Saturday 31 December 2016

A Historical Geography of RPG Playing

When I was a lad, knee-high to a grasshopper, playing RPGs was a secret shameful activity one generally conducted in a darkened room - typically somebody or other's bedroom or attic, occasionally a living room. Usually this room was covered with posters of hot women (Louise from Eternal, now better known as Louise Redknapp, was a particular favourite) and there was Warhammer paraphernalia everywhere. As time went on, there would also be the stench of cheap pot, teenage male sweat and grease, and unwashed leather jackets. 

Many years later, playing RPGs was a slightly less secretive and shameful activity one conducted in a brightly lit (indeed starkly, fluorescently lit) basement of a backstreet restaurant one entered through a nondescript door in a piss-stinking alleyway. There were no posters of hot women anymore; instead there were wargames piled everywhere and huge battle-maps where matches of Squad Leader were being kept in stasis for the following weekend. It didn't stink of cheap pot, but IPA and older adult male sweat and grease. The carpet hadn't been cleaned in years and was covered in bits of things you simply didn't want to even contemplate, yet alone ever touch with anything but the soles of your shoes. On all the walls there were shelves full of tiny draws, each of which was filled with anything wargame-related, from tanks to little plastic trees and bushes to ruined buildings. In the toilet was a chart which allowed you to measure how dehydrated you were by assessing the colour of your urine. There was also Warhammer paraphernalia everywhere.

Some time after that, playing RPGs was a still-slightly less secretive and shameful activity one conducted in a large room in a bleak sidestreet full of abandoned buildings on the outskirts of one of the shabbier shopping areas of the city. Again, no posters of Louise Redknapp. Instead, a vast horde of obscenely nerdish people, mostly men, constantly playing Magic: The Gathering and Yu Gi Oh! - like a scene from a Ligotti story, you had the suspicion upon entering the room that these people weren't really people at all, but figments of a dream; either always there, playing their meaningless games whatever the time of day, or never there unless you were - a cast of extras who came into existence only to serve as a vaguely hostile backdrop to whatever you were doing. The place stank of grease because of the burger grill in one corner of the room; inadequately ventilated, the room and everything in it was coated in a thin nasty film of oil. You only had to step in the door for it to cover you, so that when you got home you'd have to put all your clothes in the laundry basket (or better, a furnace) and scrub yourself clean in the shower like a surgeon or nuclear physicist. There was always an unholy racket of people getting too excited about Yu Gi Oh!, and every so often the Verbeeg-esque owner would lurch to his feet to bellow something in a voice that was oddly reedy for a man so tall. Occasionally prostitutes would come in to shelter from the cold and buy Pepsi. There was also Warhammer paraphernalia everywhere. 

Some time after that, playing RPGs was a shameful but no longer secretive activity which one conducted, guerilla-like, in various normal locations: cafes, bars and restaurants where real people lived and worked. There was no Warhammer paraphernalia anywhere and for the first time there was civilized alcohol consumption. There was no stench of grease or oil - merely a stench of paranoiac dread hanging over you at the prospect of somebody you knew coming in. You felt a bit like a really bad performance artist doing something vaguely weird in the background of other people's lives. 

Nowadays, playing RPGs is a not all that shameful and no longer secretive activity that you can actually do in a rather basic but friendly board game cafe. There is pretty good food and a decent selection of drinks, and you can actually sit there and play D&D as though it's normal. 

That is what I call progress. 

Wednesday 14 December 2016

You're the Captain of Your Soul...Know What I Mean?

Whether Sartre was right about the real world, in the world of D&D, existence precedes essence. Your character sheet is really just numbers. You are free to do with your character what you wish. You can choose to be good, bad, cruel, kind, friendly, cold, brave or cowardly. A D&D PC is defined by himself and his actions (well, those of the strange demigod, known as the "player", who inhabits him).

Do you want to be a reckless wizard? A cowardly fighter? A profane cleric? Do you want to kill orc babies or try to reform them? Do you want to amass personal wealth or give it all away? It's your decision. Nobody else's.

In this and many ways, RPGs are - perhaps uniquely among games - an exercise in freedom. In any other game you can think of, be it cricket or chess, your field of action is restricted and limited by rules. In an RPG there are really no such restrictions (or at least, there don't have to be). Your freedom is constrained by the other players and social convention, of course; you can't just sit at the table and openly masturbate, or eat the dice, or whatever, but that's true of all other games as well. Where it matters, in an RPG there are no constraints.

Does this mean anything? I'm not sure, but I'll hazard this: playing an RPG gives you an interesting insight into agency. It may be that we are all just bundles of neurons who go around reacting to things and then rationalising our decisions after the fact, as it now seems fashionable for neuroscientists to argue. But playing an RPG you get a relatively unfiltered understanding of what agency is and means: the power to make decisions and choices and then act on them. 

Wednesday 7 December 2016

What Is A Bard?

I've just finished watching a documentary in which Nitin Sawhney composed a symphony for animals to listen to. It was successful for starlings, a parakeet, and a seal; dogs and wolves seemed nonplussed. Believe it or not this is actually a burgeoning field of study; it turns out all kinds of animals can and will respond to musical cues. Some of what is going on seems to concern teaching animals how to interact with music; some of it concerns finding out what kind of music animals naturally respond to.

I think there is something very moving about the former, but I find the latter more interesting. It turns out that we can figure out what kind of music monkeys like and compose it for them. (There is something Bartok-esque about it - I actually kind of enjoy it for that reason.) There are even people making music for cats (think Brian Eno doing something ambient).

Naturally enough, thinking about all of this my mind starts to wander: what if people in a fantasy world knew how to make music for dwarves or goblins or dragons?

Let's take that further. Imagine it was impossible to communicate through language with other races: humans, dwarves, elves and so on simply lack common key concepts which make true communication possible. But what if music - rhythm, tone, pitch - was something that all living things understood? You might not be able to really talk to a dwarf. But maybe through music you could find a way to share certain messages, emotions and so forth.

In this world, bards are essentially translators. The local dwarf citadel and human kingdom have been at war. As a peace overture, the humans send a bard to play certain melodies which communicate good faith and sincere intentions. Meanwhile a nearby orc tribe is gathering its warriors to take advantage of the human kingdom's weakness. A bard is sent with a group of drummers to beat out a rhythm from a mountaintop which will tell the orcs, "We're ready." The bard PC is like a snake charmer who gradually learns more and more specific ways to communicate with monsters and animals through music - and can improvise at a push.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

The Personal RPG Coefficient

In "The Creative Act", Duchamp talks about something he called "the art coefficient":

[I]n the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap which represents the inability of the artist to fully express his intention; this difference between what he intended to realise and did realise, is the personal "art coefficient" contained in the work. 
In other words, the personal "art coefficient" is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed."

In other words, a work of art is never what the artist fully intended. The difference between those two things - what he really wanted to create and what he in fact did create - is the personal "art coefficient".

RPG sessions are a bit like this, when you think about it. We are all nowadays, most of us, sandbox DMs, or non-railroading DMs, but still I think most DMs when planning a campaign have some ideas, however vague, about tone and quality and maybe certain key events and encounters. And this is also true on the microscale of individual aspects of a campaign, like NPCs, monsters and lairs: when planning or designing or thinking up such things, any DM has an idea in mind of how the PCs will interact with the NPC, defeat the monster, investigate the lair, etc.

We can therefore speak of such a thing as "the personal RPG coefficient". This is the difference between how the DM conceives of an in-game thing in the abstract, and how it actually turns out in practice. The clever and sarcastic NPC wizard does something stupid (the DM doesn't think things through). The sinister monster turns out to be really easy to defeat by the thoughtful players. The PCs discover the secret entrance to the lair before they come across the main entrance. And so forth.

Anybody who has DM'd a gaming session will be familiar with the personal RPG coefficient and its strange alchemy.

According to Duchamp the scale of the personal art coefficient didn't matter. All art is open to interpretation by the spectators. They are the ones who judge its success or failure. Not the artist. By implication, the artist may intend to do one thing, but utterly fail to achieve that in the final product. That doesn't matter, because those viewing it may judge it as good art and posterity may decide it is great art.

In the same way, it doesn't matter that the DM may have intended or predicted things will turn out one way, if they are different in the actual outcome. Those involved in the game may still judge it as good and fun.

Friday 2 December 2016

One Page Risus Elementalists

For a long time, it's been one of my (many and unrealised) gaming ambitions to come up with a system for running a game which I call Risus Elementalists. The concept is simple: it's a very high fantasy "fantastical" sort of setting which is mostly based around this sort of tonal palette, and the PCs are elementalists. You get four magical stats. The magical stats have to be Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

What I have so far is as follows:

When you want to cast a spell, you roll the requisite number of dice and describe what you want to do. If you get one or more '4's or above, you succeed. The more '4's the better. You have to be able to describe what you are doing in a vaguely plausible way: "I summon forces of fire to blast my enemy" is fine. "I summon forces of fire to telekinetically move the object across the room" isn't really.

Combat between elementalists is like rock, paper, scissors. Fire beats earth because it can scorch and melt it. Earth beats air because earth is immovable. Air beats water because water is movable. Water beats fire because, duh. If magical combat occurs, both of the Elementalists note down on a scrap of paper what element they are using. On the count of three, they reveal it. If one has fire and the other earth, the one with fire wins automatically - and so on through the elemental "oppositions". If, however, the two of them have come up with non-opposed elements (for example, earth vs water) they roll their respective abilities and the one with the most successes wins.

Everything else is done through role playing.