Tuesday 29 December 2009

I am not an Adventurer by Choice but by Fate

I'll continue with the Duchy of Liverpool stuff tomorrow, but wanted to jot down some thoughts arising from comments by Kelvin Green here:

I think there's a tendency nowadays to think that being able to play any kind of character you like is an innate good, and anything less is self-evidently wrong. Such a viewpoint tends to ignore the very useful focus you get from "restricted" games like Pendragon; when you sit down at the table, you know what kind of thing you'll be playing. There's no humming and hawing, and party conflict becomes something more interesting than alignment clashes. All on the same page, as you say.

Regarding the lack of interest in a generic Pendragon, I've noticed that the game as a whole is rather overlooked. We're playing it in my current group, and only myself and the GM have any prior experience of the game. Some of the group had never heard of it before. For such a very good, and old, game, it isn't particularly well known. I'd imagine the lack of interest in a generic ruleset stems from the same anonymity. Bear in mind that the game itself is currently out of print, and that the most recent two editions/printings bounced around a number of publishers. It's just not considered a big name game, much as it should be.

To which I replied:

Perhaps the two things are not unrelated. Restricted focus makes for better gaming but doesn't win you many friends in "the marketplace of ideas" or whatever you want to call it.

I learned this in the D&D 3.5 era. A large majority of people really want the billions of class, feat and skill options offered by all the splatbooks, even though it's probably detrimental to actual play.

When I got back into D&D in my early 20s the group I joined were like this. They were obsessed with character generation and the many dozens of different options available at every step. (The DM in particular seemed to have an entire shelf of splatbooks that he would refer to when offering friendly advice to us players - all of them stuffed to the gills with new prestige classes and superduper feats. The flipside to this was the advice you would get not to take this or that feat at character generation. "Don't take toughness. It's useless." Sage nods from the others around the table.) It was great to have all those choices and it would be churlish to criticise something that offered them so much pleasure, but it sometimes felt as if the WotC people, in allowing this horrendous unbridled growth of options, had turned character generation into a monster. Arguments would break out over what was or wasn't the best starting feat for this or that race and class combination; newbies (like me) were left confused and disillusioned when told for the third time that they shouldn't have gone for this or that skill... and it all seemed to get in the way of playing the actual game.

I see the benefit of the Pendragon approach more and more, for the exact same reasons that Kelvin gives. And yet this advantage it offers is its Achilles Heel, because I'm sure that "restrictiveness" is something that most players (most people, actually) are intrinsically prejudiced against.

Monday 28 December 2009

The Duchy of Liverpool (I)

Following on from last night's post, I present the Duchy of Liverpool, a campaign location for Pendragon/Changeling. Today is the overview. Tomorrow I'll write up adventure locations, and the day after I'll produce a list of seeds of conflict.

The map above details the lands of Donnchad mac Briain, Duke of Liverpool and Earl of Lime Street, and those who owe him (and the hose of mac Briain) fealty - the Barons of Waterloo & Litherland, West Derby, Knotty Ash, Wavertree and Mossley Hill, and the Earls of Docklands and Bootle.

Also on this map is shown the independent County of Knowsley, and the Cantref of North Wirral, which is ruled by Lord Llywelyn ap Owain, mac Briain's great rival and oft-warred against foe.

Most of the nobility and knights and ladies in the area are of course Sidhe. Those in Liverpool trace their heritage to Irish Sidhe, while those on the Wirral side are of Brythonic origin. The exception is the Earl of Docklands, Ezekiel Blythe, a troll who was knighted and later granted the Docklands title by the King of Dublin.

All of the kiths are represented in the area, though nockers and eshu are particularly common thanks to the maritime flavour of the city. Redcaps and satyrs are everywhere in the streets around Concert Square, and in the sewers and old railway tunnels lurk Sluagh and much, much worse.

Sunday 27 December 2009

We are Loathsome in the Eyes of Those Who do not Worship Us

Today I will mostly be talking about Pendragon and Changeling: The Dreaming.

Much as I loathe the rpg.net obsession with "doing" unspeakable and transgressive things with games which have no earthly business "doing" it (e.g. using Dark Heresy to "do" a Western) it does strike me that the Pendragon rules are rather narrowly defined given how good they are. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want to change the game one bit, but I do think that Mr. Stafford's opus has the potential for a far greater scope of application than just knights in Arthurian Britain. There's this Japanese variant, for one thing, which appears to "do" The Blossoms Are Falling better than The Blossoms Are Falling, and neo-feudalism in space a la Dune for another.

My latest idea is to use it to "do" what Changeling: The Dreaming always should have been about but lacked the wherewithal to focus on - namely fae, living among us in the real world, with a feudal system all of their own. C:tD had the trappings (Sidhe nobles, courts, aristocratic houses, kingdoms, knightly oaths, etc. etc.) suggesting this, but its execution was so incoherent and so burdened by that White Wolf need to dress everything up as a "story" that it never came out and said it outright. Instead, the overwhelming sense reading through its rulebook is that the atmosphere is great but it isn't at all clear what you're supposed to do with it. What the game was crying out for was the sort of robust character generation system and graceful mechanics for things like Traits and Passions and winter phases that Pendragon possesses.

What C:tD also needed was the kind of focus that Pendragon offers in its core rules: as a player character you are taking on the role of a young knight from a minor family and that is it. My C:tD's scope would essentially be the same thing - newly knighted fae of whatever kith, trying to make their way in the world, slaying Chimerae and beating up redcaps. Exercising ghosts. Fighting dragons. Travelling to other realities. Questing for ancient and powerful magical swords.

And I would set it in Liverpool, natch.

Saturday 26 December 2009

Give Me Your Art

Hope you all had a good Christmas and Boxing Day (do people in the barbaric wastes of North America know what that is?) finds you well.

Doug Easterly, of Savage Swords of Athanor fame, has put his setting materials into pdf format and offered them for sale on Lulu. If that isn't a kick up the backside for the likes of me I don't know what is. I've been fiddling around with Yoon-Suin stuff for what feels like forever, without any genuine progress. That's about to change.

Anyway, you all know how regrettable and criminally poor my artwork is. So I thought I'd throw out a plea for contributions. If you are in some way artistically talented, would like to see your work in a two-bit pdf cobbled together by an incompetent hack, don't mind working for free (the pdf release of Yoon-Suin will be free, maybe with a paypal donation button if I'm feeling particularly whorish), and if the idea of slug people riding around on giant house centipedes turns you on, then send me an email and we'll talk. I'm envisaging a scenario in which I send you bits and pieces of inspirational text and you send me something vaguely appropriate which ends up in the final product. (I want to maintain at least some standards, so let's introduce the proviso "if it's better than what I can do and there's space".) My email address is jean DOT delumeau AT that gmail thing.

All the Yoon-Suin related posts can be found by clicking here.

Thursday 24 December 2009

Saint Nicholas' Unholy Hymn

Lord save us from Christmas music. You can't even escape it in Japan.

Saint Nicholas' Unholy Hymn (Level 2)

Range: 120 yards
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1
Saving Throw: Neg.

When a wizard casts Saint Nicholas' Unholy Hymn, he causes a hideous uncontrollable urge to sing to come over his victim. Once taken by this urge the creature affected can do nothing else other than bellow a cacophonous dirge; he cannot fight, eat, sleep, or walk, though he does remain standing. The spell affects 2d4 hit dice of monsters; monsters with 4 or more hit dice are unaffected, and targets must be within 30 feet of each other. Creatures with an intelligence of 16 or more are permitted a saving throw.

Singing creatures can be attacked as if prone. They continue singing until they are wounded, or shaken and slapped repeatedly - they will eventually starve or die of exhaustion unless this occurs. Material components are a sprig of holly and a small silver bell.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Wherein Swedish LARPers Get All Political

Perhaps I should be all morally outraged about the game which is the subject of this thread, but I must be mellowing in my old age, because now I mostly find it amusing. I mean, this stuff is so close to a parody it's practically indistinguishable from one: "a short, game masterless jeepform game centred around the idea of using fiat as a means for oppression", "the game mechanics were conceived for the purpose of playing gang rape, but are equally useful for any form of oppression, like for example bullying/mobbing" (woohoo, not only gang rape, which is my favourite form of oppression to explore, but I get bullying and mobbing too? But wait, no, now I'm disappointed - there doesn't seem to be any racist lynching involved), and, best of all, "don't play this game unless you're in a good place mentally, and really think you are up to it. It is not meant to be fun to play."

Ah, Swedish LARPers, where would we be without you?

Anyway, I've written before on the futility of this sort of thing (let's all get together and explore flavour-of-the-month-political-issue-[x] via the medium of role playing games), but this example strikes me as even more redundant than most. I mean, is there anyone out there, and I mean anyone at all, with the possible exception of genetically predetermined sociopaths, who needs to be reminded that gang rape isn't very nice? Least of all who needs to be reminded of it through a LARP? If you do know such a person, it's nothing a sound slap to the chops and a trip to a psychiatrist won't fix.

Now, to play devil's advocate, it appears the game creator isn't only trying to remind us that gang rape is bad, he's also making a political comment - "One thing that has been severely bugging me the last couple of years is that (at least in Sweden), it seems nearly impossible today to get convicted for rape or gang rape." (Well, I'm sure like me you try to get convicted for rape and gang rape in Sweden all the time, so you don't have to tell us twice!) Zounds, the razor-sharp political insight, eh? I mean, whatever next - "One thing that has really been annoying me recently is climate change - what are we going to do about all those nasty emissions?"; "Recently I've been getting really pissed off about all the murder and stuff going on in those African places, colonialism was such a bad thing, I'm really cheesed off about it"; "These days the big issue that really gets my goat is whaling, man, those sea cows are like the most beautiful and intelligent thing that has ever lived, they even discuss the general theory of relativity in those sea songs and the evil Japanese are just committing genocide against them and stuff".

For the record, I don't need game designers telling me what is or isn't bad. I don't need to LARP away my inner demons. I have a moral compass, thanksverymuch. Now let's get back to rolling dice and killing orcs. And kids, remember: don't do gang rape, mobbing, bullying, racist lynching or use fiat as a form of oppression of any kind. (Other uses of fiat are probably okay, but check with your local branch of the Jeepform LARP Society all the same.)

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Atomic Rockets

I'm going all hard science fiction crazy at the moment with this blog, I know. Bear with me. I just wanted to link to the excellent site Atomic Rockets, an attempt to create a lay person's guide to rocketry and the science behind hard science fiction. (Aside from its contents, one thing you have to love about the site is its eccentric layout. As with all internet sites created by amateurs and which have been around for a long time, it truly feels as if it harks from a bygone era. I wonder if one day there will be an Antiques Roadshow of old websites?)

Anyway, browse through it and enjoy. Some particular favourite passages of mine, from the "common misconceptions" section:

Rockets Got Wings

If your rocket has a multi-megawatt power plant, an absurdly high thrust thermal rocket propulsion system, or directed energy weapons it will need huge heat radiators to purge all the waste heat. Otherwise the rocket will melt or even vaporize. Radiators look like large wings or arrays of panels. The necessity of radiators a real problem for warships since radiators are pathetically vulnerable to hostile weapons fire.


Rockets Don't Got Windows

Spacecraft have no need of windows or portholes, for much the same reason as a submarine. (No, the Seaview doesn't count. Strictly science fiction. There are no panoramic picture windows on a Trident submarine). Windows represent structural weakness, and there really isn't much to see in any event. Unless the spacecraft is orbiting a planet or docking with another ship, the only thing visible is the depths of space and the eye-searing sun. And unlike submarines, windows on a spacecraft also let in deadly radiation.

Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica to the contrary, space battles will NOT be fought at a range of a few feet. Directed energy weapons will force ranges such that the enemy ships will only be visible through a telescope. Watching a space battle through a port hole, you will either see nothing because the enemy ships are too far away, or you will see nothing because a reflected laser beam or nuclear explosion has permanently robbed you of your eyesight.

The navigation room might have an astrodome for emergency navigation. But for the most part windows will be omitted in favor of radar, telescopic TV cameras, and similar sensors.

Fuel Is Not Propellant

In a rocket, there is a difference between "fuel" and "reaction mass." Rockets use Newton's third law of Action and Reaction in order to move. Mass is violently thrown away in the form of the rocket's exhaust and the reaction accelerates the rocket forward. This mass is of course the "reaction mass." It is sometimes also called "remass" or "propellant."

The "fuel" is what is burned or whatever to generated the energy to expel the reaction mass. For example, in a classic atomic rocket, the fuel is the uranium-235 rods in the nuclear reactor, the reaction mass is the hydrogen gas heated in the reactor and expelled from the exhaust nozzle.

There are only a few confusing cases where the fuel and the reaction mass are the same thing. This is the case with chemical rockets such as the Space Shuttle and the Saturn 5, which is how the misconception started in the first place.

Automobiles, airplanes, and boats are sizable vehicles with relatively small fuel tanks. Not so rockets. An incredibly powerful rocket might approach having half its mass composed of reaction mass and the other half structure, hull plates, crew members, and everything else. But it is more likely that 75% of the mass will be reaction mass. Or worse. Most rockets are huge propellant tanks with a rocket engine stuck on the tail and a tiny crew habitat stuck on the top.

Monday 21 December 2009

Romanticism and Classicism Revisited

A while ago, in fact, Christ, it was more than a year ago, I wrote a post about Romanticist and Classicist approaches to fantasy. It seems unusual that at the time, and since then up until this point, it never occurred to me that a similar dynamic applies to science fiction too. Just as you have the romantic fantasy authors (M. John Harrison, Lord Dunsany, Michael Moorcock) and the classicist fantasy authors (George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Phillip Pullman) there exist romantic and classicist science fiction writers too. And just as in fantasy, the distinction comes in the approach taken to mystery.

Broadly, romanticist fantasy writers celebrate mystery (think of The Wizard Knight or Time and the Gods) while classicist fantasy writers attempt to nullify its effects (a key aspect of A Song of Ice and Fire is that its characters do not see the world as being somehow beyond their ken). In science fiction the dynamic is slightly different. The romanticist science fiction writers do not celebrate mystery so much as they rely on it - the reason why Star Trek technologies like transporters and warp drives can exist is that both we as the watchers and they as the writers accept that by necessity the way these technologies work has to remain a mystery. Classicist science fiction writers (Arthur C. Clarke, Alastair Reynolds, Kim Stanley Robinson) on the other hand are all about smashing mystery, about casting off its shroud and creating a knowable and understandable vision of the universe which stands up at least in theory to scientific rigour.

As with my thoughts on romanticist and classicist fantasy, I'm pretty conflicted about science fiction too. The handwavium of Star Trek is what allows it to do what it does. But there is something to be said for the sheer technical skill and intelligence it requires to create a classicist vision of the future.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Hard SF

Following on from yesterday's post I've been doing some thinking about hard SF. In principle I like the idea, you see. It's just that it's all so bloody difficult if you're a non-scientist like me. (My three GCSE Grade B's in Physics, Biology and Chemistry don't exactly stand me in good stead. What I really need to do is take a degree in Astronomy or something.)

There's also that old chestnut, the Player Investment Problem, or as I sometime think of it, the "a-realistic-game-set-in-ancient-Babylon-would-be-really-cool, but-only-1%-of-gamers-would-invest-anything-like-the-necessary-time-to-make-such-a-game-a-success problem." Which is to say, Pendragon and Harn are tough enough sells to most players. Don't even talk about a game in which you have to deal with lagrangian points and parsecs.

Transhuman Space looks interesting, were it not for the fact that I find the idea of transhumanism kind of laughable and revolting at the same time. It may be worth investigating to see if I can excise that part of it completely. Then again, that really probably just boils down to a very hard SF version of GURPS.

Saturday 19 December 2009

The Solar System

[Had a busy couple of weeks socially, academically and business-ily. (Can't think of an appropriate adverb to do with business for that sentence.) Will be back to daily updates from now on.]

From Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything:

Now, the first thing you are likely to realise is that space is extremely well named and rather dismayingly uneventful. Our solar system may be the liveliest thing for trillions of miles, but all the visible stuff in it - the Sun, the planets and their moons, the billion or so tumbling rocks of the asteroid belt, comets and other miscellaneos drifting detritus - fills less than a trillionth of the available space. You also quickly realise that none of the maps you have ever seen of the solar system was drawn remotely to scale. Most schoolroom charts show the planets coming one after the other at neighbourly intervals - the outer giants actually cast shadows over each other in many illustrations - but this is a necessary deceit to get them all on the same bit of paper. Neptune in reality isn't just a little bit beyond Jupiter, it's way beyond Jupiter - five times further than Jupiter is from us, so far out that it receives only 3 per cent as much sunlight as Jupiter.

Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn't possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn't come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with the Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over 300 metres away and Pluto would be about two and a half kilometres distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway). On the same scale, Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, would be 16,000 kilometres away. Even if you shrank down everything so that Jupiter was as small as the full stop at the end of this sentence, and Pluto was no bigger than a molecule, Pluto would still be over 10 metres away.

In light of that, and the fact that the solar system contains 8 planets, 5 dwarf planets, 335 moons and millions of asteroids, minor planets, comets, trojans, centaurs and the like, you really have to wonder why science fiction has obsessed for so long about interstellar and intergalactic empires. Isn't the solar system big enough?

One day I'd like to see a science fiction setting in which humans have colonised the solar system, but nowhere outside it - perhaps because travelling at the speed of light, or faster, simply hasn't been invented. This would be a fractured, multiethnic star system, where travel between planetary bodies takes weeks, months or years and communication is carried out by radio, and where military conflict is a projection of warfare on planet earth. In other words, a little like the era of European colonial expansion around the mid-18th century, except probably more likely dominated by countries such as China, India and Brazil.

Perhaps this setting already exists, and I just don't know about it. If so, its creators just haven't done a good enough job of getting it out there, dammit.