Tuesday 31 July 2012

A Plug (I don't often do these)

I don't often do this - in fact, I don't think I've ever done it - so I hope I can be forgiven for spamming your rss feed just this once.

Kelvin Green's "Horror Among Thieves" is being kickstarted on indiegogo at the moment. I'm sure plenty of you know of it already, but this blog has a wide readership and I'd like to spread the word. This is not an endorsement, because I haven't seen anything of this product except the blurb - it's merely to draw your attention. I hope I also don't need to say that nobody has asked me to do this, and I'm not associated with it in any way.

Kelvin is a thoroughly nice guy and a commenter in good standing on this blog, but that's not the reason I think this is worth backing: it's because Kelvin has proved himself to be a talented designer of game materials. Backing the project also comes with a number of other goodies, which I'm sure you can read about on the actual page.

Monday 30 July 2012

The Exodus to, er, Made Up Worlds

I was listening to an old Econtalk podcast with Edward Castronova today while doing some house keeping, and immediately thought that it was worth blogging about, being both Relevant To My Interests and very educational. The blurb is as follows:
Edward Castronova, of Indiana University and author of Exodus to the Virtual World, talks about his provocative thesis that a growing number of people around the world will be spending more and more time playing multiplayer games in virtual reality both as a form of escape and as a search for meaning. He talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about how this trend might affect government, religion, and our happiness.
I'm not an expert on multiplayer online games, because I literally don't play any of them: my only experience with online gaming of any sort is the odd blast of Dominate Game with the guys in my office and long-running PBEM games of Steel Panthers: World at War with 50-something fellow military history freaks in Texas and Virginia. So my comments ought to be taken in that light. It also needs to be said that Castronova was being interviewed here in 2008, and things have obviously moved on since then: they talk quite a bit about Second Life, which seems to have faded away (to my knowledge anyway), and they cite World of Warcraft dollars-for-gold-piece auctions as a $1 billion dollar per year concern, where I suspect today they are even bigger than that.

The most interesting issue they raise is the philosophical one: what are the consequences for society that a sizeable minority of people actually seem to prefer living in a virtual world than to the real one? And what does it say for society? It being Econtalk, which is probably the most cerebral podcast on the internet, they manage to steer clear of stupid pat answers like "blah, capitalism destroys the soul, people want to escape, blah". Instead they offer a number of different thoughts, foremost among them that modern society has to a large extent tried to shed myth, and in doing so it has left a core human need unsatisfied: history and anthropology suggest that myth is something that fulfils some sort of genuinely human requirement. They make the observation that World of Warcraft is like an exercise in myth-making which seems to fill this hole.

In any case, it got me thinking about table top RPGs. Are they part of the same process, the so-called "exodus to virtual worlds"?

It's a shame table top RPGs are so niche, because I think they can be productively analysed in relation to issues like this. RPGs are sort of like Second Life and World of Warcraft, because they involve the creation of a fantasy world, they are to a certain extent escapist, they resemble Nozick's Experience Machine to some degree though don't map perfectly. And yet at the same time they are different - because they are social in the "true" sense (you play them face to face) and very rooted in the real world of dice, pens, paper and, perhaps crucially, the written word.

I don't have any particular thoughts on the matter, though this notion of myth-making struck a chord with me. What myths we do have in the modern world - essentially, books, films, comics, etc. - are all passively partaken in. So although I'm prepared to buy the argument that nowadays films fulfil something of the function that mythology did, it isn't really correct to talk about watching films as being involved in myth making because nothing is being made by the audience. This contrasts with religious myth in particular, because religious myths involve an active response - they are supposed to be linked in some way to our behaviour. There is something more of that in table top RPGs: active engagement with issues of right and wrong, good and evil, and so on, and also just acting with some kind of in-game meaning as opposed to being an unengaged observer.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Anthropological Titbit

I read a lot of non-fiction, and I often come across little titbits of information that I feel like using for setting material.

For instance, I've recently been reading Empire of the Summer Moon, which explains one of the main reasons why plains indian raiders were always keen to take children captive: when women are in the saddle a lot, they often have miscarriages and become infertile. Plains indian tribes had chronically low fertility rates, so they would literally steal other people's children to keep themselves going (as well as adopting exiles, runaways, and so on). That's something I've never heard of before, but will certainly use as grist for the setting-depth mill if horse-riding nomads come into things.

Thursday 26 July 2012

D&D my Cyberpunk; or, Hit points? We don't need no stinking hit points!

Some of the comments on yesterday's post got me thinking. It would be perfectly possible to run a game of D&D and using its core themes (bunch of adventurers seeking glory, wealth, fame and fortune through exploring ancient tombs and ruins and hexcrawling) in a setting with more up-to-date technology - taking inspiration from, say, the American Wild West, Brazil in the era of the bandeirantes, the exploration of Australia's interior by whites, the Russian conquest of Siberia, Livingstone's journeys in to "darkest Africa", and so on - but with dragons - were it not for the fact that D&D as a system just doesn't model guns very well. You can explain away the fact that 9th level characters have so many hit points by abstraction in a normal game of D&D, but the abstraction gets stretched to breaking point once it comes to bullets (this is part of the reason why I loathed my experience playing d20 Modern, despite perfectly good DM and players).

There is a simple solution to this, of course: as characters gain levels they don't gain hit points. A 9th-level character has the same number he started out with. (The DM might want to be generous and give starting characters max hit points for their class.) So an ambush of 9th-level characters by shotgun wielding goblins would retain the sense of fear and danger that a real gunfight would have, and make things suitably concrete.

Another thought occurs, however: Cyberpunk 2020 is a surprisingly robust and effective generic system if you want something that is easier to learn than GURPS while retaining a decent level of grit and crunch. I know this because I ran a WWII-era zombie game with it and thought it worked very effectively. (The only complaint would be that dice rolls are irritating and fiddly when it comes to damage - if you get hit by a 7.62mmx54mmR round you have to roll and add up 6d6+2 damage, which is clearly enough to render an unarmoured target dead in almost all cases but not quite enough to justify saying 'a hit is a kill', so in big gun fights you are constantly rolling and totalling up fistfuls of d6s.)

I also think that, the more 'modern' ones D&D becomes, the more it needs to have skills. In a low-technology world, people are not particularly specialised, because adventuring skills are not hard to learn: everybody can swim, use a rope, climb, pick locks, look for secret doors, etc. But the more technologically advanced a society becomes, the more career-type skills become necessary - it's more plausible to imagine somebody would have to sacrifice learning other skills in order to become a train driver, or astronomer, or demolitions expert, or whatever. A system that wants to model this would have to have a skill system, and Cyberpunk 2020 has a simple and reasonably effective one.

You would probably need to have some sort of wealth-for-XP mechanic on top of it, of course, but that would be easy to cobble together. As characters gained levels they would become more skilful, and the magic-users would get to use more powerful spells, but their basic physicality - their attributes and hit points - would remain the same and they would be as frail as ever in combat. I think this would be an interesting marriage between adventuresome exploration and hijinks and the constant risk of sudden death.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

The Historical Context of D&D

I sometimes wonder whether or not Gygax, Arneson and the like had the right idea in setting D&D in a resolutely pseudo-medieval era. It's because that's the kind of era in which fantasy stories take place, of course. But if we view D&D's default mode of play as being about parties of adventurers venturing into the unknown to seek their fame and fortune, we would be much better off imagining it as taking place in a pseudo-renaissance, pseudo-Victorian, or perhaps pseudo-late-antiquity, era.

What are some examples of real world adventurers? The ones which spring to my mind are:
  • The vikings, who spread throughout Europe in late antiquity as, essentially, adventurers, mercenaries and pillagers, and who ended up founding kingdoms in Normandy, Sicily, the Middle East, and Russia
  • The conquistadors who sailed across the Atlantic in search of gold, slaves and glory
  • The explorers of Africa and Asia in the era of European empire building
  • The forerunners of the settlers of the great North and South American interiors - prospectors, slavers, explorers, scientists

High medieval societies were rather hidebound by feudalism and religion. They were not the kind of societies which bred adventurers. Historically, adventurers have mostly been fostered by a mix of variables - relatively high poverty (the motivation to escape), relative lack of opportunity for advancement (another motivation to escape), relatively high change of glory (discoveries of new areas of the globe to explore), breakthroughs in travel technology (e.g. ocean going vessels that could make it all the way to China from Portugal) and relatively large numbers of young men with nothing to do (big pool to draw from). This was true, for instance, in post-reconquista Spain, when there were thousands of men who had successfully fought the Moors sitting around with nothing much to do except set sail for the New World. It was true in late 18th to late 19th Century Britain, when the population was booming and the interior of Africa was opening up, and there was a sudden opportunity to escape a life of misery working in some godforsaken shit hole factory. It was true in the mid-18th Century USA, when opportunity called thanks to the opening up of the West and, likewise, the population was booming and life in cities in the East was pretty crappy. I think it was also probably true in the Scandinavia of late antiquity - the Roman Empire had fallen and, hey presto, Europe was laying wide open for impoverished young men with nothing to lose to go and raid.

It makes more sense to me, then, to imagine D&D campaigns taking place in a context of societal change, when there are new areas of the map to explore thanks to discoveries or advances in travel technology (or perhaps due to catastrophe), and where people are seeing an opportunity to improve their lives and with relatively little to lose. It seems more realistic to set it in an era of technological or cultural revolution like the renaissance or the imperial age, then, rather than the Tolkien-esque quasi-medieval settings it has traditionally been found in. Out with long swords and chain mail, in other words, and in with sabres and muskets.

The Nine Secret Societies

Alignment languages are one of the oddest phenomena in D&D. They clearly imply that alignment is not merely a way in which creatures behave, or a framework for categorising their beliefs, but an actual real, well understood and widely known set of active beliefs - effectively, like a set of 9 religions or secret societies. From 1st edition: 
Alignment language is a handy game tool which is not unjustifiable in game terms. Thieves did employ a special cant. Secret organizations and societies did and do have certain recognition signs, signals and recognition phrases - possibly special languages (of limited extent) as well. Consider also the medieval Catholic Church which used Latin as a common recognition and communication base to cut across national boundaries. In AD&D, alignment languages are the special set of signs, signals, gestures and words which intelligent creatures use to inform other intelligent creatures of the same alignment of their fellowship and common ethos. Alignment languages are NEVER flaunted in public. They are not used as salutations or interrogatives if the speaker is uncertain of the alignment of those addressed. Furthermore, alignment languages are of limited vocabulary and deal with the ethos of the alignment in general, so lengthy discussion of varying subjects cannot be conducted in such tongues. 
Each alignment language is constructed to allow recognition of like-aligned creatures and to discuss the precepts of the alignment in detail. Otherwise, the tongue will permit only the most rudimentary communication with a vocabulary of limited to a few score words. The speaker could inquire of the listener's state of health, ask about hunger, thirst, or degree of tiredness. A few other basic conditions and opinions could be expressed, but no more. The specialty tongues of Druidic and the Thieves' Cant are designed to handle conversations pertaining to things druidical on the one hand and thievery, robbery and the disposal of stolen goods on the other. Druids could discuss at length and in detail the state of the crops, weather, animal husbandry and foresting; but warfare, politics, adventuring, and like matter would be impossible to detail with the language. 
Any character foolish enough to announce his or her alignment by publicly crying out in that alignment tongue will incur considerable social sanctions. At best he or she will be thought unmannerly, rude, boorish, and stupid. Those of the same alignment will be inclined to totally ignore the character, not wishing to embarrass themselves by admitting any familiarity with the offender. Those of other alignment will likewise regard the speaker with distaste when overhearing such an outburst. At worst, the character will marked by those hostile to the alignment in which he or she spoke. 
Alignment language is used to establish credentials only after initial communications have been established by other means. Only in the most desperate of situations would any creature utter something in the alignment tongue otherwise. It must be also noted that alignment does NOT necessarily empower a creature to actually speak or understand the alignment language which is general in the ethos. Thus, blink dogs are intelligent, lawful good creatures who have a language of their own. A lawful good human, dwarf or brownie will be absolutely at a loss to communicate with blink dogs, however, except in the most limited of ways (non-aggression, non-fear, etc.) without knowledge of the creatures language or some magical means. This is because blink dogs do not intellectually embrace the ethos of lawful good but are of that alignment instinctually; therefore, they do not speak the tongue used by lawful good. This is not true of gold dragons, let us say, or red dragons with respect to their alignment, who do speak their respective alignment languages.

This clearly means that people actually have an explicit awareness of what alignment they are - it would not be considered odd (thought it would be a social faux pas, apparently) to utter the words "I am Lawful Good" in RAW AD&D.

I've often thought that it would be interesting to run AD&D in a setting which takes this RAW approach to alignment. In my mind, it would be something almost akin to what the Planescape designers were trying to do with the factions in Sigil, except much further below the surface than that: imagine the potential of a setting in which everybody is a member of one of nine secret societies, and everybody knows everybody else is a member of one of those societies, but they never reveal which society they are a member of unless they can possibly help it.

There is a lot of potential in that idea for interesting fiction more than there is for a game, but I still find it fascinating. It implies a kind of parallel world: everybody goes about their daily life in the regular way, but underneath that they are all pursuing their secret inner lives and the secret agendas they have, dictated by their alignment. 

In a sense, there is something in it of China Mieville's The City and the City: society pretending it is one thing, even though everybody knows that actually it is something else. Just like in The City and the City the inhabitants of one city behave as if the other does not exist, even though they surely know that it does, the people of the D&D world behave as if alignments do not exist, even though they all know that they really do. Everybody must carefully scan each other over whenever they meet: "I bet he's Lawful Evil"; "I hope she's Chaotic Good like me". Probably, an element of courtship is revealing to the other person, after a level of trust has been established, what your alignment is. Maybe marriage across alignment lines is "not done". Maybe it is society's great taboo - which people thrill in breaking.

As with a lot of things in AD&D, in one sense it is best just not to think too hard about alignment languages, because it leads you somewhere that just isn't D&D at all. Why bother with dungeons when the cloak and dagger setting implied by alignment languages implies a completely different genre of game?

Sunday 22 July 2012

The Future of Gaming

Personally, I'm not a fan of technological advancement in gaming - I like pen and paper. As I've written before, for me, RPGs belong to a certain category of pastime that benefits from being lo-tech.

Nonetheless, I do sometimes think that 3D printing could be huge. I'm a subscriber to the Economist (in dead tree format, natch), and they go so far as to suggest that 3D printing will be part of the third industrial revolution. I don't know about that, but I do know that I can imagine approximately ten billion uses for 3D printing in gaming, including:

  • In-game 3D dungeon mapping
  • Printing dice (no more "Can I borrow your d20?")
  • Printing customised minis
  • Printing 3D tactical maps

I also think it won't be long before you will be able to go to the Games Workshop website, fork over some cash (undoubtedly grossly inflated), and have a file sent to your computer allowing you to print 30 space marines or whatever in the comfort of your own living room.

I won't welcome these developments, necessarily, but I think they are probably inevitable. 3D printers may be in the hands of consumers within the next few years, and I do not doubt that the major gaming companies are already thinking of ways to exploit them. I think this, more than actual online gaming, will be the major development in the hobby through to 2020. You read it here first.

Friday 20 July 2012

Dreamed Idea

Ever woken up in the middle of the night from a dream and written down what struck you as a great idea, and then re-read it the next day? Today on the pad I keep by the bedside I found this:
Dungeon maps etched in brass that you have to put paper on top of and use a crayon to do a brass rubbing.
 I don't think lulu does etch-on-demand, does it? 

Thursday 19 July 2012

Stream of Consciousness about Morality

Patrick wrote an interesting post about an event that happened in a Cyberpunk 2020 game I was DMing. It's about morality. It's a really well written piece that you should all read. But it got me wondering about things that have gone on in games I've been involved in, and whether those things have had real-world consequences for my own sense of myself as a moral person.

I was brought up by Christian parents (a Christian mother, more accurately - my Dad mostly humoured her), and my mother always tried to instil in me the notion that things that we watch, read, or listen to do actually affect our 'souls'; when you watch a violent film it is actually bad for you in some sense. It is corrupting.

I still think I agree with that, to a certain extent, although I wouldn't frame it in terms of the soul or sinfulness - except perhaps in the illustrative sense. I agree with it insofar as I think that movies, music and books can have a coarsening, hardening, and cheapening effect on the way we view the world: the more violence and badness you absorb in fiction (particularly visual fiction), the less you can empathise with others. It's why I'm in favour of some level of film censorship and why I think that films like the Saw and Human Centipede franchises are actually quite dangerous - not because I worry about copy cat-ism, but because I worry about the cumulative effect of all this cruelty on our collective unconscious. I'm aware this is a controversial view that some people reading this blog will not agree with.

But for whatever reason, the games I run are pretty amoral affairs. (I would use the term 'morally ambiguous' but I always think that is a pretty cowardly euphemism.) And I never, ever find myself sitting there as a DM, or later on that night, or the next week, thinking about what went on in the game - the brutal slayings, the casual theft, the complete lack of compassion demonstrated by everybody involved - and fretting about morality. Until I read Patrick's post it never even occurred to me that anybody really would think that way. The game is just a game.

But then again, Saw is just a movie. I believe I have found myself in a moral contradiction. I suppose I'm okay with that.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Thoughts on Lyonesse

I've recently finished reading Jack Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy. It was something of a Herculean task for me; I started reading it at least six months ago, probably longer. My experience with the books became an epic saga akin to that contained in the series itself, with ups and downs, twists and turns, and sudden surprises. There were big gaps here and there where I didn't read any of it for weeks at a time. At other times I would devour a hundred pages in a day or two. Gradually I forced myself to the finish.

It's safe to say I liked it. Not as much as the Cugel books, which are Vance's most extraordinary masterpiece and I think probably the best written fantasy work in the canon (if you don't include anything by Gene Wolfe, to whom no comparison is really fair). But still, it is a stunning achievement, which Vance, as always, makes look incredibly easy: above everything else, it is just incredibly entertaining in the truest sense of the word. As well as making it look easy, Vance gives every impression he was having a whale of a time writing it, which almost certainly wasn't true - it must have taken far too much energy and craftsmanship - but the sense of fun that pervades the books is indisputable. It also has more emotional depth than the Dying Earth works; while Vance's voice is as objective and detached as ever, affection for the characters and concern for their fate seeps through.

There are flaws, of course. Aillas is a bit of a Mary Sue who you never feel is likely to fail at any stage in his adventures. The sub-plot (or overarching plot, depending on your view) of the struggle between the mages Tamurello and Murgen and the fate of Melancthe is consistently less interesting than the other goings-on. It doesn't particularly matter, because the charm of the characters, the gloriously understated narrative, the joy of the exclamation mark-riddled Vancian dialogue sweeps you along.

For somebody who isn't particularly renowned for his progressive sexual politics, Vance also manages to pull off, in Madouc and Suldrun, what almost no modern fantasist has ever done: written convincing, strong female leads - main characters who drive the plot, have great lines, and don't need men - without ever once falling prey to the idiotic notion so prevalent in fantasy fiction that in order to make women characters interesting you have to make them ass-kicking badasses.

As a D&D fan, what I took most from Lyonesse, though, was that it feels far more like D&D even than Vance's earlier work. If Lyonesse hadn't been written in the 80s, you'd swear it was more of an influence on Gygax and Arneson than the Dying Earth books. It has everything - the early, low level picaresque, the mid-game of establishing a career, the kingdom-building end-game. At times it has the random feel of a hex crawl; the sense that at any moment Vance will roll the random encounter dice and come up with a new event or encounter to change, willy-nilly, the course of the plot. And it has the fluctuating and sometimes startling changes in tone that are present in every game session: on one page the feel will be that of a light hearted fairy tale; on the next a brutal torture scene will be narrated with Vance's customary detachment; on the next characters will be engaging in the pulpiest of pulp fantasy adventure. Those tonal shifts are never jarring because Vance handles them so well, just as they are never jarring in a game session because it's just the way things are.

Give it a try if you can find it. I picked up a single-volume anthology on Kindle, and it provided me with a heck of a lot of reading. It's certainly better than 99% of the fantasy books I could have been reading for the first half of this year.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Noisms' Verfremdungseffekt

I was going to post about druids, but then got sidetracked by other things. I'm all creativity-ed out every day at the moment due to working on my thesis (yeah, I know, "first world problems" - I despise that meme, but there is a grain of deep Truth in it), so that will have to wait for the time being. Fortunately, although I am creativity-ed out, that doesn't stop me pontificating in a meandering fashion about whatever happens to wander across my field of vision.

Today, it's this, a thread about prep. The basic gist of the original post is the realisation the poster has come across that prep isn't really for him; I identify strongly with this, in that - as I've posted on several occasions - I like to blitz preparation before the start of a campaign and set it up in such a way that it more-or-less runs itself once it has started. It is helpful to imagine a campaign as being a large, circular rock sitting on the edge of a somewhat steep slope, with me, Wily Coyote-like, fashioning a lever out of a large tree branch (the prep) which I then use to shove the rock into movement and let it be carried by its own momentum to a messy, destructive and unexpected end.

But shortly into the thread there is this post, which set me thinking:

The 'Illusion of Preparedness' is critical for immersion; allowing the players to see where things are improvised or changed reminds them to think outside the setting, removing them forcibly from immersion. Whenever the players can see the hand of the GM, even when the GM needs to change things in their favor; it removes them from the immersed position. The ability to keep the information flow even and consistent to the players, and to keep the divide between prepared information and newly created information invisible is a critical GM ability.

I've thought about it a lot, and the less I think I agree with it. Or, perhaps to put it more accurately, the less I think I can envisage it.

First, I don't know about you other DMs out there reading this, but I'm surely not alone in that I make mistakes all the fucking time, which just means that, sometimes, I have to backtrack to make changes. Example: in last week's session my group were walking from a village to the nearby city, and they said something like "when we're an hour from the town, we'll send X ahead to let them know we're coming" and for some reason I interpreted that to mean an hour after leaving the village, rather than an hour before arriving at the city, which it turned out was what they'd meant - and they let me know this with howls of indignation and anguish when it became important later on. This forced me to retcon things a bit and fiddle around with what was happening. So DMs are only human, and we make errors of judgement; expecting the players to never see any seams is more than a little unrealistic.

Secondly, I'm not entirely sure how well a DM can mask "newly created information" and keep it indistinguishable from prepared information in reality - unless we're talking about Al Pacino. A game in which players have real agency is always going to throw up a billion situations in which the DM just doesn't have a ready-made answer, and while he can makes guesses and riff on his setting if he knows it well enough, it's difficult to do that and fool the players with any consistency.

And thirdly, I'm dubious about lying to the players anyway. Maybe my DMing style is incredibly Brechtian without me really realising it, but I'm going behind the fourth wall all the time when I run a game. I leaf through rulebooks and my folders, I roll all my dice in the open, I have NPCs make tongue-in-cheek and self-aware remarks, I involve my players in decision-making, I sometimes ask them their opinions on what would happen in the situation at hand. I think this adds to the fun of playing a game, even if it isn't immersive and probably actively works against immersion. It might not make the players feel invested in what is going on at a personal level, but I think it makes them feel invested in the game as a game.

Which isn't to say that developing a very deep, detailed setting isn't its own reward, and nor is it to say that players get much more out of a campaign if the setting seems coherent, interesting, and alive. It's just to say that a lot of what gets talked about in game forums often sounds idealistic and quixotic to me, and I'm intrigued to know how close to those ideals other DMs' games become.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Pathetic Excuses

In case anybody thinks I've fallen off the face of the earth - I haven't, at least not yet. The reason for the silence on the blog front is a new job, lecturer in law at an up-and-coming university (what you folks across the Pond might call an assistant professor), starting in September, which gives me a little under two months to finish a woefully neglected PhD. My life at the moment mostly comprises waking up, going to my office, writing 2,500 words of utter bollocks, then going home again and going to sleep. I expect things to ease off relatively soon, however.