Monday, 27 June 2022

Notes Towards a Changeling: The Dreaming OSR-Based Retroclone

Buried underneath an awful lot of nonsense, there is a game somewhere in Changeling: The Dreaming, desperate to get out. It is difficult to imagine that there could be a worse, more complicated and confusing - albeit beautiful - rulebook, and vast swathes of it are dedicated to perpetuating a vision of role playing that should really be anathema to anybody with an ounce of sense. One can read the book a dozen times and still have no clear idea how to begin, and ultimately everything just seems to boil down to 'make a railroad'. 

And yet the idea - basically, there is a world of 'faerie' existing behind or in parallel to our own, visible only to certain people who have a fae soul - works when stripped down to its essence. Alongside and underneath the urban environment of houses, schools, parks, offices, pubs, shops and abandoned lots that we know so well is a fantastical landscape brimming with mythical beasts and fairy tale creatures; what looks like an empty old folks' home is really the palace of Lord Grey; what looks like a disused railway tunnel is the entrance to a network of caverns leading to a dragon's lair; what looks like a nondescript office building is really an enchantress's tower. The PCs inhabit the real world, but with exciting 'extras'. Walking down an ordinary city street, they notice that amongst that gaggle of teenage chavs there lurks a redcap, and that peering out of the window in the cafe in the floor above HSBC is the face of a witch. They have normal jobs and normal lives - but at evenings and weekends, they're searching for lost sidhe treasure or hunting a rogue member of the local unseelie court.

There is a way, in other words, to take the basic elements of C: tD and building it into something that is actually playable - a sandbox to have adventures in. It is ripe, that is to say, for the OSR treatment. 

Some basic thoughts:

  • I would probably make it race-as-class, and likely keep the original Changeling kith types, basing them on existing D&D race/classes with some modifications. So there would be:
    • Boggan (halfling)
    • Eshu (druid)
    • Nocker (dwarf)
    • Pooka (illusionist)
    • Redcap (fighter)
    • Satyr (bard)
    • Sidhe (elf)
    • Sluagh (thief)
    • Troll (barbarian)
  • The PCs would begin as low-ranking squires in a noble sidhe house, borrowing slightly from Pendragon, and would work their way up - to perhaps one day founding their own 'cadet' houses
  • Gameplay would revolve heavily around pursuing sources of adventure through investigating rumour of the kind already described above: a friend of a friend says there's an ogre's lair in the waste ground at the back of ASDA; let's check it out
  • XP for gold might not work and would need replacing with a different mechanic - XP for glory, or something?

Friday, 24 June 2022

On Mid-late 90s Sincerity and Role Playing Games

I was a bit of an unusual teenager, looking back, in that I had my feet in two quite distinctive camps. On the one hand, I was part of the extreme lower middle class RPG/wargame/metal scene. We played D&D, we played Warhammer, we played Shadowrun, we got stoned, we listened to loud music, we got into tussles with 'hippies' and 'scallies'. 

Yet I was also really into Counting Crows, Dawson's Creek and Changeling: The Dreaming

When I try to explain to my kids what the dominant aesthetic of the mid-late 90s was like, I will call it 'sincere'. This was before the internet set off an irony bomb under everything (circa 2003), before a pornographic style and attitude began to pervade the popular culture (beginning from I think the noughties), and before social media started to make everyone really angry and depressed (from, say, 2014). It was a time during which we were encouraged to see the best in one another and to look to the future with optimism. The teen films of this era are distinguished by being positive about the relations between men and women in particular: think of American Pie, Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You. They are all about boys and girls learning to get along - especially about boys figuring out how to be sensitive and emotionally aware. These films don't undercut this message with meanness or archness. The message was sincerely meant. Back then, we valued the idea that everybody could learn to rub along.  

Dawson's Creek was the apogee of this turn towards sincerity. As much as it had elements of humour, the series was unrelentingly intense and serious about teenage travails. Sex was not pornographic or transactional, but imbued with almost metaphysical meaning; divorce was treated as weighty and agonising; homophobia, snobbery, mental breakdowns and the like were considered sensitively; above everything else, the storylines revolved around finding love, which seems almost passe to our irony-infused, post-internet gaze.  

And the look of the series - let's just go balls to the wall and call it its mise-en-scene - buttressed this mood. In Capeside, it always seems to be late summer or early autumn. The music is earnest, romantic, singer-songwritery, po-faced. The visuals are elegaic, somehow evoking nostalgia in its teen audience for an era which has not yet passed - the era of their own youth, passing before their eyes. Phenomenologically, watching Dawson's Creek was a bit like being transported into the future to inhabit one's own middle-aged self, and looking back at one's own teenage years through the rose-tinted spectacles of time and distance; it somehow felt simultaneously set now (1998), but also set then, as 1998 imagined as the semi-distant past. 

The music of Counting Crows also seems to encapsulate this era. Adam Duritz's lyrics are expressionistic, romantic; his heart is worn on his sleeve; he never tries to be funny or sexy, but always earnest about emotional affairs. The relationships he depicts are imbued with drama and pathos. They all seem to matter, not just to him, but somehow to the very universe itself - as though part of some grand narrative in which matters of the heart are all engaged. It is all so very sensitive (a word which women used to useall the time, it seemed, in those days: "If only I could find somebody sensitive.") 

Watch Duritz go - this, whatever else you might say, is a very sensitive man:



It could just be timing, but I can't help but feel that something of this aesthetic filtered into role playing games, perhaps in Vampire: The Masquerade, but most notably in my experience in Changeling: The Dreaming. I never really played Changeling, not much, because the way it was presented by White Wolf made it essentially unplayable; but what I did do was look through it lovingly and wallow in the waves of bittersweetness and nostalgia for lost youth that seemed to wash out of its pages. It struck exactly the same kind of notes as Dawson's Creek did: it felt elegaic, sorrowful about the passing of time, veiled by late-summer sunlight, and above all obsessed with the importance of feelings sincerely felt.

If you're not sure what I mean when I refer to this aesthetic, then looking at some internal art from Changeling communicates it, I think, perfectly. I mean:



(You probably have to 'embiggen' that one to get just how Dawson's Creek it is.)




There is a bit of mid-late 90s sincerity to the D&D of that era, as well, to my eye - indeed, it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that Monte Cook had also been into Counting Crows, Dawson's Creek and Changeling: The Dreaming. This was the period during which TSR, and WotC after it, really began to get serious about PCs having an emotional life of their own rather than being mere ciphers for the players. Gradually, it began to seem as though it mattered for PCs to have personalities, feelings, and relationships. Dungeoneering and gaining treasure was passe; what began to matter was story and "role playing rather than roll-playing". The whole enterprise came to be very sincere as a consequence.

Sincerity is entirely defensible in TV, film, literature and music, but not, I think, in the context of games, where it easily becomes very cloying and awkward. With that said, a little goes a long way: the OSR often seems to pride itself on having a lack of sincerity, and a sprinkling of a little po-faced sentimentality may be what is needed to freshen things up a bit. 

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Advice for Everyone

DMing advice is common. Advice for players, less so, though Rise Up Comus has an interesting recent post on the subject, with more here

What is noticeable about these kind of pointers is that they tend to revolve around the question of how to play the game well ('solve questions orthogonally'; 'here are some tips on looking for secret doors'). We can call this kind of advice interior in that it involves what happens within the framework of the game itself.

Jordan Peterson (yes, I know: boo, hiss - just hear me out) made a very insightful comment in an interview with, I think Sam Harris. To paraphrase, there are two ways of being good at a game (let's say, five-a-side football or hockey or chess) when you are a kid. You can be the best at the actual game itself on its own terms. Or you can be somebody who it is very enjoyable to play the game with. These are two different things and are often, indeed, at odds with one another: the kid who is best at five-a-side and knows it is often the last one that other kids will spontaneously invite to play with them. What is probably better, in the grand scheme of things, is to be 'good' in the sense that it's fun for other people to have you involved - that is the way to make and keep friends and influence people. 

I think this is almost certainly true. Although every professional sportsperson you could name was probably in the other camp and was willing to sacrifice friendship in order to be 'the best' (and did very well as a consequence), we don't pay much attention to the many thousands of their failed fellow travellers who would probably have been better off being 'good' at playing in the sense to which Jordan Peterson was referring. Genuine individuals with faith in their own talent are free to do what they like, but society, as they say, should back the field. 

There is space also, then, for exterior advice - how to be a good player in the sense that it is nice to have you involved. I think this would include, for example:

  • Don't have your cellphone handy - concentrate on what is happening at the table
  • Listen and pay attention even when your PC is not the centre of the action
  • Take notes and appear engaged
  • Ask the DM if you don't understand something
  • Prompt the other players for their ideas, especially the quiet ones
  • &c.
There will of course be others.

The question then becomes: is there a relationship between interior and exterior advice? I think that there is. Engaging in trying to play the game well in the interior sense can, in the right balance, bring exactly the right sort of energy and buzz to the table, and thus make one valuable to have around. Being good at the game is in other words a way of being good at playing. But be careful - because if you try to play the game too well, just like the kid who can't stop scoring goals at five-a-side, you may end up getting a reputation. 

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

In Defence of RPG Flanerie

The flâneur, literally a "stroller" or one who "wanders without purpose", is the word for a man (or woman) of leisure who saunters idly through urban streets observing his surroundings with detached curiosity. Though a part of the scene, he stands apart from the activity around him, choosing instead merely to watch, as though from behind a glass screen. Tourists often engage in flânerie, but of course it encompasses a wider range of behaviours than that - think about the last time you went for a stroll along a high street, promenade or shopping mall, or sat at a cafe watching the world go by. You were engaging in flânerie then, and you liked it.

A lot of what we do as RPG enthusiasts is the equivalent of this. We buy campaign settings and modules not necessarily to play them, but really just to dip in and out of - to read at our leisure, flipping from one page to another, becoming absorbed in a text box here, an illustration there, a table, a hexmap. In one sitting we might look at 10-20 pages, not necessarily in the right order, and rarely all contiguously. Thoughts and images pass through our mind as we briefly imagine what the places described really look like and what would happen in them. We enjoy turning the potentialities over in our own minds, knowing that they will never be realised: what it would be like to run a game in this setting, to create a character for it, to interact with the contents. I could reel off a list of RPG books I have bought and only ever really used for flânerie: Changeling: The Dreaming, most of the Planescape stuff, that time travel game whose name escapes me, Maze of the Blue Medusa, and many more. 

There is nothing wrong with this. In fact it places RPG materials in a venerable and rich tradition of literary forms which are best enjoyed through flânerie. Travel guide books are the best example of this: I own dozens, but I don't believe I have ever referred to one 'in anger', so to speak - they are spurs for the imagination, not sources of useful information. Ordnance Survey maps, of course, are another example; road maps likewise. (I still keep a big A3 road map book in the glove box of my car just so I can gaze at random pages when bored, muttering things like "Oh, so that's where Wednesbury is?" or "Hmm, Derby is further north than you would think..." under my breath.) Then there are all those thick tomes about dinosaurs, animals, tanks, and the like that you always used to see on people's bookshelves before there was an internet to speak of, and which now primarily seem to exist only in the context of holiday rentals. There's encyclopedias, too, of course, and all those 501 Beers to Drink/Albums to Hear/Paintings to See/Cheeses to Eat Before You Die books which grow up from nowhere, like weeds, in garden centre bookshops in the run-up to Christmas. And let's not forget cookbooks - I can't tell you the last time I cooked something from out of one of them, but I can tell you the last time I looked through a Hairy Bikers book and imagined eating wild boar in Corsica. 

I am not ashamed of a bit of flânerie, and I like to think that Yoon-Suin has given something to its own select audience of flâneurs, too. We sometimes take all this 'at the table' stuff too seriously - what happens at the coffee table matters also. 

Thursday, 16 June 2022

D&D's Uniqueness and the Inevitability of Roleplaying

This is a follow-up to yesterday's post. As many of you pointed out in the comments, one would probably have to put Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson into the Newton/Einstein camp, in that the creation of role playing games was probably inevitable and would have happened at some point soon anyway. But there is a genuine case to be made that it was not inevitable - and even quite unlikely - that it should have ended up a fantasy game, and particularly one about exploring dungeons.

As will be evident to anyone (and, again, as most commenters pointed out yesterday), human beings like role playing, and will do it even with purportedly abstract games, or when on their own. Nobody who has ever played a video or board game can fail to notice that as soon as there is some character or item with which one can personally identify, people begin to act in accordance with that particular 'role' and to a certain extent assume it psychologically (if only for the duration of playing the game). 

Insofar as this is true, I think we can safely say that at some point people would have come up with something along the lines of D&D even if Gygax and Arneson had never been born. It is only a very short leap from 'doing a voice' while guiding the battleship around the Monopoly board and haughtily demanding rent for a competitor landing on Old Kent Road, to actually role playing 'let's pretend to be 19th century property developers and make up complicated rules for the game'. It would have happened sooner or later.

However, it is really rather unusual that the first real role playing game worthy of the name happened to have an assumed fantasy setting rather than anything else. It seems to me that, all other things being equal, one would have expected the first role playing game to have emerged from historical wargames (as it did so, indirectly), and hence have something to do with either the Napoleonic era, World War I or World War II. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there turns out to be a large number of parallel universes in which 'D&D' is actually a Commando comics-style WWII 'special forces' RPG.

(Other possibilities that seem at least as, if not more, plausible than a fantasy setting for a first-ever RPG include something to do with sport, a specific historical era, colonisation, business tycoons, even biblical stories.) 

Gygax and Arneson, in other words, also have a bit of the Gustave Eiffel about them. The concept of the role playing game was probably always going to be invented, but the fact that RPGs have become synonymous with a particular type of fantasy is surprising, in hindsight, and really has to be put down to fluke - or, being charitable, to a genuine flash of genius,.

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

How Unique is D&D?

I can't remember where I came across this little aphorism (for some reason I have it in my head that it was in a Luis Bunuel interview), and I am almost certainly misremembering it, but the gist of it is as follows: if you had to eliminate from history two people from the list of Isaac Newton, Gustave Eiffel and Albert Einstein, you would have to choose Newton and Einstein. Their discoveries would eventually have been made by other people, because they concern immutable laws of the universe. But Eiffel's tower would never have existed without him. You could therefore afford to lose from the path of human development the two great scientists as individuals, but not the clever French engineer.

You may not agree that the Eiffel Tower is anything to write home about, but the point remains: some great works are inevitable. Others are flashes of insight that are truly unique. All other things being equal, the latter are probably the more valuable. 

Would the achievements of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson fall into the Newton/Einstein or Eiffel category? I think I know the answer. But I'm curious to hear yours. 

Put your thoughts in the comments. We will revisit the matter tomorrow. 

Sunday, 12 June 2022

Table of Hippogriff Traits

The PCs in my weekly game have tamed some hippogriffs. This calls for a chart of random hippogriff traits.

The default hippogriff has HD 3+1, AC 5, #ATT 3, DMG 1d6/1d6/1d10, Move 180 (Fly 360), Save As F2, ML 8. 

Consult the following table for variations. 

D20

Physical Characteristic

Personality

1

Small (2+1 HD)

Has a taste for human flesh (will attack any encountered NPC on a roll of 2 on a 2d6)

2

Large (4+1 HD)

Rivalrous (sees any other hippogriff as a rival; has to pass a morale check each round in combat or attack whatever its nearest rival is attacking) 

3

Albino (never surprises opponents, but continually blesses itself and its rider)

Loud (never stops vocalising; never surprises opponents)

4

Blind in one eye (-2 to hit)

Hates 1 – Dwarfs, 2 – Elves, or 3 – Halflings, and cannot abide to be ridden by one; will attack any such species enemy that comes within bite range

5

Three legged (only one claw attack)

Wilful (may not obey even simple commands; has a 1 in 6 chance of going off on a frolic of its own, as determined by the DM, each round during combat)

6

Fat (flies at 240, runs at 120)

Vicious (does +2 damage, but spends 1d3 additional rounds savaging the corpse of anything it kills)

7

Fast (always acts first in combat)

Meek (baulks at confrontation; must pass a morale check at the start of each combat in order to participate)

8

Old (always acts last in combat)

Gluttonous (must pass a morale check if anything is killed in a 12’ radius of its position; failure means the hippogriff must spend 1d6 rounds devouring the carcass) 

9

Broken-winged (cannot fly)

Lustful (must pass a morale check if a hippogriff of the opposite sex is present in order to refrain from attempting mating)

10

Two-headed (two bite attacks)

Restive (must pass a morale check each round in order to remain still, unless asleep)

11

Roll twice, ignoring contradictory results

Friendly (any human interacting with the hippogriff gets a +2 bonus to animal handling rolls)

12

Roll three times, ignoring contradictory results

Intelligent (can obey complex commands and engage in conversation if the hippogriff language is known)



Saturday, 11 June 2022

Call Me Frodo

One of the characteristics of American literature in the period from 1800 up to 1950 or so is its individualistic heroes, often lacking a past and being somewhat estranged from society. Hence the sum total of Moby Dick's protagonist's backstory is "Call me Ishmael"; think also of Edgar Allan Poe's many isolated, rootless viewpoint characters, or Huckleberry Finn, the "poor motherless thing". It's not just a feature of American letters during the period, of course (Lord Jim, which I happen to be reading at the moment, is an obvious example), but it is a notable one.

This is in contrast with European novels of the same period, which tended to have large casts of characters with obsessively detailed backgrounds and complicated familial relationships - a good example being Emile Zola's "Rougon-Macquart" novels: twenty books about the history of two branches of an extended family during the Second French Empire. This, of course, harks back to a much older tradition: medieval and pre-medieval authors thought it of the greatest importance to locate their heroes in a family tree, and often go to some length to detail what so-and-so's father and grandfather and great-grandfather did before the proper story gets going.

(One doesn't need to be Sigmund Freud to observe that the former of these bodies of literature was mostly written by the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of immigrants to a newly discovered continent with a so-called "frontier" and the latter was written by people whose ancestors had lived since time immemorial in densely populated landscapes with very conservative social mores.) 

Tolkien sits interestingly between these two positions. On the one hand, his two heroes (which I still take to be Bilbo and Frodo even though a case can be made that Sam is really the chief protagonist of LotR) are given lengthy and detailed backgrounds, and it is even made clear that their ancestry and bloodlines have had a strong influence on the formation of their character. They are by no means "William Wilsons". And Tolkien was clearly deliberately channeling older forms of literature in this regard.

And yet The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings also explore very "American" themes: the leaving of home to make a new life elsewhere; the exploring of a vast and dangerous land in the name of adventure; the severing of familial ties (neither Bilbo nor Frodo appears to actually care about his relatives); the sense of estrangement from society (again, neither of them is exactly an integral part of their community even at the beginning of their respective stories). Neither of the ring-bearers is Bartleby the Scrivener. But nor are they like characters from a Jane Austen novel; they are escaping society, not finding their way in it.

Part of the success of Tolkien's work can therefore be attributed, I think, to his straddling two quite distinctive pre-modernist approaches to literature - the American and the European. He was very interested in the details of his world. But his characters are not embedded in them. 

Thursday, 9 June 2022

The Physical Adept

Any sufficiently advanced physical skill is indistinguishable from magic. There is a point at which a virtuoso makes something look simultaneously both so easy and so difficult that it no longer appears to the layperson to be the result of mere practice, but of some mystifying and possibly genuinely God-given gift. Here are some examples:

1) Danny Carey's drumming. I have a love/hate relationship with Tool, but there is no doubting the astounding musicianship and skill of the band's constituent members. In any case, watch him go:



2) Brett Lee bowling at Piers Morgan. I don't know if there is a video on the internet that better illustrates the difference between a professional sportsman and an amateur than this one. Piers Morgan, as loathsome as he is, is not a bad club-level cricketer. Brett Lee, despite being a few years retired and way past his prime when this video was made, makes him look like a toddler. 



3) Paco de Lucia. What can one say?



4) The Chaconne from Bach's Partita No. 2. Consider how tiny and unimpressive a violin looks, and then listen to the astonishing sound it produces in the hands of a master. A Martian could only conclude it was imbued with powerful Earthling-magic. 




5) I hate Arsenal and Robin van Persie but this goal just looks like a wizard did it. It ought not to be physically possible to generate that much power, pace and accuracy from the position which he does. I don't care if you don't like or have never watched football - just watch the last, slo-mo replay at the very end of the video. It resembles something from a Marvel Superheroes film.



6) Roger and Floyd Mayweather working the mitts. Then Floyd by himself, skipping. This is just somebody practising.




7) I don't have a love/hate relationship with Al Di Meola, just a love-love one. Listen to him messing around with "Norwegian Wood" with Rick Beato: https://youtu.be/tU745UovT2g?t=376

8) You don't need a gym to work out, you know.





I could go on. The point of all of this, of course, is to emphasise that when human beings do not need to spend their entire lives foraging for food, escaping from predators, or slaving away in the fields, they can devote vast amounts of time to getting absurdly good at certain activities. Some of them get so good that they can become professional and do almost literally nothing else, and get absurdly better yet. 

In a world in which there was magic, and in which therefore there could be a class of people with no requirement to do serious work at all, what kind of physical feats would they become capable of? The stereotypical D&D wizard is a frail, bookish nerd - Raistlin from the Dragonlance books - but I wonder if in reality they wouldn't be the opposite. A wizard of middling power can charm bands of servants to carry out his every whim, create fool's gold to pay for anything he likes, and is probably mates with a cleric or two who can heal him if ever he gets into trouble. In such circumstances, what excuse would he have not to become absolutely brilliant at boxing, the guitar, cricket and climbing?

Shadowrun had a character class called the "physical adept", which did not exactly replicate this concept, being more of a melee-oriented fighter, but whose title I would like to steal. The D&D physical adept is in truth much wider in scope, and encompasses not merely immense skill in combat, but in any chosen field of excellence.