Saturday 31 December 2011

State of the RPG Nation

So it's that time of year, and nerds the world over are taking stock.

Over on, people are analysing depressing Google trend searches which seem at face value to indicate that RPGs are in terminal decline (though it is rightly pointed out that this is probably bullshit, and Google trend searches are impossible to glean anything from anyway). Meanwhile, the curmudgeons at are dissecting a column by Richard Baker, one of the main 4th Edition designers, which seems to indicate that WotC is now beginning to assassinate the character of the current edition in preparating for a release of iteration number 5 (as it did with 3rd edition and AD&D in times past before new edition releases).

So the world keeps turning. As for me, this has been a very good year for role playing, though it's been a crazy year of ups and downs in my personal life. As from October I've had actual weekly gaming, and good gaming at that - and it looks set to continue. I've expanded my horizons by playing actual story games, heaven forfend. I've managed to keep this blog going and widen its audience considerably, after learning to embrace periods of down-time when enthusiasm wanes and life gets in the way. And I think I've reached a stage at which I feel comfortable with my own GMing style (objective, dispassionate, improvisational, hands-off), the kind of games I like (relatively crunchy, though without much in the way of skill lists), and my preferences (G, with a touch of S and just a sprinkle of N, thankyouvermuch).

And in keeping with this blog's history, I've also generated a fair amount of what I like to think of as "healthy debate". So I thought I'd round of the year with a list of links to the most commented-on entries I wrote in the last 12 months, in reverse order:

9=. Piledriving D&D, in which I discussed the phenomenon of unintentional rules mistakes that are not corrected and become entrenched (21 comments).
9=. I Blame The Children; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Declaring Actions Before Rolling Initiative, in which I talked about initiative an awful lot (21 comments).
8. The Most Mammoth Bestiary-related RPG Download Ever is Available for Your Perusal, which is sort of self-explanatory really (22 comments).
7. Lord Spare Us, in which I ranted a lot about pseudointellectualism, which is rich coming from me (29 comments).
6. Ooh, Magic Missile, bemoaning how fucking boring D&D magic is (31 comments).
5. Rent-Seeking in the Dungeon, a musing on how productive adventuring is for the economy (33 comments).
4. Pointless and Unacceptable Levels of Pretentiousness, in which I wax pseudointellectual, thus contradicting the stance expressed in item 7 (36 comments).
3. On Lawfulness, in which I do exactly the same thing as in item 4 (40 comments).
2. Faking It; or, You'd Better be Al Pacino; or, Stop Rolling the Fucking Dice, in which I wade into the Quantum Ogre debate and...well...say some things that were apparently a bit controversial (120 comments).
1. What Am I Thinking?, an innocent post about puzzles which developed into something rather more than that and, ultimately, proved how small the gaming world is by uniting two people who'd once played a game of D&D together years ago and happen to both read my blog (125 comments).

Roll on 2012.

A Spearprising Statistic

As a long-time resident of Japan who doesn't really buy into the Japanophile scene, I'm always entertained when myths about Japanese society (particularly to do with samurai) get busted. (See posts passim like this one.) So I was pleased to discover some statistics while reading Sir George Sansom's magisterial, and somewhat dry, A History of Japan:

There are no exact records of the arms carried by the troops engaged at Sekigahara, but a general idea can be gained from the composition of a reinforcement sent to Ieyasu by Date Masamune in October 1600. Of a total of 3,000 men, 420 were mounted, probably carrying swords, 1,200 carried firearms, 850 carried spears, and 200 carried bows; there are no particulars for 330 men. 
A similar contingent of some 2,000 men from another quarter included 270 mounted men, 700 men carrying firearms, 550 carrying spears, and 250 carrying bows; there are no particulars for the rest. These and other records show that by 1600 the most important weapons were firearms, followed by spears and next by bows. Swords came last.

So there you have it: katana look nice, but ask those who were in the know and they'd always have gone for trusty old yari, and they liked teppo best of all.

Actual matchlock firearms were only introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in about 1540, so it was only in the course of 60 years that they came to surpass the bow in terms of importance. Almost like with the Maori musket wars, a foreign technology was introduced which totally revolutionised Japanese warfare and changed social mores indelibly (though in this case, in the opposite direction to that of the Maori: Japan became more conservative and backward as a consequence). This is a lesson for any DM who is interested in creating a living, breathing, sort of a world: imagine what could happen to an orc society once firearms (or a certain type of magic) is introduced.

But I'm more interested in spears. To put it simply, I'm a spear fan when it comes to D&D, and never create a fighter who doesn't have one (or a trident or similar). Swords don't interest me much: a spear is just as good in a fight - or better, because it lets you fight from a rear rank or from above/below - but it's also an invaluable tool: it's a 10' pole with a spike on the end. It's a trap-finding, hole-poking, enemy-tripping, depth-finding device extrordinaire which no self-respecting dungeoneer should leave home without. No wonder the medieval Japanese liked it so much.

Thursday 29 December 2011

On Ontology (Geddit?) and Postmodernism

Wyzard wrote a comment on this post that I think deserves a wider audience than being stuck at the bottom of a 40-comment long thread:

Being an avid Planescape player from the early-mid 90's, I thought that campaign setting had a robust take on what alignments meant... after all, the very substance of the Outer Planes was made up of the belief/consciousness of the Multiverse's denizens. A couple of things to consider: Order/Chaos wasn't much of a moral axis than an ontological one.

Lawfulness reflected one's belief of reality being externally/objectively based/defined/grounded; one's viewpoints, perspectives, understandings derived from truths outside of oneself. [The Lawful Neutral plane of Mechanus expressed such qualities in a number of ways, such as the environmental effect of all spoken languages from any tongue being understood identically by all.]

Chaos indicated that one's belief of reality was primarily (or even solipsistic) self-created, subjective definition/genesis, intuitionally granted, etc... or the existence of an objective universe isn't considered important and/or knowable. [The Chaotic Neutral plane of Limbo was a maelstrom of constantly changing elements, a soup of possibility that only took solidity with one's thought/willpower.]

This strikes me as a very elegant and, philosophically, quite interesting approach. What I like about it (and actually, what I liked about Planescape) is that it is completely, and in fact sensibly, incoherent.

Which is to say, there's something pleasingly postmodern about the notion that there is no Truth, just many approaches to it. You might even call it radically postmodern, in that it doesn't just deny that we can know what the Truth is; it implicitly says: there is no Truth, just many truths; deal with it. But the incoherence isn't just pleasing in that sense - it also makes the game work. It says to the players nothing less than the following: "We, the designers, take no position on religion or morality or philosophy or ethics. We're just giving you a toolkit to have fun with. If this involves killing orcs in dungeons, fine. If it involves actual semi-serious battles of beliefs, that's fine too. Go for it, and remember, we don't care what you think." And that's great.

D&D: postmodernism but with orcs. Of course, I knew this years ago, but I believe in the value of repetition.

There's no accounting for it.

Taste. Amazingly, some people in the world have different tastes to mine. I'm slowly but surely coming to terms with this over the course of my life; I've now reached the stage where I can just about accept that other people have opinions that they hold dear and aren't just being contrary for the sake of it, but I'm yet to accept that these opinions are anything but wrong. Maybe I'll mellow with age.

I've talked quite a lot before about differing tastes in role playing games. Today, I was struck by a thought while idly browsing the HMV post-Christmas sale (a particular slice of hell on earth that you have to experience to truly appreciate): I wonder if a good way of approaching the issue is to ask the very simple question to a given gamer, "Do you prefer Final Fantasy, or Civilization?" This, to me, boils all of the differences between role players into two neat packages - either you prefer to have your freedom confined by a narrative, or you prefer to have your freedom confined by the effort you are willing to put into things. Either you prefer to discover a potentially cool and exciting story and feel part of it in a way you can never feel part of a novel, or you prefer to plot, scheme and dream up ways to achieve success. Either you like to image yourself as a bloke with weird spiky blonde hair and an unfeasibly large sword, or you have a God complex.

The thing about this dichotomy, of course, is that you don't have to define yourself absolutely as one or the other. Some days you like looking at pretty anime people doing weird stuff, and on those days you look at the porn threads on 4chan play Fighting Fantasy VII. Other days you want to waste about 6 hours masterminding a scheme to commit genocide against the people of Babylon, and on those days you play Civilization 4. Though deep down inside, of course, your heart is really wedded to one over the other.

Monday 5 December 2011

On Lawfulness

Among my many sins, I lecture on the law of contract and public law, and am finishing off a PhD on sovereignty. So, naturally, I think about the law a lot, in particular the philosophy of law, and one of the things I find interesting about older D&D is the "lawful" alignment - even though I know that what the designers were getting at and why they gave it that moniker is basically just all about aping Michael Moorcock.

Jurisprudence 101: almost all the philosophies of law there have ever been can essentially be broken down into two schools: positivism and natural law. (It's a little bit more complicated than that, though not much.)

Positivists, of whom the English philosopher of law HLA Hart is probably the most famous, approach law as something that is only 'posited' (hence the name) - i.e., that a society's legal system is not based on anything fundamental or moral about the universe or human nature, but merely on the rules that the society has agreed to operate on - and really those rules could be anything. Broadly, legal validity, for a classical positivist, depends not on the content of the rules or their merits, but on their sources: law is "normatively inert". (This does not mean that positivists ignore issues of morality and justice - simply that they do not see law as being connected with morality or justice except by coincidence.)

Natural law takes the opposite approach, assuming that law is inextricably linked to morality and justice, and natural law theorists assume that legal validity rests on that connection - a law is not valid unless it is based on some moral principle or other. This might be religious in nature, as Aquinas would have argued, or it might be based on a concept of fundamental 'human goods' a la John Finnis; either way, a law is not a law unless it has normative content. (Ronald Dworkin, perhaps the only legal philosopher non-lawyers might have a cat's chance in hell of knowing about, was basically a believer in natural law despite his protestations: his view that judges interpret the law based on "principles", and that every case has a "right answer", is classic natural law.)

To caricature things somewhat, to the positivist, the problems with natural law are twofold: it assumes that law is subjective and hence arbitrary (what are "morals", "human goods", and "principles", and who gets to decide? - one of the key criticism's of Dworkin's work is that, by amazing coincidence, it turns out that "principles" are basically liberal/social democratic in nature, which is Dworkin's personal political persuasion), and it suggests that there is no such thing as value pluralism (because ultimately there are "right answers"). To the natural lawyer, the problems with positivism are also twofold: it does not really reflect reality to assume that there is no necessary connection between law and morality/justice, because in practice everybody behaves as if the two are linked; and without moral content law becomes oppressive (a decree to kill all Jews is still a law unless you assume that "law" implies a certain moral foundation).


This is all well and good, of course, but how does it relate to D&D?

It is my contention (not that I've ever contended it in public) that there are two corresponding approaches to the 'lawful' alignment in Classic D&D. On the one hand, it is possible to take the natural law perspective, which ultimately suggests that 'lawful' is synonymous with 'good'. A lawful character is moral (in whatever sense), and believes in some concept of truth, justice and righteousness which is the foundation on which society's rules rest, and behaves accordingly.

On the other hand, however, it is perfectly feasible to construe a lawful character as being a positivist, i.e., a believer in a certain set of laws which do not necessarily have a moral or ethical foundation (although which might do, of course), but which are simply set by the society in which he or she grew up. This opens the door to a wide variety of different, and weird, notions of what 'laws' and 'rules' are. Maybe your lawful character holds that to hold property is unlawful? That there is no such thing as 'theft'? That working on a Sunday is against the rules? That a lie is not a lie if you are standing on one leg while saying it?

Monday 21 November 2011

I Take It Back

A while ago I complained that, on re-reading, George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire was not quite as good as I remembered it, probably because I read too much Gene Wolfe. But you know what? I'm half way through A Dance with Dragons, and it's good. It's flawed in so many ways (bland prose, Dan Brown School of Chapter Endings cliffhangers, silly names, a vastly unwieldy cast of characters that makes you go "who's that again?" every single damn page) but I've not been this hooked on a book for quite a long while.

Thursday 17 November 2011

What Astrology and Werewolf: The Apocalypse have to say about the human condition

Human beings like organising themselves into groups and fooling themselves into thinking that the particular group they belong to is in some way distinct, having different (superior) characteristics to all the others. This is an element of in-group - out-group bias, a psychological phenomenon in human beings that seems one of our most fundamental social characteristics. We decide that we belong to a certain group, with its own special and brilliant flavour, and begin disparaging and agitating against all other groups with almost embarrassing ease.

This tendency seems to extend beyond the family, the clan, the tribe, the gang, the team, or the nation, even into the relatively abstract realm of bogus pseudo-science and role playing games. 

Let me explain. I have no scientific evidence for this - I'm just a humble lawyer - but it seems relatively clear that one of the reasons why astrology is so popular is that it gives you a sense of belonging to a certain group with certain characteristics, which become desirable and superior to the characteristics of other groups simply by dint of the fact that you have them. So, being a Leo, I read in wikipedia that Leos are:

[A] natural star and leader. They are outgoing, warm-hearted, and wish to excel in all they do. Leo personalities are known to love those they are close too and they wish to protect and defend all those that need it. Leos enjoy flattery and attention from others, they are also sensitive to any form of criticism. People born under the Leo star are invariably materialistic they set a great value to material boons and strive to financial success. Leo individuals need love and recognization from others to boost their ego and they demand it like something for granted. They are known to have plenty of worshippers but also many hidden enemies.

And I immediately begin to kid myself that these are the best characteristics that any person could have, much better than those of those stinky Taurans, Sagittarians and Pisceans, not to mention those hideous fucking Virgos, and I lie back satisfied with the world and my place in it, as a proud, outgoing, warm-hearted Leo. Never mind that I don't actually know any other Leos; I still feel as if I am part of this supranational, supracultural in-group, and that we are the best of the star signs.

In the same way, people who play role playing games like to organise themselves into abstract groupings. I was reminded about this when reading this thread on recently. It's about Werewolf: The Apocalypse, a ridiculous game in which all of the world's werewolves belonged to one of a number of 'tribes', each with its own unique special talents, power levels, characteristics, and abilities. Just like with astrology, the notion that you can divide all the world's population into a dozen or so groups with similar characteristics is utter nonsense, yet people (including myself) love this element of the game: we like thinking of ourselves as part of the in-group, with special characteristics better than the others. And again, just like with astrology, it doesn't matter that you do not know anybody else whose werewolf is a Bone Gnawer; still it gives you a bogus sense of belonging to a group of a kind, which is known for being highly adaptable, tough, intelligent and resourceful, and this gives you warm fuzzy feelings of a most basic and instinctive kind. For the short time in which you inhabit this character, you are thinking to yourself, Bone Gnawers are just plain better than the other tribes - although undoubtedly it happens on a mostly subconscious level.

Of course, the difference between astrology and Werewolf: The Apocalypse is that when your Bone Gnawer character dies you can choose to be a werewolf of another tribe (whereupon you'll likely start to think that, actually, this new character is a bit better and his tribe is kewler, because you're a human being and that's what you do), whereas you can't choose a new star sign: you'll be a Leo for life. Not a bad thing, because Leos are the greatest and if you don't agree with me it's probably because you're some idiotic Cancerian or Fire Horse.

Monday 14 November 2011

Random "Mr Jones" Mission Generator

It's an urban setting in a grim future, and your players are trying to rustle up some work. They ask around, get in touch with some old friends, and discover:

The idea being you roll a d8 four times and see what happens. Very rudimentary - this took about 2 minutes to create; in reality I'd probably make it a d20 or d30 table. Also, "Deliver" should obviously read "Deliver something to".

If I had more time I would create sub-tables to flesh out things a little more (deliver what?), but you get the idea. Make your own.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Logistics versus Story Logic

An aspect of role playing preferences that GNS and other "theories" does not cover is that of logistics versus story logic. (This is not a particularly novel observation.) It was brought home to me recently when thinking about the two games that have been occupying my mind recently - namely Apocalypse World and Cyberpunk 2020 - because they actually quite neatly summarise it.

Apocalypse World is mostly interested in story logic, by which I mean the following: equipment, gear, health, skills, and everything else on the character sheet, only becomes relevant inasmuch as it is interesting for generating a narrative. (Because it is a story-game, this does not mean the GM's narrative, but rather 'the narrative' in the abstract sense - the emergent story.) What is the classic example for how this operates in play? You don't keep track of ammo for guns. Ammo only runs out as a consequence of failing at a roll - i.e. when it would make events in play more interesting, story-wise. In other words, it does not obey real-world logic (e.g. the Glock you are carrying has a magazine capacity of 17 rounds, so you have 17 shots) but story logic (e.g. the Glock you are carrying has infinite ammunition unless it would be interesting if you ran out, in which case you might).

Cyberpunk 2020 is the opposite to an almost obsessive extent: money, ammunition and health is tracked very carefully, and arguably the game loses much of its drama if you don't take care to track these things (at least if, like me, you find the logistics of these sorts of thing fun in their own right). It matters if that bullet hits you in the arm for 7 damage or 8, because if it's the latter you lose the limb and if it's the former you don't. It matters that you put on a kevlar vest that morning but not a helmet, because if you get hit in the head you're dead. These things happen irrespective of whether or not it would be "interesting".

We're capable of holding different preferences, which is why I like both games, but obviously we also tend to lean one way or the other most of the time. What I like about the logistical approach to game structure is that it respects planning. Done properly (i.e. if the GM doesn't fudge dice and everybody buys into the process) it rewards players who like to think carefully and prepare for what they are doing - who approach gaming strategically. Players who plan don't run out of ammo, because they've been clever and careful. Players who do run out of ammo die or fail, because they were stupid. What I dislike about the story logic approach is that it seems, to my mind at least, to lean slightly too closely towards Dodo Bird Verdicts ("Everybody has won, and all must have prizes") - whether you play intelligently or foolishly, you are rewarded by something fun/interesting happening within the story, which is sort of a moral hazard if you think about it a bit too much.

Thursday 3 November 2011


Being a list of TRPBTNTWAs, or, Things Role Playing Bloggers Tend Not To Write About:

  • Book binding. (I can't be the only person who bemoans the way new rulebooks tend to fall apart like a sheaf of dry leaves after about 5 seconds of use).
  • "Doing a voice". How many people "do voices"? Should they? How do you get better at "doing a voice" if that's your thing?
  • Breaks. How often do you have breaks within sessions?
  • Description. Exactly how florid are your descriptions?
  • Where do you strike the balance between "doing what your character would do" and "acting like a dickhead"? 
  • PC-on-PC violence. Do your players tend to avoid it, or do you ban it? Or does anything go?
  • How do you explain what a role playing game is to a stranger who is also a non-player? (Real life example: my friends and I were playing in the local M:tG club space. A M:tG groupie teenage goth girl came over and asked, "What are you playing?" "[We answered.]" "Sounds kind of gay.")
  • Alchohol at the table? 
  • What's acceptable to do to a PC whose player is absent from the session? Is whatever happens their fault for not being there, or are there some limits?

A Walk Down Memory Lane

Like many role playing enthusiasts of my generation, I spent my formative years not so much dicking around with D&D as dicking around with Cyberpunk 2020 and, to a slightly lesser extent, Shadowrun. It's difficult to believe now, because times have changed so much, but these games really were popular back then. At my local Virgin Megastore (which shows how far back in time this is going; not only did Virgin Megastores stop stocking RPG books about 15 years ago, they disappeared entirely about 10 years ago) CP2020 and Shadowrun books were probably second only in volume to AD&D ones, with MERP and Rifts stuff being vastly distant fourth and fifth. Before the hideous rise of Vampire: The Masquerade, I think it's safe to say that CP2020 bore the mantle of the "credible alternative" to AD&D (inasmuch as any role playing game can be "credible"). Where AD&D (by now in its 2nd edition) was seen as stale, cliched, and trite, there was still something edgy about CP2020, with its extremely deadly and realistic combat system, its rules for drug use, and sassy writing style.

Of course, nowadays when you page through the rule-book, the edginess seems amazingly tame and endearingly non-edgy. Mike Pondsmith's authorial voice is still very much in evidence and it's not hard to imagine why my 14-year-old self was impressed with lines like:

[So] you're starting to look over the list of cyberenhancements, and you're thinking, "I don't have the kind of Eurobucks I need to swing this newtech." At this point, you have to ask yourself "How desperate am I? Am I really hard up enough to risk death and dismemberment just to get a lousy cyberarm?"
Sure you are.

In fact, fuck it, I'm still impressed with it now; cheesy it may be, but this guy really knew how to make a rulebook fun to read, and, more importantly, he knew how to make a rulebook make you really want to play the game.

But it's all quite safe and charming, from a 2011 perspective. One of the illustrations has a guy with two guns and a tattoo of a pentagram with '666' on his shoulder (ooh!). In the section on how to design/buy drugs, the reader is reminded that drugs will "mess up [your character] beyond repair - just like in real life". And there's no bad language, so we get hilarious "melon farmer" style quasi-swearing ("Who does this choob think he is?").

More noticeably, of course - and this, ultimately, is probably the reason for the demise of cyberpunk in general as a literary, cinematic, or ludic genre - it's all so very, very wrong about how the future has turned out. Although, notionally, CP2020 was "set" in the year 2020, and we can't say what might happen in the next 9 years, so many of its predictions about how the world would be have turned out to be laughably wrong. (Indeed, I find it neatly ironic that the main message of one of William Gibson's early stories, The Gernsbeck Continuum, which took the piss out of 1930s sci-fi's vision of the future, could quite easily be applied to cyberpunk.)

So, in the CP2020 rulebook, we are told that a cellular phone will cost $400 and a contract for cell phone service $100/month. You are expected to pay $1/minute at a phone-box-esque "Data Term" in order to access newspapers and other information online. Cyberdecks are used not for social networking, creating wikipedia articles, or arguing on forums because "somebody is wrong on the internet", but only for the very limited purposes of data mining and sabotage. Pocket computers have "100 pages of alphanumeric memory" (gasp!). And if you're a music fan, you can buy "digital music chips" containing up to 6 (!) albums to listen to on your "digital chip player".

More significantly perhaps, because these are just cosmetic, cyberpunk as a genre and CP2020 as a game was just wrong in its vision of how society would develop. CP2020 asks us to imagine a future in which the streets are ruled by crazed boostergangs, corporations fight wars against nation-states, nuclear meltdown has made entire areas of the globe uninhabitable, and the Soviet Union is still a dominant force. We don't live in that kind of dystopia, and some blips notwithstanding, our lives are immeasurably better now than they were in 1985.

This is undoubtedly why CP2020 slipped from the minds of role players. Tastes change, and set against the WoD games I suppose it began to seem quaint, old-fashioned, and just a bit naff. Just as you don't see films like Blade Runner being made any more, you don't see cyberpunk having any legs as a genre of RPG; it's not so much that CP2020 has disappeared, it's that nothing has replaced it.

But in a sense none of that really matters, because as a game it did work once, and there's no reason why it can't still work today. Some day I'd like to pick up my old CP2020 rulebook and, like the old school movement did for D&D, play the game on its own merits, warts and all, and see what charms I can discover. Forget the internet; we have cyberspace. Never mind facebook; cyberspace is for hacking into other peoples' bank accounts. Forget ubiquitous iPhones; cell-phones are the preserve of the super-rich and still weigh a kilo. Laptops cost thousands of dollars and, if you're lucky, might hold 8 MB of RAM. And yet at the same time, we're able to literally create replacement eyes out of silicon and metal. Soviet-created bio-plagues and radioactive fallout pass on hideous diseases to the unprotected. And all the while, in the mean streets of vast dystopian cityscapes, anarchy reigns, and cyberpsychos stalk the earth...

Wednesday 26 October 2011

When Story Games Go Bad

I've given Apocalypse World, and story games in general, quite a bit of love recently. Tonight's session was fun, as always, but we came across an apparent limitation in the system which bears a bit of discussion - namely player versus player conflict. I'll have to go into a bit of detail about an arcane rules point here, but bear with me: it'll be worth it. Maybe.

Anyway, a situation arose in play in which two characters (one of which was mine, as it happens) nearly came to blows, and ended up embroiled in a social conflict of a kind, in which my character was trying to persuade the other to stop pinning him against a wall and the other guy was trying to persuade mine not to do something he deemed foolish. AW has a resolution system comprising a set of "moves", such as "going aggro" or "reading a person", where you roll the dice and successes allow you to either get meta-game knowledge or achieve something in-game - usually with quasi-narrative-control consequences either for you or the GM. This works swimmingly when it comes to NPCs; if (for example) you are "reading a person" your character engages him in conversation and rolls the dice, with a minor success indicating you get to ask a question about the NPC which the GM has to answer truthfully, and a major success indicating you get to ask three. (Failures allow the GM to turn the result around on the player, though we don't need to go into that in detail.)

In the situation described, both players were essentially relying on a seduction/persuade roll. The way this works on an NPC is that your character rolls the dice, with success indicating that the NPC will be persuaded (although only after extracting a promise in return) and failure indicating that he/she will only be persuaded from going against the PC through some sort of significant sacrifice. (I'm simplifying a little.) Fine. But when it comes to PC-on-PC conflict, the mechanism works differently: you roll, and if you get a success you force the other player to choose - they can either be persuaded, in which case they get XP, or they can refuse, which means they have to make a different roll of their own to see if they manage to resist the seduction/persuasion (failure resulting in negative consequences).

All well and good, but there is a subtext, or underlying assumption, to all of this: the players have to be willing to play along. This isn't what happened in our session: I rolled to persuade the other PC to let mine go and succeeded, whereupon he refused and rolled to see if he could do so. Which he did. Whereupon, duly, he rolled to persuade my PC to go along with what he wanted. Whereupon I refused, and rolled to see if I could do so - which I did.

This resulted in a clear impasse, which could technically have gone on for the entire session if we had continued to roll successes, with both of us persuading and resisting back and forth ad infinitum. The system seems to rely on players, at some stage, being willing to sacrifice "winning" for the good of the "story", which cannot be guaranteed. The designers seem not to have realised that, well, lots of people (myself included) are obstinate fuckers who want to get their own way all the time.

We managed to get a resolution through using other mechanisms (the GM forced us to try to "read" each other to work out how our respective characters could be persuaded to back down and reach a compromise, which came good in the end), but there was still something fundamentally unsatisfactory about the whole affair. There is something to be said for the traditional D&D approach, which would simply have involved the two players inhabiting their characters and talking/arguing things through without rolls; if you have to bend the rules and negotiate a compromise anyway, why bother with a mechanism for social conflict in the first place?

Although maybe we were all being too D&D-ish in the first place and conceptualising things in terms of winning/losing, rather than what would turn out to be interesting in narrative terms.

Or, alternatively, maybe we just don't understand the rules properly and somebody is reading this and frothing at the mouth, ready to open the comments and start typing: YOU UTTER MORONS, THIS IS NOT HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS!!!!!!!!!!1

Monday 24 October 2011

Monstrous Goodness

Via the Land of Nod comes this, the complete AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual(s), html-ized and (apparently) WotC-approved, for your perusal.

This is obviously a project very dear to my heart, as you can probably guess. Perhaps the best thing about this site is that it also includes illustrations and monsters from the setting-specific Monstrous Compendia, like the Planescape and Kara-Tur ones.

Friday 21 October 2011

Life Lessons

I ran the first session of my Google+ Yoon-Suin campaign last night, with -CJeremyKelvin and Anthony (who I don't think has a blog) in attendance, and a good time was had by all. (Well, by me, anyway.) Although there were some technological issues, I think everybody got into the swing of things and, as a group of strangers, we gelled relatively well. This, as we all know, is usually enough to go 75% of the way towards good gaming in and of itself.

I was also reminded of three genuine "OSR life lessons" during the session, which (despite my diplomatic assertions to the contrary) only serves to confirm in my mind that this circle of 1000 or so people, who come for good or ill under the auspices of "the OSR", have discovered or created something close to the One True Way of role playing games. At least, for our own purposes. These life lessons are:

  • You really, absolutely, definitely, unquestionably, indisputably, do not need a detailed character background before play begins. In fact, all you really need is a name, a class, stats, and some equipment, and you're good to go - because within five minutes of the game beginning you will without fail find your character beginning to take on a personality of his own. This strange and almost mystical emergence of character through play is one of the best things about the hobby, and it amazes me that people have been so determined, for decades, to kill the concept.
  • You only need to roll the dice when the outcome of an action cannot be decided by agreement or fiat. In 2-and-a-bit hours of play (short, I know, but my motto is "always leave them wanting more") there was exactly one dice roll, and it was by me to see if there was a random encounter (there wasn't). Otherwise, everything happened either through consensus or a bit of fiat, no eyebrows were raised, and things progressed entirely adequately. Dice are a last resort, to be used for adjudication where something has to be contested. And, in fact, dice are a thing which good players will do their damnedest to avoid, because dice mean you may end up losing hit points. When your character has 1 hit point, as Kelvin's does, that can have serious consequences.
  • If you let players loose in a sandbox, they'll do things that you as the GM never would have expected, and for you these moments are the most enjoyable of all. Why several generations of GMs have been told that their job is to get the players from A to Z, instead of giving their players an alphabet and telling them to come up with their own words, is one of the great mysteries of the modern age. Probably.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

We Play

Apocalypse World in action. Note the Vornheim-created city in the middle, proving its value for fancy-pants story games that have little in common with D&D.

The character sheet in the foreground is mine. I play Trout, a hocus (cult leader), who we have decided looks like "Steve Buscemi in a smock".

Monday 17 October 2011

Uncle Andrew's Bestiary

So, I think when I'm coming up with my next campaign I'll be using an idea I'm christening "Uncle Andrew's Bestiary", after the character from The Magician's Nephew and inspired by this post. An Uncle Andrew's Bestiary is, in essence, a volume which the DM gives to the players at the start of the game as a piece of realia, which pupports to be a catalogue of monsters that might be encountered in the adventuring environment. Example versions of Uncle Andrew's Bestiaries are:

  • A volume inherited by one or more of the players from an adventuring uncle.
  • An ancient book found in the dark corner of a library.
  • An old hard disc from an abandoned space wreck.
  • The log or diary of an explorer in a museum.

The point of an Uncle Andrew's Bestiary is that it should give out enough information to get the players interested, but not enough that it prevents them from wildly speculating and becoming worried. Of course, as a piece of realia, there are no stats, and the conceit - that this is actually a written account of a real person - rests on the assumption that the author did not get close enough to the creatures he wrote about to be attacked/killed by them. This means that their abilities will remain mysterious and unquantified for the players until there is an actual encounter.

Some example entries from an Uncle Andrew's Bestiary:

  • "In the tunnels under the mountain lived a horrid, gaunt, grey creature, like a thing that had tried to become human but failed."
  • "There were many eyes glimmering in the dark, and the impression of a huge writing body mass; I fled back the surface."
  • "Something like a large feathered frog, with a maw of razor-sharp teeth and long legs made as if for jumping great distances. The jungle people told me not to go near."
  • "It had a long body like a snake, but transluscent; inside I could see what I think were human bodies. Its head was like a man but with a loose, open jaw. The locals called it an Apotavee and told me it appeared once a year."

And so on. An optional extra would be to draw sketches to accompany the entries, to give it a Travels of Marco Polo sort of vibe.

Friday 14 October 2011

Dynamic/Nested Encounter Tables

Roger is correct that this (what he calls "dynamic encounter tables") would be a lot of work, but he's yet again proved himself to be an utter dynamo of ideas. I'd like to tweak it a bit and, instead of genre, create a specific set for each terrain type/monster type, so you would have, for instance, a table for Human encounter, hexes 1103, 1203, 1104, 1205:

Which is a table I literally just threw together in 5 minutes, so don't expect anything marvellous, but it serves to signify what I'd be aiming at. You'd just roll 3d10 and see what came up (in reality I'd make them d20 or d30 of course), re-rolling anything that didn't make sense. Thus, the results:

6, 8, 9: Vagrants searching for hohools (Hohools are a kind of monster).
2, 7, 7: Brigands worshipping a statue.

2, 2, 3: Brigands guarding rice.

What I like about such tables is that they demand that the DM (and players too) come up with some sort of narrative right from the start. Whey are the vagrants searching for hohools? What statue are the brigands worshipping? Why are brigands guarding rice, from what, and for who?

Wednesday 12 October 2011

We Are Ahead of the Curve

You should all be listening to econtalk anyway, because for a thinking person there simply is no better podcast anywhere in the world. But this week's episode, on storytelling and the art of immersion, is a must-listen for enthusiasts of roleplaying games. Covering everything from Dickens to modern-day fan fiction to Lost to the iPad, its main theme is the role storytelling plays in human life and the way in which it is evolving in the age of the internet and the communications revolution.

One of the most interesting quotes is as follows: "I think ultimately where it's going to go is some kind of fusion of story and game, which has not really been accomplished yet. I think that is, however, what's implied in this kind of immersive, participatory kind of story-telling [which is becoming more common]."

It made me want to shout: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson accomplished it nearly 40 years ago. Face it - despite the doom and gloom surrounding the RPG industry, the fact of the matter is that we are winning the long game, because our type of game will slowly but surely become the dominant type of game that the human species plays.

Monday 10 October 2011


It comes in for a lot of flack, but I think there genuinely is something to Ron Edwards' GNS theory, despite flaws in elaboration (i.e. Edwards seems incapable of writing about anything in a non-arrogant, non-arsehole sort of way). The "something to it" is this: clearly players of roleplaying games have different preferences when it comes to the style of game they prefer, yet they rarely if ever make them explicit. Rather, they just sort of expect things to be what they want, and blame a shit game, shit GMing, or perhaps a bad day, when it doesn't turn out that way. This is an observation anybody with any familiarity with the hobby will have made, if they've ever stopped and thought about things for a few minutes.

I had this point reinforced to me recently, for example, when my GM and I were chatting and he actually used the phrase "in about two sessions you will have caught the bad guy". Now, to me, there is almost nothing that a GM could say to me that would turn me off a game more. In the first place, given that this game has a pre-ordained plot, I certainly don't want to know how it will pan out. And in the second place, I don't want to play in games with pre-ordained plot at all.

But this is because my preferences lean heavily towards "gamism". I see role playing as a form of strategy game superior in all respects to any other; PCs are avatars of the players, who are aiming to achieve an end result in opposition to a fair set of obstacles that the GM puts in their way. It is superior to all other forms of strategy game because its only limits are what can be imagined: the players are constrained only by the laws of human reason and interaction. Its trappings - speaking "in character", having a fantasy or SF setting, the involvement of Tolkienist acts of sub-creation - while not necessary, add extra flavour. They are the icing on the cake and perhaps, also, sort of inevitable as emergent characteristics.

(I feel I should add that "achieving an end result" does not necessarily mean "having the most power" or "being stinking rich" or "reaching level 20", but it does mean "winning" in some notional sense. For instance, if in a Planescape game your paladin PC has the goal of reaching the top of Mount Olympus, and achieves this, it is also "winning".)

Crazily enough, not everybody in the world shares my preferences absolutely. (They will eventually.) For instance, the GM I referred to earlier clearly likes pre-ordained plot. To him, role playing is not really a game: he's a "narrativist" in Ron Edwards' terminology, although I think this term is misleading. I'd prefer to call him a "plotter". To him, the GM is basically a story-teller and his players are engaged in an act of interactive fiction. I choose this term quite deliberately: if anything, this sort of game very closely resembles a text adventure or choose-your-own-adventure book. The players have a certain degree of choice, but it is highly constrained. They are free only in the sense that within a given scene they can decide on different courses of action, but the scenes which they go through are laid out in advance, even if only in a vague Act 1/Act 2/Act 3 sort of way. And from the very beginning, the GM knows "the ending" and has a rough idea of what the characters will have to do to get there. This type of gamer is apt to use the shibboleth, "it's role- playing, not roll-playing".

I am always left dissatisfied by "plotter" gaming, which I think deprives me of agency and makes me feel like a little kid being led by the nose. I suspect that my GM would be left dissatisfied by "gamist" gaming, which he might feel was arbitrary, pointless, and antagonistic. The point is that our preferences are genuinely real, and it is difficult or impossible to persuade each other whose way is best. (Though mine are of course objectively correct.)

So I can see what Ron Edwards was getting at. Again, though, we should resist trying to draw old school/new school distinctions here. Many hipster story-games are actually most strongly supportive of gamist playstyles: I'm thinking of In A Wicked Age, Burning Empires, and Apocalypse World, which are best played as strategy in the same sense as Gygaxian OD&D, but with a different end-game in mind. Likewise, "plotter" gamers can be equally at home with OD&D as with Vampire: The Masquerade or The Window.

A final point: gamers also exist for whom interaction with a coherent game world is very important (even if they don't consider this their primary motivation), but I'd quibble with Edwards about whether or not a separate "simulationist" category is necessary. I know a gamer who delights in interacting with a game world that makes total sense, in putting things together, in speculating about and understanding how things work, and so on. But I think, at root, his enjoyment in this derives from the fact that it helps him towards the goal of winning. Simulationist gaming, it seems to me, is an adjunct to a person's main preference. Though I'm speaking only from my own experience, here.

Saturday 8 October 2011

A Suggestion

Following on from recent controversies in the comments sections to various of my blog posts, I have decided that the multiverse of RPG enthusiasts can be divided into two camps: those who hear about Prof. Mohammed abd Rahman Barker's Perfected Game Rules and think they're a great idea, and those who would rather jab a fork in their eye than use such a system.

For the uninitiated, Prof. Mohammed abd Rahman Barker's Perfected Game Rules are as follows:

1) We both roll dice.
2) If you roll high, your view of reality prevails.
3) If I roll high, my view of reality prevails
4) If we're close, we negotiate.

I consider myself a member of the first camp - I would call Prof. Barker's Perfected Game Rules the platonic form of role playing games - but I'm not sure whether that puts me in the majority or not.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

What Am I Thinking?

There's been some talk about "hardcore D&D", or so-called Fourthcore, recently. Basically, it's 4th edition D&D which sort of models itself on an "old school" Gygaxian understanding of dungeoneering, by people who've missed the point completely and seem to think that saying "we're hardcore" actually makes you hardcore. As an example of what a "Fourthcore" adventure contains, we have the "Tainted Gallery", which has already been called "a load of shit" by people on therpgsite. You can understand why, for the solution to the puzzle in this "Tainted Gallery" is:

[A] kind of black magic puzzle. The stars etched into the base of statues #1 and #4 are the only two to have a number of sides that have an integer square root (2 and 3, respectively). The 16-pointed star (square root of 4) completes this pattern.

I despise this sort of annoying, "what am I thinking?" puzzle, and genuinely have to wonder about the mentality of somebody who thinks that making players perform an A-level maths problem lest their characters die is a good idea.

Here's the way to make a shitty puzzle in D&D: come up with a problem or obstacle with a specific solution which you, the DM, have spent hours dreaming up in the darkness of your parents' basement. Guaranteed to turn into a pleasure-draining excursion into pixel-bitching.

Here's the way to make a good puzzle in D&D: come up with a problem or obstacle but don't think of a solution at all. Let the players work out a way around it and reward them for being creative and intelligent.

An example of a bad puzzle is one in which you have to not only work out integer square roots and use them to complete a pattern, but you first have to establish that integer square roots are the issue. An example of a good puzzle is a room in which a pile of treasure is separated from the players by a channel full of deadly crocodiles. The former requires the players to sit around for ages thinking, or else try idea after idea being repeatedly told "no, it doesn't work". The second requires the players to think of a creative solution to a problem.

D&D is not rocket science in either sense of the word.

Recommended Reading

I'm mentally and physically exhausted by work at the moment, so apologies for the "light blogging" nature of my posting for the near future. Anyway, in the comments on yesterday's post, Martin asked be for some recommended reading, and that seems a good place to go when you don't have a great deal of time for an entry and are lacking energy for reading other blogs for inspiration. So, a list of fantasy and SF books which meet with noisms' approval:

  • Anything by Gene Wolfe, but I strongly recommend The Wizard Knight; everybody (rightly) praises The Book of the New Sun, but The Wizard Knight contains some simply stunning passages, and has much more of a "human" feel. Perhaps Wolfe has mellowed in his old age.
  • M. John Harrison's Viriconium saga, natch. Nowadays you can get them all, three novellas and about a dozen short stories, in a single volume. A must for anybody who is interested in proper fantasy for grownups. 
  • I'm not really into "young adult" books (the phrase "young adult" actually makes me want to vomit) but you can't go wrong with the Legends of Lone Wolf series by John Grant. These are essentially a novelisation of the gamebook line of the same name, but they're surprisingly good reads, and pretty well-written for what they are. (John Grant got pretty avant-garde for an author of books aimed at teenagers; one of the books contains an entire chapter written in the 2nd person.)
  • Glen Cook's Black Company novels are a rollicking read.
  • If you can get it, I'd say Jack Vance's best work is Cugel's Saga. If you read that book and don't immediately recognise the man for being one of the top 10 living prose stylists in the English language, you literally do not know what you are talking about. The prequel, The Eyes of the Overworld, is almost as good but not quite.
  • I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile, because it's utterly insane but so po-faced it just works. And it goes on for volume after volume, so if you're into that sort of thing...
  • Moving onto SF, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman has to be up there.
  • It seems crass to recommend anything by William Gibson, because I'd be amazed that anyone reading this blog hasn't been through all his books anyway, but Burning Chrome, a selection of his early short stories, is excellent. "Red Star, Winter Orbit", "Dogfight", "New Rose Hotel", and the title piece are bona fide classics, and the rest are consistently great (although oddly, I never quite understood the appeal of "Johnny Mnemomic").
  • Clive Barker's Galilee is not often read or talked about, but I loved it. It's as weird and all-over-the-place as you'd expect with a Barker book, but you won't read anything else like it anywhere.
  • If you like animal fantasy or just fancy something different, check out William Horwood's Duncton Wood and sequels. Don't expect it to be like Redwall: features a pregnant mole having her belly ripped open by rooks, for example.
  • Weis and Hickman write complete balderdash, but it can be a lot of fun. The Death Gate Cycle is an example of this. Completely throwaway and superficial, but you know what? It's entertaining, and sometimes that's all that matters.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt is great alt-history, which imagines what would have happened to the world if everybody in Europe had died from the Black Death. The politics are a bit questionable, but it's an interesting idea, well-executed.
  • Finally, China Mieville is a bit hit-and-miss, but The Scar and Iron Council are must-reads, in my opinion.

And some fantasy and SF books which noisms thinks are over-rated or plain duds:

  • Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is based on a GURPS fantasy campaign, and reads like it too. 
  • Anything by David Eddings is just awful, but I especially recommend steering clear of the Sparhawk books. I read all of them and even at the age of 14 I spotted them for the sheer rubbish they are.
  • John Crowley's Little, Big is raved about, but I found it an excruciating read. Turgid, florid, and boring.
  • Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy threatened to be interesting with a fun setting (cyberpunk future based on an alternative history scenario in which the Ottoman Empire never collapsed). But it never gelled for me and I gave up after about 200 pages.
  • Lord spare us from Anne McCaffrey.
  • I actively despised Mary Gentle's White Crow novels. Boring, self-important, and arch. There is nothing worse than somebody self-consciously trying to be literary when they're writing pulp. Compare her approach to that of Vance. Or, on second thoughts, don't, because it'll only encourage her if you buy a copy.
  • I tried to get interested in Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars series, but it just seemed like a poor man's ASOIAF, and the "it's like Europe but not quite Europe" motif is really unimaginative. Avoid.

Anyway, nowadays my visits to the Fantasy & SF section in the book shop usually leads to profound dismay at all the crappy trilogies purporting to be "a must for Tolkien fans everywhere" (or whatever) and the proliferation of "Dark Fantasy" (a psuedonym for "Twilight with the serial numbers filed off"), so I tend not to bother any more. I may be missing out on all kinds of wonders. Somehow I doubt it, though.

Tuesday 4 October 2011


I'm re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire to refamiliarise myself with the story in preparation for settling down with A Dance with Dragons (it's been 6 years after all), and I think I have a problem: reading too much Vance, Wolfe, and Harrison in recent years has ruined fantasy literature for me forever. Not because these guys are bad, but because they're too damn good. Going from Wolfe to Martin is a bit like switching from cocaine to coffee. Okay, so you like coffee, but the effect just isn't the same.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Wide Area Sandboxes

For a while now, Beedo has been posting about what he calls plot hooks in the sandbox (see also here), the idea being that in a sandbox it's sometimes best to start the players off with some sort of information - rumours, maps, what-have-you - to give them something to go on, rather than just telling them "okay, you're in a tavern, get on with it". There's a lot more to it than that, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Anyway, his new idea for how to implement this is just great, and has to be shared:

It's the mid 17th century.  The infamous witch hunter Luis Diaz de la Torre is dead, but his notes describe the existence of secret cults, blasphemous books, evil artifacts, and crazed wizards, working dire magic in remote places.  What will you do with the information contained in the dead priest's library?

The idea here is that at the beginning of the campaign, one of the characters, or perhaps a patron, inherits the library of this priest who was once part of the Inquisition.  In an alternate version of earth, those investigators carrying out the Inquisition do indeed come across evidence of sorcery and dark practices.  The characters inheriting the dead priest's library would come into possession of dozens of potential plot hooks right at the beginning of the campaign, and many of them could be local, allowing the group to plan their own expeditions and test the veracity of the priest's scrawls right away:

I fear the Bishop of Zaragoza is secretly a vampire - why does he shun the daylight?
Must investigate the coastal village of Braga - rumors of sea devils and gold trinkets from Atlantis.
They live beneath the streets of Cordoba, and they eat the corpses of the dead.  I will not go back down there.

Cool or what? It got me thinking about another potential "wide area sandbox" scenario that I've been entertaining for a while: The Magician's Nephew, shorn of its other elements. The idea is that one of the characters inherits his/her uncle's study; and contained therein is a gateway to a multiverse, together with the uncle's notes on what is contained therein.

What I really like about this sort of thing is the thought that you can also introduce some other standard elements of D&D in an organic way. Why does the magic-user in the party have a spell-book? He found it on a shelf. You can also do something I've always wanted to do in a D&D game, which is to give the players their own bestiary - an encyclopedia of weird and wonderful beings - with brief scrawled descriptions, unstatted; the conceit would be that this was the uncle's notes on the beings he had encountered in the "other place". This would, I'm sure, build tension, as the players read through the descriptions and wonder what "a grey, mottled, bony thing with horrid moth wings and dead staring eyes" was and how dangerous.

Thursday 29 September 2011

"Initiating" a debate. Yes, I said it.

Okay, this will be the last post on initiative, I promise. Blame Ark, who just did an analysis of the combat sequence in all 'old school D&D' editions and discovered something interesting: my understanding of how initiative "should" work comes from BECMI, AD&D 2nd edition, and Labyrinth Lord - the only variants of D&D I DMed in any great depth. For AD&D 1st edition and, now, Swords & Wizardry, the approach is rather that spell declaration happens before initiative, but perhaps not the rest (it's ambiguous). An interesting discrepancy that I hadn't noticed - just going to show, well, something. Perhaps the AD&D 1st edition approach is a sort of compromise we can all agree on, because surely everyone can understand that at least having spell-casters declare casting before the initiative roll is critically important in balancing the game and making combat more interesting.

I also need to say something about how combat works when you're declaring actions before the initiative roll, because it seems there was some confusion on this point. Here's an example how it works in my games (grossly simplified, but you'll get the picture):

There are four players, a fighter, a magic-user, an elf, and a dwarf. They encounter 5 orcs and a troll. One of the orcs is dressed up in fancy gear and hanging towards the back, and the players know this means it's a shaman. It all kicks off.

DM: Okay, it's combat, what are you going to do?

Fighter: I'm going to charge the orcs and attack them.
Magic-User: I'm going to cast an acid arrow at the troll.
Elf: I'm going to fire arrows at the shaman. (Knowing that it's a shaman and will likely be casting a spell.)
Dwarf: I'm going to try to get in front of the Magic-User and protect him from attack. (Knowing the magic-user is likely to be preparing a spell and wanting to make sure it goes off.)

Meanwhile, I decide that the orc shaman will start casting magic missile at the magic-user, and everybody else will attack the elf, wanting to kill their hated race enemy first. Everybody rolls initiative.

The order comes out as follows, fastest first: fighter, elf, orcs, dwarf, troll, magic-user, orc shaman.
The fighter charges forward into the mass of orcs. The elf's view to the shaman is slightly blocked so the player asks the DM if he can move a little to get a better angle. Because we're grown-ups and we can negotiate and the rules explicitly state that the decision about what happens is down to the people at the table, I agree. The elf moves a little and shoots the orc shaman, ruining his concentration. The orcs pile onto the fighter. The orc shaman would have cast his magic missile at the magic-user at this point, but can't because his spell has fizzled thanks to the elf. The dwarf player asks if he can change his action to attacking the orcs instead - I rule that he can't, because it's too different to his initially-stated action (in real terms, he's already started moving to block off the route of attack to the magic-user, and would be too flat-footed to suddenly change his momentum). The troll charges past the melee towards the elf. Finally, the magic-user casts his acid arrow at the troll.

From this, you can see, hopefully, two things: the idea that you can stop spells before they are cast adds a whole new tactical dimension to combat; and just because you're declaring actions before initiative it doesn't necessarily mean things are appreciably slower, more difficult to resolve, or less flexible. (There may be cases where it is so, but not enough to detract from the benefits gained.)

I Blame The Children; Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Declaring Actions Before Rolling Initiative

Yesterday's post aroused considerable comment that I think merits a full reply. (The good thing about having a blog that generates lots of comments is that you rarely have to sit around thinking about what to write today - you have a self-referential fall-back at any time.) For some reason I don't think I got my point across, as is evidenced by the number of people who seem to think I was worried about the fact that I or others was "playing it wrong".

It's far from the case. I couldn't give a monkey's how you, the gentle reader, play the game, and I certainly don't think that the game designer's word is Holy Writ. My position is much more reasonable than that, and is as follows: the designers of D&D are not stupid people. In fact, they are intelligent, thoughtful and creative people. This is true whether the year is 1974 or 2011. The things contained in the game manuals are there for a reason and deserve exploring.

Two such things are the declaration of action before the initiative roll, and forcing spell-casters to have a full night's rest in order to have a clear enough mind to memorise spells. These serve as useful examples, because they are rules that are commonly ignored (or Piledrivered) and they illustrate my wider point, which will become clear at the end of this post (yes, the suspense is killing you). Let's explore each in turn:

1. Declaring actions before rolling for initiative

In AD&D of either edition, the combat round has three steps. (We'll ignore the DM and focus on the players.) Step 1, all the players declare their actions. Step 2, all the players roll initiative. Step 3, their actions are carried out. What are the implications of this and why is it so?

  • Most importantly, it's intuitively "true". Fights in the real world occur in real time. You don't take things in turns in real life, and although turn-taking is inevitable in a game there's an argument to be made that this should be reduced as much as possible.
  • Second most important, it's fair. Everybody states their actions and then the person with the highest initiative roll is rewarded by being the person who can act first, in knowledge of what everybody else will do, rather than being punished by being the person who declares their action and then acts first, and thus cannot respond to what the rest of the combatants do. Perhaps this requires unpacking: the "Piledriver" way of resolving combat is for everybody to roll initiative and then go from top to bottom, with everybody stating and performing actions in turn, so that Step 1 above becomes folded into Step 2. So initiative is rolled first, then everybody states actions and carries them out in initiative order. What are the consequences of this? Arguably, in many situations it makes losing initiative advantageous, because what are the disadvantages to coming last in the round and being able to see exactly how the melee has panned out, where everybody's position is, what their weak points are, and what they are doing, before you decide how to act? But similarly, in some circumstances it also makes life even harder for the slow than it should be: picture the following scene. Bob the wizard has terrible DEX and rolls poorly for initiative. Everybody knows he will move last. So, the enemy concentrate their attacks on him, knowing that they have a good chance of killing him before his player can even state what he is going to do. In what sense is this better than having everybody declare their actions first, thus forcing people to act with caution rather than direction mass pre-emptive strikes at the slower characters, since they don't know what initiative order will be?
  • Third, it allows for a more subtle approach to spell-casting. In every edition of D&D, the complaint has always been that spell-casters are too powerful and at mid- higher- levels come to dominate even combat, making it pointless to be a fighter (your niche isn't even your niche any more). But if you use the correct procedure for combat, this is much less of a problem: spell-casters have to declare their action first ("I'll cast fireball") and then wait their turn; if their concentration is ruined in the meantime (rather likely in a chaotic melee) their spell fizzles. Suddenly fighters are important again - they protect their allied magic-users' concentration and also try to disrupt opposition spell-casters before they can cast. Their role is vital even at the highest levels. I repeat: The game designers were not stupid.
2. The Full-Night's-Rest Rule

In AD&D, it is not assumed that spell-casters get to memorise spells automatically each morning before the day's "play" begins. The rules stipulate that "Memorization is not a thing that happens immediately. The wizard must have a clear head gained from a restful night's sleep and then has to spend time studying his spell books." Again, what are the implications of this often-forgotten rule?

  • Instead of just camping wherever, players have to think a little more tactically about where they set up camp and how their sleeping arrangements are. Suddenly, something which players take for granted has to be carefully thought out. Do we want to risk sleeping in the wilderness, or push on to see if we can reach a settlement and possibly not find anything and get no sleep at all? The players' choice about where to camp becomes meaningful, and we know that giving players meaningful choices is  always interesting and one of the key characteristics of good play.
  • The magic-users, who are important, have to sleep. They can't be disturbed by, say, wandering monsters. What does this mean? Players have to get damn good about picking places to rest if they plan on staying longer than a day in the dungeon. Goodbye 10-minute-adventuring-day, where players explore a bit of the dungeon for 10 minutes, have a fight, sleep and re-memorise spells, explore the dungeon for 10 minutes, have a fight, sleep and re-memorise spells, etc. Wasn't this cited as being one of the huge problems of D&D that the 4e designers were going to solve? Had they actually read their AD&D texts properly?
  • Coming back to the old "magic-users are too powerful" discourse, the full-night's-rest rule obviously makes magic-users less all-powerful at higher levels and reliant on the rest of their party for protection and aid. I repeat: The game designers were not stupid

So how do we account for the Piledriving of these rules? In the comments to yesterday's entry, Zak writes that 
[I]t is strange how a bunch of mostly non-communicating non-overlapping groups all over the world all changed the same rules.

I agree with this, but what is really interesting is the question why. The simplest response would seem to be: it's because those rules were stupid or poorly explained. I'd like to suggest something different: the vast majority of people start playing D&D when they're, like, 12 years old and frankly not able to take in a big book of rules originally written by grown-ups for grown-ups. Because they're 12, they're not able to think very deeply about things, they find it difficult to speculate in a calm and orderly fashion about the underlying reasons for the way things are, they have very little patience for reading rulebooks carefully and looking things up in charts, they have short attention spans, and they act impulsively. They also, crucially, find it difficult to order each others' behaviour; managing the 3 steps of a combat round I outlined above is kind of hard when you're a 12-year-old DM and your 12-year-old players want to keep things moving. In fact, it's a rare 12-year-old DM who would think about things deeply enough to want to use the proper 3 step sequence anyway.

These things have a momentum of their own and once the Piledriving has started it's difficult to stop. This is why these misunderstandings persist until adulthood - that, and because even with bastardised rules D&D is still fun. Many of my readers will have been thinking, reading this, something along the lines of, "Who cares? We roll for initiative and then everybody states actions and performs them in turn, and it works." Yes, it does work, and this is why it doesn't get corrected. The question whether the standard rules may work better is never explored because the habit is too ingrained.

I'm not the first person to argue this. Faustusnotes, who often disagrees with me, seems on exactly the same page. And here we have Malcolm Sheppard saying something very similar:

I’ve really grown to love AD&D1e as a game of its own, however, and understand it now much better than I did when I was a child, playing Dragonlance or running my own game world hacked together out of Dragon Magazine articles, canned modules and seat-of-the-pants improvisation. AD&D1e is a grownup game, believe it or not: an RPG that requires a slow, deliberate exploration of your options, plenty of discussion and a willingness to look up fiddly bits.

I like this very much and think it an appropriate point on which to close.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Piledriving D&D

I'm not a huge reader of blogs which cover mainstream D&D 4th edition, Pathfinder, that sort of thing. Not necessarily out of choice, but more because I'm not sure what the interesting and good ones are. (I'm even less knowledgeable about blogs covering WoD stuff - there must be hundreds but I don't read a single one.) But Critical Hits occasionally has interesting content. This post, for instance, strikes a definite chord with me. For those too lazy to read the original entry, the author describes what he calls the "Piledriver" - which is "the term we use for every time an unintentional rules mistake is made during play and not corrected". I'm sure you've encountered this, because every role player surely has. The following example is given:

Embarrassingly enough, I am guilty of one the most pervasive and (in hindsight and for others) frustrating Piledrivers in our game group’s history.  During our Warhammer 40k play era, my favored tactic was to load highly specialized Eldar forces into Wave Serpent troop transports, deck them out with holo fields that made damaging them more difficult, fly across the battlefield at breakneck and dump off each set of specialists in the place they were needed most.  It worked wonders!  Heavy weapons fire rolled off my fast and tough transports and sheltered my lightly armored specialists.  There was one problem: the defensive cornerstone of my tactic, the holo field, could not be equipped on Wave Serpents.    This mistake over nearly a dozen games certainly taints the resulting victories and rightfully frustrates the vanquished victims. 

What's interesting for me about the Piledriver is how frequently such instances occur in D&D, and how they have warped the game for probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. The reason it happens so frequently in D&D is obvious - it's a disorganised mess, whatever edition - but this raises an even more interesting point: the most popular RPG ever, by far, is also probably the least correctly played RPG ever made, too. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I'm not sure, but it certainly feeds in to the whole "D&D is a toolkit" discourse that you sometimes encounter on the blogosphere.

What are some Piledrivers in pre-WotC era D&D? Some examples from my own checkered playing history are:

  • Not realising that Hold Person in 2nd edition AD&D lasts 2 rounds per level - we thought it was 2 turns per level.
  • Totally misunderstanding casting times. If the casting time for a spell is 1 round, it takes place at the end of the round in which the caster begins casting.
  • Always forgetting to use speed factors for weapons.
  • Memorising spells takes 10 minutes per spell level and the caster has to have had a restful night's sleep. Often treated as "you get to memorize however many spells at the start of the day" in my experience, no matter what happened during the night.
  • You determine initiative after announcing what your character is doing, not before. Important for disrupting spells: if you announce your magic-user is going to cast a spell and then it turns out you're last in initiative, tought shit - there's a good chance the spell will fizzle. This aspect of our game was missing for years.
  • There are modifiers to initiative depending on the surroundings and situation, and also optional ones depending on the type of attack and various other factors.
  • If you have more than one attack, your second attack occurs after the first initiative cycle has gone through for everybody in the combat.
  • For years I used to roll a d20 on random encounter tables rather than d8+d12.
Some of these are more egregious and game-changing than others. Forgetting speed factors, the thing about memorising spells, initiative rolls taking place after statement of action, and d20 on random encounter tables definitely gave things less depth tactically and made for a blander experience, I would say. It just goes to show that when you're 12, reading a rulebook like the AD&D 2nd edition PHB and taking it all in is really a rather daunting task. Something makes me think that people working at WotC haven't really learned that lesson, judging by the length of the 3rd and 4th edition books.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Yes I Just Collated Loads Of Stuff From Other Blog Entries

My post yesterday spawned some excellent responses, and also some great comments. Rather than go through them all in detail I thought I'd summarise the best ideas and add my comments. Lots of them are Zak's, but that's because he's the type of person who has 50 ideas a day and 51 of them are good. 

1. Never make monsters "scalable" unless they're basically humanoids with levels like the PCs and so the PCs can tell them apart as characters.

This is spot on. Nothing makes a dragon - no, scratch that, any monster - less interesting than being able to fight it at 1st level and win. It is for this and many other reasons that 4th edition D&D wins the noisms prize for All Time Most Banalifying Game System Ever.

2. Finding an NPC cleric willing to heal you is fucking hard and generally involves some creepy religious thing happening. Because miracles are rare.

Yes. I indulged in some of it on this very blog, but while this sort of thing is fun to think and write about, nothing will kill a sense of mystery faster than making spells and miraculous healing something that can be bought for loose change. If you want somebody to cure your disease, let alone raise one of your comrades from the dead, there needs to be a price that isn't about money. There needs to be Zak's creepy religious thing happening or there needs to be a sacrifice of considerable time and effort and personal safety: think geas, not "it costs 200 gps".

3. Make [the players] cross a threshold (a clear in game threshold "Are you sure you wish to travel down the secluded mountain pass") before having them fight the fantastical. 

I like this idea and it reminds me of the Wizard Knight, which, along with Jack Vance's Dying Earth and Lyonesse stories, and M. John Harrison's Viriconium cycle, is probably the key "fantastical fantasy" text. In Wolfe's cosmology there is Mythgarthr, the middle world, where humans live; Skai, Kleos, and Elysion (the realm of the Most High God) above it; and Aelfrice, Muspel and Niflheim (the realm of the Most Low God) beneath. Much of what is "magical" and "fantastical" comes from things of the other realms seeping through into Mythgarthr or people accidentally or purposefully moving from Mythgarthr into them. There is plenty of scope for a fantastical D&D campaign here, where adventurers deliberately delve into the dungeon which is really a gateway to lower realms, which follow different rules and whose inhabitants are mysterious and dangerous.

4. Recreate monsters - especially the humanoids. Keep them physically and statistically the same, but recreate their culture.

A simple one, this, and obvious, but it bears repeating. Why don't most DMs do this? Because they're lazy and unimaginative. I'd go further than -C, though, and say that recreating monsters doesn't have to mean keeping them physically the same, either. Hence stuff like this.

5. No "chain of humanoid enemies". Goblins are weird fairy tale monsters with their own empire, gnolls are slavering barbarians, jackalmen wear robes and know magic, crowmen are semidemonic and rare, white leopardmen serve a Frazettastyle ice witch and bugbears and hobgoblins and what-all are bizarre unique things you haven't met yet.   

I've written about this recently anyway, but the whole goblin-hobgoblin-bugbear-troll thing is just the blandest, lamest, weakest thing ever unless you can find a way to really make it interesting.

6. The technique...of providing no standardized monsters or magic items points the way to a game system where the rules of the mundane are known to the players, but the fantastic elements are an idiosyncratic revelation from game to game. Yes, creating the fantastic is hard individual work for the DM. But the alternative, especially with experienced games, is a group of players who ready the oil when they see a troll, who can find out exactly how much every gland in every dead monster corpse is worth, and for whom the only surprise is tactical, not strategic.

This is a post in its own right, but stuff like the Forge helps with this. Yes, the names it comes up with are a bit formulaic and sometimes never work, but they provide food for thought: the beauty of it is you just keep pressing the 'space' bar, and even if you don't use the names they give you ideas.

Finally, there's something I'd like to try myself, which is to use tarot cards as a randomizing device. I'm imagining something like this: get a deck of tarot cards and assign certain abilities to each card (Death is a save versus death attack; The Lovers is a charm person attack; etc.). Then, when you have just come up with a monster, draw a card at random. Bingo: it has that ability, whatever it is. You then just have to come up with the physical expression of it.

Monday 26 September 2011

Non-Banal D&D

I'm becoming more and more interested in this notion of more genuinely mythical and fantastical fantasy gaming, which doesn't seek to catalogue everything and make it knowable and explainable, but attempts to retain as much mystery as possible. I'd like to call this romanticist D&D, but that might lead the dull and ignorant to think I'm talking about something like Blue Rose; likewise, if I call it non-classicist D&D such people will imagine I'm talking about 4th edition. So perhaps I'll settle for the slightly less problematic fantastical D&D, or maybe the more-arrogant sounding non-banal D&D. Whatever; I'm rambling.

What are the core characteristics of what I'm talking about, for those among you who haven't read every single post I've ever written since April 2008? I'm tempted to use for my manifesto something M. John Harrison once wrote, which I think is probably the most perceptive essay ever written about the fantasy genre (even if I think it almost totally misunderstands Tolkien). He wrote it specifically about his aims in writing his Viriconium books, but much of the piece speaks to fantasy in general. It is worth quoting at length:

The great modern fantasies were written out of religious, philosophical and psychological landscapes. They were sermons. They were metaphors. They were rhetoric. They were books, which means that the one thing they actually weren’t was countries with people in them. 
The commercial fantasy that has replaced them is often based on a mistaken attempt to literalise someone else’s metaphor, or realise someone else’s rhetorical imagery. For instance, the moment you begin to ask (or rather to answer) questions like, “Yes, but what did Sauron look like?”; or, “Just how might an Orc regiment organise itself?”; the moment you concern yourself with the economic geography of pseudo-feudal societies, with the real way to use swords, with the politics of courts, you have diluted the poetic power of Tolkien’s images. You have brought them under control. You have tamed, colonised and put your own cultural mark on them. 
Literalisation is important to both writers and readers of commercial fantasy. The apparent depth of the great fantasy inscapes—their appearance of being a whole world–is exhilarating: but that very depth creates anxiety. The revisionist wants to learn to operate in the inscape: this relieves anxiety and reasserts a sense of control over “Tolkien’s World.”
Given this, another trajectory (reflecting, of course, another invitation to consume) immediately presents itself: the relationship between fantasy and games—medieval re-enactment societies, role-play, and computer games. Games are centred on control. “Re-enactment” is essentially revision, which is essentially reassertion of control, or domestication. (The “defusing sequels” produced by Hollywood have the same effect: as in Aliens, in which the original insuperable threat is diminished, the paranoid inscape colonised. Life with the alien is difficult, but—thanks to our nukes and our angry motherhood no longer so impossible as it seemed.)
“What would it be really like to live in the world of…?” is an inappropriate question, a category error. You understand this immediately you ask it of the inscape of, say, Samuel Beckett or Wyndham Lewis. I didn’t want it asked (and I certainly didn’t want it answered) of Viriconium, so I made that world increasingly shifting and complex. You can not learn its rules. More importantly, Viriconium is never the same place twice. That is because—like Middle-Earth—it is not a place. It is an attempt to animate the bill of goods on offer. Those goods, as in Tolkien or Moorcock, Disney or Kafka, Le Guin or Wolfe, are ideological. “Viriconium” is a theory about the power-structures culture is designed to hide; an allegory of language, how it can only fail; the statement of a philosophical (not to say ethological) despair. At the same time it is an unashamed postmodern fiction of the heart, out of which all the values we yearn for most have been swept precisely so that we will try to put them back again (and, in that attempt, look at them afresh).

Now, you might argue that, as roleplayers, "What would it be really like to live in the world of...?" is quite frankly one of the most appropriate questions you could possibly ask. Isn't that a large part of what gives a game a sense of reality and (that awful word) verisimilitude?

I would argue that, yes, if you want to be a classicist then this is a very important question. And I also want to say as I have elsewhere that this is fine - good, even. Sometimes I want to be a classicist too, and the games I run at the moment are, broadly, classicist ones. (I say at the moment because the point of this post is that I'm thinking about something else.) But I would also argue that if you want something truly romanticist or fantastical, you have to get away from asking that sort of question. Rather than asking "What would it be really like to live in the world of...?" your question(s) should instead be (and here I refer back to Harrison): "What about the world of ... gives it the appearance of being a whole world and thus makes it deep, exhilarating and anxiety-creating?"

You can do romanticist fantasy very easily with games like In A Wicked Age (one which I have heard lots about but only recently purchased). In fact, In A Wicked Age is tailor-made for it, primarily because of the way it handles conflict - i.e. in a way which doesn't really use statistics or numbers to decide consequences but on something more 'mysterious' (what is negotiated and agreed to) - and the way it handles set-up - i.e. through cooperative interpretation of randomly generated and nebulous 'oracles'.

But much as I love In A Wicked Age, there is part of me that does not want to sacrifice the kind of strategic thinking that makes D&D (proper D&D) what it is. In A Wicked Age has strategy, but it is story-based strategy: you don't really manoeuvre for mechanical benefits for your character, but for your own benefit in creating a narrative you enjoy. Your character doesn't gain experience, money and items through adventure and clever thinking the way he does in D&D.

There must be a way, then, of making D&D somehow more fantastical, mysterious and romanticist while retaining the elements which make it a game. How? This is the question that is occupying my thoughts at the moment.