Sunday 27 April 2014

Competing with 200,000 years of creativity is difficult

The other day the RPG Pundit reviewed Isle of the Unknown; I don't have the book, although I have read through it, and my thoughts were somewhat similar - it's beautiful, but the content is simply not properly thought through.

The big problem with Isle of the Unknown for me was the monsters. As the Pundit puts it:

Every single creature is different, and usually a pastiche of various animals plus some weird quality. For example, a cat with metallic fur, immune to all mental attacks and ordinary weapons; it can see the invisible and has poisoned fangs. Or a bipedal frog the size of a man, who can fly and is immune to surprise, and has a slime spit. Or a bipedal skunk with bat-wings; where slaying it means the killer will later be pursued by its sire, who is a giant bat-winged skunk.  
So there's no rhyme or reason to it at all; no tribes, no reason for the monsters to be there, nothing. Its a menagerie of crap, and I'm sure its meant to be "weird fantasy" but I'd put it closer to "stupid fantasy". The monsters serve no purpose, make no sense, in many cases what they do isn't even predictable (nor unpredictable in a good way; they just do things you wouldn't ever be able to expect for no reason at all).

Or as a different reviewer put it a while back:

Although occasionally spiced with some interesting abilities, [the monsters] really are giant pigeons all the way down: Pick a random animal. Make it bigger than normal. Randomly determine the number of limbs it possesses. Now, randomly combine it with another animal; light it on fire; have it ooze pus; or give it a random spell-like ability. Ta-Da! You’ve re-created the vast majority of the monsters in this book.

My aim isn't to further put the boot into somebody else's creative efforts: It's more to observe that creating totally new and unique monsters is really hard. Why? Human beings have been creating monsters for about 200,000 years, and that means the monsters that still exist today in the human imagination are beings which have survived 200,000 years of mimetic evolution. These motherfuckers have been honed for generation after generation, out-competing all the other mythical beings that have been dreamed up by children, parents, grand-parents, witch-doctors and story-tellers, and which have subsequently fallen by the wayside and been lost in the mists of time. They are core archetypes (the dragon, the succubus, the sexual bloodsucker, the man-beast, the faerie, the people who live underground digging up treasure, the beautiful magical bird) which, over millennia, have been carefully perfected by unconscious selective processes: the more a new variation scares, amazes and interests us, the more likely it is to be passed down.

Monsters, in other words, are like roses, dogs, and cattle: they've evolved through unnatural selection. We have bred out of them everything boring and unappealing through aeons of repetitive story-telling showing tiny graduations of improvement. They're the peacock's tail: they are that way because we, like the peahen choosing the peacock with the most impressive tail, carefully pick out the monsters we find scary and keep them going, and cast the others aside.

It's tough to compete with that. A few rare exceptions - creatures created by RPG bestiarists or fantasy authors - suggest themselves: the beholder, the owl-bear, the displacer beast, the bulette, the mind-flayer. But of those, I think only the mind-flayer truly comes close to competing with the resonance which a vampire, a werewolf, a succubus, a phoenix, or a giant has in our psyche. Those things have been around forever because they work. Randomly throwing together a mixture of animals and abilities simply can't compete.

Friday 25 April 2014

Maggie May Pt. II

It seems that my point in yesterday's post was misinterpreted - or, perhaps, I didn't communicate it very effectively (although frankly I think that's impossible to believe!). This lead us into a thicket of discussion, here and on G+, about RPGs versus computer games. That wasn't my intention. So I'll have a stab at further elaboration.

I prefer playing RPGs to playing computer games. They're better for a whole host of reasons we don't need to detail here - because, let's face it, if you're reading this blog you probably don't need a huge amount of convincing of that. On the other hand, for certain purposes, computer games are superior: it would not be humanly possible to run Football Manager as an RPG, for instance. You need a computer, with its massive memory capacity and its processing power, to run a simulation of that complexity.

But be that as it may, RPGs are not particularly successful in being a tool to achieve fun for most people. When people want to enjoy themselves in some pastime or distract themselves from boredom they typically want the path of least resistance to that goal. This is what I meant when I said that people are generally instrumentalist in their view of games: they want fun and they want the quickest and easiest way to get that fun. The format doesn't matter, in other words - it's the outcome. Maximum fun for least effort. Downloading a game off Steam is easier than mapping a dungeon and getting 4 people round to play through it with you. Crucially, it may not be quite as much fun in the long term (actually, it almost certainly won't be), but the fun to effort ratio is much more palatable. 

The same is true of other analogues. People want the path of least resistance to the music they like. The format doesn't really matter - they want the outcome of having music they like readily available. So mp3s on an iPod, or Spotify, are better than vinyl if you don't care about the format by which you're hearing your music. The same is true of books versus TV, beach holidays versus mountain climbing, etc.

Now, clearly this is only true for many people much of the time - it's never true for all people all the time. Lots of people prefer books to TV, hiking to sunbathing, vinyl to mp3s, letters to email, writing longhand to typing, and RPGs to video games. That can still be true while, in aggregate, the instrumentalist approach prevails.

For me, as somebody who prefers books to TV, hiking to sunbathing, and RPGs to video games, the format is important. I like the fact that RPGs are social, creative, and constantly create unexpected outcomes. And I also like the other elements of the format that I think are crucial - mapping, drawing things with pencils, fiddling with numbers, rolling dice otherwise randomising results. But in general the rest of the world doesn't feel that way. 

To that extent, I think I agree with Mike Mearls. But where I part company is on the solution: I don't expect the world to change, and I think that trying to force RPGs to ape video games is exceedingly foolish and pointless. I don't mind that RPGs are a niche within a niche within a niche. Though I expect I would think differently if I was employed by Wizards of the Coast to design the next edition of D&D. 

Wednesday 23 April 2014

The morning sun when it's in your face really shows your age

So, at PAX East (whatever that is) various bigwigs, high-ups, grand poobahs and éminices grises got together to discuss What is Happening to Tabletop Role Playing Games?

It's worth reading the transcript of the discussion between Ryan Dancey and Mike Mearls on EN World, because it's interesting, but I think it's just more of the same: the established order, who rely on RPGs for a living, panicking and trying to repackage something that is fundamentally old in character as something that is new.

What do I mean when I say that RPGs are fundamentally old in character? Partly I mean that they're from a predigital age, but really what I mean is that they've been superseded by technology at the instrumental level. RPGs have become like vinyl, like typewriters or antique fountain pens, and like board games and books are becoming: an inferior format for people who are instrumental about their entertainment.

What do I mean by that? If what you are interested in is being challenged, solving puzzles, engaging in tactical play - in other words, if you take an instrumental approach to games - then video games are better than RPGs. If what you are interested in is an entertaining narrative that will distract you from your boring life and help you relax after a hard day at work, then TV is better than a book. If what you want is to hear a lot of good pieces of music, then mp3s are better than vinyl. If what you want to do is write a letter, a laptop is better than a fountain pen. If what you want to do is communicate in a written form, an email is better than a letter. Etc.

But not everybody engages in everything in a purely instrumental way. People get attached to different technologies because of more ephemeral and emotional concerns. Vinyl is not a dead technology. People collect fountain pens and typewriters, because they like them. Some people still write letters because they prefer the personal touch and there is a nostalgic charm in doing so. Some people buy old vintage cars and spend hours doing them up. I know somebody whose hobby is to buy broken antique watches, fix them up, clean them and sell them - and who made enough to live off for 4 years of university. I know somebody else who was a semi-professional (a semi-professional!) scrabble player. In the morning sun Maggie May's face really showed her age, but Rod Stewart still wanted to shag her.

The extra games and entertainment options will distract people from RPGs if all they ever did was play RPGs for instrumentalist reasons. Arguably, that process is more or less complete anyway. But there will be people who don't play RPGs for instrumentalist reasons. And the format will go on.

I am utterly and completely comfortable with RPGs occupying a vinyl-esque niche. Mike Mearls and Ryan Dancey will want something more because their careers are to a certain extent wedded to there being this lumbering, near-dying arthritic beast called the RPG industry, but for the rest of us I think the message really ought to be: Keep calm and carry on.

The Whore of Podcastdom

A friend and I decided to do a gaming podcast, and we need to whore it around the internet. This is the only time I'll blog about it here.

The title is A Gaming Podcast About Nothing, for reasons which will quickly become apparent. Everything else you need to know is here. It takes us a little while to get warmed up. But it's funny. I promise.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

S&W Insect Classes

Apropos of nothing, I was thinking about various old posts I wrote about animal fantasy. (See herehere and here. The link to Sean Rubin's website is broken; his blog is here. It is traditional at this stage for me to asset that IANAF, so let me make it clear: I Am Not A Furry. But I do like animals, and I like animal fantasy. ) It doesn't seem as though in these posts I covered a long-harboured ambition of mine, which is to produce an animal fantasy retro-clone but weird. By which I mean, forget mice. Or, rather, you can be an anthropomorphic mouse if you want, but why stop there? You should be thinking about being an anthropomorphic seagull. An anthropomorphic walrus. An anthropomorphic fucking cassowary. Or, what's wrong with anthropomorphic insects?

So here are some anthropomorphic insect classes for S&W:

The Moth
Hit Die: d6+1
Armour/Shield: Any
Weapons: Any
Abilities: Can Fly (120'); can cast spells as cleric
Advances/saving throws as cleric

The Cricket
Hit Die: d6+2
Armour/Shield: Any
Weapons: Any
Abilities: Can leap up to 100' by foregoing other actions; Has Fighting-Man multiple attacks
Advances/saving throws as Fighting-Man

The Beetle
Hit Die: d6+2
Armour/Shield: Any
Weapons: Any
Abilities: Can Fly (90'); has natural AC of 7
Advances/saving throws as Dwarf

The Cockroach
Hit Die: d6-1
Armour/Shield: None
Weapons: Dagger, staff, darts
Abilities: Can Fly (90') on reaching level 4; can cast spells as a Magic-User
Advances/saving throws as Magic-User

And so forth. Cockroaches are magic-users because fuck you, that's why. 'Bad guy' races are social insects which inhabit 'dungeons', like ants, termites, maybe also wasps and bees. Shrews are purple worms. Black birds are dragons.

Thursday 17 April 2014

Help Wanted, Apply at The Publishers' Quarter, Yellow City, Yoon-Suin

So, as some of you will know, I've been working on releasing my Yoon-Suin campaign setting for a considerable period of time. It’s gone through several iterations. It’s now more or less finished, although there is a bit of t-crossing and i-dotting left to do, and I need to get some friends to look it over to check for errors.
There are extensive posts regarding Yoon-Suin on my blog, which can be read through here.
If you just want a brief understanding of the project itself you could limit yourself to this post, and this post.

The core conceit is that somebody in possession of the Yoon-Suin almanac should be able to generate their own version of Yoon-Suin with the use of its extensive collection of random tables and snippets of information. As well as rules for character generation (featuring slug-man and crab-man classes) and a bestiary of 50+ monsters, it has chapters devoted to discrete areas of Yoon-Suin (the Yellow City and Topaz Isles; Lahag and the Hundred Kingdoms; Lamarakh and Lower Druk Yul; and Sughd and the Mountains of the Moon). It also has a number of appendices with optional house rules including rules for generating teas and opiates, quick-and-dirty trade rules, and generators for names and so forth.

It is, basically, a tool-box and grab-bag for brainstorming a version of Yoon-Suin for yourself: if you want to set a campaign in the Yellow City, or the oligarchies of the Mountains of the Moon, or the wastes of Lower Druk Yul...You can do it, and the almanac will give you to the tools to do so. 

The project needs, now, three things, in order of importance, mostly stemming from my lack of artistic talent.

1)      Maps. Each chapter for the different regions of Yoon-Suin needs to have two hex-maps with geographical features only. This is to allow a given DM to take an area of that region and make it his own with plug-and-play hexes and lairs, ruins, settlements, etc. that he generates with the relevant random tables and places on the geographic map to his taste.
2)      Layout. I am shit at this. At the moment the whole thing sits in about 7 word documents that I plan to just save as PDFs and bundle together in a zip file. Somebody who can make it look a bit professional would come in most handy.
3)      A cover, and maybe interior art. At the moment there is no art. I kind of like the austerity of mere text and tables. But I recognise that’s a bit pants. And at least one pretty picture to be the cover would be great. 

So, if you are interested in contributing to one or more of those needs, please get in touch and we'll talk the matter over. My email address is jean DOT delumeau AT gmail DOT you know the rest. We can discuss payment; I should warn you, however, that my current thinking is to release the whole thing either for free or for a nominal fee; I’ll probably end up charging £0.99 or something, with the pot to be split up between the art and layout contributors, although I am also thinking about an additional lulu option.  

Also, feel free to spread the word amongst acquaintances, associates, your crew, etc.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

ROYG Encounters; Or, I May Have Finally Cracked; Or, I Spent 2 Hours on This When I Should Have Been Working

So let's talk random encounters.

Take a look at this bad boy. You may have to click to enlarge.

Yes, it looks like arse. Doesn't matter. Pay attention.

The ROYG Method

Roll d8+d12 for the monster type as normal.

Then, you have the illusion of choice. Roll either a d4, d8, d12 and d16 (or d20 and ignore results 17-20); or roll another 4d4. Consult the attractive (?) colour chart as required. The general principle here is that red is bad for the PCs, amber and yellow are progressively less bad, and green is nice. Strict rules of interpretation are not provided - the aim is to give the DM's brain something to riff on, rather than providing absolute set-in-stone laws of interpretation. 

The d4 result (or d4:1) tells you the type of terrain in which the encounter occurs, depending on the 'host terrain' of the hex. If it's a mountain hex, as the above table is keyed for, red will mean extremely steep cliffs or scree, amber will mean a steep-sided valley with the monsters at the top, yellow will mean a shallow valley with monsters on the high ground, and green will mean favourable conditions (such as the PCs being on high ground in a shallow valley). 

The d8 result (or d4:2) tells you the rough proximity of the enemy. Red meaning right there in plain sight (the distance will be greater on barren mountain terrain than in a jungle, obviously), amber in the distance, yellow the monsters have spotted the PCs' trail but not the PCs yet, and green the PCs have spotted the monsters' trail but not the monsters yet.

The d12 result (or d4:3) tells you what the monsters are up to. Red could mean hunting, on the warpath, etc. Amber could mean patrolling without active hostile intent (though that will change if the opportunity arises). Yellow might mean looking for something, foraging, etc.. Green, idling, or looking for somebody to talk to.

The d16 result (or d4:4) gives a complication. Here, the DM has even more leeway to use his imagination. It might be suggested that red means another monster happens along. Perhaps a green result means that the monsters are actually long dead and only their campsite or remains still exist. 

So, for example, on my d8+d12 I got a 14. The result is a ranger(s).

What are these rangers up to? d4 result for terrain gives 3 - yellow. A low valley, with the PCs towards the bottom, with a few rocks here and there for cover. The d8 result for proximity gives a 7. Another yellow. The rangers are in the distance - just about visible, or potentially so. I would then roll for surprise, assuming the encounter distance is, say, d6x200 yards. The d12 result for task gives a 6. Amber. They're roaming around their territory, checking to see nobody is bothering the local wildlife - possibly acting on information that there is a group of hunters in the vicinity (who they might mistake the PCs for). The d16 result gives a 9. Red. A complication. Hmm..... Okay, there is a  group of NPC hunters in the vicinity and they have spotted both the rangers and the PCs. 

Any questions?

Monday 14 April 2014

It's Cyberpunk, Jim, But Not As We Know It

I spent part of yesterday afternoon chatting with Nate over Skype making a podcast. (Watch this space for further details.) For part of the conversation, at least, we talked Cyberpunk 2020. We didn't get very far. But it reminded me of a post I wanted to write.

Players of Cyberpunk 2020 and similar games (Shadowrun, Cyberspace, etc.) will be familiar with the humorous anachronistic visions of the future which they entail. One option is to embrace this. I ran a game of Cyberpunk 2020 for a couple of months two years ago, with the conceit that the 1980s vision of the future had actually come to pass - there was still a Soviet Union and a Cold War, the Militant Tendency were still in charge of Liverpool City Council, and you had to long on at Dataterms(tm) to use the internet.

Truth is always stranger than fiction, though. Consider the fact that, as these articles from the Economist imply, food smuggling, waste disposal and wildlife smuggling, rather than drugs, might be the wave of the future:
According to the FLARE Network, an international group of campaigners against organised crime, criminal groups in Italy make around €14 billion a year from being mixed up in agriculture. In some parts of the country mafias control food production and distribution; Franco La Torre, FLARE’s president, says they also enrich themselves through fraudulent claims on EU agricultural funds. Increasingly strict regulation of waste disposal has created another profitable opportunity for organised crime in Europe—particularly, according to Europol, for the Italian Camorra, ’Ndrangheta and Cosa Nostra.

It's not only that there's easy money to be made, it's why get involved in drugs when it can land you a stiffer sentence?:

Some crooks who once focused on drugs have switched to food, says Chris Vansteenkiste of Europol, partly thanks to the falling profitability of the former. The proportion of Britons reporting having taken drugs in the past year dropped from 11% in 1996 to 8% in 2012. Not everyone is a junkie, but everyone buys food and drink. Stagnant wages and unusually high inflation since the financial crisis have increased people’s hunger for bargains.  
Perhaps most important for crooks, humdrum crime is safer. Penalties for hawking counterfeit biscuits are considerably lighter than those for smuggling drugs or guns. For some intellectual-property theft, such as ripping off DVDs, criminals might face ten years in prison, says Stuart Shotton of FoodChain Europe, a food-law consultancy. If there are no fears about safety, he reckons that six months is more likely for crimes involving food.

Smuggling counterfeit biscuits may not be as sexy as the latest illegal cyberware or "stimsense" or whatever, but is in its own way even more cyberpunk. Imagine a future in which perpetually low interest rates brought on by crippling national and private debt have caused inflation to rise to 25-50%. Wages can't keep up - or, at least, the wages of the ordinary man on the street can't. The rich, who live in their isolated compounds, they're fine. But the 'squeezed middle', desperate to fight off falling living standards, increasingly turn to contraband food, drink and cheap knock-off goods smuggled from the wealthy futurescapes of South Korea and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the rich are after their own contraband: bored by readily available drugs (which by now have been totally decriminalised) and the constant availability of user-specified bespoke porn, they have turned to exotic animals to display their wealth. The existence of strict environmental regulations only make it that much more exciting to be able to take your pet Hyacinth Macaw to the pool party at the nearby K-Pop starlet's rooftop apartment. You've heard the mayor's daughter is bringing her latest find - a mountain gorilla, fresh from Rwanda. They're going to make it fight a puma. It's going to be a blast.

Sunday 13 April 2014

Random Poisons

A method for randomly generating poisons that I drew up this morning. This takes its inspiration from Table 5.1 in the 2nd edition AD&D DMG, though is extensively rejigged. In the 'effect' column, the first effect is on a failed save; the second is what happens after a successful save. (It never made any sense to me that a successful save should be "no effect" - something tells me that if you get stung by a box jellyfish you know about it even if you survive.)

Notes on Effects

Paralysis: The character is completely immobile and loses all control over his muscles. He is, however, flexible, and can be moved around as required.

Debilitation: The character is critically weakened by excruciating pain, lethargy, or horrible bowel movements, though not in such a way as to prove life-threatening. All the character's ability scores are reduced by half with adjustments to AC, to hit rolls, etc. made as necessary. Character moves at 1/2 movement rate and always acts last in the combat round. Character does not heal lost hit points during the period of debilitation.

Slow Sickness: The character has a long-lasting illness that gradually saps his strength through vomiting, diarrhea, swelling, etc. Character loses 1 point of CON every day for 2d6 days. If his CON is reduced to 2, he dies. If the 2d6 days expire and he still has a CON score, he regains CON at a rate of 1 per day. All the effects of debilitation apply for the 2d6 day period.

Quick Sickness: As above, but the illness is more severe and sudden in its effects. Character loses 1 point of CON every hour for 2d6 hours. If his CON is reduced to 2, he dies. All the other effects of slow sickess apply.

Death: The poison causes cataclysmic seizures, brain haemorrhage or equivalent effects which are impossible to survive. Character dies within d6 minutes. On a successful save the character loses the number of hit points stated over the course of d6 minutes, but survives if he has hit points remaining.

Insanity: The poison alters brain chemistry, permanently. Roll a d4 to determine insanity type: 1 - Narcolepsy (must save versus poison at the start of combat; failure means the character falls asleep); 2 - Paranoia (CHA reduced by half); 3 - Multiple Personalities (PC develops a second personality; each day toss a coin to determine which personality is in control that day - each personality has no memory or awareness of what happens when it is dormant); 4 - Lunacy (PC becomes utterly deranged and is under the control of the DM as an NPC).

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Mapping New Troy and Faerie

[This is a continuation of a project detailed in previous posts here.]

This is the basic map of New Troy, explained in brief in this post. Those readers following these posts will remember that this is an area 15x10 miles, with the hexes 1 mile in size.

Entering one of the gates, marked on this map by a star, takes you to Faerie, which has the following map. Here, the hexes are 6 miles in size.

The geographical features here are fundamentally the same, but at the same time, different. They are, in essence, a looking glass version of those in New Troy - except in every respect more dangerous, more unusual, more vibrant, just more

Four things have changed. The settlements have been renamed as 'Shees' and are Faerie 'kingdoms'. Thripsey Shee is so named as a tribute to its namesake in the Lyonesse books; Trinovant Shee is a play on 'New Troy'. 

The caves in the North East of the area, which on the mundane New Troy map are the gate to Muspel, in Faerie are the home of the dvergar - much more akin to the Dökkálfar of old Germanic/Norse myth than D&D "dwarves". 

I'm going to start keying in the hexes for New Troy and Faerie in coming posts. 

Monday 7 April 2014

Rambling Sunday Evening Thoughts on Psionics

Today I was idly perusing the AD&D 2nd Edition Psionics Handbook and wondering what exactly it is about psionics that didn't quite work. Partly it's the complexity - I remember having a devil of a time figuring out how telepathic combat was supposed to work - but mostly I think it's because it isn't at all seamless with what D&D is trying to achieve. Which may seem like an odd thing to say, because D&D has never been Ron-Edwards-Coherent, but what it was during the TSR era was consistent in feel. Part of that came from aesthetics, philosophy of play, and so on, but partly it also came from the rules, and the psionics rules just weren't of a piece with the rest of the game. Instead of the Vancian magic system that existed for mages and the simple number-of-spells-per-day system for priests, instead you suddenly had to start thinking about Psionic Strength Points. Instead of spells being automatically successful, instead psionic powers were quasi-proficiencies which might succeed or fail.

But on the other hand, perversely, psionic powers were at the same time too much like magic. In the final analysis what you could do with psionics was not much different to what you could do with magic, and most of the book was just a big list of different 'powers' which may as well have just been a big list of new spells for wizards. It seemed, for want of a better term, a bit half-arsed.

Which is a shame. What I want in a psionics system is freedom. Whereas having predetermined spells that you have to learn out of a book, or be granted to you by a god, it makes much more sense to me to have a psionics system in which there are much fewer limits - the player is freer to use his imagination in manipulating reality with his mind, which is kind of the point. So instead of a psionic "school" of telekinesis with a limited number of powers, your character just has telekinesis and can do with it what he wants - does he want to fly? Push a tree over? Pick up a rock and fling it? Make the individual atoms in a stick of wood agitate until the wood bursts into flames? Fine, provided he simply makes an appropriate sacrifice. Or, your character has clairsentience - this means he can practice clairvoyance or clairaudience, stretch his mind into the future or past, see behind a wall into the next bedroom or see what is happening a continent away. Again, provided he makes an appropriate sacrifice.

What's an appropriate sacrifice? Since hit points measure physical and mental strain, simply reduce the psionicist character's hit points according to the 'strength' of whatever he's trying to do. Fling a rock? 1 hp. Move a mountain? That's more like 50.