Tuesday 27 February 2024

'It is important that it be fully detailed': What the BBC makes of D&D down the ages

While idly looking at cricket scores on the BBC website earlier today I came across a link to this recent 5 minute 'BBC sounds' podcast on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of D&D. This took me down a rabbit hole, in which some quick Google searches dug up other brief BBC coverage of D&D down the ages; here are two fun examples (the first of which because it features Ian Livingstone, Steve Jackson, Joe Dever and other luminaries of the early British D&D/Warhammer scene, the latter of which because it features Gary Gygax):

I was intrigued by what these efforts all fail to achieve, more than what they actually show. The BBC Sounds' 2024 piece (I don't know if it is accessible outside of the UK) is chiefly revealing of contemporary anxieties, focusing almost entirely on the fact that the audience for D&D has increasingly become more diverse, but that there is still 'more to be done'. The first of the two videos (from 1983), on the other hand, is more like an exercise in anthropology; one could imagine an identical approach and tone being adopted in a National Geographic documentary shot on the Sentinel Islands. The second of the two videos, meanwhile, simply gives the opportunity for Gygax to expound, in between some short segments at a gaming convention in London, in the manner of an academic at a tutorial in an Oxbridge college. None of them comes close to explaining what D&D actually is, or takes any time to document what happens in a typical session. If one were a layperson, one would be absolutely none the wiser. The only continuity between them is a certain wryness on the part of the documentarian, and a sense that some terribly nerdy people are doing something kooky.

That's fine, of course; it's probably pretty accurate. But I do find it interesting that 'normies' find it so difficult to process the nuts and bolts of a D&D game. There are likely two reasons for this. On the one hand I think it is probably the case that D&D enthusiasts are not always very clear, or consistent, in what they think the hobby is all about. Some of the people being interviewed in the various clips seem to be describing communal storytelling; others (like Gygax himself) emphasise how it is all about worldbuilding; others suggest it is about exploring oneself; still others that it is 'like a board game' that goes on inside the participants' heads. On the other hand, when faced with something that is a bit difficult to initially conceptualise, it is human nature to default to the assumption that it is basically and irredeemably incomprehensible and weird - there is clearly a bit of that going on in the heads of the producers of all three clips.

All of this I suppose reinforces, obliquely, what it is that makes D&D so successful, 50 years on. It defies easy summary; it is protean. No two groups play even the same edition of the game the same way, let alone its different variants, and this malleability (what Ron Edwards would have labelled its 'incoherence') is clearly its strongest selling point as a role playing game. Some time ago, I heard the advertising executive Rory Sutherland comment that the reason why McDonald's was more successful than KFC was that not everybody always wants to eat fried chicken, but there's something on a McDonald's menu to provide a mediocre meal for any palate on almost any occasion. Its comparative lack of definition is in fact its great virtue. There is definitely something similar at work in the enduring appeal of D&D.

Saturday 24 February 2024

17 Times the Incidental Illustrations in the 2nd Edition DMG Rocked

Nostalgia can do powerful things. I must have bought the 2nd edition AD&D DMG at the age of about 12 or 13, at a shop in Tel Aviv on a road lined with palm trees; it was early evening and the sky was a beautiful shade of golden pink. One must be careful when under such a sky. It can lead to love. And so it did with me and the strangely evocative incidental illos (particularly the pseudo-linotype ones) in that much-loathed and misunderstood book. Here are my seventeen favourites:

1. She is beautiful, she is mysterious, she is distant and untouchable. These were the days before the internet, when even an innocent picture like this could arouse Strange and Powerful Feelings within the...er...breast of a teenage boy. Setting that to one side, I actually think it is a beautifully executed miniature portrait with just the right amount of late-80s cheese.

2. I am a wizard and I am simultaneously concerned, sad, shocked, and imbued with eldritch energy. FEAR ME.

3. I am a wizard and I have a staff that shoots lightning as I wield it before me, and yet also somehow simultaneously radiates light behind me. For such as I, the laws of physics contain no import! Again, look at his face. Such emotion - a man of great sensitivity and depth, who even as he blasts his enemy with lightning is moved by vast pity.

4. Squint, but squint well. Has he been disturbed in the middle of practicing his wizardly break-dancing routine? Or does he always theatrically fling open the lid of his chest, just for effect? Or is he a thief who has been disturbed? No idea. I am a sucker for wizard's study pictures, though.

5. Again, this one must be squinted at, but I find it deeply evocative. This is what a dungeon looks like when nobody is around. It waits with endless patience for adventure to begin.

6. Even halflings can have excellent hair. 

7. The elegant simplicity of this piece I think deserves more widespread recognition. Look at the stark beauty of the empty landscape; the care with which that withered shrub is depicted and the way it conjures in the mind an image of aridity and desolation; the contrast between it and the blazing glory of the dawn (or dusk); the desperation of the silhouetted figures who traverse that bleak landscape; the sense of coiled energy in the sweep of the monster's tail. A work of evocative power. 

8. This picture is not perfectly executed - the hand almost seems to be gently caressing her in a 'there, there' sort of fashion, and there is something going on with her left arm; it just looks wrong. And yet you can't tell me it lacks 'B' movie charm.

9. I probably hated this piece when I was an adolescent, because I would have seen it as childish. Now I'm old, and can appreciate its daft good humour. 2nd edition's vices - a desire to court less controversy, to be more family friendly, to be self-consciously less 'dark' - are well known, but people often overlook that these can in the right light also be virtues. Must we be so very serious?

10. This, on the other hand, is a great fantasy RPG rulebook illo. It makes you want to play the game. Actually, it makes you want to be within the scene itself, experiencing the delicious hair-raising thrill of seeing that thing come out of its sarcophagus. 

11. Yes, the monster (stone giant?) looks rather like it has just risen from the sofa, hands aloft, and a six-pack of Carling to the good, to celebrate the final whistle in the second leg of the Barcelona-Chelsea Champions League semi-final of 2010. But look at those dwarves with their spears, ready for the fight; again, this makes you want to play the game

12. I am a wizard and I could be about to bless or smite thee; the suspense will be over..... NOW!

13. A great wizard's study study. 

14. This is another light-hearted piece which, to my old and jaded eye, remains on the right side of whimsy. Look harder. There are more of them than you think,

15. Another piece which I think, for obvious reasons, struck me as being deeply fascinating and worthy of careful study when I first saw it. 

16. This looks like it belongs in a very different game to what would I suppose be understood to be the OSR's default tonal palette - redolent of something much more bucolic and fairy-tale inspired: Lyonesse rather than Conan. Is this so very wrong?

17. I just think this is a very well composed and executed picture. No showiness, no special effects, no slo-mo, no CGI. Just two guys who are about to try and fuck each other up. My money's on the swordsman. Those are the stone cold eyes of a killer.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Does What Happens at the Table Matter?

My previous post generated considerable debate (chiefly about, of all things, Daddy Pig). But it raises wider, and more important, questions that I think it would be worth devoting a post to addressing.

There is a tendency I have often noticed among nerdish men of a certain age to get defensive about particular hobbies - video games, heavy metal, horror films, comics, D&D, and so on. Having been told that these pastimes are variously stupid, evil, corrupting, a waste of time, sinful, and so on in their youths, such men have adopted a position at the opposite extreme, which is that it does not matter what media one consumes. One can listen to as much Cannibal Corpse as one likes, watch Driller Killer five times a day, and spend the rest of one's time murdering disabled children and puppies on Call of Duty: Ed Gein Edition, and it has no effect on one's psyche at all. Nobody is corrupted by any of this; nobody in the real world is affected; one can consume whatever media one desires and still be perfectly well-adjusted.

It is understandable why some people think like this, but it is difficult to imagine a position which could be less accurate. To demonstrate its foolishness, one simply has to ask a couple of straightforward questions. First, do you think it would be appropriate for a six-year-old to be given unrestricted access to pornhub? Second, do you think it is impossible to be moved by a work of great art? And, third, do you think it is impossible for characters in fiction of any kind to be inspirational, or to reinforce a negative stereotype? Well, I'm afraid that if your answer to any of those questions was 'no', then that means that you concede that the media one consumes matters in respect of its impact on the psyche, soul, mind, or whatever word you prefer. All reasonable people can do is argue about the extent to which it matters, in what context, and to whom - and what to do about it.

(A closely related argument concerns the question of 'copycat' behaviour, as when that shy young man Jimmy McJimmy who kept himself to himself and was polite to his neighbours one day commits a vile murder and it is discovered that he had spent the last three days locked in his basement watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or whatever. Clearly, the chain of causation is not clear and nobody has ever been able to identify a situation in which a crazed killer has had his brain borked simply by watching a video nasty. But, equally clearly, it's pretty unlikely that watching such stuff has no effect at the margins. No media savvy person alive in the 21st century can possibly deny that young people in particular are prone to copy behaviours and attitudes which they pick up from watching YouTube, TikTok, etc.; is it really such a stretch to imagine that what one watches as entertainment has an accumulated effect on the way one thinks?)

In short, of course cultural products matter, and of course they influence how people think and therefore how they behave. How could they not? Acknowledging this doesn't, and shouldn't, mean that our culture needs policing or that anything in particular needs banning. It simply means that it is foolish to go through life thinking that what one consumes by way of culture has no effect on how one sees the world, or how one acts in it.

This raises the interesting question, to my eye, as to whether what goes on at a D&D table matters. And here I don't mean to suggest that when a bunch of D&D players imagine their PCs massacring a tribe or orcs that it is going to turn them all into genocidaires or desensitise them to violence. Rather, I mean to ask whether the choices which one makes when thinking as a PC - the decisions which one makes when 'role playing' broadly understood - can have an impact on how one approaches choice-making in real life. To boil the inquiry down to its essence, is it possible to use a PC in an RPG auto-didactically as a way to experiment with what it would mean to behave more honourably, more decisively, more compassionately, etc., and to then reflect on how that could be implemented in one's actual life?

Monday 12 February 2024

What's the Story? A Problem with Plot

Yesterday, I had the misfortune of attending the cinema to watch Peppa Pig's Cinema Party, consisting of 10 'never before seen' Peppa Pig episodes (question: Do Americans, Australians, etc., know about Peppa Pig?) interspersed with Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-style filler in which real-life children interact with cartoons of Peppa and her friends.

It was dreadful. But it was dreadful in an illustrative way. I have nothing against kids' entertainment, and I actually don't mind Peppa Pig as a general rule (although I hate the militant misandry of its depiction of the buffoonish Daddy Pig). But watching the Cinema Party, it rapidly became clear that the reason why these episodes had never been seen before was that they were rubbish. They didn't have stories. They were just a bunch of stuff that happens. Peppa learns to play tennis and has strawberries and cream afterwards. That's an episode. Peppa goes to a wedding and it rains and they all have fun playing in the mud. That's an episode. And so on. Not so much 'a show about nothing' as 'a show about pleasant events in the life of a four-year-old'. 

But stories aren't - cannot be - just series of pleasant events. Stories need conflict, and children's stories especially have to be characterised by a very basic structure in which something bad or undesirable happens and is ultimately resolved. This is true at even the most basic level; a great example that springs to mind is Emily Gravett's Where's Bear?, a book that can be enjoyed and understood by any 2 year-old. In it (spoiler alert) bear and hare are playing hide-and-seek together. They give it a couple of goes. It's too easy for hare to find bear, so hare has a go at hiding. Bear looks for him and can't find him, and ends up looking in the bed, where he falls asleep. Hare emerges, having become bored, and looks for bear, but now can't find him, and a moment of panic ensues - hare misses his friend and rushes about looking for him. Bear is wakened by the commotion, finds hare, and gives him a hug. The end.

Here we have an elementary lesson in what story is: a set-up, an emergent problem, a pleasing resolution. And it works because of the crucial moment of tension in the second act where the game goes awry. Without that moment of tension, all there is is fluff: two animals playing hide-and-seek with some diverting pictures. What's the point of that?

This I think, more than anything else, is at the root of the reason why I have always found narrative-style play, in which the players go through a pre-ordained 'plot' (however loosely sketched), so unsatisfying. The simple fact of the matter is that telling a good story relies on set of basically artificial devices to work, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that within the context of a good story, it is almost definitionally a straitjacket - it can't survive being exposed to the chaos of free-decisionmaking on the part of the participants. To do so disrupts the narrative structure. What narrativist games always in the end therefore devolve into, in my experience, is coercion or manipulation (railroading and/or quantum ogres) or a feeling that the PCs are merely jumping through a series of essentially consequence-free hoops, a la Peppa Pig learning to play tennis. The former might be tolerable if the DM was an acknowledged master storyteller like Stephen King; the latter never is. Either way, the likelihood of success is remote, and the most common experience is a blancmange of 'meh'. 

Friday 9 February 2024

Ancestries and Character Backgrounds in the Crocodilian Apocalyps

PCs in Behind Gently Smiling Jaws each have one of four ancestries, and a background which follows from whatever their ancestry is. Ancestries may be randomly determined, chosen, or assigned, as seems appropriate to the DM and player; backgrounds should generally be randomly determined. The exercise of selecting both should always be done after rolling stats and choosing a character class.

PCs may be Degenerate Humans, Somnic Humans, Young Naacals or High Naacals. There is a fifth type of ancestry, Old Naacal, which is for NPCs only.

Degenerate humans are descended from those humans who were living in the world at the time of the Infraction, and who organised themselves into whatever polities they could in its aftermath. Now, an eon later, they comprise a great patchwork of many different societal archetypes (nomadic or semi-nomadic; pastoralist or agriculturalist; urban or marine), levels of organisation (city-states, empires, petty-kingdoms, bands of hunter-gatherers), levels of technology (from stone-age to gunpowder) and character (theocracies, thalassocracies, republics, monarchies, kritarchies). Many of them are independent; others are under the sway of suchian entities, Somnic Humans, or Naacals.

Degenerate human PCs may have one of the following backgrounds, meaning their parentage; after determining the background, roll for broad geographical/cultural origin or choose as desired:

1. Tribesman or -woman (1 - Desert/arid, 2 - Forest, 3 - Marsh, 4 - Steppe/grassland, 5 - Mountains, 6 - Tundra) 
2. Farmer or pastoralist (1 - Piedmont, 2 - Grassland, 3 - Flood plain, 4 - Forest margins) 
3. Fisherman or -woman (1 - Lake, 2 - Sea, 3 - River) 
4. Merchant (1 - Rural, 2 - Urban, 3 - Seagoing) 
5. Soldier (1 - Piedmont, 2 - Grassland, 3 - Flood plain, 4 - Forest) 
6. Noble (1 - Rural, 2 - Urban)

Degenerate humans have no special abilities, but suffer no advancement penalty.

Somnic humans are those rare humans who were born and raised among the degenerate ones of their kind, but who due to happenstance or unusual sensitivity bear some of the somnic influence of one of the Seven. Recognised by their peers as larger-than-life, whether for good or ill, and imbued with an intensity of purpose, they take after whichever of the Seven is somnically dominant over them. Their backgrounds therefore derive from that respective member of the Seven:

1. Sese-Mahuru-Bau (passionate and strong-willed, +1 STR, +1 WIS; can pass without trace 1/day) 
2. Xu Fu (cerebral and domineering, +1 INT, +1 CHA; can command 1/day) 
3. Pape Jan (wily and determined, +1 INT, +1 WIS; can create a sanctuary 1/day) 
4. Anak Wungsu (resourceful and talented, +1 INT, +1 DEX; can create fool's gold 1/day) 
5. Jorge de Menezez (strong and ferocious, +1 STR, +1 CON; can remove/cause fear 1/day) 
6. Ebu Gogo (resilient and fecund, +1 CON, +1 CHA; can detect evil 1/day) 
7. Abu Yaqub Al-Sijistani (cunning and insightful, +1 WIS, +1 CHA; can identify 1/day) 
8. The PC is that very rare thing: a combination of somnic influences from two of the Seven; roll twice, but double the advancement penalty (see below)

Somnic humans suffer a 5% advancement penalty, meaning they must deduct 5% from all XP awards they receive. The player should also roll a sub-background, using the table for degenerate humans, to determine the PC’s origin.

Young Naacals are the descendants of the weak-blooded Naacals who returned to the world from the Unremembered City in the aftermath of the Infraction. Though described as ‘weak-blooded’, this refers to the strength of their somnic ability rather than physical weakness, and they are typically the more vigorous and active of their kind. They are the Naacals who have forged empires and kingdoms within the world, and who often hold sway over vast masses of degenerate human slaves; they are also the most likely to have strayed far from their cultural heritage, and to have engaged in practices unknown to the High or Old Naacals - such as marriage, parental child-rearing, commerce, war, and feasting.

Young Naacal religion is complex, and characterised by the worship of many different gods and spirits, but there are four sets of paired deities, each a brother and sister, who are held to be primordial or supreme. It is the ultimate veneration of one of these pairs which determines a Young Naacal PC’s background. These are:

1 - Nu and Naunet, the gods of fluidity or flow; of transience or the lack of a defined state (attuned to the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, +2 WIS, +1 DEX; can cast change self and hold portal 1/day) 
2 - Hehu and Hehut, the gods of unboundedness, or of the lack of limit - of air, and of the void (attuned to the infinite nature of existence, +2 INT, +1 STR; can cast enlarge and feather fall 1/day) 
3 - Kekui and Kekuit, the gods of darkness, and of obscurity - of the passing of day into night (attuned to the fact that all comes to an end, and that all will pass, +2 WIS, +1 CON; can cast light/dark and erase 1/day) 
4 - Qerh and Qerhut, the gods of repose, of inactivity, of halting and stopping (attuned to the qualities of stillness, and of attending without haste, +2 CHA, +1 CON; can cast hypnotism and sleep 1/day)

Young Naacals suffer a 10% advancement penalty, meaning they must deduct 10% from all XP awards they receive.

High Naacals are the pure-blooded, high caste Naacals who still inhabit the Unremembered City as it floats through the skies of the post-Infraction world. Aloof, arrogant, and strange, over time their somnic abilities have weakened and become attenuated and difficult to control. But they remain the only inhabitants of the world who able to summon and command suchian entities. How this is done is detailed in a separate post.

High Naacals suffer a 10% advancement penalty, meaning they must deduct 10% from all XP awards they receive.

Thursday 8 February 2024

Mike Mearls, Moral Philosopher

I recently came across this video on t'internet. In it, Mike Mearls does his best to look very serious and thoughtful while he talks about alignment. But what he has to say is not only devoid of anything resembling insight; it tells us a great deal about some particular problems that lie at the heart of modern D&D as I see it:

The crucial section of the video comes in at the 2:30 mark. In it, Mearls advances what we might call the Raistlin-from-Dragonlance Gambit. Here, I paraphrase slightly:

'In the vastness of the D&D cosmos there isn't one right answer...the way I like to think of it is this: what if Mount Celestia, the forces of law and good, just conquered the entire cosmos. Well, they're lawful and good, they'd expect everybody to be lawful and good. So the chaotic good people would be the last ones into the prison. That's kind of how I think of it. Any alignment that gets out of hand would start doing things that the other alignments would see as awful.'

Mearls has a look about him - one might even call it an aesthetic - that seems carefully cultivated: part hobbit, part nerd, part college professor, part scientist. And he speaks eloquently. If one were 14 years old, one might indeed take his ideas to be worthy of attention. But the vision of moral reality he here advances is, I hope it goes without saying, rather silly. It suggests that all of the different D&D alignments are just, in essence, differences of opinion. And therefore what matters is not one of them winning or losing the cosmic conflict, but that they are all kept in reasonable balance

We find this notion appealing in some sense, because, being inhabitants (largely) of democratic polities where it is recognised within reason that a plurality of viewpoints and ways of life need to co-exist peacefully, we feel as though indeed it would be bad if one viewpoint or way of life was forced upon literally everybody. And this idea has been bleeding into D&D for a long time: I think Planescape, with its factions and its eternal struggle between infinite planes defined by philosophy as much as geography, was probably the apogee of this strange conflation of real world politics and fantasy world cosmology.

But you just have to think about it for 10 seconds to realise how silly this idea is when transposed into a fantasy setting: real-world political differences arise because different people have different ideas about what is best - in other words, because everybody thinks themselves to be basically lawful and good. Our differences are therefore between competing conceptions of the lawful and the good. They aren't differences between people who are actually good and people who are actually evil (despite what much of modern political discourse, as shrill and perpetually outraged as it is, would have you believe). 

The alignments-as-differences-of-opinion model which Mearls advances, in other words, is not really an alignment system. It's a political system. Nothing wrong of course with a fantasy political system - designing such a thing is an interesting experiment of the imagination. But it's different to an alignment system, which is predicated on the actual existence of good, evil, law and chaos.

The Mearlsian way of thinking infects a lot of modern fantasy (Mearls keeps citing Game of Thrones as his exemplar, and he is right to do so). No doubt this is because modernity is increasingly defined by a rejection of the idea that there are such things as good and evil (let alone law and chaos), even if we unconsciously still hold quite closely to their existence (just witness the debate on both sides of any issue concerning deeply held convictions, such as abortion or euthenasia, if you need evidence of this). But it is not a remotely satisfying or inspiring way to concieve of an actual cosmic conflict. 

The inspiring way to imagine cosmic conflict is that it matters: that it is winner-takes-all. And the only way to sensibly understand that is on the basis that there is in fact such a thing as law and such a thing as chaos, and/or such a thing as good and such a thing as evil, and that they represent not differences of opinion but irreconcilable and antagonistic oppositions between competing approaches to reality. Chaos is the hatred of law and vice versa; evil is the hatred of good. And it matters deeply which side wins, because existence itself is at stake in that question. It is not that the final victory of lawful good would be that everybody has to be lawful good or be sent to prison. It is that without law and good, chaos and evil will triumph, and that will mean the complete destruction of anything and everything that is founded in law and goodness: love, family life, commerce, cooperation, friendship, and all the rest. That is what I think a truly inspiring descripion of cosmic alignment conflict would really require - not balance, but eternal, tooth-and-nail struggle. 

This is why in recent years I return again and again to the position that D&D somewhere took a deeply unattractive turn in its 'humanisation' of orcs. The result of this was the reduction of the distinction between alignments to what is basically now an aesthetic choice: my character is a bit zany and hippyish so he is chaotic good; mine is selfish so he is neutral evil; mine is sadistic and nasty so he's chaotic evil; mine is a pedant and a stickler for rules so he's lawful netural; and so on. This is a recipe for blandness (although since this. of course is what 5th edition seems to be all about, perhaps that is the point). A reality defined by the existence of actual cosmic conflict is a thousand times more interesting. But to describe and embrace it as the 'proper' way to think of alignment you would have to accept that the aesthetic choices of some players ('But I really want to be an orc!') would have to be overridden.

The only really sensible approach, I think, if you want a relativistic universe, is not to have an alignment system at all - a perfectly justifiable proposition, and far superior to the unsatisfactory half-way house that we have arrived at. Either make alignments matter, or don't - and if they don't, do away with them entirely.

Monday 5 February 2024

The Sunday Seven: 5th February 2024

Each Sunday (well, almost each Sunday), I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's: