Tuesday 29 July 2014

Random Tables as Tools to Compress and Communicate Information.

Let's think about random generators. What makes a good one? On A Gaming Podcast About Nothing a few episodes back I made the rather banal observation that while the contents of a table are important, what you really want is interaction between columns. This is obvious to anyone with half a brain.

But let's demonstrate anyway. As said, what follows is probably obvious, but it is also interesting.

The first table gives a bog-standard result. A random encounter with one of 6 possible monsters. The second table is more interesting, because it gives a combination of results through the interaction between columns: 36 possibilities. It's richer. And the third table is richer still: 216 possibilities.

Now, at the most superficial level that provides more variety, which is probably a good thing, all else being equal. Variety is nice. It avoids repetition. But let's drill down a little.

  • The second table communicates information vastly more efficiently than the first, and the third vastly more efficiently than the second. There is simply more stuff concentrated in the table as columns increase. Writing out all 216 possibilities for the third table (orcs near a crevasse in a thick blizzard, orcs near a crevasse in a hail storm, orcs near a crevasse in high wing, orcs near a crevasse in a fog...) would take a long time but also a lot of space. A random table with a number of columns is like a mechanism for compressing data ready to be unpacked through the use of the dice - there is no better tool available to the writer of an RPG product for doing this. 
  • The second and third tables require much less thought on the part of the DM in order to make them interesting. "Orc" requires spur-of the moment creativity. "Orc, abandoned yak herder village" is easier to deal with. "Orc, abandoned yak herder village, in high wind" practically runs itself. The third table lifts the burden of having to come up with interesting things on the spur of the moment. 
  • Paradoxically, while requiring less thought on the part of the DM than the first table, the third also cannot help but make him more creative. "Snow nymph, abandoned yak herder village, third party involvement" can't help but make him come up with a creative solution - why is the snow nymph there and what's the third party? "Frost giant, frozen lake, fog". What's going on there? A frost giant engaging in impromptu ice fishing, invisible to the players because of the mist - with the added danger of possibly falling through the ice. So the table both requires less creative thought, and focuses it. 
Random tables, then, are little packages of concentrated usefulness. They hold compressed information and creative power and release it with great efficiency when called upon to do so by the rolling of dice. 

Monday 28 July 2014

A Night at the Museum

Patrick S ordered me to make this blog's archive available and navigable. It is now, in the sidebar to the right, because I am weak-willed and just do whatever people tell me.

I have been writing this blog since May 2008. This is a long time - over 6 years (in case you never studied any maths, ever). There are hundreds and hundreds of entries - not quite 1000, but approaching it. I shudder to think at all the words of utter bollocks I've written on this thing. But it's nice to read through some of the old entries, even if they're often embarrassing now. Oddly, I think the first month has many of my strongest entries. I started promisingly and lapsed into absurdly pretentious navel-gazing within a matter of weeks.

Browse through it if you like - particularly if you're a fan of absurdly pretentious navel-gazing. There's a chance after Yoon-Suin I'll do a False Machine type volume compiling the best entries as a POD book or something.

Friday 25 July 2014

Jack the Giant Slayer and the Specialist Fighter

I recently took up karate classes. (As an aside, I recommend doing a martial art wholeheartedly. And I don't mean boxercise. As a gym rat who goes four times a week I thought I was pretty fit and in shape and in touch with my body. Doing karate twice a week has taught me there is not just a whole other level of physical fitness, but a whole other universe. I've never ached like I've been aching the last couple of weeks. But in a really good way.) When I was younger I did quite a bit of tae kwon doe, but that is getting on for 15 years ago now and although I have a bit of muscle memory, I'm effectively approaching the whole thing as a beginner.

Today we were practising a simple routine, blocking a slap to the head and then delivering a punch to the sternum. At one point the teacher stopped me and my partner to demonstrate. He told us that we may just have been blocking a "slap", but then he showed us how there are different levels of slaps - he used the base of his open hand to just lightly tap my jaw and said, "A proper slap will break this." And I could feel that small movement make my entire jaw bone shift from side to side.

It reminded me of my old Tae Kwon Doe teacher showing us a pattern in which one of the moves was a specific punch delivered at a certain angle and a certain point so as to make the target void his bladder. That's how specific martial arts get. Traditions stretching back thousands of years, perfecting the art of killing people.

Now, in the West we have lost those traditions, although WMA and and HEMA people are doing their level best to reinvigorate them, but there's no reason why in a fantasy world that would have happened. Those martial traditions would be unbroken and ancient. Doesn't it seem likely that in such worlds, martial arts schools would have developed teaching to teach people how to kill not just other people, but also orcs, trolls, ogres, giants, dragons, etc.? Here's how you jab a spear just so that it ruptures a hill giant's spleen. Here's where an orc's jugular vein is - different to humans, slightly to the left. Here's the spot to hit if you want to make a dragon shit itself...

In view of, this, I give you the experimental Jack the Giant Slayer Rule.

At character creation, the player of a fighter can specify that his PC has received training in how to fight a certain type of monster or humanoid. From that point, once per combat, the player can elect to do double damage against that creature type, but he must declare this before rolling to hit. 
A fighter may undergo specific training for killing other types of monsters and humanoids every other level. 

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Wahey We're The Insects

My friend Patrick wrote an excellent recent blog post which set my mind whirring with different post ideas. Expect me to pontificate at great length about Tall Tales of the Wee Folk in the near future, but in the mean time I thought I'd resurrect an old idea which is germane

Anthropomorphic insects is an idea I've had in my mind for a while but it never quite gained any traction. Recently it has as I've been watching our back lawn get increasingly overgrown - we're in the process of moving house and, to be frank, I can't be fucked mowing it if we're going to be moving anyway. I'll probably get around to it next weekend.

Anyway, when a garden gets overgrown, even in a benign environment like the outskirts of a British city, all sorts of things start to happen. The grass gets long and sprouts these high, almost waist-high, tendrils full of seeds. Miscellaneous flowers - buttercups, dandelions, daisies - appear from nowhere. Big patches of clover spread inexorably across huge patches of hither-to pristine lawn. Bumblebees of different varieties hover from place to place, expertly dodging grass fronds which must, to them, be like trees are to us. Flies and midges float about in intricate, private dances. Butterflies appear for a moment and then flit onwards to the next garden. Strong thistle-like weeds thrust up through cracks in flagstones. At night hedgehogs appear, snuffling round in a manner which is cute to us but genocidal, baleful, inexorable terror to worms and beetles. 

It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.

So why dress up an anthropomorphic insect RPG into anything more than somebody's overgrown back garden? To a beetle, my lawn is the size of a city. And my lawn is not particularly large. Most sizeable gardens are to them as large as a county or a minor. And there is another one right next door. Moreover, this is a three dimensional, complex environment. Ant burrows and cracks in the earth lead to tunnel networks akin to dungeons. Shrubs and bushes are like gargantuan jungle trees bigger than anything a human can comprehend the scale of - like sky scrapers, in fact, rather than trees. What's in that watering can? A cold, stagnant lake full of hunting larvae lurking in its depths. What's under that flagstone? A tribe of armoured woodlice muttering to each other in the damp darkness. What's in the corner of the shed? An undead spider lich and the dusty, dead cobwebs it uses for its spells.

And think of the possibilities for playing with alien mindsets, alien values, alien needs. The praying mantis class: obsessed with waiting; for it patience is pleasure, and it can only use its full powers when the foe is unawares. The ladybird class: voracious, uncaring, protected by its shell; it simply attacks and eats anything small with instinctive ferocity that cannot be overridden. The cockroach class: not so much a survival expert as a paragon of longevity - it does nothing well except continue to live. The aphid class: not one individual but a dozen clones who each know exactly what the others will do because they have more in common than the closest twin.

In this environment the enemies would be spiders, intelligent hunting sorcerers who play with the bodies of their victims; robot-like ants who simply swarm and devour with mindless purpose; dragon-like birds with sharp eyes which will swoop and attack the instant you cross open ground; and many other threats from above, below, or under the nearest stone. Treasure would be the different nectars produced by flowers, or the bonanza of a dead rat or fledgling. Quests would be to rescue kidnapped comrades from the lair of the termites, to assassinate an ant queen just beginning to set up a new nest, or to raid a neighbouring garden for the toxic ingredients to repel a blackfly invasion.

Or perhaps the goal is simple survival. The PCs as a group of insects with a certain sentience who live under the constant threat of death - death from hunting, death from starvation, death from the weather, death from poison, death from sheer twist of fate - and who, for some reason, have the rudiments of cooperation necessary to rise above the nasty, brutish, short lives of their peers and achieve something approaching rest, peace, security, calm. 

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass

I'd like to take this opportunity, really apropos of nothing, to discuss what I have come to think of as a distinct phenomenon - Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass. This is my term for a certain stylistic choice made by writers of RPG rulebooks to, for want of a better way of putting it, take a sassy, slightly hectoring, almost tough guy tone in their writing and the way in which they present the information. It's a question of taste of course, but I don't like it.

It's hard to explain in the abstract, but it's something that I am certain you will recognise if you have read the kind of modern, indie games in which it is most used - particularly, for some reason, introductory sections on what role playing represents.

Take Mythender, for example, which is to my mind probably the paradigm case. This is more or less from the first substantive page:

Or you’ll tell the stories of how you ignore all that humanity business and go pedal to the fucking metal, diving headfirst into the heart of Myth and leaving piles of corpses in your wake. You’ll gain power by making mortals to worship you as a god. Eventually, your comrades will be forced to murder your Mythic ass. 
Spoiler alert: they totally fucking will. [...] 
Mythender is about kicking ass and erasing names to a heavy metal sound track, about dancing on the knife’s edge between having the power to slaughter abominations and becoming an abomination yourself. Go do that already

See what I mean? "Go do that already." Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass, turned to 11.

Sometimes it manifests itself in a slightly smarmier fashion. See, for instance, this section from Houses of the Blooded:

If you’ve ever played a roleplaying game before, you may have noticed that characters seldom age—locked in a perpetual state of twenty-five years old—and they always seem to “get better.” As they move through their lives, experience points always add to the character’s abilities. Regardless of how old they look, all RPG characters seem to be an eternal and everlasting twenty-five years old. 
Not so here.

Leaving aside the sniping at D&D, it's that final coda - "Not so here" - which turns this into Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass. Picture the author wagging his finger at you with a slight smirk playing across his lips. "Not so here." There's that slightly patronising subtext which is the mark of true sass.

The patronising subtext can become the supertext when the Deliberate RPG Rulebook Sass becomes overt. Here's a section from the introduction to Apocalypse World:

You probably know this already: roleplaying is a conversation. You and the other players go back and forth, talking about these fictional characters in their fictional circumstances doing whatever it is that they do. Like any conversation, you take turns, but it’s not like taking turns, right? Sometimes you talk over each other, interrupt, build on each others’ ideas, monopolize. All fine. 
All these rules do is mediate the conversation. They kick in when someone says some particular things, and they impose constraints on what everyone should say after. Makes sense, right?

Makes you feel like a 9 year-old, right?

Now, I don't want to be misunderstood - I like Mythender and Apocalypse World, and Houses of the Blooded is interesting if not exactly my cup of tea. Please think of this post less as a critique or a snipe, and more of a plea to the future game-designers out there. Keep the sass to a minimum and just write nice, simple, plain, non-sassy and non-patronising, yet evocative, English like this:

Before television, there was radio. Audiences earlier in this century sat in front of their radios
and thrilled to the exploits of bigger-than-life radio heroes. Since it was radio, they couldn't see
what was going on, but they didn't need to—all the action was described by dialogue, narration, and sound effects, and was translated by the imaginations of the listeners into scenes they could see, experience, and remember. 
Role-playing games are much like radio adventures, except for one important detail: they're interactive. One player provides the narrative and some of the dialogue, but the other players, instead of just sitting and envisioning what's going on, actually participate. Each player controls the actions of a character in the story, decides on his actions, supplies his character's dialogue, and makes decisions based on the character's personality and his current game options.

Go do that already.

Monday 21 July 2014

A Yoon-Suin Location

10 thin, long black rocks sticking up through the forest floor arranged into two roughly semicircular groups of 5; close inspection may reveal that one of the rocks in each group is slightly shorter than the others. They are the fingers of a demigod imprisoned in a subterranean tomb. Over the eons he has stretched his hands up towards the surface in a vain attempt at escape; they now poke up through the loamy soil. If anybody stands in the middle of one of the ‘hands’ it causes the fingers to close, grabbing the victim and crushing him or her to death instantly on a failed DEX check. The demigod then leaches the victim’s soul to empower his eventual escape. Careful examination of the topsoil in the area will reveal old bones and treasures equivalent to TT Sx3, Tx3, and Ux3 around the fingers – the remains of previous travellers the demigod has killed.

Thursday 17 July 2014

In Loving Memory of a Name

The Hobbit is, I think, the most widely liked of Tolkien's books. This is partly because it's a kid's book, and although fantasy is becoming sort-of trendy these days, it's still easier for an adult to admit they like kid's fantasy books (The Hobbit, the Harry Potter books, His Dark Materials, etc.) than grown-up ones. 

That said, I think Tolkien had a way of hitting on deep profundities in his work - this is why his books have such great appeal decades after his death - and a very simple example of this comes in The Hobbit in its genius for names. 

Think about the places where the action happens in The Hobbit. The Misty Mountains. Mirkwood. The Lonely Mountain. Lake-town. The Long Lake. River Running. Notice anything? The names actually mean something. Tolkien, of course, had other words for these places, the names in his own invented languages. But he refrained from using them. This may have been simply to avoid putting off young readers, but it gives the places a concrete, real feeling: The Lonely Mountain is an incredibly evocative name because the name itself gives you a visualisation - a mountain, all on its own, in the middle of a wilderness. Likewise Mirkwood; it hardly needs a description once you've read the name. It's a dark forest. A murky wood. Lake-town: it's a town on a lake (literally). 

I prefer this approach to fantasy naming. Compare The Lonely Mountain to Hespereth Strait. Lake-town to Sargava. Mirkwood to the Mwangi Jungle. I may be being slightly unfair picking on some deeply unevocative names I stumbled across in the Pathfinder wiki. But you get my drift.

Strangeness is at its most effective when there is something anchoring the person experiencing it, and sometimes the best way of doing this is simply through the use of language. Tolkien seems to have understood this well, if only implicitly: the concreteness and simplicity of the place names in The Hobbit give the reader something to hold on to - you don't have to struggle with imagining the Hespereth Strait and fumbling over the pronunciation of 'Mwangi' in your mind, and can devote your full attention to the story against the images which the words 'The Lonely Mountain' naturally bring up in your mind. 

Tuesday 8 July 2014

I'm Starting With the Man in the Mirror, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Internet Pharisee-ism

I've been making an effort recently to bring my signal-to-noise ratio within healthy limits. This means generally avoiding watching the news, visiting news websites and forums, and steering clear of the internet in general as much as possible. (Sport news and my The Economist subscription being the major exceptions.) My basis for doing this is the idea, advanced by Nassim Taleb and others, that the really valuable information will find its way to me eventually, and I can cut out distractions and false/irrelevant news.

It seems to have been working, in that most of the things that find their ways to my ears seem worth knowing, and I don't appear to be missing out on anything by not learning what all the fevered egos on Twitter or rpg.net think about issue X or Y.

I have today learned about all the drama that G+ has been afflicted with recently regarding the release of D&D 5th Edition and how it seems to be bad that Wizards of the Coast have employed Zak Smith as a consultant because, er, jazz hands. (The reason appears to be that Zak has been involved in making porn and for a certain breed of politically correct nerd that must implicate him in something awful, for no defined reason other than that it simply must.) So that must qualify it as signal. And that makes it worthy of a blog post - at least indirectly.

For some reason, for a sizeable portion of the population of Western societies, being offended has become something to luxuriate in: self-righteousness is addictive and provides our brains with a kick that is more powerful than any drug known to man. You see it in religious fundamentalists, you see it in liberals, you see it in conservatives, you see it everywhere. People get off on anger because it makes them feel good about themselves - it reassures them that they are good and that awful person over there is bad and they can rank themselves in the hierarchy of goodness accordingly.

This is nothing new. Jesus spent considerable energies fighting Pharisee-ism but not even the Son of God could sort it out: the people who are today trawling the internet searching for things to be offended by in the name of their liberal/conservative sensibilities are the exact same people who were watching Jesus curing lepers on the sabbath and muttering "Tut, tut" into their beards because he was working on the holy day. Times change but human impulses are as old and immutable as solid granite.

The thing about Pharisees is that they are insecure; they hated and feared Jesus because of what he represented and what he was delivering - freedom, love, etc. He was showing them up. And internet Pharisees are no different: what they hate most of all is other people creating things, doing things, enjoying themselves, having fun. Because their own inflated sense of self-importance is threatened by it - they are so sure of their own brilliance and access to universal truth that they feel that more successful and happy people are showing them up. They should be the ones everybody looks to, but they're not. It frustrates them and they rage against it.

If you feel you are an internet Pharisee, here is a three step plan to easy cure:

1. Start creating a game or game-related product
2. Put it on your blog
3. Play it any enjoy it

The drug of being offended by what other people say and do is distracting you and robbing you of your creativity and passion. Put it to one side and your life and games will be so much better for it.