Tuesday 28 August 2018

What Are RPGs Like?

Scott Adams, whether you love him, loathe him, take him with a pinch of salt, think of him only rarely as that guy who did the Dilbert comics and are they still going?, is worth keeping tabs on for occasional nuggets of gold he comes out with. One of his best, which I've heard him say repeatedly on various interviews, but which I can only trace in written form to this blog post, is that analogies are over-rated and over-used. They are like a substitute for thinking - a short-hand way of convincing yourself you understand something when really all you have done is imagine something that reminds you of it. What's worse, they're the enemy of rational debate: "all discussions that involve analogies devolve into arguments about the quality of the analogy, not the underlying situation."

I thought of that quote while reading the comments to my previous post. Not to point the finger at anybody in particular - I was as guilty as anyone else - but just as an observation: discussions of "what RPGs are like" always and inevitably devolve into arguments between different camps who claim they are like video games, like board games, like music, like novels, like toolkits, and so on, and are never very useful as a result.

What are RPGs like? Well, they are like all those things and more, but the truth is, they're not really like anything else. They are like RPGs. Trying to explain what they are like is like trying to explain what sport is like; what board games are like; what novels are like, and so on. You can't do it as an abstract exercise. It has to be done in practice. RPGs, then, are like anything which human beings do - to actually understand what they are, they have to be watched or preferably played.

We have to be very careful of slippage into analogy, because analogies are dangerous: as Kundera, my favourite person to pseudo-intellectually quote, put it once, "a single metaphor can give birth to love." The context of that quote is a man who dreams up a metaphor for imagining how a woman entered into his life (if I remember rightly, he imagines her being like Moses in the bed of reeds floating down the river and he chances across her). It causes him to fall in love, because he is no longer thinking of the woman as herself - he is thinking about her Meaning and suddenly their meeting seems fated. Allow yourself to become convinced by an analogy and you lose perspective on the real phenomenon

The same thing can happen with analogies for RPGs. The analogy becomes reified and may prevent you actually thinking about what an RPG is in its own right. If you thing RPGs are like stories, you may slip down the dangerous slope towards plot and railroading. If you think RPGs are like music, you may slide into "gamer ADHD", always on the look out for the next cool release. If you think RPGs are like collectible card games, you may stray into an obsession with "builds" and mechanics. If you think RPGs are like video games, you may find yourself being reluctant to kill PCs or start contriving set pieces rather than letting them emerge naturally. And so on.

Rather than think about what RPGs are like, it is probably best to think of them as a phenomenon that is unlike other phenomena and see what works best from there. Instead of thinking of things that remind us of RPGs, maybe the useful starting point is emphasising how they are not those other things - books, board games, sports, video games, toolkits - and what that means.

Friday 24 August 2018

Goodbye to All That

I find it hard to conceive of circumstances in which I will buy another RPG rulebook "in anger" - that is, with the intention of playing games using it. I have a burgeoning collection of old RPG books that I will never play but which I like as objects. But the thought of learning how to use a new system, even a simple one, fills me with dread, sorrow, anguish and ennui. I cannot be bothered. The only thing I am now really interested in is content: imagine things which I can't imagine. I make an exception for useful subsystems within the context of games I already know. But I will almost certainly never learn how to use another RPG system afresh. I've had enough of all that.

Is there a word for people like me? "Grognard" has too many connotations, and I'm not old enough. Maybe RPG luddite? RPG philistine? RPG conservative? RPG reactionary? None of these are right: I'm not against change in general. Nor am I against new things. I'm just against spending time learning new systems.

Perhaps there's another way of putting it: as time goes on I become less and less interested in the kind of dilettantism that modern life encourages. We have access to so much new entertainments, new information, new content, new distractions, that we naturally tend towards becoming dabblers rather than experts. When there are 200 different RPG systems at your fingertips, it's easy to dip in and out of them, maybe play a few sessions of one before getting bored and moving on to another, maybe just reading bits and pieces of the rulebook for fun, maybe just looking at the pictures - all without ever putting in the time and effort to make use of any of them properly. We don't develop long-term relationships of mastery or expertise with anything - just a passing superficial interest in vast oceans of stuff.

Which is better: to be really, really good at running D&D, or to have hundreds of RPG pdfs on your hard drive and to know enough about them to talk about them online?

Tuesday 21 August 2018

The Lamarckian Orc

What if orcs evolved through inheritance of acquired characteristics, so that a one-armed orc produced one-armed progeny; a body-builder orc produced more muscular whelps; a studious orc produced more knowledgeable offspring, and so on? What if orc breeds branched off from each other whenever a group of orcs began to act differently, or were subject to different environmental factors, or decided to purposively evolve?

How long would it take for a group of orcs to evolve themselves - through learning, exercise, surgery, and so on - into species of thing altogether different, so that they resembled dragons, displacer beasts, pegasi, and so forth?

Perhaps less ambitiously, how long would it take for a group of orcs to evolve themselves into three-armed variants, two-headed variants, super-intelligent variants, magical variants, and so on? How extreme would orcish body-modification get if they thought they could pass on their modified forms to their children?

Thursday 16 August 2018

Mapping a Giant Tree Trunk

I've had some preliminary thoughts on mapping a giant tree, beginning with the trunk. Have a look at the following diagram, which is a section of a trunk:

The main concept here is the wraparound. This is a cylinder stretched out flat into two-dimensional space. The line in the centre marks the notional mid-point. Somebody could climb horizontally from square C5 all the way through D5, E5, F5 etc. right to T5, then round the "back" to A5 and B5 and to C5 again.

Locations on the trunk are marked with different colours. Black spaces are entrances to tunnel networks which are burrowed or dug into the tree itself. Red spaces are lairs for monsters. Green blotches are patches of lichen or moss. Grey ones contain a building or other construction created on the side of the trunk itself (usually on a platform of some type). 

Brown squares indicate places where branches emerge from the trunk. Mapping branches is the next stage to figure out: it will have to involve an iterative process for determining branchings.

There is also the potential to hand draw other features such as cracks. 

Sunday 12 August 2018

On the Virtues of Terseness

Having previously praised the likes of MR James, Roger Zelazny, and Clark Ashton Smith, I must now give the most credit where it is most due: to whoever is the lost genius who wrote the monster descriptions for the Roguelike *band games (if indeed it is one person and not an OSR-sized brain trust). These one (sometimes two) sentence pencil sketches are masterpieces of communication, telling you exactly what you need to know while being powerfully, sometimes almost poetically, evocative at the same time. You sir, or sirs, or sirs and madams, have had the most influence on the way I think about monsters and the way they are described.

All the Zangband monsters descriptions are here, where you can read them for yourself, but here are some illustrations; I defy you to come up with more efficient one/two-sentence thumbnails than these:

Battle Scarred Veteran: He doesn't take to strangers kindly.

The Clear Icky Thing: It is a smallish, slimy, icky blobby creature.

Kobold: It is a small, dog-headed humanoid.

The Novice Mage: He is leaving behind a trail of dropped spell components.

The Nether Worm Mass: It is a disgusting mass of dark worms, eating each other, the floor, the air, you....

The Cloaker: It resembles a normal cloak, until some poor fool ventures too close!

The Giant Octopus: It doesn't move very fast, but when it does, watch out!

The Phase Spider: A spider that never seems quite there. Everywhere you look it is just half-seen in the corner of one eye.

The Disenchanter Beast: It looks like an anteater, and there is a static feeling crackling around its long trunk.

The Wereworm: A huge wormlike shape dripping acid, twisted by evil sorcery into a foul monster that breeds on death.

The Basilisk: An evil reptile whose eyes stare deeply at you and make your soul wilt!

The Mithril Golem: It is a massive statue of purest mithril. It looks expensive!

The Ghost: You don't believe in them, and they don't believe in you.

The Ethereal Drake: A dragon of elemental power, with control over light and dark, the ethereal drake's eyes glare with white hatred from the shadows.

The Mumak: A massive elephantine form with eyes twisted by madness.

The Chaos Drake: A dragon twisted by the forces of chaos. It seems first ugly, then fair, as its form shimmers and changes in front of your eyes.

The Anti-Paladin: An embodiment of all the cardinal vices, he beholds you scornfully.

The Time Hound: You get a terrible sense of deja vu, or is it a premonition? All at once you see a little puppy and a toothless old dog. Perhaps you should give up and go to bed.

Okay, so the last one is three sentences. What I like most about these descriptions is that they don't try to replace the image you already have in your head: whatever image of a ghost, novice mage, giant octopus, mithril golem, cloaker or or battle scarred veteran you have in your mind already is more than enough. It's only where the name itself does not make the physical appearance obvious that an actual description is required. A useful lesson for bestiary writing, I think.

Thursday 9 August 2018

Yoon-Suin Supplement: The Tree

There will at some point be a Yoon-Suin addition. This is from is the introduction.

The high, wild vastness of the Mountains of the Moon holds wondrous places far removed from the outside world, like closely guarded secrets the mountains themselves deliberately conceal from sight. In deep plunging valleys, hidden by impassible massifs on all sides, are things which would be famous throughout the world if somehow enough outsiders could visit for word to spread. As it is they sit mostly unvisited, unexplored, and unseen.  
In the heart of one such valley, one of the most remote valleys of all, stands The Tree. It has no other name, for it does not need one. All who know of it know there is no other tree in the world like it, and no tree for which it could be mistaken. It is a Tree like no other. 
The valley itself is a thickly-forested cleft gouged from the mountains by the blade of the river running through it. Rising up above the greenery around its feet - if "rising up" does the sight justice - the Tree stands, well over a mile high, as high as some of the peaks on either side of the vale, high enough for clouds to cling around its trunk and for its highest branches to be permanently coated with frost and snow. Its bark is covered with forests of moss and lichen; its roots spread beneath the surface of the world in a vast web which reaches beneath the mountains themselves; and its great bulk contains entire settlements, towns, kingdoms - bored into its trunk, nestled under its feet, or spread across its network of branches. 
The Tree is mostly unvisited, unexplored, and unseen - but not entirely. Sometimes adventurers, traders, sages or exiles make their way to that distant and isolated valley because of a whispered rumour or indiscretion heard in some opium den or tea shop in the oligarchies or Sughd, or even the Yellow City far in the south. They come in search of riches, opportunities, or even simply to say that they have seen and climbed such a tree and lived to tell the tale. Many of them never leave. This book enables you to run a campaign in which the PCs are some such visitors to the Tree, and see if they can survive - or even thrive - in its mountain-high frame.

[I will be blogging somewhat less in future months, as I'm on a productivity drive which involves cutting out almost all non-essential internet use. If posting seems light, it's not because I've gone away, but because I'm focusing energies on concrete goals.]