Thursday, 10 June 2021

The Story is the Campaign, Not the PCs - Or, is D&D a Soap Opera?

Today, a charming and interesting PC, who had taken on an unlikely leadership role in my weekly game and had literally just reached 2nd level after a heroic sequence of events, died meaninglessly in a random encounter with earwigmen. 

My game is rich in senseless PC death. By my count we have lost 8 or 9 PCs so far, in something over 20 sessions. Some of these had reached level 3 or 4. None of them really died in grand circumstances - and a high proportion were killed by wandering monsters. 

The deaths have been deflating. At times, old school D&D can seem nihilistic. Just as things seem to be going in one direction, a roll of the dice (I do almost all the dice rolling in the open) sends everything careering sideways - and sometimes seemingly backwards. 

I am usually relatively sanguine about this, because deflation is a valid emotion too, and I remain convinced that the realistic possibility of PC death raises the stakes and makes the game feel more real. But I am also human, and I was gutted when that earwigman rolled maximum damage and did away with poor Pupli. 

At times like this, it helps to remind oneself that, while it is an OSR mantra that the 'story' emerges through play and not by design, it is probably more accurate to say that story operates at a different level of abstraction to modern RPGs. Ever since the 'silver age' of RPGs, the idea has been that the story is about what happens to the individual PCs. In an old school game, by contrast, the story is really the campaign. Individual PCs come and go, but they are not the focus - the narrative is about the events that take place (in which the PCs, of course, play a role). Pupli the Etruscan 'Maru' of Nortia died today, but his player slipped into the role of one of the disciples that he had gathered, and events will take their course next week in the aftermath of his death.

This, in my view, ultimately instantiates a much richer understanding of story than that which is advocated in the mainstream. A PC dies and ceases to be of interest directly, but we become interested in his death and what it signifies, and this adds fresh layers. What will Pupli's followers do now that he has gone? Will his comrades try to avenge him? Suddenly there is more going on in the campaign than there was before, and this is what matters, because - to reiterate - the campaign is the story, and the story is the campaign.

Another way of putting this is that D&D is a bit like a soap opera, but with orcs. Individual characters arrive, and we might like them and grow to care about them, but they'll all go away again in the end (even  Ken Barlow). The story is not about any particular one of them, and it survives their deaths, comas, accidents, etc. It's Neighbours that we watch, not "The Adventures of Felicity Scully". You would be hard pressed to argue that Neighbours or Coronation Street are not in themselves stories - Neverending Stories perhaps - merely because they have no clearly delineated beginnings, middles or ends, or permanent characters. Indeed, the fact that no character is bigger than the capital-S Story is a large part of the appeal. 

Thursday, 3 June 2021

[Reviews] Dark Streets & Darker Secrets, Hypertellurians, Pariah, Vagabonds of Dyfed

A cluster of skerries on the very outskirts of the OSRchipelago are glimpsed on the horizon. In low wind and bright sunshine, we guide our sloop, HMS Review, to the leeward and scan the shores with our telescopes for signs of life.

Dark Streets & Darker Secrets

Written in a month for NaGaDeMon (National Game Design Month), this is a stylish, nicely illustrated mash-up of Unknown Armies, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk 2020, and its ilk - you could probably also run World of Darkness style games with it, too. It is redolent of the mood and 'edgy' qualities which were de rigueur in the 1990s, though with self-consciously old school elements (random 'characteristics' of the Dark World, some of which are better than others; random adventure generators; disclaimers encouraging the DM to avoid the need to balance encounters and make things artificially fair). For something written in a month, it is an impressive feat. 

Hypertellurians

A 'science fantasy adventure role playing game', Hypertellurians gets the Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon/John Carter/Barbarella/Original Series Trek tone exactly right in its art and mood. I forgive it its forgisms ("be a fan of the players and their characters"; "fail forward", "say yes", "don't hide the adventure"); I almost can't forgive the extensive deployment of the term "raypunk". I can't imagine ever playing a game in the kind of universe depicted here, just because I have other cups of tea available, but if I did, this is where I would turn. It has a fresh and exciting feel, and I applaud it.

Pariah

This describes itself as 'old school roleplaying when the world was young' - that's right, it is a stone age RPG, though one that is very carefully thought-out and (it seems to me at least) well-informed. Not so much 1 Million Years BC, or Stig of the Dump - more Lavondyss, the middle story of Fifth Head of Cerberus, Helliconia Spring, those novels about neanderthals whose name I forget. The PCs are exiles from their tribe(s); it has spirit realms and rituals; extensive rules for psychobotanicals; a random wilderness generation method; images of waif-like girls covered in face-paint and tattoos. I very much like it and would run it: this is high praise, because as a general rule I don't run anything written by anybody else.

Vagabonds of Dyfed

This is one of (many) attempts to use PbtA rules to run games in a sword & sorcery setting, with OSR sensibilities. That I think this may be a quixotic effort (which is why I have never dabbled in Dungeon World) doesn't stop me admiring those who try. This one is perhaps most notable for being very "inside baseball" and folded-in; the first three or four pages, before we even get to rules or introductions, is an extensive apologia/justification for old school play which I can imagine being useful for somebody steeped in story games but totally baffling for somebody new to RPGs. Have we more or less abandoned the notion that anybody coming to our products nowadays will be a neophyte? This seems realistic, but I can't help but feel it presents us as being akin to one of those beleaguered religious communities who no longer evangelise but gradually grow old together and die. 

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Behind Gently Smiling Jaws: Inspirational Art

What is a lazy bank holiday evening for, if not for putting up blog posts about obscure projects long-ago teased about and still only glimpsed on distant horizons when seen at all?

After five years of gestation, the form which Behind Gently Smiling Jaws will take is now firm in my mind. Here are some pictures to tease further: