Saturday 31 March 2012

The Contents of Hexes

A few days ago I posted a selection of grabs from google maps, indicating how large a 1-mile hex actually is, and the kind of things that you might find in one. Then Chris responded, to the effect that (and I'm putting words into his mouth here) 1-mile hexes are all very well, but they are perhaps too granular - it's a heck of a lot of work to map out a setting at the 1-mile level. He posits an "emergent exploring rule" for 6-mile hexes, wherein you simply discover more things in a 6-mile hex the more time you spend exploring it and the more guidance/information you have about it.

The commenters immediately provide solutions, which are pretty good. Myrystyr's one seems like the best:

A generalised X-in-dY check per Z-time-period, mayhap? Default 2/1d6 per day - 1/ for stumbling-about blind luck, 3/ or 4/ for guides, clues, or character types with better search capability - and up to 3 or 4 times per day for potentially feature-rich locales... And, roll two different-coloured d6 at the same time, 1 the feature check and 1 the encounter check.

I like the elegant simplicity of this, and I think you can add some other modifiers: the chance would increase or decrease depending on terrain (lower for a forest, higher for plains), demographics (lower for empty wilderness, higher for settled), and so on.

Chris also suggests some other rules of thumb:

  • Castles, cities and the like should all be in plain sight unless intentionally hidden away (like Gondolin or Derinkuyu). Heck, roads point you directly to most of them.
  • Infamous lairs, ruins and dungeons should, of course, retain their "Here be dragons" hex map icons and easy-to-find status. The yokels can point out exactly in which direction the castle we don't go near lies.
  • More obscure lairs, lost ruins, buried tombs and especially treasure map loot should require a bit of active hunting out by adventuring parties.

The main, immediately identifiable problem is that you now need some way of governing how many locales can be discovered in this way. The amount of "interesting stuff" in a hex has to be finite. But it is also variable. In my 1-mile hex examples, some have only one thing that you could make into a "locale", but some have several. This is a function, mostly, of how settled the area is, but it also introduces other factors. The more mountainous a region is, for instance, the more stuff you will get per hex on average, because each hex represents more land. (Hexes are "as the crow flies", whereas the land underneath is folded by hills and valleys, making it more packed with actual physical geography.)

What I would suggest is that, by default for a 6-mile hex, any settlement of more than 250 people, any castles or towers, and major geographical features like lakes, rives and mountains, are basically discoverable without the players doing much more than travel through the hex a few times.

You would then have a default of 3 'discoverable' things per 6-mile hex, modifiable by geography, level of settlement, history, and so on:

  • One of these would be something that the players can find if they make an effort to explore. All it would require would be for them to say "we look around the area".
  • Two of them would be 'secret', obscure, or lost things (a ruin, buried tomb, a secretive monster's lair, etc.) These would be near impossible to find by exploration without some level of guidance or inside knowledge. 

This would allow the players to discover stuff just by looking, but would also reward efforts they made to interact with locals to try to get information, and to risk random encounters by searching.

"Why 3 things per 6-mile hex? Isn't that too much?" I hear you cry.

The answer is: no. To illustrate, I'll use two of the 1-mile examples I put up a few days ago, zoomed out to 6-miles (ish; they're a bit smaller and probably more like 8 kilometres):

This is Canterbury. As you can see, there is not only the city itself, but two other large villages or small towns (Bridge and Sturry) plus a shitload of other hamlets, and plenty of woods as well as farmlands. In a densely settled area like this (probably much more densely settled than in medieval times, admittedly) you would need at the very least 3 adventuring locales not even mentioning Canterbury itself.

This is Tiree -a good chunk of the island. Note that there are 5 large bays to be found here, along with several smaller ones and a lot of little sheltered coves in the centre-right. There are four scattered farming villages, an airport, and 3 lochs. There are also some tiny islets here and there in the sea, too. Again, at least 3 adventuring locales needed.

But 3 is a default, and can be reduced. For example:

The mountains of Assynt. It's empty and devoid of settlement, though there is still plenty to interact with - 6 named lochs, plus lots of smaller ones, and a folded, rugged landscape concealing God Knows What. 3 adventuring locales might be inappropriate in such a landscape, because you don't want to be silly - not every lake has to have a Water in the Waters; not every mountain has to sit atop an ancient dwarven citadel. But perhaps it's also unrealistic to just say "it's an empty hex".

Of course, you wouldn't want your players to figure your system out. An alternative would be to randomise the number of adventuring locales in a 6-mile hex: d3-1 for sparse, d3 for average, d3+1 for settled, etc. Modified also by type of geography.

Friday 30 March 2012

In Which I Am A Hypocrite

Patrick, one of the players in my regular group, has posted an AP of sorts for the session we had on Tuesday. We decided to create a shared world with Microscope, in which we plan to share a rotating GMship and run different campaigns in different genres.

I think we all started off with good intentions to create a darkish, hard SF setting, but things got weird, silly and fucked up very quickly - it progressed from a reasonable beginning to a sprawling melange involving, amongst other things, war meetings between the President of Humanity and his Chief Warlock, "ontological warheads", and a not-Tyranid race called the HMBTs (Hideous Murdering Bug Things). It ended up with a genetically engineered Velociraptor called Spielberg tending a sculpture garden in which a murder was taking place, on a space station in the Oort Cloud with a pseudo-Byzantine culture featuring an AI who was basically a futuristic version of OK Cupid. (And this after I'd claimed hypocritically to prefer my settings to be not-so-gonzo literally the day before.)

You can read all about it here, if you're odd enough to be interested.

Thursday 29 March 2012

Being an Illustration of the Contents of 1-Mile Hexes Through Examination of Divers Locations in the British Isles

How much adventure is contained in a 1-mile hex? Usually, more than you would think, although it depends very much on the context. Here are a series of illustrations - screen grabs from google maps of various locations around the British Isles, each approximately 1 square mile (at rough and ready estimates).

This is Canterbury, an ancient town in the South East of England. Here, as you can see, 1 square mile is enough to contain the entire old town (the oval shape of roads in the centre of the map, bounded in the West by the yellow ring road and in the East by Broad Street and Lower Bridge Street). The old town was encircled by huge walls built during the Roman era and maintained throughout the Middle Ages (and still present in places today). It contains, amongst other things, one of the largest and most famous cathedrals in Britain, numerous other churches, the town hall, the old 15th century library, a vast number of pubs, shops and restaurants, and several museums. Outside of the old town are two railway stations, wooded areas, plenty of houses, recreation grounds, and a university. Clearly, in this 1-mile hex the question is not where adventure could be found, but where it couldn't be.

This is an area of quintessential English countryside, in Somerset. There is a small village in the North East corner - a row of houses along a road - and several farms. While it looks relatively empty, each of those fields is divided by a hedgerow, and the land is flat, making visibility difficult. Travelling across this area would be fraught with tension as, effectively, you would never be able to see more than about 100 yards in any direction at any time, and more often much less.

This is a wooded area in the Forest of Dean, in South Wales. This is, I think, what much of Western Europe would once have resembled - mostly forest, with tracks and roads criss-crossing it, and the occasional glade where trees have been cleared for grazing or firewood. Even though the area is small, it is easy to get lost and even easier to stumble across dangerous wild animals, nefarious forest denizens, and god knows what. The glades would be dangerous to cross, as you would be exposed and plainly visible to onlookers. Naturally, the forest could hide openings to tunnels, ruins, abandoned camps, dead travellers, and so on.

This is Coquet Island, off the coast of North East England. It contains the ruins of a medieval monastery and a lighthouse, and is a refuge for seabirds - there are 18,000 puffins living on it. Clearly, the monastery could be haunted, be the entrance to a dungeon, or whatever else, and the nesting seabirds don't have to be puffins - they could be something more valuable or dangerous.

A Loch, in the Highlands of Scotland. This is rough, barren landscape - not a tree to be seen anywhere, or a scrap of cover except for heather and the folds of the land itself. Here, encounters would take place at a distance, as parties would be able to see each other plainly at great distances. At the same time, adventuring parties cross the area would be completely exposed to, perhaps unexpected, aerial attack. The Loch itself is dark and forboding; does it contain a Watcher in the Waters, the spawn of some ancient god, a forgotten plesiosaur? 

A stretch of open coastline on the island of Tiree. Note the airstrip in the North West - not very D&D. There are some tiny hamlets in the West, but the main attraction is of course the bay: a perfect landing point for vessels. Traders, vikings, colonists, explorers?

This is the Southern edge of Loch Ness, in Scotland. Fort Augustus guards the canal which links Loch Ness to other waters further south and allows boats to travel all the way from Inverness, the only city worthy of the name North of Aberdeen, with Fort William, the other major settlement in the Highlands. Fort Augustus itself is small, but includes notable attractions, not to mention a series of locks which control river traffic on the canal. To the East is the rough coast of Loch Ness itself, forested and dangerous.

This is the true wilds of the Highlands, in Assynt, one of the most sparsely populated areas of Europe. This is harsh, remote, and unforgiving landscape, infested with midges, roamed by wolves, bears and who knows what else. In the South West is a deep forest of primeval Caledonian woodland; in the North East is a river with streams flowing downhill into boggy marshland in the North. Cross this wilderness at your peril.

If 1-mile hexes ever feel too small, or you find yourself leaving them blank on the map, think of this post and refer back to it in your mind, and give yourself a good sound spanking for ever having been so foolish.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Authenticity and Gamability and Gonzo, Oh My!

In the comments to yesterday's post, richard asks:

I find my tastes changing over time - I used to want authentick flavours, it didn't matter of what, really, but I wanted my Japan to be "really Japanese" and my medieval Europe to be "really medieval." Nowadays I've slid some distance from that position toward Xena - I want gonzo mashup more and find authentick a bit of a bore. Where do you find yourself on that scale?

The answer is: it depends. Slightly more detailed: I'm somewhere in the middle. Slightly more detailed yet: I can find virtues at various points of the spectrum, although too much gonzo makes me want to run for the hills.

I used to be more serious about setting. I actually put this down to lack of face-to-face game time. I'm not sure if this observation holds for everybody, but I think obsession with setting design is a kind of warped outgrowth from the mind of DMs who don't get the chance to actually play much. It was certainly true for me: I wasn't doing any face-to-face gaming (just lacklustre PBEMing and PBPing, which is generally quite lacklustre) and yet I wanted to - and I still enjoyed thinking about campaign worlds, drawing maps, creating bestiaries and NPCs, imagining trade routes and where resources would be found, dreaming up languages, and so on.

This also caused me to spend a lot of time and energy pursuing "authenticity"; the more time you have to think, the more you do think. I often thought about how to create a "really Japanese" game, for instance, given my experience living in the country and my interest in its history, and my utter loathing and disdain for the way in which RPG geeks approach the subject (which is either "samurai and ninja, cool!" or "anime, cool!"; there is not enough space in my head for my eyes to roll sufficiently far back to communicate how much I despise both Western anime fandom and samurai-wankery). 

Now I'm gaming quite a lot, and I'm also really busy, so my thinking time has been drastically reduced. This has both removed the urge to pursue authenticity, and also the opportunity. So while my setting design does not lean so far to the gonzo, it certainly doesn't involve chasing after the pipe dream of realism either. My main priorities are, simply, "What will I actually use?" and "What will be good for the game?"

But that said, too much gonzo doesn't really do it for me either. At a certain stage, it all feels like trying too hard to be irreverant. This leads us back to a post about humour that I wrote a few weeks ago. There's a strand of geekdom that repels me really quite strongly, and which others seem to find unaccountably attractive; it is the kind of straining towards "gonzo" that leads to inquisitors in Warhammer 40,000 with names like "Obiwan Sherlock Clousseau" and religions surrounding vast floating puddings or called "The Church of the Lucid Shirt Button". That kind of thing is so unfunny and uninteresting to me that I can't put it into words: it makes me want to bite my own fist for want of punching it through the face of anybody who would suggest otherwise. If that's what "gonzo mashup" means then no, thankyou, you may keep it, and also please fuck off and die.

If, on the other hand, "gonzo mashup" stretches to "this is a pseudo-oriental setting so I am going to borrow heavily from Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Mongolian and whatever other mythology because hey, life's too short and really, who cares?", then I am all for it.

Monday 26 March 2012

Pseudo-Orientalism Grab-Bag

One of my absolute favourite setting ideas in the OSR blogosphere is one that (to me) got surprisingly little mention on the other blogs - Mu-Pan, from the Land of NOD. This is a pseudo-oriental setting of the absolute highest quality, far better in my view that anything TSR came up with. Take for example this:

6038. Umborodom’s Abbey: There is an ancient fortress-monastery constructed here of red bricks and tall, peaked roofs of copper. The roof is covered with hundreds of tall, copper spires that attract lightning. The monastery is dedicated to Umborodom, whose hound was the thunder. The monastery is inhabited by 16 low-level sohei and their abbess, Deneg, a temperamental woman with blue-gray eyes and a powerful hatred of the Jade Empress, who quells her lovely storms and keeps her “hounds” hungry.

The “hounds” are three lightning elementals that dwell within a golden matrix that serves as the monastery’s idol. The monastery is surrounded by a village of red brick buildings inhabited by about 150 tin miners. The mines are of ancient vintage, but still producing tin and a few tourmalines and topaz each month. Tourmalines are claimed by the sohei and topaz by the empress.

The sohei of the monastery wear blue armor and carry large, steel-shod mallets.


5140. Fey Samurai: A fairy knight in the trappings of a samurai has made camp here. He has been wandering the land searching for an honest man, for it is the kiss of an honest man that will awaken the Silver Maiden who sleeps beneath the mountains.

And this:

4921. Forest of Legs: The forest of trees in this hex gradually turns into a forest of giant, stone legs. The legs are limestone and carved from the “living rock” as some people say. They once held aloft a create limestone cavern that was apparently pulled apart in ancient times. The woodland of stone legs is inhabited by giant blue eagles and silver foxes, and a few of the legs serve as the roosts of hermits, devout wushen who seek enlightenment through the denial of comforts like regular meals and bathing.

It's to die for if pseudo-orientalism is your thing - which it is mine.

It's reminiscent to me of an old favourite of mine: Sword of the Samurai. This was a fantasy gamebook set in "Hachiman", the quasi-Japan of the Fighting Fantasy world - another setting which, like Matt's Mu-Pan, captures the atmosphere of a fae-tinged, delicate, misty, melancholic Eastern "other". Edward Said would not approve, but who gives a fuck what that old bore thinks?

Finally, to round off this rather incoherent and unstructured ramble of a blog entry, I would like to direct new readers to one of my all time favourite pieces of pseudo-orientalism: Borges' The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, in which he fabricates an ancient Chinese encyclopedia which categorises all the animals in the world into:
  1. those that belong to the Emperor
  2. the embalmed
  3. the trained
  4. piglets
  5. sirens
  6. the fabulous
  7. stray dogs
  8. those included in this classification
  9. those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. innumerables
  11. those that are drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
  12. et cetera
  13. those that have just broken a flower vase
  14. those that from a distance look like flies
If you don't find yourself wishing that this encyclopedia really existed, I don't know what's wrong with you.

Describe and Stat this Monster

This is an aye-aye:

Let's D&D-ify it. Give it some stats, special abilities, a different name, a background, whatever you like. Post in the comments or your own blog. Do it now.

Sunday 25 March 2012

The Hickman Revolution and the Frustrated Novelist

There's a post today on The Mule Abides about "the Hickman Revolution", or, as James Maliszewski put it in the Golden Age of his blog, How Dragonlance Ruined Everything. The theory here, for those who are unwilling to follow links for some reason, is that the Dragonlance series, and Tracy Hickman in particular, are in no small part responsible for the general slide in gaming style and gaming design from 'traditional' sandbox-style play towards GM-plot-driven obsession with 'story' and, basically, railroaded narrative. The 'smoking gun' is the introduction to Pharoah, in which Hickman sets out a manifesto of sorts for his own design philosophy:
  1. A player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing. 
  2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into play itself. 
  3. Dungeons with an architectural sense. 
  4. An attainable and honorable end within one to two sessions playing time.

The Mule Abides and Grognardia deal with these issues eloquently, and how they are indicative of the (lamentable, to me) shift in RPG design philosophy which occurred during the 80s, so I won't cover them here - I provide all this by way of background.

What I would like to add is the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to the shift towards GM-driven story - Hickman is not just a game designer. He is also a novelist. Indeed, I think that it's safe to say that he is primarily a novelist. And the four elements of his design manifesto are exactly the kind of thing that somebody who wants to be a novelist would want in a game: objectives (to drive the plot), and intriguing story, a world that makes sense, and closure/a happy ending.

They are not the kind of things that somebody who just wants to create role playing games would want in a game, which would be more like: objectives (to keep score), freedom (for players to pursue their own goals), challenging settings, and open-ended design. 

There is a reason why Hickman's approach chimed with many gamers, and why ultimately it came to dominate the hobby during the 80s, 90s and 00s before story/hipster/forge games and the OSR began to slay the beast: many, I would say perhaps the majority, of GMs are frustrated novelists, just like Tracy Hickman was. To them, there was an allure in the idea that they could create games which were not mere games (a frivolous pursuit) but which were also stories - it was an outlet for their desire to be writers, which they could not fulfil due to lack of talent, time, dedication or all three.

Tracy Hickman turned out to be a decent story teller and writer, in actual fact (despite Dragonlance, the Death Gate Cycle, and so forth being terribly cliched and lightweight, the guy knows how to write). But the impact of his ideas, and those of others like him, on the hobby, have been rather negative, because all those frustrated-novelist GMs can't become writers too. Their desire to be novelists can only be channelled into their other imaginative activity - gaming - where they have a captive audience (their players) and a blank canvas (a 4 hour gaming session on a Saturday afternoon). This is the perfect storm for railroad-y, GM-led, story-obsessed play.

I feel bad for Tracy Hickman, as in our corner of the blogosphere his name seems to have become synonymous for "where it all went wrong". This is harsh, because he's obviously a very nice guy, and talented with it. This post is not to impugn him or his reputation. It's to lament the way in which D&D in particular has become a vehicle for so many people who really want to be doing something else than playing games: writing fantasy novels for a living. There is little that could be more detrimental to good gaming.

Friday 23 March 2012

HP Lovecraft and the BBC

Somebody discerning seems to have taken over the BBC news magazine - which is usually an unbearably banal thing airing the most pathetic lightweight stories you can possibly imagine. (Stuff like "Is cheese good for you?") Last week it was rather sympathetically talking about Warhammer 40,000. Today, it's paying tribute to HP Lovecraft on the 75th anniversary of his death. (The piece is written by Ramsay Campbell, who by coincidence is the father of a childhood friend of mine, as well as being possibly the best living British horror writer.) The conclusion is very nice, and bears reprinting:

In striving to write fiction which would make positive use both of his talents and of his limitations, in particular his difficulties with creating characters, Lovecraft developed near-perfect structures for the horror story.  
His determination to convey awe gives his tales a quality too seldom found. His work unites the British and American traditions of horror fiction - it unites the realistic and the fantastic, the personal and the cosmic, the occult and the scientific.

I wonder what anniversaries are coming up that the BBC news magazine can cover. They've done the 25th year of 40k, they've done 75 years since Lovecraft's death... What next? 25 years since Iain M Banks published Consider Phlebas? 25 years since the release of Cyborg Commando? I notice that next year is the 25th anniversary of Cyberpunk 2020. I hope you're paying attention, BBC news magazine editors.

Thursday 22 March 2012


So yesterday I generated some random races on which to hang a campaign setting. They were the Jackalwere, beaver, sirine, ankheg, wererat, and satyr. Here goes:

Jackalwere and Wererats
These are the females and males of the same race. Their society is matriarchal and dominated by the Jackalwere, who select mates from the wererat populace. In order to breed, both must assume human form, though generally they appear as hybrids. They live in cities of pyramids, surrounded by moats. The Jackalwere inhabit the pyramids and the wererats live in the subterranean moats around them.

Sirine and Satyrs
The sirine inhabit reefs and kelp forests in off shore shallows, and like the Jackalwere and Wererats form a symbiotic relationship with coastal communities of satyrs, who provide them with "companionship" and breeding. Neither sirine nor satyr forms organised societies, preferring to live in relative anarchy.

Intelligent Ankhegs live in huge underground kingdoms deep underneath the thickest forests. They war constantly with all other beings, seeing them merely as food, and they cannot be communicated with - their language is composed entirely of posture and the release of hormones, which other races cannot emulate. Their culture and society is largely unknown.

Intelligent beavers inhabit lakes and rivers, creating huge riparian dam-cities. Surrounding these cities they tend huge areas of cultivated forest, so as to provide them with endless supplies of wood. This brings them into constant conflict with Ankheg interlopers who seek the loamy soil of these beaver-made forests.

I call this campaign setting "Symbiants and Also Beavers and Ankheg World". Or Sabaw for short.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Random Campaign Setting Major Races

Let's play a game. Take the 2nd edtion AD&D Monstrous Manual (or any bestiary of your choice), and randomly select 2d6 monsters from it using this.

For the Monstous Manual this is between 1 and 1,089 (the number of monsters in the book), or you could do it by page number if that's easier. 

If you get something unintelligent or of animal intelligence, imagine an intelligent version.

These selections are the dominant intelligent races of a campaign world. You now have to figure out how to build a setting around them.

I got 6:

Jackalwere, beaver, sirine, ankheg, wererat, satyr. I'll talk about a campaign world idea based on them tomorrow.

One Hour D&D

I've mostly stayed away from all the 5th D&D edition internet "blah". I learned my lesson from the 4th edition release. In fact, I've managed to almost entirely dodge finding anything out about the new edition whatsoever.

So this is the first article I've read from Mike Mearls on the matter, and in honour of that fact, I'll comment on it: I'm in favour of this "one hour D&D" idea.

One hour is perhaps a little short for me, but I get the point. My group meets once a week and plays from 6.30ish to 9ish. Two and a half hours. That's the sweet spot for me before my attention starts to wander. But it's also practical - we have lives, so 8 hour marathon sessions are not possible every week; but at the same time we want regularity to maintain momentum, so we want to squeak in sessions on a weekly basis. The two-and-a-half-hour evening session is perfect for our purposes. Designers should recognise that this is around the norm for a working adult or a kid who goes to school.

Let's get this straight: it's extremely unlikely I'll ever play 5th edition. I've got BECMI or OD&D if I want to scratch the D&D itch, and I highly doubt they'll create something simpler or quicker to play than either of them. But this is exactly the right approach if they want to target D&D at kids (who have short attention spans) and/or adults (who don't have a great deal of time). That may mean they do not satisfy the hard core nerds who are into systems, want lots of rules to get their teeth into, spend weeks on character generation, and masturbate over their copies of the Book of Nine Swords every night before they sleep - but luckily that vocal minority is tiny in material terms.

Monday 19 March 2012

On MAR Barker

I've been re-listening to some Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcasts at the gym, and the one I had on today featured Orson Scott Card holding forth on a wide variety of things. (If you've never heard Orson Scott Card giving an interview I recommend you do so: he's good value.)

One of the things he said was that for a very long time fantasy literature was crap, because too many people simply aped Tolkien without understanding Tolkien's genius, or his message - which was not "do what I do" in the sense of creating fantasy worlds full of elves, orcs, hobbits and world-saving quests, but "do what I do" in the sense of creating fantasy worlds that feel real. People looked at The Lord of the Rings and took from it exactly the wrong things - the window dressing - without understanding that the real magic of Tolkien's work was the creation of a genuine secondary world. Instead of providing carbon copies of Middle Earth, they should have done what he had done, which was to create something of their own.

Likewise, when William Gibson was in his pomp around the time his first loose trilogy was being published, Bruce Sterling made a plea for science fiction writers to follow him. What Sterling had meant was that he wanted writers to follow Gibson in creating well thought-out, fleshed out, deep-feeling settings and stories. Instead, loads of people just started writing stories with Gibson window dressing - mirror shades and cyberspace and noir. This resulted in what Card calls one of the most pathetic literary movements ever, Cyberpunk, and I'm inclined to agree. As fantasy writers had done with Tolkien, 'cyberpunk' writers just skimmed the surface and missed the point. They just produced cheap knock-offs of Gibson's work, when they should have been finding their own voice.

The same is true of 99% of RPG setting design, I would say. Where it isn't simply stealing Tolkien's furniture, it's stealing Greyhawk's. People don't really create their own secondary worlds - they create Middle Earth with the serial numbers filed off, over and over again, all around the Western world, day after day, month after month, year after year.

MAR Barker was different. Der Spiegel called him The Forgotten Tolkien, but that was because (whether subconsciously or consciously) he is one of the few fantasists who has ever really understood what Tolkien was getting at: he created his own secondary world, and it was like nothing else that had come before or since. Like Tolkien, in Tekumel he created something genuine, from his own mind: his own consistent, living, breathing thing. He took the real message of Tolkien's legendarium and ran with it. In this, he was different to, and greater than, any other creator of imaginary worlds since Tolkien himself.

People like MAR Barker and JRR Tolkien are extremely rare. One is rightly viewed as a titan (although he is only just now beginning to be recognised as such by the literati), whereas the other is barely known, but it is hard to think of any other fantasy writers that come close in terms of their achievements of imagination. The death of MAR Barker is an extremely sad event and it can only be hoped that whatever small publicity that comes from it is enough to generate some level of elevated interest in his world.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Expecting the Unexpected and Narrative Purity

My Cyberpunk 2020 campaign ended last night in rather unexpected fashion. Well, the ending was planned - I'm transitioning to an OD&D Yoon-Suin campaign, though we'll also be doing a rotating-GM-style Microscope-created Shared World type project in tandem.

I tend to glaze over when reading other people's Actual Play blog posts, but I've done some short APs from the "Cyberpool" campaign here and here. It may be remembered that my players had a huge project underway which involved parachuting £200,000 of heroin into an inner city park, hiding it in plain sight in the form of an aerial DJ gig in front of an audience of 10,000 people. (They came up with this crackpot idea during a secret gaming session in my office in blatant contravention of regulations - we live this cyberpunk shit.)

There was another "grand theme" to the campaign, in which the PCs had become involved in a corporate-war-by-proxy between Gazprom and a Bulgarian IT conglomerate called STRELA, and one of the characters was about to throw himself full-pelt into this.

In the end, neither of these strands came to anything. In the final session (I think we've had somewhere in the region of 12 to 15) the PCs rocked up at the Cameroonian pentecostal church whose mysterious pastor, Father Philemon, is their erstwhile employer in the parachuting heist. They had, in true cyberpunk fashion, decided that their cut of the heroin money (10%) was not enough given their expenses (they'd already spent about £10,000 laying the groundwork for the gig) and they had decided they wanted the whole £200,000. In order to achieve this, they hatched a plot to smuggle a cell phone, jury-rigged into a primitive bugging device, into the church, and use it to gather information on the organization. Their ultimate goal appeared to be to set up a huge bomb under the church by entering the sewage system, thus killing Father Philemon and his cronies and allowing them to complete the parachute jump and keep the full amount of smack.

They didn't even get this far - after an altercation with Father Philemon in an attempt to create a distraction for planting the bug they were marched outside and told the deal was off. Things rapidly spiralled downhill and guns were pulled. 15 seconds of in-game time later and one of the PCs was dead (after taking at least a dozen bullets and two shotgun blasts) along with 5 of Fr. Philemon's gunmen, who were mown down by Patrick's assault-rifle-toting Somali teenage girl. The remaining PCs then fired a Light Antitank Weapon into the church and drove off.

I decided this was a reasonable point at which to End Credits, at least for Season 1.

From this we can draw two lessons:

1) In CP:2020, handguns and shotguns are all very well, but what you really want is an assault rifle when the shit hits the fan.

2) More importantly, I think our campaign demonstrates the messiness and Picaresque brilliance you get when you give players free reign. If I'd been plotting things out, there's no way the PCs would have ended up even coming up with the parachute heist anyway - I threw so many other adventure hooks their way - but once they had done, it would almost have been perverse for it not to happen. It would have been such a natural conclusion to the campaign - such a narratively logical, complete note on which to end it. It would have been climactic.

Instead, not only did the parachute jump never happen, the PCs plotted an entire level underneath it (kill employer; keep heroin), which itself didn't happen, because they ended up involved in a full on gun-fight which laid waste to all of their carefully laid plans in the course of less than 20 seconds of shooting.

If it had been a film or book, there's no way it would have turned out this way. But it did, and it was in its own way highly satisfactory: we didn't get a plotted ending, but we got an ending - and one that felt realistic. Life doesn't tie things off neatly. If you were going to compare it to something plotted, the ending seemed more like the end of Season 1 of The Wire: confused, slightly arbitrary, unexpected, and very life-like.

The conclusion being that it's important to stay true to your principles: when the sirens of plot and narrative come singing, plug in your ear wax of sandbox purity and keep on going. You won't be disappointed with the results.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Everything is Dolphins

Two links for your amusement and edification. The first is Everything is Dolphins, a homebrew RPG in which, well, everything is dolphins. It is best described by its "discoverer":

Everything is Dolphins occupies a curious place. While it is clearly the work of someone new to the design of role-playing games, it also displays the some of the sophisticated sensibilites one would expect from an old hand. Rather than the excess of complexity that clutters most freshman efforts, Everything is Dolphins offers concision and simplicity. The author gives few examples to illustrate how to use the system and no sample adventure, leaving much to the player’s imagination (and effort). With its bare bones, lacunae, and undeniable beauty, Everything is Dolphins is the role-playing game analogue of outsider art.

That discoverer is the owner of PlaGMaDA, the Player Generated Map and Document Archive, whose "mission is to preserve, present, and interpret play generated cultural artifacts, namely manuscripts and drawings created to communicate a shared imaginative space":

The Archive will solicit, collect, describe, and publicly display these documents so as to demonstrate their relevance, presenting them as both a historical record of a revolutionary period of experimental play and as aesthetic objects in their own right.  By fostering discussion and educating the public, it is hoped that the folkways which generate these documents can be encouraged and preserved for future generations.

A laudable goal. Take a look at the Archive. You'll not be disappointed.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Why Are Adults Still Launching Tabletop War?

The BBC has an article today about the 25th anniversary of the release of Warhammer 40,000, which is doing the rounds. Typically for the BBC there has to be an angle which will give the cognoscenti something to fret about (in this case, the fact that 40k supposedly "exploits" younger fans), but still, it's surprisingly sympathetic and avoids the kind of tongue-in-cheek comments you usually get when RPGs or table top wargames are discussed in mainstream media. The comments on the article are, as always, completely batshit mental, but raise a smile nonetheless.

There are two "!" instances worth mentioning. First, this:

Gillen contrasts Warhammer 40K to role-playing fantasy gaming like the online World of Warcraft (the modern equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons). [Emphasis added]

Get that? Almost as if D&D doesn't exist anymore except in the form of WoW. Not sure what to make of that. And second, more positively, there's this:

"It's like why theatre remains popular in the age of cinema," says 32-year-old Andrew Ruddick from Cambridge, explaining its enduring appeal. He describes himself as a "relapsed" Warhammer gamer, slipping back into it in his 20s with friends. "There's an intimacy. With tabletop gaming you are there."

Which is worth emphasising, I think. The USP of table top gaming needs to be shouted from the roof tops at every available opportunity.

Know Your Enemy

-C has an interesting post up today, talking about my recent musings on consensus-oriented play. Melan makes a comment that is worth reprinting in full:

I am really frustrated by a lot of game discussion on the net - particularly on RPGNet's d20/D&D forum - where posters assume that typical gamers will be acting in bad faith in situations that depend on human choice. There is, I don't know, a complete lack of generosity towards roleplayers, and some sort of almost paralysing fear about bad experiences.  
As a conclusion to these assumptions, the discussion then shifts to how a game's rules should limit or outright prevent the potential for human error by limiting human choice; moreover, the experiences of posters who come from a different point of view are written off as atypical or downright wrong. I see these assumptions as damaging - used to argue against them for a few years, but I have mostly given up because I just ended up attacked over it.  
So, yeah, sportmanship. A mutual commitment to group enjoyment. That's the point. That's the entire point, and I don't want to play in a game that doesn't give me that.

This absolutely hits the nail on the head. There is something poisonous about discussion of RPGs in online forums - a cynicism, a meanness of spirit, a failure to understand basic human decency in game contexts - which I find genuinely worrying, and it does seem to flow from's d20/D&D forum, although you see it elsewhere too. It's not the majority of the forum-goers (many of whom contributed excellently and pleasantly to my Monstrous Manual thread, for example), but a large minority of fevered egos, tainting our collective subconscious.

I don't find it worrying in any sort of WE'RE ALL DOOMED sense; rather, I'm anxious because it seems to me that the Powers That Be in the RPG world take what goes on in forums very seriously. I can't help but feel that a lot of what 4e tried to do in "fixing" D&D was in response to what a large number of the fevered egos in places like were saying was wrong with gaming, but that this was ultimately a quixotic goal because it wasn't properly understood that people who are very vocal in forums are not really very representative of the majority, and are pretty much by definition guaranteed to be odd, not to mention socially inept and angry. Their concerns are not the concerns of normal gamers, but the concerns of cynical mean-spirited people who do not understand basic human decency in game contexts, and readily assume bad faith at the drop of a hat.

It's related to the problem that is experienced by TV-show makers, radio broadcasters, and media personalities the length and breadth of the world: you get complaints about something and try to make changes in response, forgetting that people who are bothered enough to complain are by definition rather strange and also tiny in number in comparison to the unoffended masses - so by effecting changes in response you are in fact chasing wild geese.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, I really wish people like Monte Cook and Mike Mearls would lock themselves away from the internet when designed D&D 5th edition and just make a game that they think normal people would enjoy, and play-test it the traditional way by just playing it a lot without input from the "fan base".

Sunday 11 March 2012

Speculating Wildly about Culture

In this post at therpgsite, a lot of people are speculating about why RPGs are apparently not popular in some countries (India, China, etc.) while relatively popular in others (UK, USA, etc.). Seeing as I enjoy speculating wildly about culture, I threw my own hat into the ring, and will now elaborate on to your education and edification (or rejection and dissatisfaction, whichever you prefer).

First, I've been around the world enough to know that cultural differences are real and have an actual impact on the way people think and behave. People are the same in Japan, France, Kazakhstan, Israel and the UK in that they like good food, having fun, having sex, they care about their families, they worry about the future, and so on, as you would expect: the core is the same. But there are differences around the edges. For instance, in Japan there is no real culture of entertaining in the home. When people socialise they tend to do it outside - at bars, restaurants, clubs, whatever - and house parties are pretty rare (although they do happen).

It would be naive to assume that cultural differences like this would not have an effect on how the practice of playing RPGs translates between cultures. Certainly, in the naive sense, in societies like Japan where people tend not to socialise in the home as much as they do in the UK or North America, there is less of a culture of parlour games and hence a correspondingly smaller window for RPGs to enter.

But also, more deep-rooted cultural mores can impact on how RPGs are played and interpreted, I think. I've written quite a bit before on this blog about cultural differences between the UK and the USA, and how it seems perfectly natural when you think about it that one should produce Warhammer and the other should produce D&D. I didn't really do enough gaming in Japan, but I do have a lot of experience dealing with Japanese people in small group contexts and know that all the stereotypes about Japan being a deferential society are stereotypes for a reason: age and seniority are strongly correlated with how much people are willing to listen to you and agree with you. (This is strongly reinforced by the language.) This makes me wonder about how the role of the DM is interpreted in the Japanese context and how my own relaxed and egalitarian style would fit.

I also think it would be naive to assume that the literary and artistic traditions exhibited by certain societies would not be a factor in how readily RPGs are absorbed. For instance, it seems to me (speaking as a lay person and an outsider in a completely extemporaneous way) that there is a strong fantastical tradition in the modern (as opposed to medieval or ancient) art and literature of Spain, Portugal and Latin America, more so than in some other societies - that those countries produce cultural artefacts that seem more readily fantastical and more readily associated with fantasy than others: that, for instance, the steps from Borges to Vance to D&D are tiny, and that Borges is just one person in a heritage of fantastical weirdness that goes back to Picasso, El Greco, Cervantes... And it also seems to me at the same time that RPGs and fantasy literature are pretty popular in Portugal and Spain, at least to my limited knowledge, and that for instance I'm always stumbling across Portuguese translations of fantasy novels on author blogs, and I know George R R Martin goes on book tours in Portugal quite a lot, and I knew this Spanish girl at university who was an even bigger Tolkien geek than I was. And I also know that the plural of anecdote is not "data", but still.

Of course, you wouldn't want to play down the significance of either language, politics or economics. People in China speak Chinese, and comparatively few speak English well enough to read D&D in the original. People in North Korea don't have easy access to DriveThruRPG. Most people in Zambia don't have the disposable income to spend on frivolous RPGs.

And if living in a foreign country for a number of years taught me anything, it's that it takes a long, long time to get to know a society well enough to pontificate on its mores. I feel confident talking about Japanese culture because I lived there for a large chunk of my life, I worked in a Japanese environment, I speak the language, I dated the women, I played football with the men. The same isn't true of Brazil or India or the Philippines, so what the fuck do I know? And I also know that when I hear people who don't know Japan as well as I do talking in a general way about "Japanese culture" I always think they sound as if they're talking out of their arse, so I'm wary of doing the same thing.

And yet I just have, and will continue to do so.

Friday 9 March 2012

D&D as Straight Man

How do you like your whimsy? I prefer mine leaning towards the slightly melancholic, surreal, sardonic, and cruel. But there is whimsy of a blunter and more prosaic kind in D&D. From the Rules Cyclopedia, page 261, in the "Room Contents" advice section:

Trick Monster: This applies to any variation of a listed monster, such as: A two-headed giant ogre, a carrion crawler that walks upright and has paralyzing tentacles for arms, a wild bore (a shaggy man who tells long, dreary stories), a quartering (half-sized halfling), a Mouth Harpy (who can't sing but plays the harmonica), an Ogre Jelly (looks like an ogre, but . . .), and so forth.

I came across this last night while stocking one of the levels of Sangmenzhang, and it raised a wry smile, but I have to say my kind of D&D doesn't really tolerate this kind of thing. I get the joke, I get that not everything has to be po-faced in any RPG, but still, it's an incredibly unsubtle way of crowbarring humour into a game.

I have two objections. The first is the simple one: every single RPG session I've ever been involved in, as player or GM, has more laughter in it than serious moments at a ration approaching 2:1. This is achieved without anything substantively "funny" in the rules, set-up, or content of the game. It's just because that's the way gaming is - funny things happen, and when they don't, funny things can be said about the things that are happening. So actually, I've never felt any need to insert pre-planned jokes or make any self-conscious attempt at humour in the setup of a game or session. It happens organically anyway.

The second is more philosophical, and is that jokes and puns are a kind of Brechtian alienating device which distance the players from the game world. As soon as a Mouth Harpy makes an appearance, suddenly you're not even remotely inside your character's head - your willing suspension of disbelief has been shattered and you've been wrenched out of the Secondary World which has been created. This is not really conducive to what I enjoy about gaming.

What this boils down to, I think, is that good humour is generally about what the Japanese call the tsukkomi and the boke, or what we call the straight-man and comic: you need a sensible springboard for the jokes to bounce off. For me, whatever the game is you're playing, the game's contents have to take on the role of straight-man - they have to be relatively serious on the face of it for the jokes to riff on. Seriousness of content is the necessary foil for all manner of jokes, sarcasm and piss-taking - and the overall level of humour in fact suffers without it. That is, overt humour built-in to the game world undermines it: to borrow again from theatrical comedy, there is no-one "feeding" the lines, because the lines are all stupid jokes in the first place. 

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Porfiry Petrovich I Hardly Knew Ye

Porfiry Petrovich, a PC in my Cyberpunk 2020 game, died tonight. He was summarily executed at 3am by security men after being an unwilling accomplice in a drive-by shooting which saw a drunken local politician threatening 4 Russian mobsters and 2 of the other PCs from the window of a Porsche which Porfiry was driving after all 8 men had participated in a night of whiskey-fuelled gambling together at a local casino. In a scenario almost literally too complicated to untangle, one of the Russian mobsters was shot by the local politician who was tazed by Porfiry and then beaten to death by the surviving Russians while the other PCs fled into the night, whereupon Porfiry, for reasons far too complicated to go into here, attempted to gun down the other Russian mobsters. Security personnel from the nearby corporate mall delivered the coup de grace by massacring Porfiry and the Russians in the street and asking questions later.

All in all, a good session and a somewhat fitting end: Porfiry's epitaph reads, in his player's own words, "He lived as he died, acting like a tit." Although I think that's a bit harsh - Porfiry was in large part the engine behind what was going on in the game and the leader of the "gang", and his player was resourceful and ingenious.

His next character is a homeless 19-year-old Somali immigrant girl who carries an assault rifle around in a sports bag.

I love gaming.

Monday 5 March 2012

Your Players Know You're Not God

One of the key elements of my GMing style, I've realised, is that I tend to involve the players in the decision-making process rather a lot, so while I'm the final arbiter, I'm always open to suggestions on rulings and ideas on how to handle things. For instance, let's say I'm GMing a game where the rulebook doesn't include anything on calculating damage from falling and one of the PCs is falling off something from a 30 foot height. I'm just as likely to say to the players as a whole, "What do you reckon? How damaging would that be?" and let them have some input into the final decision as I am to just say, "You take 1d20 damage" off the top of my head.

I'm also likely to draw on the players' expertise in decision-making processes too. My gaming groups include veterinarians, firearms experts, people with PhDs in mathematics, and computer scientists. It would be almost perverse not to draw on their knowledge to make decisions and rulings that are realistic and sensible. (The firearms expert in particular always comes in handy; "John, would a 12.7mm round penetrate the brick wall Andy's character is hiding behind?" "Yes.")

Reading around forums and watching other GMs, I realise that this isn't really the norm, or at least I do it more than most. I can't really understand why. I take the view that we're all adults, and my players know I'm not God - it's not like I'm shattering any illusions by revealing I don't know something or I could do with knowledgeable input.

It also seems to me that sessions always run smoothly when it feels as if everybody is pulling in the same direction. My GMing decisions are generally as objective as I can make them and I try to create a neutral game world with rational consequences, but it doesn't hurt for players to feel as if they have some input into the process of refereeing - it gives things an atmosphere of consensus and collegiality rather than of paternalism.

Let's face it - I'm also pretty lazy, and the more I can farm out and outsource to the players, the better.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Generic = Bland

This thread provides interesting food for thought for someone such as me; I'm not old by any means, but I'm getting older, and I'm also busy. Nowadays, the prospect of picking up a 200 (or more likely 400) page-long tome of new rules fills me with dread and boredom rather than excitement, and I find that my attention span is only a fraction of what it used to be. It doesn't help that most RPG rule books are full of extraneous crap that no sane person could possibly want to read, like page after page of "game fiction" with no purpose other than exercising the game designers' frustrated-novelist demons, either.

So the thought has occurred to me: isn't it easier to just give up on learning new systems and pick one generic system which will allow you to run anything?

And yet I'm obviously not alone in finding generic/universal systems unutterably bland and dull. Whether it's GURPS, d20 Modern, Savage Worlds, or whatever else, something about a generic system leeches all the enjoyment out of gaming for me. The process ceases to feel immersive and begins to feel increasingly gamey in the worst sense, almost like a lesser simulacra of what role-playing is: all the flavour disappears.

I'm pretty sure this is to do with authorial voice and authorial intent. Because, while I might despise the kind of ridiculous fiction which appears in some game books, it can't be ignored that there is something personal in the best RPG systems. OD&D is not just a fantasy role playing game - it's a fantasy role playing game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Pendragon is not just a game about Arthurian romance - it's a game about Arthurian romance created by Greg Stafford. Apocalypse World is not just a game about the post-apocalypse - it's a game about the post-apocalypse created by Vincent Baker. Cyberpunk 2020 is not just a game about cyberpunk roleplaying - it's a game about cyberpunk roleplaying created by Mike Pondsmith. (I could go on, but you get my drift, I think.) Those games and, I would submit, most games that really work, contain something personal of the author in them - something that communicates passion, mood, emotion and personality above and beyond merely being a ruleset. They come from something the designer loved, not something the designer thought would fulfil a certain function.

Pretty much by definition, then, I feel, generic rulesets will lack the crucial element of authorial personality. They will by necessity be an exercise in engineering rather than flavour, because they are created not from the heart but the brain, and this will inevitably lead to them feeling dry. They may be exquisitely designed. But they won't contain any spirit, or passion - and they will inevitably tend to dullness.

(Naturally, there is one exception to this: Risus. But Risus always defies categorisation.)

Saturday 3 March 2012

Old Stuff Day

Everybody else is doing it, and Fridays always seem low on inspiration for me (I also have a raging hangover) so I'll partake in Old Stuff Day, the idea being to highlight old posts on your blog that:

  • You consider special but didn't get the attention they deserved 
  • People liked in the past but haven't seen recently
  • Posts created before the blog received much traffic, and deserve to be reshown
  • And content you're particularly proud of.

Well, here goes:

Planescape Borges and the Library of Babel, from May 2008, is an old favourite that I think was an early indication of the way this blog would evolve, containing a nice mixture of pretentious pseudo-intellectualism, "fantastical" fantasy, and solid creative ideas.

Old Johnny in the Lake, the Crayfish Demigod, again from May 2008. If you don't want to read an entry with that title it's a fair assumption this blog isn't for you.

Beware the Were Stuff, from November 2009, the "Silver Age" of Monsters and Manuals. I just think this is one of my best ideas, and the idea of a were-secretary-bird still makes me chuckle.

Chaos Patrons!, from September 2008. I stole this idea, unashamedly. It's still good though.

How to Describe a Campaign Setting in 25 Words or Less, from March 2009. This was when I was first formulating Yoon-Suin. 

My Top 10 Monsters, from February 2009. This is the first post of mine that ever caught on mimetically, I think. It was a proud moment.

A Slug is as Evolved as You and More Molluscs, from January 2009. I got bored and drew some pictures and put them on the interwebz.

Towards a Theory of Demihumans, from May 2009. One of my solidest ideas. 

Finally, Panthro Says Silly Names Are Silly, from March 2010. I don't often make myself laugh with my writing, but I do find this entry funny.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Therapeutic Dungeon Creation

Amongst my other vices, as I've approached, and passed, my 30th birthday, I've become a complete workaholic. Since Christmas I think I've worked every single day including weekends except for New Year's Day and one or two other days I can think of. You would never have guessed that I'd turn into that sort of person if you'd met me when I was 25. Just goes to show you never can tell.

So today I took the day off. And I spent almost all of it drawing up a dungeon - one called Sangmenzhang which I've been working on for a long time, and which has been through several iterations.

And it feels good. Along with its many other virtues, there is something therapeutic and stress-relieving about creating materials to use in a game. In a nice quiet room with paper, coloured pencils, dice and some music you can while away hours in a fugue-like, relaxing state, just keying in rooms and writing up random encounter tables. In this age of instant gratification there's something almost retro about it, and perhaps that's part of the charm - the idea that you're putting time and effort into something that won't see any "pay-off" for quite some time.

But also, just exercising your creative muscles is a tool for de-stressing, and in that regard there's really no difference between writing up dungeons and painting, playing an instrument or whatever. It's just that for some reason the former would be viewed as odd and aberrant whereas the latter two aren't. Strange.