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?