Wednesday 31 May 2023

On Overlooked Spells and Paths Not Taken

D&D spells can be divided into three camps. There are the Favourites, which everybody recognises to be not just useful but potentially game-changing in the sense that once a magic-user has access to them, they act as force multipliers or otherwise radically shift what the party is capable of (Fireball, Sleep, Web, Charm Person). Then there are the Utilities, which are helpful in solving commonly encountered problems or provide a bit of a boost in combat but which don't in themselves have the capactiy to alter the trajectory of an adventure or dungeon delve (Protection from Evil, Detect Magic, ESP, Mirror Image, Hold Person, Light). And then there are the Overlooked, which comprises that grab bag of spells which often sound charming and intriguing on paper, but which in practice - in my experience - are rarely if ever deployed (Feather Fall, Message, DeeppocketsTaunt, Wizard Mark, Fool's Gold, Magic Mouth). 

The existence of Overlooked spells suggests a large gap between the game as it exists in the imagination of the designers and what it looks like in reality. D&D's design, in other words, contains a lot of redundancy. It creates the impression of being much bigger than what it tends to be in practice.

Let's examine one of the spells I just labelled Overlooked - Magic Mouth. Here is the substantive description (taken from the 2nd edition AD&D PHB):

When this spell is cast, the wizard imbues the chosen object with an enchanted mouth that suddenly appears and speaks its message when a specified event occurs. The message, which must be of 25 words or less, can be in any language known by the spellcaster, and can be delivered over a period of one turn. The mouth cannot speak magical spells or use command words. It does, however, move to the words articulated -- if it is placed upon a statue, the mouth of the statue would actually move and appear to speak. Of course, the magic mouth can be placed upon a tree, rock, door, or any other object, excluding intelligent members of the animal or vegetable kingdoms.

The spell functions when specific conditions are fulfilled, according to the command of the spellcaster. Some examples are to speak "to the first creature that touches you," or "to the first creature that passes within 30 feet." Commands can be as general or as detailed as desired, although only visual and audible triggers can be used, such as the following: "Speak only when a venerable female human carrying a sack of groat clusters sits crosslegged within 1 foot." Such visual triggers can react to a character using the disguise ability....

This is a nice idea. Reading it, one instantly conjures in one's mind's eye a hundred different scenarios in which this kind of thing might be useful in a high fantasy novel or even in a notional D&D campaign in which for some reason the PCs want to trick an opponent or pass on a secret message. And I think it's fair to say that the concept is also intrinsically evocative and 'magical' in the prosaic sense. I love the idea of playing in a D&D campaign in which tricksiness, artfulness, conspiracy and bluff are the main focus and a spell like this would come into its own. 

I love the idea of it and so I think did the people who made up the spell. But the trouble is that in 'actually existing D&D' the incentives for the players point much more towards memorising and deploying spells for directly instrumental purposes - hurting opponents, protecting themelves, navigating/finding things, overcoming obstacles, and so on. While in theory Magic Mouth will have its uses and also possesses plenty of charm, in reality it will be, well, overlooked.*

The ambitions of D&D have, then, always been much broader than what its rules tend to facilitate. Its goal has, over time, been to encompass all of the possibilities in fantasy fiction within its purview, despite its core rules fundamentally being geared towards a much narrower style of play. I don't blame it for this - and in fact I think this maximalist approach has its virtues (I much prefer D&D's rambling 'incoherence' to the much tighter and less loveable modern games). But it is notable just how much is hinted at within the pages of its rulebooks that almost never finds its way to actual gaming tables. There are many paths which are suggested at but not taken - paths which lead to very different campaigning possibilities, where Magic Mouth would be an important piece of a magic-user's armoury, and an altogether more fantastical and thoughtful style might develop. 

Tuesday 23 May 2023

[Review] Noofutra

I spent much of my teenage years playing Shadowrun - a game I once called "the most fundamentally awful and crass idea ever invented [...] a crime against gaming and literature and culture in general", but which I am also on record as wanting to give an extensive re-imagination treatment. And I have a deep, abiding love for Cyberpunk 2020. So I am always on the lookout for games within that genre. 

Nooftura, released a couple of years ago now by the well-known Scrap Princess, is one of them. While it does not mention the word Shadowrun, I assume due to legal concerns, it bills itself as 'a take on...a popular setting [which] takes all 80s cyberpunk's attitude and iconography, shoves in generic fantasy staples, and forces them to keep up'. This is a pretty accurate description of Shadowrun. Elsewhere the author calls her project a 'weird fantasy cyberpunkesque toolbox/overgrown zine/setting guide/barely coherent vapourware book'. And this, it turns out, is a pretty accurate description of Noofutra. It is well worth tracking down, and if nothing else looks fabulous. But I'm not sure it quite works except as a spur to further reflection. 

The Good

The first thing to say about Noofutra is that I very much like the 'main ideas', which (p. 3) are identified as 'extrapolating 2019 into a cyberpunk tomorrow' (rather than a 1980s version), 'the noir take on sci-fi', and 'the supernatural as an epistemological rupture of what is real, true and possible'. This mixes influences in an intriguing way: a bit of Mona Lisa Overdrive in its insertion of the supernatural into the cyberpunk; a bit of Viriconium in the depiction of a future in which reality itself as beginning to fray; a bit, indeed, of the literature on cybernetics (se e.g. W. Ross Ashby) as a confluence of the human and the technological in a 'domain of all possible machines'; and actually rather a heavy dose - presumably unintentioned - of the work of CS Lewis in That Hideous Strength (a little bit more on that later, perhaps). Check out this passage in particular (p. 5):

'In Noofutra, layers of algorithm generated custom content bloom impentrably thick around anyone who exists. You don't even have to be "logged-on", a digital awareness follows your every move, every sign you look at shows its message for you alone...You can register and pay for a news source or a curated advertising experience. Odds are that your money just gets you smoother slicker deceptions, a tighter fit for your personal echo chamber.' 

In other words this is a future in which interoperability between the human and the technological has become total, in a way that is inherently and obviously sinister and horrifying. And this in itself has consequences that might properly be termed demonic - a basic rupture in underlying reality caused by a decay of fundamental limits and barriers, in order that genuinely supernatural and malign forces can be unleashed. (This is very James Poulos, by the way - in a manner which again is surely unintentioned, but fascinating.) In this case, that mostly means weird monsters like dragons formed from medical waste or demolished buildings; 10 metre tall 'cannibal giants', undead beings, and so forth - not to mention, naturally enough, magic and spells.

The second thing to say about it Noofutra is that the setting-creation elements work well for riffing on. The basic project of the book is to build on the method of setting-generation that really began with Kevin Crawford's stuff and which (I humbly submit) I had a hand in popularising - namely an awful lot of random table which juxtapose interesting concepts and provide springboards to build on. This in turn means that the setting itself is simultaneously minimalist and painted in broad and sweeping brushstrokes - more, indeed, of a mood rather than a setting. Your mileage with this may vary, but let's be honest: it's not as though D&D in its original form was much more than a mood, either. And the mood that Noofutra creates is cohesive, compelling, and interesting. What you get 'out of the box', as it were, is in the end a kind of conceptual or thematic framework that would allow you to produce a certain type of game with a certain type of atmosphere, and on these terms it works (certainly for £5 in PDF).

The Bad

With that said, Noofutra has issues. First and foremost amongst them is that, by the author's own admission, the thing is 'barely coherent'. This is a euphemism for not having been very carefully thought through or explained. (Why, for example - no pun intended - are there so few examples of use? The second page should be an extended, worked illustration of 'how to use this book', which would have been trivially easy to write and would have made the entire thing come to life.) Producing a mood is all very well and at that level, as I earlier said, the book is cohesive. But when you look too closely you really start to see the seams. 

The section on 'Law & Order' (p. 18) is a good illustration of this. It brims with nice ideas (punishment through disfiguring tattoos imbued with a dormant toxic fungus making them impossible to remove; corporations being policed by numerical reviews from other corporations) but these are simply jotted down as though in bullet-point form; it provides us with a way of randomly generating 'justice methods' within a local area ('chained up in public'; 'imprisoned in dark, barely serviceable space, given little food or water'), followed by a similar table of 'corporate justice methods' ('cursing: assassination of valued employeed made to look like a complete accident'), but nothing in the way of advice about how to put any of the content into effect at the table, nothing about what policing looks like when the PCs encounter it, and nothing really in the way of gameable content or adventure hooks. In this sense it actually feels very much like one of the old setting splatbooks of the 1980s or 90s, which gave the DM lots of Lonely Planet style information about the furniture of a world or region but which felt at the same time oddly inert. 

Thin sketching of background concepts doesn't help either. Here's a section on 'The Net':

'At this stage it's so powerful, complicated and limited by corporate greed, most people can only access it in device- or applicaiton-based ways. If you really want to tinker with things, you must fully immerse yourself, inserting your own agency into the Net - something like suspending your own mind and soul and having them operated in the sub-reality, "cyberspace". If you try and have a sub-soul with your real soul active, you generally start having bits of personality break off into ghosts while physically and mentally falling apart.'

This is, let's be scrupulously honest, interesting but half-baked. How is any of this realised or mechanised in the game? No idea. And the book is full of stuff like this - page after page of it. There is what seems to be a reluctance to do the hard and boring tasks of making sure all the moving parts fit together - or even that there are any moving parts at all - and an unwillingness to really commit to anything concrete. The end result is not something that one can really use, so much as something that inspires ideas. Inspiring ideas is grand. But at the risk of sounding very no-artpunkish, ideas are the easy bit. It's making them work that's the difficult part.

More fundamentally, this speaks to a problem at the heart of the entire project, which is that the future which Noofutra depicts - 'no-one knows what's going on, what's bullshit or what's a terrifying new game-changing paradigm'; 'layers of algorithm generated custom content bloom[ing] impenetrably thick around anyone who exists'; everyone obtaining their own 'truth, tailored for [them] with amorphous adaptability' - is itself almost by defnition one which lacks the very structure and substance needed to be really playable. The future imagined by Alexandre Kojeve, in which everything is simultaneously homogenised and tailored to every individual, and in which the cyberneticisation of information has been totalised, may be interesting to think about, but it's actually quite difficult to give it the bones that it really needs to be a gameable concept. Fundamentally, what makes D&D (for example) work is that it is a shared, imaginable space which refers to known concepts and genre furniture that everyone (sorry) can 'grok'. Noofutra doesn't have this, and in fact its entire setting is based on the notion that this kind of shared, imaginable space has disappeared. How to make that work? Perhaps there is a way, but the book doesn't really demonstrate it.

The Ugly

Noofutra looks great. With that said, there are some cosmetic and stylistic issues. There is a real problem with run-on sentences, for example, which are liberally scattered throughout and send shivers down my spine every time I come across them, but I suppoes that just reveals the pedant in me. What I find more off-putting is the tone of the writing, which I often see in OSR products and remember well from the old G+ days - a very direct, chatty, informal style which is often deliberately and archly ungraceful. ('People don't often travel very far, it's dangerous with all those self-driving cars all operating with different road codes, can't keep them on the same page'; 'You make a robot too smart and it develops a soul, grows crazy and kills itself. Something to do with the soul being too large to just be in reality and it needs to be Dom-reality but it isn't'; 'Batshit MC Escher architecture'.) This is mixed in with a strongly (to my eye) China Mievillian tendency to coin future slang that sounds jarring - 'Abhuman', 'Adjace', 'Moreau', 'HoZo' - which I also think could be toned down. All this, I know, is a matter of taste, and god knows I probably come across like a jumped up, prissy twerp in my own writing so I shouldn't complain too much. But I do wish the evidently intelligent and gifted author cared a bit more about making her work read nicely. 

What I reflected on most when reading Noofutra, however, is how plausible much of it looks as a depiction of the future, and how depressing and alienating that future appears. To come back to Lewis, I often find myself thinking that I can see the themes of That Hideous Strength - hubris, rationalism, transhumanism, cyberneticisation, surrealism, atomisation - begining to emerge, and playing out in ways that are already evidently disastrous. Scrap Princess conjures those themes very well in her word-sketches of the future extrapolated from 2019. But it all feels rather too close to home, and for that reason a place in which I wouldn't really choose to indulge in a little imaginative escapism.

3 out of 5 bec-de-corbins

The Megadungeon Garden and the Borrowers Campaign

My house has a big back garden which stretches many yards up a steep slope and meets a copse of trees to the rear. When we moved in a few years ago it was like a jungle, which I am now gradually civilising through great toil and much shedding of blood and tears - it's like suburban England's answer to The Oresteia.

At the very top of the slope the garden is at its wildest, and in May it suddenly decides to remind us that the fell on which we live was once verdant temperate rainforest. You can practically see the plants growing in real time. And this in turn produces a home for a vast throng of creepy crawlies - frogs, spiders, beetles, millipedes, woodlice - as well as a kind of public square for bigger wildlife, from blackbirds to magpies to a family of foxes. It would almost be a shame to curate it too much, as it's practically a miniature nature reserve, but I also have my eye on building a study-cum-personal-bar up there, too. Beer or blackbirds? A genuine quandary. 

At any rate, yesterday, while surveying my domain, I was reminded of an old post I wrote about a game set in a garden, in which the PCs are insects:

[T]his is a three dimensional, complex environment. Ant burrows and cracks in the earth lead to tunnel networks akin to dungeons. Shrubs and bushes are like gargantuan jungle trees bigger than anything a human can comprehend the scale of - like sky scrapers, in fact, rather than trees. What's in that watering can? A cold, stagnant lake full of hunting larvae lurking in its depths. What's under that flagstone? A tribe of armoured woodlice muttering to each other in the damp darkness. What's in the corner of the shed? An undead spider lich and the dusty, dead cobwebs it uses for its spells.

In this environment the enemies would be spiders, intelligent hunting sorcerers who play with the bodies of their victims; robot-like ants who simply swarm and devour with mindless purpose; dragon-like birds with sharp eyes which will swoop and attack the instant you cross open ground; and many other threats from above, below, or under the nearest stone. Treasure would be the different nectars produced by flowers, or the bonanza of a dead rat or fledgling. Quests would be to rescue kidnapped comrades from the lair of the termites, to assassinate an ant queen just beginning to set up a new nest, or to raid a neighbouring garden for the toxic ingredients to repel a blackfly invasion. 

Or perhaps the goal is simple survival. The PCs as a group of insects with a certain sentience who live under the constant threat of death - death from hunting, death from starvation, death from the weather, death from poison, death from sheer twist of fate - and who, for some reason, have the rudiments of cooperation necessary to rise above the nasty, brutish, short lives of their peers and achieve something approaching rest, peace, security, calm.

I still like the idea; it still works. But what appeals to me about it now is not so much the concept of the PCs as insects themselves but rather as tiny people - something more like The Borrowers (though probably not in the same benign tone). This may be because of watching the Ghibli film Arrietty at some point since writing that old post (who isn't enchanted by that idea?), but it almost might simply be because when one spends a lot of time in a garden - especially a wild one  - one starts to see it as a kind of fractalized version of a forest, in which flowers are trees, stones are boulders, puddles are lakes, and beasts are monsters. Get yourself crouched down in that kind of environment next time you have the opportunity, and look at it with all that in mind:

To somebody half an inch high, that environment would contain as much adventure as a few square miles of Amazon rainforest would to us  - and more, if we are allowed to postulate spider sorcerers or tribes of intelligent woodlice. 

Of course, once one brings up the Borrowers one immediately also starts to think about the house itself (whether abandoned or full of dangerous giants) as an environment in which to run games. The interesting thing about that concept is that more or less everyone lives in one - so you could in fact set a campaign in your own home which you and the players move about in as the in-game focus shifts from place to place. You could actually envisage events taking place against their real-life surroundings; if the PCs are fighting on top of the drinks cabinet, for instance, you could actually congregate it around it to see how it all shakes down. Or, if they are being chased by a cat on the attic stairs, you could go there to measure exactly how far away it would be, and check out if there are any hiding spots. 

Of course, you could do this in your garden too - the issue is that where I live you so rarely get the weather. 

Friday 12 May 2023

Metagaming PC Death in Old School D&D: the Party as Ship of Theseus

My regular campaign features a lot of PC death. We don't worry about it; the campaign barely experiences one of these passings as more than a speed bump. None of the original PCs remains, and each player has been through about four or five different iterations by now. The party is in other words like a Ship of Theseus, every piece of which has been replaced on numerous occasions. Not in any sense what it originally was, it sails on regardless, paradoxically retaining its identity for all of the changes that have taken place.

There are three interesting ways to think of this (some of which were very briefly mentioned here) and perhaps game-ify it in a very light-touch, non-agency affecting way:

1 - The PCs are each like Moorcock's Eternal Champion, being endlessly created and recreated (without realising it) in different guises, for some transcendent purpose which they do not perceive or understand. Method of game-ification: stat inheritance. At the start of the campaign, each player may designate one of his PCs' stats to be a permanent one, which is 'inherited' by all subsequent PCs. (Iron man mode: the permanent stat is randomly determined by 1d6 roll.)

2 - The party of PCs are akin to Kim Stanley Robinson's use of the jati concept in The Years of Rice and Salt. Their souls are immortal and reappear across time in very different forms but with the same basic personalities and roles (and bearing very similar-sounding names). Method of game-ification: All the new PCs for each individual player are created with the same first initial and alignment. 

3 - The party of PCs are like the cast of the Viriconium novels; they are always different, but the same archetypes - knight, lieutenant, dwarf, princess, etc. - must always reappear. Method of game-ification: At the start of the campaign, the players make a list of archetypes that is one longer than the number of PCs. (For example, if there are four PCs - an aloof, sociopathic elf; a shy fighter; a charismatic magic-user; and an honest halfling - then the list of archetypes might be the aloof/sociopathic one, the shy one; the charismatic one; and the honest one, plus one more: the aggressive, excitable one.) The first time a PC dies, the player in question takes the next archetype from the list. (Hence, if the aloof/sociophatic elf dies, his player has to create an aggressive/excitable PC. Then, if the charismatic magic-user dies next, his player has to create an aloof/sociopathic one, leaving the 'charismatic' slot empty. And so on.) 

Of course, in all the first two cases you can't imagine the PCs being literally reborn as babies; instead, you probably have to think of some form of transposition of the soul from one physical vessel into another. Perhaps the multiverse makes sure that when an Eternal Champion dies, there is a person not too far away of the appropriate age and ability into whom the Champion's psyche can migrate, or whatever. (Which brings to mind Being John Malkovich somehow - a different kettle of fish entirely.)

Wednesday 10 May 2023

D&D as Self-Authorship: Wizardknighting Praxis

[This is the third in a series of posts. You can read the first one here and the second one here, but neither are essential for understanding this one.]

I generally don't take playing D&D too seriously. 'Proper role playing' tends to make me cringe, and the overall tone of the sessions I run tends to be somewhat arch and detached. Entirely unintentionally, the mood is probably a bit like a Jack Vance novel - what happens to the PCs is more a subject for ironic amusement and enjoyment of derring-do than anything to do with feelings. 

But all sorts of modes of play are possible, of course, and reading The Wizard Knight made me think about the potential for using D&D partly as a kind of self-authorship. 

People who have already read the book may know what I mean already. But let me explain. The basic idea of The Wizard Knight (this is not really a spoiler; it's evident in the first few chapters that this will be the dominant theme of the novel) is that an adolescent boy (Able) decides, after meeting a knight, that he wants to be one. He concludes that this means that he has to act like one, and this in turn means (in the words of Sir Ravd, his model):

'Liv[ing] honourably and d[ying] honourably, because [a knight] cares more for his honour than his life. If his honour requires him to fight, he fights. He doesn't count his foes or measure their strength, because those things don't matter...In the same way, he acts honourably toward others, even when they do not act honourably toward him. His word is good, no matter who he gives it to.'

Able starts off very badly at this: he bullies and brags and throws his weight around, confusing defending his honour with being the top dog in all circumstances. But gradually, over the course of 1000 pages, he comes to figure it out - that honour requires one to fight to defend the weak, not for personal aggrandisement, and also that there is a greater good even than honour (in a wonderful eucatastrophic twist with echoes of my favourite novel about chivalry, The Ill-Made Knight). 

This is, of course, the story of a boy growing into a man in the proper sense of the word - one which has almost totally disappeared from our culture, which we need very desperately, and which Gene Wolfe was clearly deeply concerned about in his old age. There is a lot more to say about the substance of that narrative, and I may do it in a future post. But for the time being, I merely wish to focus on the idea of somebody deciding that they want to be a certain thing or a certain way, and bending their energy to shaping their thoughts and actions in order to get there. 

I am convinced that this idea basically works, within reason (you are not going to turn yourself into a dragon, no matter how much you act like one), because I have seen it happen at least to a certain extent in my own life. Fixing on an idealised image, reflecting on its characteristics, and reflecting on how one's behaviour aligns with those characteristics and what one can do to differently to close the gap does over time produce changes. It is difficult, imperfect, and is never complete. But it is useful. (I put it into effect in my own life when trying to decide what kind of father I wanted to be when I first had children. One of the things I knew was true about myself was that I had a tendency not to take promises I made very seriously. I decided I wanted to be the type of father who his children can totally rely upon. And so I hold myself to a standard: if I ever say to either of my two daughters that I will do something, I make a note of it in my head, remind myself of the type of father I want to be, and make sure I do that thing no matter the inconvenience. This is hard, but I force myself. And it has actually changed my personality; I'm a much more reliable and honest person in general than I was ten years ago - though I'm still nothing like as good at honouring commitments to anyone other than my kids as I should be.) 

Some people on Twitter or Discord will get annoyed at me for once again using the word praxis, and Marxists are not supposed to like self-help, but that's basically what Marx was getting at if you strip away the high-falutin' language: change doesn't come about through reflection alone, but through action aligned with reflection on its purposes. One must actually do it. 

This can happen in the context of D&D, I think, in two ways. The first would be creating PCs who, like Able, have aims in mind (wanting, for example, to be a knight), and having them act accordingly - not as mere avatars for the player but as agents in their own right. The alignment system of AD&D was actually an attempt to achieve this - as was the 2nd edition era's emphasis on 'doing what my character would do' - and while both of these things (alignment and 'role playing rather than roll-playing') are generally treated with suspicion in the OSR, I see no reason why they can't be deployed in rich and interesting ways.

The second would be treating the exercise of playing D&D as itself a kind of mini-exercise in simulated self-authorship. Let's say that you wanted to be a more truthful, or braver, or kinder person. Couldn't creating a PC who you decide possesses that characteristic, and deliberately having him or her act on that basis, be a way of changing one's own habits, one's own reflexes, one's own ingrained ways of thinking? Couldn't this be an initial stage of self-authorship and the kind of praxis that I am talking about? And wouldn't that be an interesting variation on what I think is one of the main reasons that both human beings and animals play - it allows us to envisage ourselves in different circumstances and surroundings and experiment with how we would act? 

I don't wish for a moment to denigrate playing D&D purely for fun (it's what I do). And nor do I suggest it should take on the mood of a therapy session. One can do either of the things I mentioned without even telling anybody, if one so desires it. But, equally, it could be done in a very kumbaya sort of way, with shared goals and post-session reflective debriefs and even crying. Something perhaps to experiment with.

Friday 5 May 2023

Wizardknighting High Level D&D

[This is the second in a series of posts. Reading the first one is useful but not necessary.]

High-level play is a perennial problem for D&D. This is partly just a consequence of inherent or structural factors - most campaigns start at 1st level so there is just way more advice and material available with respect to games involving low-level PCs, and there is anyway a general bias in the human psyche toward preferring stories in which the main character begins as a callow neophyte and arcs towards heroism rather than starting out as a megastar to begin with. (Roger Zelazny is the main author I can really think of who repeatedly bucks that trend, although even his ubermenschen - Corwin of Amber or Sam of Lord of Light - start off as hampered by memory loss or similar and grow to a position of greater strength.) 

And partly it’s a problem to do with the rules themselves. By the time PCs have high AC, low saving throws, and lots of hit points they’re very hard to kill and combat can become a slog without constant tactical experimentation and cunning that places a drain on the DM. And once magic-users start to get access to 4th and 5th level spells they become essentially demigod-like, especially if there are two of them in the party and they can create synergies accordingly. 

This means that what tends to end up happening is that the DM has to devote his energies to thinking of ways to hamper the PCs through increasingly desperate wheezes - usually through positing super-villains or resorting to deus ex machina. This in turn transforms the campaign into a kind of caricature of a Superman comic, in which every week the PCs are confronted with some enemy wielding a new version of what is basically kryptonite (either in the form of ever more powerful magic items or abilities, or enhanced cunning). This changes the balance of the game entirely, and not in a good way. Low-level D&D really works because it’s about rogues, and rogues roaming a sandbox easily set their own goals. High-level D&D tends to reverse that - it’s about superheroes, and their goals almost inevitably therefore start to derive from the DM-as-quest-dispenser (an evil archmage has kidnapped a favoured NPC; a zombie plague appears; a mysteriously skilful thief steals the PCs’ treasure, etc.). This saps their agency and also frankly just gets boring. 

During the 2nd edition era TSR put out a book with pointers on how to run a high-level campaign - High Level Campaigns, it happened to be called - and it is full of the kind of advice one would expect. A good adventure, we are told, 'unfolds like a novel or short story', and 'contains plenty of excitement, especially at the beginning and the end'. We then learn that 'effective preparations start with an adventure plot'. It's hard sometimes to remember that this is how everybody thought in 1995, and most people still think now. But in any event the book is basically useless for anybody whose OSR-influenced campaign is heading into high-level territory.

What, then, can one do instead? 

In The Wizard Knight, the main character, Able, ascends to demigod-hood halfway through the story. (I’m not giving anything away - it’s flagged extensively throughout.) He returns to the human world having spent the equivalent of two or three decades in Skai, the equivalent of Norse heaven, and now has the power to increase his size many times over and to heal sicknesses and injuries - and he also gets to ride around on a giant telepathic unicorn that can fly. He basically goes from being, say, a 3rd level fighter to a 20th level paladin. 

Wolfe handles this in three ways. First, Able has to make a promise to the god of Skai who he has been serving, the Valfather, that he won't use his powers. It's only on that basis that he is allowed to return from Skai in the first place. This, naturally, becomes important to the plot in various ways. As an idea for a campaign in a game like Pendragon the concept of PCs voluntarily vowing not to do certain things because of promises made to gods, and struggling to stick to those vows, would work really well; for D&D, it perhaps is less fitting, though of course that depends on the tone of the game.

Second, it becomes important for Able to be able to ascend upwards through the layers of existence so that he can eventually get to Kleos and ultimately Elysion. His long-term goals therefore shift over the course of the novel. High Level Campaigns recommends traveling between worlds, or planes, as a good focus for high-level D&D, and this has after all often typically been the function of planar travel throughout the history of D&D - an answer to the question, 'What does my 12th level PC do now?' 

Is there, then, a way to incentivise this kind of gear-shift by - heretically - changing the XP advancement system from one based around GP = XP to one based around going up levels through interplanar travel, once the PCs reach a certain level of experience? Maybe, for example, the rule could be that PCs advance as normal to 9th level through garnering gold, but from 10th level onwards, they advance by getting XP for going from plane to plane. Since going from plane to plane itself involves trying to find keys to portals and so forth, and since there are potentially infinite planes, the campaign would thereby remain being mostly player-led.

And third, in the second half of The Wizard Knight, Able - having achieved great power and status - changes his objectives regarding those around him. He begins to see it as part of his mission to be a good example to them and help the young ones in particular grow into knights themselves. Another heretical idea therefore suggests itself: what if at 9th level (or whatever) PCs no longer gain XP from gold or their own actions, but from helping their own henchmen advance? What if each time a henchman goes up a level, the PC gets XP? 

The final observation is that part of the joy of the second half of The Wizard Knight is trying to imagine what it looks like for somebody to be riding around on the back of a flying horse while wielding a magical sword that summons an entourage of ghost warriors, and fighting an army of giants. That ought to be fundamentally appealing to anybody, and it's easy to lose sight of the fact that high-level D&D posits precisely that type of event as a natural part of its domain.

Wednesday 3 May 2023

On Feudalism, Ruin, and the Post-Apocalypse

Solomon VK has been writing some excellent posts about the unlikely interface between SF and feudalism (see here and here). What is the appeal (he asks and sets out to answer) of 'feudal futures' such as Dune or, if we are thinking about RPGs, Fading Suns?

I only wish to add a footnote to his inquiry in observing that real-world feudalism often developes as a response to near-apocalyptic collapse of relatively advanced civilizations. In history, we tend to see feudal structures emerging when a 'golden age' has ended and a 'dark age' is underway. Hereditary local lords were the defence structure in dark ages Europe against Vikings, Magyars and the like in the period of decline after the fall of Rome. Similarly, in Japan, feudalism developed in the period of anarchy and civil strife at the end of Heian period, with the samurai emerging as a military caste to secure the estates of magistrates (or to protect farmers from rapacious aristocrats). In a time of declining living standards and a collapse in order, the basic feudal trade-off - in which the local lord offers people protection in return for them keeping him well fed - makes pefect sense.

It seems to me then the 'feudal future' aesthetic of collapsing intergalactic civilisation combined with a splintering into feudal 'houses' or similar makes a kind of sense. And this is probably why feudal future settings often seem to have a strong aesthetic of ruin or even post-apocalypse. In the real world, knights frolicked in the ruins of the Roman empire, and in the feudal future it therefore seems natural that their interstellar equivalents would find themselves inhabiting a galaxy peppered with ruins of a much more advanced civilisation. 

There is I think also a more basic psychological impulse at play in the feudal future: a recognition that when humans are confronted with something vast and unknowable many of them will prefer to fall back on an any-port-in-a-storm mentality to physical security. Imagine if the entire galaxy around us was open to human exploration and travel - and, by the same token, our civilization was open to everything that the galaxy itself contained. I can easily imagine the reaction to that being the pledging of loyalty to anybody promising stability and security. Stretched across a solar-system of galaxy-spanning civilisation and a division into many 'local' feudal houses seems plausible.

Finally, it is probably worth mentioning that there is something indestructibly romantic and intoxicating about high chivalry and its juxtaposition to future technology. The future, from where we are standing, looks raher inhumane and alienating; how much nicer to imagine it being something more like Robin Hood, Henry V or El Cid.

Tuesday 2 May 2023

On Justice and Injustice in RPGs and the DMing Ideal

The Introdution to the AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide makes the following interesting assertion:

[I]nformation is in the [DMG] so the DM can control the players' (and hence the characters') access to certain bits of knowledge. In a fantasy world, as in this world, information is power. What the characters don't know can hurt them (or lead them on a merry chase to nowhere). While the players aren't your enemies, they aren't your allies, either, and you aren't obligated to give anything away for nothing. If characters go hunting wererats tomorrow without doing any research beforehand, feel free to throw plenty of curves their way. Reward those characters who take the time to do some checking.

It is a curate's egg of advice. Some of the basic principles are right, but on the whole it simply can't be right. If characters go hunting wererats tomorrow without doing any research beforehand, it should just be the natural consequence of that choice if things go awry. Similarly, it should be the natural consequence of doing proper research that there will be fewer surprises - and there is therefore no need to reward characters who do the right 'checking'. 

Success and failure, in other words, are their own rewards, and there is absolutely no need for a DM to second-guess that process by artificially rewarding or punishing good or bad decision-making. Just let events play out as they will and the results will be fair in themselves. 

This reminds me of possibly my favourite quotation by an English judge, from Seymour HHJ's judgment in Stephen Donald Architects Ltd v King [2003] EWHC 1867 (TCC): 

The short and simple point, as it seems to me, is that there is nothing unjust about being visited with the consequences of a risk which one has consciously run.

This maxim should be printed out on postcards the length and breadth of the land and included in every copy of every D&D book ever sold - it would sort out almost all problems at the drop of a hat.

The DM's only obligation in regard to fainess is to create a setting in which natural consequences of good or bad decision-making arise, and in which there is never any need to tilt the balance behind the scenes. This is the ideal to which a DM should strive, and nothing more nor less.