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...