50% hit point loss causes removal)

Roll a d10 to determine special therianthrope ability:

1 - Charm person by gaze, once per day
2 - Cause Fear, once per day
3 - Psionicist abilities, level 1-6
4 - Sleep, once per day
5 - Darkness, 15' Radius, once per day
6 - Blur, once per day
7 - Blink, once per day
8 - Pass without trace, once per day
9 - Can vampirically drain d3 hit points with each successful hit from a natural attack
10 - Has a d3 bonus to AC when in hybrid form from exceptionally tough skin

Three therianthropes created with this method:

Munvaya Bhalangraloo, Level 5 Chaotic Evil Thief and were-komodo dragon. Can cast blur once per day. Works as an assassin in the city of Blacksand, and is known to eat his victims alive.

Ghaji Vimsak, Level 6 Chaotic Evil Wizardress and were-orang-utan. Can cast charm person once per day. Lives in a tree-house complex in the jungle, served by captured children.

Domu-domu Jilibree, Level 3 Chaotic Evil Cleric and were-baboon. Can cast charm person once per day. Lives with the rest of his troop in a rocky area on the outskirts of town, ambushing travelers.

Were-secretary bird in animal form

Saturday 22 November 2008

Death and Difficulty

I think part of the reason why I'm attracted to the rpg's I really love and have played the most (BECMI and 2e AD&D, Cyberpunk 2020, MERP, RuneQuest, early Shadowrun) is Death. That is to say, in those games, it's tough for characters to live through even one adventure or mission - they are fragile entities whose capacity for survival is limited. High level PCs are treasured rarities who you come to have great affection for merely by dint of their luck or toughness.

Thinking about it, I rather like the few computer games I do for the same reasons. ToME, Oolite and Dwarf Fortress have incredibly steep learning curves which result in restart after restart; my list of beginning characters who never got beyond the first dungeon crawl in ToME runs into the hundreds, and even docking a spacecraft in Oolite is a difficult process to master.

Is it a kind of vicarious masochism? Possibly. But I'm more inclined to put it down to respect. BECMI and ToME are proper games who are difficult to master, and rewarding only through effort and luck; they don't mollycoddle and success in them must be earned. You have to appreciate a game like that - it's the difference, I suppose, between Monopoly and The Game of Life. One is an amusing diversion for kids. The other is a fun and interesting activity for all ages.

Friday 21 November 2008

Inspirational Pictures (III)

I was never a big fan of the goody-goody AD&D Lammasu. This picture is something fierce, noble and terrifying; why does 'Good' so rarely encompass those things?

The surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Rivers of blood? Fire?

Henry Fuseli's The Nightmare. I've always felt that there's something sinister about horses that has never properly been explored. And what a great goblin-link incubus that is; a candidate for my series of goblin entries perhaps.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Armour, Combat Descriptions and the One Minute Round

I've just finished reading Azincourt, the latest from Bernard Cornwell. It's an account of Henry V's Agincourt campaign from the perspective of one of the archers who took part, and a riproaring read which begins with murder in a small English village and climaxes in the famous battle, where around 6,000 English and Welsh archers and men-at-arms destroyed a French army of 20-30,000. I read it in a single day; by no means is it great art, but there's no writer quite like Bernard Cornwell for sheer barnstorming excitement and great fight scenes. (Without a doubt, when it comes to describing a battle from the point of view of the ordinary soldier, he's the best there is.) It's heartily recommended.

Naturally enough, since (at a conservative estimate) 70% of the book involves people killing each other, it got me thinking about combat. In particular, it got me thinking about medieval combat and the one-minute-combat round, as well as conceptions of combat in pre-3e D&D generally; probably this is because there has been a bit of discussion about the matter here and here in recent weeks so it's been lurking around in the back of my mind. To cut a long story short, I've always known in a theoretical sense that combat rounds in AD&D last a minute, and even paid attention to the passages in the 2nd edition PHB which say things like:

During a one-minute combat round, each character is assumed to block many attempted attacks and see many of his own attacks blocked. In normal combat, characters parry all the time--there's no need to single out each parry.


When making an attack, a character is likely to close with his opponent, circle for an opening, feint here, jab there, block a thrust, leap back, and perhaps finally make a telling blow. A spellcaster may fumble for his components, dodge an attacker, mentally review the steps of the spell, intone the spell, and then move to safety when it is all done. It has already been shown what drinking a potion might entail. All of these things might happen in a bit less than a minute or a bit more, but the standard is one minute and one action to the round.

But in practice, I've found that what tends to happen in older D&D games goes something like this:

Hector: I attack the troll. [Rolls dice]
DM: You cut the troll with your falchion, roll for damage.
Hector: Yay. [Rolls dice]
DM: [Rolls dice] The troll whacks you with his fist for 8 points of damage.
Hector: I attack him again. [Rolls dice]
DM: Your swing misses by an inch. [Rolls dice] The troll sinks his teeth into your face for 6 points of damage.

Admittedly a boring example, but you get the point: The idea of combat being a one-minute round of thrills and spills during the course of which people may or may not be injured and spells may or may not be cast goes out of the window, and is replaced by a hyper-detailed blow-by-blow account which might as well be second-by-second rather than minute-by-minute.

The thing is, an abstract combat round of one minute is difficult to envisage if all it involves is lots of dodging, parrying, feinting and fencing. That might simulate swordfighting duels from old films like those between Erroll Flynn and Basil Rathbone, or Tony Curtis and Ross Martin, but it doesn't seem to sit very well with the reality of messy, brutal melee. How do we conceptualise or envisage one minute of balls-to-the-wall violence in which participants might very well end up suffering trivial or no injury?

It's all about the armour. As one of the commenters in the Grognardia entry notes, "It's important to keep in mind that people wore the stuff because it worked." And work it did. In Azincourt, Cornwell describes how 5,000 or so French armoured men-at-arms were able to slog their way across 300 yards of open ground through knee-deep mud while enduring a hail of literally tens of thousands of arrows; even at close range a shot from a longbow could not penetrate the thick steel of a breast plate or greave. Nor was a sword or spear likely to - only a lucky or particularly well-aimed blow could cause injury, otherwise the worst that might happen would be the victim being knocked off his feet. Indeed, according to Cromwell (and Keegan) the vast majority of casualties in battles like Agincourt were execution-style killings of prone opponents: A man-at-arms would be knocked over in the melee, flounder in the mud, and then be disposed of either by a knife through the eyeslits in his visor, or by having his head bashed in with a poleaxe. The poleaxe was one of the few weapons which had a decent chance of cracking half-way serious armour.

An AD&D combat round, then, is actually like to involve lots of 'hits' that just don't cause injury. Even the lighter 'adventurer' armours such as chain mail or boiled leather were capable of turning a sword or spear blade, and in the cramped conditions in which most AD&D fights take place it's much more credible to imagine blows being landed but not causing injury than endless dodging, feinting and parrying.

The problem, as I've often thought, is that the 'to hit' roll is a misnomer which leads to unnecessary confusion. The rules would have been better served by called it the 'potential to cause damage' roll instead; a successful roll does not mean that you have hit so much as it means that you have been lucky or skilled enough to hit well, and a failed roll does not mean that you haven't hit - only that you haven't caused injury. 'Potential to cause damage' is an unwieldy term, but a much more accurate one than currently exists.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Irrational Hatred and Edition Wars

Due to another of Zach's recent entries, I came across this old rpgsite thread, which was the result of a Best/Worst RPG ever survey carried out on those forums. There are various ranking permutations worked out in the first post, but the most persuasive interpretation of the votes (number of 'best' votes - number of 'worst' votes) resulted in the following "bottom ten" table, number 1 being the worst game of all time:

1. AD&D 2e
2. Star Wars d20
3. Rifts (Palladium)
4. FATAL/Powers and Perils
6. Aftermath
7. Immortal: The Invisible War
8. AD&D 2e Player's Option/Living Steel
10. Fuzion

Do you notice anything odd about that? I do. Namely, AD&D 2e patently isn't the worst RPG ever. It really isn't. You might not agree that it is the best (and although it is my favourite, even I don't think of it as the best), or even that it is very good, but come on... the worst? How do we account for this abnormality?

Mostly, it is to do with the fact that 2e was the most played version of the game, and it thus draws the most ire from the people who dislike D&D generally; it is likely to be the version they are most familiar with. That's unfair, but understandable. However, some of the negativity must also be put it down to the the tendency among a sizeable portion of old schoolers, bemoaned in a recent thread at dragonsfoot, to what essentially boils down to Intellectual Perversity (as opposed to the sexual kind). That is, irrational hatred on the part of 1e AD&D fans for a game which is 99% similar to their favourite. Intellectual Perversity of grognards, how do I love thee, let me count the ways:

1. 2e AD&D went hand in hand with ill treatment of Gary Gygax, therefore it is bad. Intellectually perverse because it isn't the set of rules' fault, nor Zeb Cook's, that Gary Gygax was forced out of TSR, and lingering distaste over that episode is no rational reason for disliking the game.
2. 2e AD&D threw out some treasured eccentricities of 1e, therefore it is bad. Intellectually perverse because those treasured eccentricities added nothing to the game. Disorganised and incoherent rules are not a good thing. The assassin class never made any sense.
3. 2e AD&D is written in a simplistic style of English which anybody can understand, therefore it is condescending and infantile. Intellectually perverse because game rules are instructions and instructions should always be clear.
4. 2e AD&D got rid of the words 'devil' and 'demon' and replaced them with 'baatezu' and 'tanar'ri', therefore it was cowtowing to the moral majority and demonstrating cowardice. Intellectually perverse because it's a purely cosmetic change.
5. 2e AD&D was moralistic and high-handed, which is never good. Intellectually perverse because nothing within the ruleset prevents graverobbing, murder, genocide, or playing a chaotic evil character as the player desires.

These in and of themselves are perfectly acceptable reasons (however irrational) for disliking 2e or preferring 1e. But they hardly qualify as reasons to believe it the worst game ever, given that the two editions are so similar.

The root cause of this grognard hatred is, I believe, snootiness. 1e came first, and moreover was written more or less for adults. 2e was a jonny-come-lately with aspirations to appeal equally to both adults and older children. That sort of thing bothers people of a certain disposition, who fancy themselves mature and intelligent and above childish pursuits, and thus the edition war was born. Personally I prefer certain aspects of 2e to 1e, but I like the older edition and would never vote it the worst rpg ever, or even call it a bad one.