Tuesday 30 July 2013

Yoon-Suin Dwarves

In the comments on this post Amy asks, "Can you provide some kind of correlate for these oriental dwarves? I'm having a hard time visualising them, and because of this they kinda take me out of the setting."

Here goes:

Sunday 28 July 2013

More Thoughts on a Cyberpunk Megadungeon


"Out there in the North Sea, 50 years ago, they used to drill for oil, you see. Then it ran out. And although BP, Chevron and all the rest were supposed to dismantle their rigs, they had other things to worry about. So they just packed their last workers onto helicopters and left.

"It didn't take long for the rigs to be recolonised, though. Pretty soon every doomsday cult, outlawed gangster, smuggling ring and utopian socialist from here to Stavanger was living in one of those things. And those rigs go way down, and these are some resourceful people. Before a decade was out they were extending their living spaces down, down, down, with not a little help, most reckon, from the People's Republic of Greenland. A few decades on from that and some of these rigs have 50, 100 levels, extending all the way down from the original platform almost to the sea bed itself, and honeycombed with living quarters all the way through. They're home to the weirdest and worst people this side of Tehran.

"Oh, some of them you can deal with. Those living on the platforms, they might be doing as much smuggling as they do fishing, but they know the price of money just like everybody else and they do fair trade with the Orkneys and Shetlands. It's the ones further down you have to worry about. You don't live 200 metres below the surface without strange things happening to your mind after a while...if it was normal to begin with.

"What's that? Why do the Scottish and English governments tolerate it? Well, we all know the former kingdom is heading for a war, if it isn't at war already. Where do you think the Royal Marines are being blooded these days? And where do you think the Scots are testing their anthrax delivery systems? You think anybody does anything nowadays without there being a reason for a government to let it happen?"

Tuesday 23 July 2013

The Minimalist Setting

It's not a particularly controversial statement to say that standard D&D has an implied setting. Where does this implied setting lie? Firstly, it is in the races and classes: we are in a post-Tolkenian fantasy universe. Secondly, it is in the equipment lists: we are in a high-medieval technological era with some anachronisms (mainly anachronistic lack of development of firearms). Thirdly, it is in the bestiary: we are in a world where there are lots of other humanoid races, lots of monsters, and also creatures from fairy-tales. Fourth, it is in the magic: this is a place where magic is relatively common, utterly practical (you might even call it mundane), and oriented towards adventuring magic-users.

And that's really all we need, isn't it? Only a blithering idiot could fail to run a D&D-flavoured game in a D&D-esque setting based on the core rules alone, nothing more. We've all done it.

It should be possible, then, for any non-standard D&D campaign setting to have absolutely no setting "fluff" whatsoever, being composed only of race and class descriptions and rules, equipment lists, a bestiary, and spell and magic-item lists. A zen approach to setting design, if you will, in which everything that a DM and players need to know about the setting (sufficient to run a game with that flavour) is communicated to them impliedly.

Saturday 20 July 2013

[Review] Reign Enchiridion

I ordered Reign: Enchiridion the other day. It's a digest-sized version of the game Reign, a tome which I have not bought or read because I can't be bothered with 300+ page rulebooks any more, and because other peoples' precious settings usually bore me and certainly won't be used. Reign: Enchiridion has all of the setting guff excised and is, basically, a generic rule-set for running fantasy games with the One Roll Engine to go alongside Nemesis (for horror) and Wild Talents (for supers). It's also only around 100 pages long and is A5-sized, which as we all know is how God intended game books to be.

For the price, it's an excellent product. The core mechanic for ORE is a model of efficiency and usefulness; intuitive to use but very flexible and friendly towards strategic and tactical play without being overly crunchy. The book contains tools for creating schools of magic and random generators for monsters, spells, and advanced skills and combat methods. It provides options for doing character gen through point-buy and random generation. And there is a nice unity throughout: anything that you do, whether creating a character or generating a mystical martial art, is done by simply rolling a fistful d10s and looking for matches. It also has a small but significant boon: decent shield rules.

There are some niggles. The author, Greg Stolze, is clearly somebody who has drunk the White Wolf koolaid when it comes to "story": his GMing advice is all about plot immunity for players and giving them orgasms (at one point, it is recommended that you "give the player a chance to strut" by having enemies deliberately play to his strengths; at another, you are told that death is the consequence for failing to cast a certain type of spell..."but never for PCs"). There is an abstract wealth mechanic. (Insert roll-eyes smiley of your choice here.) And I'm not a fan of "worthless enemies", a concept that was either lifted from 4e D&D or inspired by it: having a different set of standards for the PCs and NPCs when it comes to combat is the way of madness, or at least meaningless games. But those are to be expected from a game system that was written in the time and context in which this was, and are easily ignored.

On balance, it is a good, quick-to-learn generic fantasy system that is much more elegant than the other examples I can think of and much easier to learn. Since the ORE system already has a variant for Call of Cthulhu-type horror, that means it now ticks two of my main gaming boxes (non-D&D fantasy and Call of Cthulhu-type horror); that's not bad for about £8 incl. p&p.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Story game advice: sometimes you just need to be a twat

Sometimes the GM just needs to be a twat: you need to enforce consequences no matter whether your players like it or not. Those of us who play and love traditional games understand this.

It needs to be stated more openly in the story game community. (Maybe it is; it's not really a community I'm connected to.) We spent this evening playing two games, The Sundered Land and Vast & Starlit, and they were a lot of fun (although once Patrick and I had turned a carefully constructed weird SF setting about a space ship made of coral into a game about angry, smelly hippos crossed with flying snakes the moment we were left alone, it's fair to say it lost a little focus) but I was constantly aware while we were playing them that none of us wanted to make tough decisions when we were 'in control' of the narrative. We kept offering easy-way-outs. And when we didn't, it was very easy for somebody in a tough spot to weasel out of it through narrative control rather than actually using their brain.

This is a problem with story games, I've found. Without the dice TELLING you there are severe negative consequences and also what they are, you feel like an arse if you try to impose severe negative consequences when you are in the driving seat. And this makes the games lose tension and conflict and thus real meaning. It's almost as if in a traditional game the dice are a kind of pressure valve which allows the GM to get away with being a twat, and without that you avoid generating any real pressure in the first place.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Hungover Map of Utolso Varos

Today I had to go through some intensive hangover recovery; this involved sitting at the kitchen table making game-related stuff, obviously. One of the projects I worked on was a resurrection of Utolso Varos, because I have ordered Reign Enchiridion and I got to thinking about what I would run with it if I had a) a regular face-to-face gaming group; b) a mic that worked so I could run it on G+; or c) time.

Anyway, I created 40 NPCs fitting for an urban sandbox and this crappy map. I have ruthlessly plundered the Hungarian language for name inspiration, because to my ear Hungarian is so completely different to English it sounds amazingly like a fantasy language.

The big island in the middle is the city itself. It covers the entire island, and is the last city on earth. From my original entry:

This, as the name suggests, is the last city on earth, and mankind has retreated to it as the world grows old and fades, and life for human beings becomes hostile. 
Like Nessus or Viriconium, Utolso Varos is almost collapsing under the weight of its own history. It is many thousands of years old, and feels it - it is decadent, listless, and resigned, although it still possesses a faded and elegant sort of beauty. It is situated on an island in the middle of a great inland sea, and beyond that sea is the wild, dying earth, peopled by beings wondrous and alien, and scattered with the ruins and remnants of the civilizations of aeons past. 
The earth has become so old that its very existence has become tattered and frayed. Time passes slowly, and the light of the sun has become flat and dull. Alien spirits and demonic things from other realities slip through the decaying fragmentary boundaries between their worlds and ours. Those who can practice magic hoard it, as if it might protect them from the inevitable end of all things. Gradually the human race dwindles, and history turns its face away.  

Surrounding it are five islands - the Isle of Agate, the Isle of Incense, the Isle of Iron, the Isle of Dreams, and the Sunken Island. The isles of Agate, Incense and Iron are the sources of those luxuries. The Isle of Dreams is believed by the population to be the source of their dreams; it is a place where the barrier between our reality and others has frayed away almost entirely, and is home to surreal illusions and weird dweomers. The Sunken Island lies below the waves and is haunted by the spirits of those who died when it sank.

Beyond the sea is The Place Without People, where there are only monsters and demons and the faint remains of what once was. The people in the city have almost no idea what is out there - only a vague sense that once, long ago, the human race belonged there but now it does not. They regard that cold, hostile, vast emptiness on the other side of the sea with a mixture of curiosity and terror.

It's depressing, but I like it.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Irrational Dice Fetishes and the Punch and Judy of D&D

My Pendragon game is off tonight because the mic on my computer is busted; in lieu of that, here are two gaming related thoughts.

1) In the early days of the blog, I wrote this entry about dice superstitions. I like it. I came up with the still (to me, anyway) pertinent idea that Pascal's Wager makes perfect sense when it comes to dice. You lose nothing from upholding a superstition about dice, and might in fact gain hugely if it happens to be true, and since there are terrible consequences (if highly improbable) to breaking such a superstition, you may as well stick to it. There is no downside, only upside. It is like a free option.

I was thinking today about dice superstitions, and it occurred to me that the most fundamental dice superstition of all may be that dice must either be rolled in anger (i.e. when they are needed - in a game, or on a random generator table during prep) or entirely idly (for fun), but they should never be rolled in preparedness for a game to be substituted for actual dice rolls. To explain a little further, in case that makes no sense, let's try a thought experiment.

Imagine if, as a DM, you thought it might be useful to roll out loads of dice results in advance, or even generate a load of results entirely randomly without using dice at all (random.org would allow you to create literally millions of such results very quickly), and then simply refer to your list of results in-game rather than actually making dice rolls. You also thought of a way to do this entirely blind, so you had no way of knowing in advance what a given result would be - you eliminated all possibility of foresight. Wouldn't you nonetheless feel horrendous if you did this? Wouldn't it seem like the most heinous act that a DM could perform? Wouldn't it go against everything that is good and true in the universe?

2) For complex reasons I was looking at the wikipedia Punch and Judy entry earlier. Take a look at the following passage, describing what takes place in a typical modern-day Punch and Judy show:

As performed currently in the UK a typical show will start with the arrival of Mr. Punch followed by the introduction of Judy. They may well kiss and dance before Judy requests Mr. Punch to look after the baby. Punch will fail to carry this task out appropriately. It is rare for Punch to hit his baby these days, but he may well sit on it in a failed attempt to "babysit", or drop it, or even let it go through a sausage machine. In any event Judy will return, will be outraged, will fetch a stick and the knockabout will commence. A policeman will arrive in response to the mayhem and will himself be felled by Punch's slapstick. All this is carried out at breakneck farcical speed with much involvement from a gleefully shouting audience. From here on anything goes. Joey the Clown might appear and suggest it's dinner time. This will lead to the production of a string of sausages, which Mr. Punch must look after, although the audience will know this really signals the arrival of a crocodile whom Mr. Punch might not see until the audience shouts out and lets him know. Punch's subsequent comic struggle with the crocodile might then leave him in need of a Doctor who will arrive and attempt to treat Punch by walloping him with a stick until Punch turns the tables on him. Punch may next pause to count his "victims" by laying puppets on the stage only for Joey the Clown to move them about behind his back in order to frustrate him. A ghost might then appear and give Mr. Punch a fright before it too is chased off with a slapstick. In less squeamish times a hangman would arrive to punish Mr. Punch, only to himself be tricked into sticking his head in the noose. "Do you do the hanging?" is a question often asked of performers. Some will include it where circumstances warrant (such as for an adult audience) but most do not. Some will choose to include it whatever the circumstances and will face down any critics. Finally the show will often end with the Devil arriving for Mr. Punch (and possibly to threaten his audience as well). Punch — in his final gleefully triumphant moment — will win his fight with the Devil and bring the show to a rousing conclusion and earn a round of applause.

This amused me no end, as I sat there imagining what somebody unfamiliar with Punch and Judy would make of all this - in particular lines such as "It is rare for Punch to hit his baby these days", or "this will lead to the production of a string of sausages, which Mr. Punch must look after, although the audience will know this really signals the arrival of a crocodile".

But it also reminded me very strongly of the weird, unhinged and entirely picaresque sequences of events that often take place in a session of a role playing game like D&D. Could it be that playing D&D taps into the same sort of tradition from which Punch and Judy comes - an oral, popular story-telling tradition that eschewed what we now think of as "proper" narrative in the name of other, episodic and unpredictable charms?

From the same entry:

There is no one definitive "story" of Punch and Judy. As expressed by Peter Fraser in Punch & Judy (1970), "the drama developed as a succession of incidents which the audience could join or leave at any time, and much of the show was impromptu." This was elaborated by George Speaight in his Punch & Judy: A History (1970), who explained that the plotline "is like a story compiled in a parlour game of Consequences ... the show should, indeed, not be regarded as a story at all but a succession of encounters." The most recent academic work, Punch & Judy: History, Tradition and Meaning by Robert Leach (1985), makes it clear that "the story is a conceptual entity, not a set text: the means of telling it, therefore, are always variable."

Could that not be a description of a game of D&D?

Saturday 6 July 2013

On Explicating System Preference, Systemic Blandness, and Alienating Nebulousness

While broadly I agree that system doesn't matter nearly as much as who is at the table, I still find that I like some system a lot more than others. Viz:

Games I Like
D&D prior to 3rd edition
Cyberpunk 2020
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd edition (I have never actually played 1st edition)
Apocalypse World

Games I Don't Like
Savage Worlds
White Wolf's oWoD "storyteller" system
D&D from 3rd edition onwards
d20 Modern
Basic Role Playing
Mutants & Masterminds

Special Cases
Call of Cthulhu
Unknown Armies

The 'special cases' are games were I am not necessarily a massive fan of the system, but I just get the setting and genre, and everything else to do with the game clicks with me so it doesn't matter.

What are the differences between the Games I Like and the Games I Don't Like? Clearly, it isn't a matter of rules-lite versus rules-heavy. WFRP 2nd edition is fairly rules-heavy, as is MERP, but so is D&D 3rd edition and d20 modern. Nor is it a matter of genre: that cuts across both camps. It isn't to do with the lengthiness of character generation: that was a huge turn-off for me with Hackmaster, but it takes ages in MERP too. And nor is it about traditional versus story-games either, clearly.

As I look at the list of Games I Don't Like and consider the reasons, I think it largely comes down to a combination of systemic blandness mixed with alienating nebulousness.

We'll start off with systemic blandness, because this is easier to explain. Systemic blandness is, simply, a system that is neither elegant in itself, nor interesting despite not being elegant, nor charmingly inelegant. To explain: Risus is elegant in itself. It is incredibly easy to pick up, has surprising depth, and is very well thought-out. Cyberpunk 2020 is interesting despite not being elegant. It is somewhat complicated and you have to keep quite a few things in your mind as you play, but there are things in there that are genuinely interesting (the combat system, the life events system, etc.). Pre-3rd edition D&D is charmingly inelegant. In the abstract it is stupidly overcomplicated and messy, but it doesn't matter because it could not be more charming. It is lovable.

The bland systems are the ones I am sure you can just pick out from the list from a once-over: Savage Worlds and the storyteller system are chief among them. I would include D&D 3rd edition in that too. It ironed out all the charm from TSR-era D&D but did nothing to make it more interesting or elegant.

Alienating nebulousness is harder to define, but it can be described as follows: I have to be able to picture in my mind how a scene is playing out during the game. If a mechanic is too disassociated from anything I can easily see in my mind's eye, I dislike the system. Diaspora suffers in this respect because of the way fate points and tagging work. You have a vision in your mind about how a scene is playing out, or how a character is, and suddenly that has to shift because a fate point gets played. I dislike that. It alienates me. d20 Modern suffers in this respect too, because of hit points. Getting shot with a rifle and losing a certain number of hit points but suffering no other ill effects makes no sense to me. I can't picture how that works in reality. I can picture it in a D&D fight because of Gary Gygax's extended metaphor about the sword fight between Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne in the Errol Flynn film. I can't picture it when people are shooting each other. The nebulousness of it alienates me.

One or two of the games I don't like don't fit this model. I don't like Hackmaster for the simple reason that character generation is ridiculously fiddly for the light-hearted, humourous fantasy game it purports to be. It is the point at which charmingly inelegant becomes plain annoying. And Mutants & Masterminds is one of those games which just don't make it easy to DM: the system is interesting and everything but do I really have to spend five fucking hours creating a single villain? Who has time for games like that?

No model is perfect. But it's a safe bet that if you want to win my heart, game designers, avoid bland nebulousness like the plague. Okay?

Thursday 4 July 2013

Just the Two of Us

Over at Known World, Old World, Andy discusses the issue of the single player session/game. One DM, one player. Mano a mano (or womano).

I don't get many, or indeed any, opportunities to do that sort of game, because unlike the surprising number of bloggers out there who play D&D with their spouse, the young woman I share a bed with will not display the slightest modicum of interest. She takes an entirely dim view of silly geek games and treats me with the kind of patient indulgence you would a small dog engaged in some unsavoury activity or other: He can't help doing such a stupid thing, it's in his nature, and, well, he is kind of cute when he does it.

I am sure every husband in the world is more than familiar with being looked at like this, for one reason or other.

That said, Andy's basic point is an interesting one - clearly, some games seem tailor-made for the single player, others not. D&D doesn't really leap out as a one-person game. There's nothing to stop you playing it one-on-one and having fun, of course, but D&D does feel reliant on the chemistry of having a group of PCs to really sing.

On the other hand, there are games, like Pendragon, say, and Call of Cthulhu, maybe the various World of Darkness settings, which I can well imagine being played solo (and not just because of this); I suppose this is because a single player game is probably the only situation in which I would imagine that developing a character in considerable depth would be just as, or more, important than the obviously "fun" stuff, and those games encourage that.

But I also think solo campaigns are a good way of doing something genuinely different. A number of gaming supplements - the various Sin Nomine sandbox kits, Renegade Crowns for WFRP, ACKS, Birthright even, if you want to go back that far - strike me as having the potential to be discrete two-player games, though not in the traditional sense; I am talking about setting creation as a game in itself. Working with somebody to riff on setting-creation tools could work all on its own, especially if a large element of randomness is worked into the process. Renegade Crowns would, indeed, be perfect for this, because it is all about rolling on tables and seeing what comes out; you would simply take it in turns to roll and describe what has been generated and the setting would evolve from there. Rules would have to be agreed on, of course - like, when one player is describing an element of the setting, the other has to accept it. Or has three vetoes.

Then again, there's also the "other" different thing: you each create a party of characters for some very rules-crunchy system and then have them try to kick the living shit out of each other in a combat arena.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Who knows where the time goes?

This is not so much a blog post as a generalised lament: I wish I had more time to devote to gaming. As it stands, I run a Pendragon game on a sort-of weekly basis, and every day I try to work on something Yoon-Suin related even if only for 30 minutes or so, but, off the top of my head, I also want to:

  • Run an Ars Magica game set in 19th-century Northumberland
  • Run a sandbox game in the setting for the Sorcery! gamebooks, the Old World
  • Run a Warhammer FRP game in the Border Princes using Renegade Crowns
  • Create a Labyrinth Lord-based cyberpunk game
  • Develop an underworld-based trading game

How will I ever fit this in around my job, my other job, and all the other things I like doing (working out, hiking, football, reading, etc.)? Nurgle, Slaanesh, Tzeentch, Khorne...if you're out there, I'm offering you a Faustian bargain here and now. Give me an extra 50 years and my soul is gladly yours. 

Monday 1 July 2013

On More Realistic Peasants: The Black Middens Bastle House

Yesterday I went hiking in the remote Tarset Valley, in Western Northumberland, close to the Scottish border. This is genuine back-of-beyond country by English standards; although it's only two hours' drive from a major city, to get there you have to drive for what seems like forever along windy, single-lane roads crossed by sheep and cattle; every half a mile or so you have to get out of your car to untie a gate to get through to the next section of road. The landscape is stunningly beautiful but swarming with midges which flood the car the second you open your door and spend the rest of the day merrily sucking your blood.

Anyway, up there in at the head of the Tarset Valley are a number of "Bastles", of which Black Middens is the best preserved and easiest to find. A bastle is a type of fortified farmhouse; prior to the Act of Union in 1707 the Anglo-Scottish borders were a wild, lawless area ruled over by powerful mafia-like families of "border reivers" who raided each other for sheep, cattle, and to maintain blood-feuds. Bastles were places of refuge for farmers who were under attack from reivers: on the raising of the alarm, it seems, everybody would gather all the livestock they could in the ground floor and then climb up to the first floor to mount a defence - often pulling up a ladder behind them to prevent enemies coming up.

Even in its present condition Black Middens feels incredibly robust and well-built; the walls are probably two feet thick and you can well imagine lightly-armed raiders would have no hope of hurting anybody inside. Further on up the valley across overgrown meadows there are more bastles which are in a much more ruined and overgrown state, and which is harder to envisage as places of fortification, but there are gruesome stories nonetheless about beheadings and kidnappings at these remote locations.

Anyway, you could bet that peasants in a given fantasy setting would be a damn sight more keen to build such fortifications than even those in the border country of times past. Next time you create a village for a game of D&D, remember this post and think to yourself: if I was a peasant in a world where there were orcs, griffins, not to mention adventurers, what would I do to protect what was mine?