Wednesday 30 October 2019

Incentives Matter

The other day I listened to an RPG-related podcast in which a story gamer talked about playing an old school game. She was broadly positive, but said that she was dissatisfied with the way in which combat worked - if a PC was out of action or killed, it would mean that the player would have nothing to do, for the rest of the fight at least. This was seen as bad because, I gather, it would make that player feel left out or bored.

I am trying my best these days not to be judgmental and dismissive, which are always my driving instincts, but I do sometimes wonder where the infantilisation of adults will end. Even young children understand the concept that incentives matter - if there is a consequence to playing unintelligently, and the consequence is that you can't "play", then there is a good reason to play intelligently instead. The result is a better experience for everybody.

Let me put that a different way: if you remove the consequences of bad play in order to satisfy any given individual player and stop them feeling left out, you make things worse for the group, because you encourage the players not to take things seriously.

Death and incapacitation are important because they encourage thoughtful engagement with the game. If those threats feel real, players understand that what happens actually matters. This raises the bar for everybody - the other players, who feed off each other's energy, and the DM, who has gone to the trouble of starting up and planning a campaign that he or she wants them to engage with.

[EDIT: Apparently because it's not clear, I am not talking about the DM doing this in an authoritarian or "yah boo sucks" sort of way, and nor am I talking about character death meaning having no further contribution to the session. I am talking about the natural incentives which will arise when players know that getting incapacitated is going to mean having to sit and watch for 5 minutes or so, and that character death is going to mean having to roll up a new one and wait until there's an opportunity to be reintroduced to the game - i.e. a little while later in the same session.]

Tuesday 29 October 2019

The Greatest OSR Blog Posts Known to Man

Attempting to list the greatest OSR blog posts ever is a fool's errand of the highest order. I have forgotten 99.9% of the posts I have ever read, especially those from the early days. BUT LET'S DO IT ANYWAY.

Post yours in the comments. The ones I can think of off the top of my head are: - Not even anything to do with RPGs, let alone D&D, and let alone the OSR, but probably the blog post I have enjoyed reading most of all in the last 10 years. - Like the last Ichthyosaur in the ocean, this is a recent reminder of the magnificent beasts which once roamed the Blogosphere Sea but which long ago diminished and went into the West...or something., and - A series of three posts which set out the case for OD&D from the get-go and were instrumental in hooking me back into all of this nonsense. - Just good solid advice on sandbox building from the days when the basic principles of OSR play were still being properly elucidated; it seems like something everybody nowadays would take for granted, but this stuff was important, dammit., and - More really useful technical advice, again from the days when this sort of thing was necessary in establishing the rudiments of OSR campaign design. - One of Delta's truly magnificent deep dives, which might genuinely change how you see a fundamental element of the game. - It still makes me smile. - The best blog post written about "RPG theory". And it was nearly 14 years ago. - You can pretty much make a campaign setting just by answering these questions and use it for years and years.

I have merely scratched the surface. What else can you remember?

Wednesday 23 October 2019

Once You Label Me You Negate Me - About the OSR, DIY D&D, Sword Dream, and the Rest

What's your label?

I was never a big fan of "OSR". I am not old school (I never played OD&D when it first came out, for the very good reason that I was not yet born); I hate the phrase "old school" to begin with, whatever the context (self-congratulatory stick-in-the-mudism); and the word "renaissance" is pompous and silly. Speaking strictly objectively, I always thought "DIY D&D" made a lot more sense: what I do, after all, is play D&D and make stuff for it myself rather than buy what others produce.

And I am also not by nature a joiner to begin with. Let's be clear about this: I am proud, vain, and self-motivating, and I don't get why some people seem to feel an intense need to be part of social movements or support networks. For some people, it appears to be important to feel like an insider - whether it's through energetically participating in online "communities", retweeting the latest hashtag, or being on top of the latest boxed-set everybody's talking about. I am basically the opposite of that. This is not a criticism of those people, because I'm sure that impulse comes from a nice place. It is  just the reflections of a man who is probably now at the threshold of middle-age, and is becoming able to look at his own settled personality with something approaching objectivity.

In short, I like people, I have lots of friends and a loving family, and I think those who comment on this blog are generally fabulous (I will refrain from naming the exceptions). But I have a very low level of tolerance for anything that seems to me even remotely like it might be a bandwagon. This is almost pathological: if people like something, I tend to go out of my way to hate it. Long-term readers of the blog may be familiar with this tendency of mine. I swear I'll get around to reading Harry Potter one day.

With all of that said, what the OSR has going for it is that is not, as others have rightly pointed out, a community. Attempts to turn it into one have pretty much universally been obnoxious, exclusionary in one direction or other, politicised, and dominated by superficially charismatic...I am trying to think of the right term here...I'll be polite and say "fevered egos". The OSR is a scene or, better, a genre - a style of play. It is at its heart politically and socially empty: really, it's just a loose set of principles about what play looks like. Not principles about who gets to play. Not principles about what the content should or should not be. Not principles about which type of designer gets supported and which doesn't. Not principles about who is a good person and who is a bad one. Principles about what happens at the table, and in preparation for it.

Where the OSR has been led astray in the past, and where I am sure it will continue to be led astray in the future, is when people have become sidetracked from just expounding on the relevant principles and making games along the guidelines which those principles provide. In other words, the whole thing has become corrupted when people have started trying to put up barriers of any kind, to create in-groups and out-groups, or to achieve certain ends beyond promoting the principles in question.

Which is all a very roundabout way of saying, I will not piss all over any attempt to create a community if that's what the members of said community wish to do. But there is nothing wrong with "the OSR" beyond it being a bit of a silly name, if one concentrates on the fact that it is a style of play and nothing more than that.

Monday 21 October 2019

Let's Discover: The Nicobobinus Gambit

"This is the story of the most extraordinary child who ever stuck his tongue out at the Prime Minister. His name was Nicobobinus. He lived a long time ago, in a city called Venice, and he could do anything.
"Of course, not everyone knew he could do anything. In fact, only his best friend, Rosie, knew, and nobody took any notice of anything Rosie said, because she was always having wild ideas anyway.
"One day, for example, Rosie said to Nicobobinus, 'Let's pull up every weed on your doorstep.'
"'Let's not,' said Nicobobinus (which is what Rosie thought he would say).
"'In that case,' replied Rosie, 'Let's discover the Land of Dragons!'
"'Don't be daft,' said Nicobobinus, 'How can we do that?'
"'Because you can do anything,' said Rosie."
I recently came across a copy of Nicobobinus in a second-hand book shop and snatched it up. It was a vague memory from my childhood, which I probably read when I was about 8 or 9 years old. But something of it had always stuck with me - nothing much more than an evocative mood, really, most likely thanks to Michael Foreman's wonderful illustrations (which were always a winning combination with Terry Jones - see this old post for more on this), but one powerful enough to have never quite been forgotten.

The concept of somebody who can "do anything" deliberately going to discover a place which does not exist, and in doing so thereby calling it into existence, is fairy tale logic at its finest. But something like this also happens a lot in games, whether by design or otherwise. No, one doesn't tend to begin a campaign with the PCs announcing they want to discover a place one of them has plucked from thin air. (Although you certainly could.) But one does tend as the DM to create people, places and things on the fly as the players ask questions either in- or out-of-character. Hence:

Player: "I ask NPC X where he's from."
DM [who has just invented NPC X because the situation has called for it, perhaps because the players are in a tavern and asked something like "Who is sitting next to us?" and has given his background no thought]: "Er, he says he's from the land behind the mountain."
Player: "Ooh, I wonder what that's like..."

And suddenly there's a land behind the mountain where there was none before. One which the PCs might well end up visiting and which the DM is going to have to detail when all it was originally was a phrase which popped into his head in the heat of the moment.

I intend to call this form of knock-on creation the Nicobobinus Gambit from now on. The DM in the mini-scenario I just described deployed the Nicobobinus Gambit as an emergency measure. (It was an Emergency Nicobobinus Gambit, if you will.) But it is entirely possible to use the Gambit in a pre-planned way. The most obvious example I can think of is that DM beginning his campaign by sitting down the players and asking them, "So, where is your PC from? Make something up."

Tuesday 15 October 2019

Are We Stupider or More Discerning?

Layout has moved on a lot. Take a look at these spreads:

The first is from Cyberspace, the little-mentioned ICE cyberpunk Rolemaster variant from 1989. The second is from Judge Dredd: The Roleplaying Game, from 1985, by Games Workshop (and authored by Rick Priestley and Marc Gascoigne, no less).

Notice anything? Christ, that's a lot of text, isn't it? And, to the modern eye, isn't it presented in an almost aggressively unapproachable way? It's not just boring. It's also unintuitive - to get the hang of the rules you would have to devote careful study, almost as a separate project, making your own notes and staying up all night to revise before each session. They look like law textbooks with a few more interesting pictures.

I got these two games, along with quite a few others, secondhand over the course of a number of years from various physical shops, with the idea of reviewing them for the blog. (These two cost £3 and £5 respectively, since you're asking.) But each time I have sat down to begin this task, I have failed miserably. I just can't be bothered. Whatever initial enthusiasm I have drains out of me like air from a rapidly deflating bouncy castle, leaving me a flacid floppy mound of rubber - the party long gone and not even a doggy bag left.

What's wrong with me? At the age of 14 I would have lapped all this stuff up. The impenetrability wouldn't have bothered me one jot. Partly this is age, and lack of time, and better things to do, and fewer brain cells. But also I think it's because when I was 14 basically all RPG books looked pretty much like this (the text might have had nicer backgrounds in the mid-90s and the internal illos were usually in colour by then, but that's about all that would have changed). And I hadn't experienced "good" information design - I hadn't grown up in a world in which you had to do anything other than just sit down and digest a massive shitload of infodump text if you wanted to know how to play an RPG. I hadn't been molly-coddled, in other words. I was a better and more focused reader.

All of that is to ask: am I just old and stupid now? Or is it the case that getting used to information being presented in an accessible format has made me less able to actually just sit down and do some proper reading and retain the information I've read?

Saturday 12 October 2019

Ex-Pat Rogues

For the first time in quite a while I heard Warren Zevon's "Lawyers, Guns and Money" today. This song speaks to ex-pats, or people who have been ex-pats, quite profoundly. This is because it manages in its light-hearted way to communicate two indelible truths that anybody who has lived in a foreign country will know. First, when you are a foreigner you have license to live outside conventional social mores, which is very enjoyable. But second, and because of this, it's easy to get into crazy hijinks, and when you do, you might get into "shit hitting the fan" territory very quickly - indeed before you even know it.

Ex-pats (and here I am talking really about young ex-pats, and mostly male ones) are basically D&D PCs. They generally have no family or responsibilities in the country in which they live; they usually have a fairly high disposable income because they have no real financial commitments beyond paying rent; they are treated as exotic outsiders by the mainstream culture; and they often also have the unconscious arrogance that comes from being "young, dumb and full of cum" in an exciting location far from home. The sense of freedom one gets is intoxicating. Everything feels like an adventure.

While they might not be going around slaying orcs and pillaging dragons' treasure hordes, they do find themselves getting into all manner of scrapes, both good and bad. I moved to Japan when I was 21 1/2. Before I was 22 I had broken my toes diving off a sea cliff, had numerous fights, dated and broken up with a stripper, befriended a Peruvian drug dealer, fallen asleep on at least three or four 5am trains after nights out on a Sunday mornings and woken up at strange railway stations with no idea how to get home, had flings with several married women, and imbibed about three times more alcohol than I had in my entire life prior to that point.

And I was by far and away the most sensible of my friends. One of my housemates was robbed of all his possessions by associates of said Peruvian drug dealer after a party; another fled Japan for Australia after having apparently taken something or other that disagreed with him and descending into serious paranoid delusions about being pursued everywhere by an old woman on a bike with a camera. I knew a number of people who did prison time for various offences concerning drug possession, theft and/or violence, several of whom were subsequently deported. Like me, I am sure that they all left their home countries as sensible young men imbued only with a spirit of adventure.* Being at large in foreign climes with no roots or ties or social constraints turned them into rogues. Not quite murderhoboes. But possibly getting there.

I would not like to go back to those days. But I would like to run a sort of ur-cyberpunk campaign set among petty ex-pat criminals in an exotic location. Picture it as an Elmore Leonard novel taking place in a non-existent simulacrum of a Havana, Shanghai, Zanzibar or Adelaide, but with cyberarms and Johnny Silverhand songs on the radio. That I could get behind.


*That's not to mention the people who go to live overseas because they are fleeing the law in their home country, quite a number of whom I have met, nor those who are just crazy, weird, or psychopathic to begin with; it's possible of course that I fall into that latter category somewhere without me knowing it.

Tuesday 8 October 2019

Don't Fall in Love

Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lecter novels are a case study in what goes wrong when a creator falls in love with a main character. In Red Dragon, Lecter is a sinister and inexplicably malicious psychopath who seems to be a minor plot point until he becomes the joker in the pack right at the end. His presence is a tour de force. In The Silence of the Lambs, he is a mysterious and compelling anti-hero, brilliantly rendered. But something happened to Harris in the course of writing that book. He started to get carried away with this Hannibal Lecter fellow. By the time Hannibal is completed Lecter is practically a demigod and his every word and action has turned into high camp. He's impossible to take seriously. With Hannibal Rising we get a descent into farce with a laughable origin story complete with Nazis (of course), a ludicrous, sexy suicidal Japanese femme fatale, and, well, an explanation for Lecter's descent into psychopathy that it is charitable to describe as implausible.

Harris's love for Lecter became his downfall. Not in terms of his bank balance, I'm sure. But as a serious author his reputation is forever shot.

Something similar happened to George Lucas. George just couldn't let Darth Vader be. Pause at the end of The Return of the Jedi and we have a highly satisfying resolution of that character's "arc", as I believe the cool kids call it nowadays (and of the entire trilogy itself for that matter). But George was a fool in love. He couldn't leave well alone. Like an over-eager suitor, he came on too strong. Incapable of having a good first date and then giving the girl some space, he had to call. And call. And call. The inevitable result then followed. 

Origin stories are bad news. They sell tickets. But they disappoint. There was never any way for Harris to provide a reason for Lecter being what he is which would have been anything other than an anticlimax. It's the same with Darth Vader: no explanation for why Anakin turned to the dark side could possibly have matched the audience's expectations. Not because the audience would have had a good explanation themselves - it's not that good characters are mysteries who call on the viewer or reader to try to fill in the blanks. It's that good characters are mysterious in such a way that their "blanks" appear so deep, complex or terrifying that their existence alone is a thrill. We didn't like the Hannibal Lecter of Red Dragon or The Silence of the Lambs because we wanted to speculate about what turned him into a cannibalistic serial killer. We liked him because he appeared to us to be inexplicable, and thus made us shiver deliciously at the prospect that evil is out there and cannot possibly be rendered banal by being understood. 

Saturday 5 October 2019

Virtuosity and Practicing RPGs

Practice makes you a better DM and a better player. But it's not something you can practice on your own. This is significant.

When a human is able to practice a skill on his or her own, it can result in a level of accomplishment that seems to the untrained eye to be practically superhuman - a point at which the practitioner's technical ability is such that his or her movements manage to be both so effortless and yet so full of energy and precision that it does not seem possible for something to be so simultaneously relaxed and powerful. Check out Paco de Lucia here, for instance - there is more strength and volume in his index finger naturally strumming than I could muster with a plectrum and a full arm swing:

Or the performance of this Okinawan master karateka, so gentle and soft, almost, and yet done with such strength:

Or the way Jimmy Chamberlin drumming live somehow looks like he is both pre-programmed (so precise) and yet also hitting the drums at random:

The only way to approach these levels of skill is to practice. A lot. On your own. Single-mindedly. Al di Meola once said in an interview that he basically played the guitar 8 hours a day, every day, when he was growing up. This is how you get this kind of result:

And to put a stop to all this YouTube stuff, here's Keith Brymer Jones speaking quite nicely and simply about certain elements of all this:

Being a DM or an RPG player is not a skill anybody can practice for 8 hours a day - unless you have really available friends, or slaves, or something. And it's not something you can just sit down and do because you "have to". That's because you can't do it on your own. But that's only if you take a narrow view of what constitutes practice. Think about how much time each day you spend:

-Talking to people (telling them what to do; making them laugh; arguing with them, whatever)
-Listening to people
-Making decisions
-Pretending to be somebody you are not (you do it all the time - admit it)

And consider that reflecting on those activities and making efforts to improve them will also make you a better RPGer.

Friday 4 October 2019

Booze as Treasure

Alcohol is important. 13,000 years ago people were using it to honour their dead (and presumably also to get pissed). More recently, it has had great commercial significance. I was reminded of this by the news that the US is putting a 25% import duty on whisky among other things produced in the EU in retaliation for subsidies given to Airbus. Apparently over £1 billion worth of whisky was exported from Scotland to the US last year. Next year we can presume it will be less. But it matters.

It mattered even more during the Middle Ages in Europe, when practically everybody drank only alcoholic drinks, and alcohol was the only way to ensure an unspoiled supply of hydration for sailors on long voyages. It was also in itself a powerful motivator to engage in trade and exploration overseas. Later, it became a luxury: I was going to say that Poet Laureates of England were originally paid with a butt of sherry or "sack" (I heard that this was worth in the region of £25,000 in today's money) but apparently they still are - 720 bottles' worth.

Alcohol has throughout our history been a safe way to hydrate oneself, a social glue, a religiously sacred substance (think of the Eucharist; think of the Incas drinking chicha at festivals to honour their gods), and a valuable commodity. We humans also just really like it.

Yet it does not generally appear in D&D treasure tables. Is this the result of a vestigal suspicion of alcohol in certain sections of the American midwestern culture that served as the crucible for the game? Is it because D&D has to appeal to "kids"? Is it just because "my character gets drunk" is one of the most annoying things that a player can do at the table and must be stamped out with extreme prejudice?

The logistics of transportation are what interest me the most. A butt of "sack" would weigh something like 500 kg. Smaller barrels like hogsheads are about 250 kg. They may be worth moving if they are going to be worth, say, £25,000 gold pieces. But the extraction of a 500 kg barrel from a dungeon is an adventure in itself.

But that's not to mention the other possibilities. What do the contents of a mighty wizard's wine cellar look like? What rarities are found within? More to the point: what do elves drink? What about orcs?

(Further reading: