Saturday 29 December 2012

On DMing Strengths and Weaknesses

I introduced my old friend Nate, who keeps an irregular blog, to RPGs around about a year and a half ago, and he is now running a LotFP campaign set in a fantastical simulacrum of real-world Finland. It is interesting to see somebody's DMing-style develop. I was in (I think) the first session of a game he DM'd, and so I have seen him progress from a novice to a regular, running proper campaigns. (Little Nathan has all grown up.)

What is most interesting about this is that I have noticed that Nate is very strong in two areas that I see as my weaknesses - creating very memorable NPCs on the fly, and creating a more fairy-tale kind of a mood. My NPCs tend to blend together, unless I put on a funny voice or accent, being universally sarcastic, cynical, mean-spirited, and rather unhelpful. (Except if they are women, in which case they are just overtly flirtatious, even if they are 80 years old.) I'm not sure why this is the case, but it's definitely the area I need to improve on most.

And the mood of my games leans towards the gritty; I don't do the fantastical very well. Nate has a good line in the fairy-tale-esque - I'm not sure how intentional it is, but there is a heavy dose of the Brothers Grimm and a (very dark and bleak) Hans Christian Andersen in his work. I like the tone of my games, but I would also like to be able to vary it, and bring in some fairy-tale flavouring from time to time.

It's interesting, don't you think, that learning from other people's DMing style is something that is almost never remarked upon in the RPG blogosphere? It's often noted that people who blog are very good at creating content (monsters, spells, maps, etc.) but very poor at discussing more fundamental issues like how to be a good DM. I'm reminded once again of Zeb Cook's advice in the 2nd edition AD&D DMG: "Take the time and effort to become not just a good DM, but a brilliant one". That must start off with learning from others, but in general it is something we tend not to talk about.

Friday 28 December 2012

Annoying SF/Fantasy Movie Cliche #5,674

Watching the first instalment of The Hobbit reminded me of a cinematic cliche that never fails to irritate me, and which I always try to avoid in a game. It is as follows:

SF/Fantasy Movie Cliche #5, 674: "I am a powerful, vicious, skilful predator, but I will give you a chance to flee/attack while I roar and look scary for the cameras."

I have seen this moment in so many films I could not possibly count them. The hero is in peril, menaced by some powerful threat. Yet he does not know it. The enemy is creeping up on him unawares. Skilfully, silently. Soon, it will be in striking distance, and then it will be a simple matter to dispatch him effortlessly, quietly, and efficiently, like any true predator would.

But instead, the creature waits...and waits...for no apparent reason...until the hero finally turns around and notices it...whereupon, instead of administering the coup de grace and tearing out his throat, the creature just goes "RAAARRRRRRR!!!" and waves its claws around for a few seconds while the camera zooms in on its face - and the hero runs away or attacks, whereupon an exciting chase or fight scene ensues.

Sometimes it is even more patently absurd. This is probably the most egregious example from recent years. Watch what the red thing does when it has Kirk at its mercy, and tell me it isn't just plain stupid.

Solitary predators are efficient, cold, methodical, and stealthy, and even then they do not tend to catch prey very often - not even half as often as they try - because catching prey is really hard. If predators spent 10 seconds roaring at every single prey creature they wanted to catch, the prey would always run away and the predators would all starve.

Among the many, many lazy things that Hollywood directors and screenwriters do, this ranks pretty highly. In that one moment - the close up on the creature's face, the ferocious roar, the CGI saliva - a huge mass of cheap shorthand is communicated to the audience. Instead of building genuine tension and excitement through skilful direction we get a mere sledgehammer: THIS IS A SCARY MONSTER!

It it also often used as a naff plot device to get a character from A to B - in Star Trek, for instance, running away from the ice monster is how Kirk ends up bumping into Old Spock. It's because, you see, the director doesn't credit his audience with having an attention span longer than a gnat's, or himself with enough talent to maintain our interest without something loud happening on screen; it isn't enough to have Kirk just meet Spock. There has to be STUFF HAPPENING! at all times.

Predators don't roar at you. They aren't out to scare you. They're out to kill you. That's what they do.

Tuesday 25 December 2012

A Christmas Eve Review of The Hobbit For Your Edification

Amongst meeting family and friends I managed to fit in about 37 years to sit down and watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey today. Fuck me, that was long. I'm not sure in what universe Peter Jackson is living in if he thinks he needs 9 hours to tell this story - other than "MGM has been in bankruptcy proceedings-verse" - but financial returns are a reason to have 3 films, not to make them 3 hours each. This could quite easily have been 100 minutes long and been leaner, faster, and better.

This ties into my main criticism of the film, which I would say is probably in the 2-3 star range: Jackson is a good director who totally gets the look of Middle Earth, but not a natural story-teller who understands its tone. There was far too much exposition going on, so much so that it utterly swamped the story. Tolkien didn't see the need to detail the backstory of the dwarves at the beginning of The Hobbit, nor to explain who the Necromancer was, nor the history of the descendants of Thrain and their battles with the orcs; some of it he introduced in snippets through the story, some of it comes in exposition (but crucially, only once we are rolling along with the story and we already know and love the characters), and some of it remains unsaid. It's because he understood this was a story for children and such stories need to be entertaining and to cut to the chase. And I don't think anybody in the world has ever read that book and said "Christ, I can't understand what's going on here - this thing needs more info dump!"

Oddly, I think Jackson can learn a lot from pre-prequels George Lucas. When Lucas was penning the script for Star Wars: A New Hope, he well understood that backstory and exposition would get in the way of what he wanted to achieve: a pacey, exciting movie. He gives you all the information you need in the first 30 seconds, then just barrels along without stopping to tell you who Darth Vader is, what the Empire is doing and how long they have been around, what the Senate is, all that jazz. (You can't trust much of what George Lucas says, but he attributes this willingness to forego exposition to watching Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece The Hidden Fortress; watching 1950s Japanese cinema as a Westerner, you don't have much of a clue of the background to what you are seeing, but it doesn't matter a jot in terms of the story. George Lucas learnt that lesson, although oddly he somehow unlearned it later on, along with how to make an entertaining flick.)

I have other complaints - chief among them being the total lack of understatement, but that is probably a matter of taste; for me, one of the great pleasures of Tolkien's writing is that he doesn't go for the grandiose very often - only when it matters. The Hobbit is a delightfully understated book. It is only when you meet Smaug that it turns into an epic, and that makes Smaug seem genuinely epic. Peter Jackson starts with the epic at 11; there is nowhere you can go from here, and when every single moment of danger is met by one dwarf or another screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" (Jackson must have been the only person who watched Star Wars: Episode III and thought "That bit where Darth Vader stands up was awesome!"), when every single scene involves moody stares with a dramatic orchestral swell in the background, when every bad guy (except for the refreshing exception of the great goblin) bellows with exactly the same bassy rumble, when every climactic moment involves the dwarves getting yet another last-but-not-last-because-they'll-get-another-one-in-a-minute burst of energy... It all seems to merge together into one rather bland morass.

It looked pretty, and it was enjoyable on its own merits, but I feel like Peter Jackson and I simply like the exact opposite things when we look at Tolkien's work. Also, to those who have seen it, is it just me or do all the evil characters in the film have exactly the same face? The trolls, the orcs, and Gollum all seem to screw their visages up into precisely the same scowl the entire time. They need to get a new make-up guy in.  

Sunday 23 December 2012

Yet More Extracts from My Game Idea Grimoire

It's been 3 years since I did a post like this. Time for another one. Some entries from noisms' Tome of Great Games That Will Never Be:

Catalogue 59q, book LVI, chapter 37, subsection XXI, no. 371 - Baltic pirates. The players are pirates in the Baltic sea circa 1380, preying on the merchants of the Hanseatic League, shagging whores in Mecklemburg, shagging sheep in Gotland, and saltboxing it up left and right.

Catalogue 17s, book III, chapter 94, subsection V, no. 14 - Amazon Cthulhu. Exploring the rainforest during the early 1900s, perhaps as missionaries to Indian tribes, perhaps as prospectors...but strange, ancient, alien things lurk in that jungle.

Catalogue 46p, book XIV, chapter 11, subsection I, no. 590 - I'm Your Farmer in the Town With No Cheer Quand On N'a Que L'Amour. A story game in which the players take their pick representing Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker and Jacques Brel; they have to outdo each others' tales of womanizing, alcoholism and night life to score XP. The one playing Jacques Brel has to do it in French.

Catalogue 82z, book IIX, chapter 9, subsection II, no. 103 - The First Norsemen in Iceland. Does what it says on the tin. The players are the first Norsemen exploring Iceland. It's more interesting than it sounds; there were weird fucked-up Irish monks living there first: where did they disappear to, and what did they leave behind?

Catalogue 17, book X, chapter 41, subsection XXXIII, no. 46 - Just this:

Thursday 20 December 2012

On the Inevitability of Archetypes

We realised today, after playing a quick one-shot of LotFP, that the different members of my gaming group always seem to play the same character, in different forms.

N is always a murderous, sociopathic fighter. D is always a diffident rogue who acts based on obscure, whimsical motives. P is always a clever, cunning and amoral creep. And I am always a power-hungry religious lunatic.

We don't do this deliberately; it just happens. I'm sure we're not unique in this.

It makes me think of The Eternal Champion. Our characters are different people in different realities, and yet they are somehow akin. Like in The Years of Rice and Salt, they are a troupe of souls who somehow end up inhabiting bodies in the same area at the same time throughout the history of a thousand worlds.

It makes me want to run a game based on that concept, but I fear it might be a little too 'meta'.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Revisiting the World of Darkness

My relationship with the World of Darkness games (I'm talking oWoD here; I've not really bothered with any of the post-Rein-Hagen stuff) is a little conflicted. It's all so incredibly teenage, with everybody angst-ridden, rebellious, and surly-lipped. The naive right-on politics are writ-large throughout. The "gothic-punk" aesthetic does nothing for me. Of all mythological beings, vampires are the least interesting and compelling. So I am in large part disdainful of the whole endeavour.

And yet I own Vampire: The Masquerade, Changeling: The Dreaming, Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Wraith: The Oblivion, and many of their source books. I suspect that this is partially because when I was about 14 you couldn't walk into a game store without tripping over a mound of copies of Vampire: The Masquerade, so I ended up buying them almost by osmosis, but that's not the whole story - I love Changeling; it really captured my imagination even though nobody I knew wanted to play it (sniff), and despite its flaws we played the shit out of Werewolf during those years: playing angry people who are likely to turn into gigantic man-wolves and tear everybody around them to pieces at any moment is an incredibly fun concept.

The thing is, once you remove the annoying teenage-ness and the tiresome obsession with "story telling" from the Old World of Darkness, what you are left with is a group of very interesting and detailed quasi-settings for urban fantasy games that is tailor-made for the kind of city-based sandbox game I like to run. I say interesting, because at their core, the main Old World of Darkness settings are thematically very strong. Changeling brings the mystery, beauty and strange sinisterness of the fairy tale to the modern age, combining it with a sense of loss, of autumn approaching, of magic leaving the world. Werewolf is all about misanthropy, at its core - the misanthropy that many of us feel when we look around us and see the natural world in retreat and untouched areas of wilderness being flooded by tourists, rubbish and pollution. (I think the perfect tag-line for a Werewolf game would be the quote from Richard Dawkins, speaking about the disappearance of the Tasmanian Wolf: "Maybe they were a pest to humans, but humans were much bigger pests to them; now there are no Tasmanian Wolves left and a considerable surplus of humans.") Wraith is about death and what comes next now that we live in a world of agnosticism and the old sureties of heaven and hell are gone. Mage is about the pursuit of knowledge and power at the price of all else, about the triumph of a kind of uber-rationalism which seems curiously apt in the modern age.

Even Vampire, a game I never really liked, seems positively counter-cultural nowadays in the aftermath of the Twilight series. Stephanie Meyers has done to V:tM what V:tM did to the Hammer Horror vampires of yore, such that its cod rebelliousness has almost become genuine - if you are still playing V:tM nowadays then you are, in a weird way, being far edgier than you would have been in 1991. Something about that appeals to my contrarian instincts in a profound way.

Fuck it, I'll cut to the chase: I want to run Changeling, goddamit!

Sunday 16 December 2012

Being Arch

Alexis never fails to be interesting. The entry linked to is, I think, genuinely insightful in a way which is quite rare in the blogosphere: it made me think about something that I have never really considered before.

It's this: I think arch self-awareness in role players is often a cowardly defence mechanism.

First, it's important to say that I don't think game sessions should be totally po-faced, and I don't think anybody really thinks that, in the end. Games are fun and should make people laugh.

Secondly, it's important to say that British people are very uncomfortable with two things - genuine emotion, and seriousness. So whenever anything or anyone gets remotely clear to expressing any serious emotions of any kind, our immediate paramount concern is to somehow deflate it and deflect it, usually with humour and sarcasm.

This means that a certain amount of irony, humour and tongue-in-cheek remarks is inevitable in any game that I run; it would go against natural human instincts, and also my national, cultural background to do otherwise.

And yet, I do sometimes think that there is something cowardly about the arch way in which I and other role players sometimes operate: everything is approached from a slightly sideways, taking-the-piss angle, as if there is something difficult and terrifying about trying to take the endeavour seriously, and I think a large portion of the reason for this is simply that, if you play an RPG while simultaneously taking the piss out of yourself and being awfully self-aware, you are subconsciously reassuring yourself that you are not, in fact, the horrendous nerd that you might appear to be to outsiders. Although you are a grown man pretending to be an elf, you are a grown man pretending to be an elf and you are aware that it is ridiculous, and you are so comfortable with yourself that you can poke fun at yourself while you do it, etc., etc., and hence you lessen the sting of embarrassment that comes with that very nerdish act.

So there is a part of me that would like to be less arch and piss-takey about my games, sometimes. I don't mean for a second that I'd like them all to be that way. But I do think, wouldn't it be great to run a horror game in which the players genuinely got scared? Wouldn't it be great to run a fantasy game in which the players genuinely felt a sense of wonder and awe? Wouldn't it be great if in a fight the players felt a genuine sense of danger? Because in the end, I think most people who play RPGs would say that the really great campaigns and sessions that stick in their mind are those kind of games. But to run them requires a level of buy-in that my default ironic tone will not generally provide.

Saturday 15 December 2012

I See a Tall Dark d20

I'd love to think of a solid ruleset for prophecies occurring in-game. For a long time I've been fiddling with various ideas (a huge d1000 table of random events which you roll and consult when a prophecy is uttered - the selected event then has a 5% chance of happening whenever a random encounter dice is rolled; or a random generator which would come up with results resembling the kind of thing fortune tellers might talk about - "a tall dark stranger", "a white cat on a table", "an old man with a dog", whatever - which you would roll and consult, and then if the players encountered such a thing in-game they would receive some bonus or penalty) but none of them seem quite right.

Recently it occurred to me that it might be best to simply write up a random generator which would generate "tall dark stranger" or "white cat on a table" type results, and leave it up to the DM and players how to interpret it. Once the prophecy is uttered, you know it will come true, and the DM has it as a kind of ace in the hole that he can bring into the game whenever he feels like it. But the meaning and effects are dependent on the players' reactions, the context, and what the DM thinks would be interesting.

Thus, a set of oracle results which I just threw together:

The idea being that you roll 3d10 and consult. The first two results provide an image ("you see a figure swathed in blood"; "I see a tower gleaming with light", etc.) and the third a feeling associated with it ("it fills you with a strange sense of peace"; "I feel a deep feeling of regret emanating from it", etc.), and the DM is free to embellish as he sees fit ("You see a figure swathed in blood. You can't see its face, because it is covering it with its hands. But its garments are soaked through with crimson. You have the distinct impression, somehow, that it hates you.")

Needs work to provide more bases and modifiers. The feeling column should likely be shortened or perhaps done away with altogether, so it can be left for the players to interpret. But the principle is there; the challenge is, of course, for the DM to work out when to bring it into the game - but that's the beauty of prophecy; you don't need to specify a time. The Mayans should have spotted that, really.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

A New Purchase

Found in my FLGS for £8. It smells funny and has a thin layer of grease on the cover, but looks in one piece.  Who could possibly resist?

Tuesday 11 December 2012

That Sword and Sorcery Vibe

Despite the fact that my campaign setting, Yoon-Suin, is very much in the weird fantasy vein, it also has realist furniture: there are cities, trade networks, religions and languages that are vaguely plausible, power dynamics that I think are somewhat akin to those which exist in the real world (or would exist in a real world ruled by slug-men, crystal dragons and kraken), and the magic level is fairly low - it mostly revolves around summoning, alchemy, and golemology, and pseudo-sciences like astrology and the creation of automata are prevalent.

Every so often I get the urge to run something more fantastical and irrational - something where magic is everywhere and poorly understood, where monsters are mythic and better understood by Freud than Darwin, where there are no farmers or cities because everyone is either Conan or The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Something illustrated by Frazetta, Brom, John Blanche, Dali and Brueghel the Elder, penned by Leiber and Vance, and printed in 1968.

It just so happens that I have recently come across Meanwhile, Back in the Dungeon, which doesn't exactly help. I mean, just look at this stuff:

Thursday 6 December 2012

On the Philosophy of Randomizing Tables

Earlier today I was working on a new set of random tables (a random mercenary eunuch war-band generator, if you must know) and it occurred to me that there are two basic approaches to the creation of random tables, and they are as follows:

  • The realist approach
  • The instrumentalist approach
Under the realist approach, the creator sets out to create a set of tables which will generate broadly realistic results (obviously). Under the instrumentalist approach, the creator sets out to create a set of tables which will generate immediately and certainly gameable ones. 

Another way of putting it: When the random table was created, was the first concern:

a) Generating random results which, though clearly random, are nonetheless broadly reflective of "what might happen" in reality?


b) Generating random results which are "fun" and interesting for the purposes of getting the PCs involved in hijinks?

One easy test for determining whether the approach is realist or instrumentalist is whether any attempt has been made to assign some sort of distributional characteristic to the results. A classic example of a realist approach is the method used for creating a random encounter table in AD&D 2nd edition: you have a set of results from 2-20 as follows:

2 Very rare
3 Very rare
4 Very rare or rare (DM's choice)
5 Rare
6 Rare
7 Uncommon
8 Uncommon
9 Common
10 Common
11 Common
12 Common
13 Common
14 Uncommon
15 Uncommon
16 Rare
17 Rare
18 Very rare or rare (DM's choice)
19 Very rare
20 Very rare

And you roll d8+d12 to get your results. This creates a situation in which very rare monsters are encountered very rarely, while common monsters are encountered commonly. The results are realistic in some sense: this is important, because it makes sense that dragons are only encountered on special occasions whereas goblins are ten-a-penny - it would be unusual to have an equal chance of encountering both.

Classic examples of the instrumentalist approach are what are generally found at The Dungeon Dozen. For example:

In the Saloon  
1. Depraved cretins w/strong sense of entitlement (2d4)
2. Tavern sage holds down corner of bar: answers simple questions for a drink, buy a round for the house for more complex inquiries
3. Surly drunks embittered by years of being surly (2d4)
4. Some guy who's really loud and thinks he's hilarious
5. Raucous gaggle of pickpockets emboldened by drink
6. Black lotus addicts waiting around for their connection to show, rather edgy
7. The guy who has strident opinions on anything he happens to overhear, not a particularly deep thinker
8. Pack of ruthless, armed-to-the-teeth dwarfs celebrating successful delve
9. Inebriated laborers fomenting uprising, much speechifying and little regard for alternate opinions
10. Tattoo artist plying trade in well-lit corner: save vs. infectious diseases, heavily inked sycophants openly question the machismo of the un-inked
12. Off-duty assassins amusing themselves by subtly pitting various patrons against one another then sitting back to enjoy the ensuing mayhem
I know from personal experience, as I am sure you do too, that in a given pub you very often encounter 1, 3, 4, and 7, and very rarely 2, 8, 10 or 12; but here there is an equal chance of encountering any of them. Why? Because it is fun for the players to encounter 2, 8, 10 or 12, and they provide hooks for potential adventure - why make such potential gold a rare event?

There are horses for courses, so both approaches are more or less appropriate depending on the situation; but I've discovered that it is worth thinking about the implications before sitting down to write. Do I want my random eunuch mercenary war-band generator to be realist or instrumentalist? And what are the implications of the two approaches? These are actually non-trivial questions. 

Saturday 1 December 2012

Non-Fantasy Influences on Fantasy Gaming

I watched Heat on TV last night, because it was on, and because even though I could almost quote the script word for word because I've seen it that many times, the central gun battle is still worth it. It struck me while watching it that, actually, it is very much the epitome of what I imagine a Cyberpunk 2020 game to be like (except without the internet and cyberpsychos, obviously); Bladerunner may be a good film but game I run are never like that - they match the grimy technoir of Heat much more.

That made me think of Blood Meridian, which I've always thought of as being, in its description of the Glanton Gang, the closest representation in fiction of what a typical group of D&D adventurers is actually like - compulsively violent, amoral, socially untied, and ultimately aimless - and also, in its almost random collection of incidents, the closest representation in fiction to how a wilderness/hexcrawl D&D adventure shakes out in practice. This despite the fact that it is a Western; there is no fantasy book that captures the feel of D&D like Blood Meridian.

That then made me think of James Clavell's masterpiece Noble House, the book which more than any other represents the Platonic form of the "web of human relationships" style game in my mind: everybody knows everybody, everybody has an agenda, everybody is plotting. The story is the people. If you could plan the perfect Amber Diceless game, it would be something like that.

And that made me think of Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner, which say so much to me about what an urban dark fantasy game should be like despite being works of real-world documentary reportage.

And that made me think that much of the books I have read and films I have seen which have influenced my gaming preferences are often nothing to do with the fantasy genre. In fact, if I was going to provide a list of fantasy books which had influenced my gaming, I'd be much more likely to put various Fighting Fantasy books up there rather than anything actually literary in nature. I'm not sure what that says about me, but it is an interesting thought: was Gygax's Appendix N too restrictive? Should he have roamed elsewhere for works to include?