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.