Friday, 30 January 2009

Random Generation Heaven

I finally broke down and got my hands on Mongoose Traveller after debating the issue for several weeks. (I like spending money, but I'm wary about buying new RPG material after being burned on a few occasions by, frankly, rubbish games.) I shouldn't have been worried. The world generation section is worth the price of admission on its own.

I've already created an earth-sized world with an ammonia atmosphere where sex is a form of barter and the government is a slave-owning plutocracy, and a belt of asteroids riven by balkanisation and internecine warfare where each separate rocky body hosts a different militant faction. And that has set off an adventure-seed bomb in my head. Such is the genius and beauty of a good random generator.

Metal and Gaming

I think I'm right in saying that, on average, there are more role players who like metal music than in the general population at large. At least judging by the groups I've gamed with in the past and from the role playing blogosphere - which seems like a veritable hotbed of metal fans.

This makes me feel alienated. I hate metal.

Now, I like hard rock, and hardcore, and grunge. My favourite band were The Smashing Pumpkins (I don't count their latest album, or the one before it actually) and I grew up listening to Dinosaur Jr., Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Mudhoney. It's not an issue with the heavyness. It's just all that screaming, grunting and hair. It's not for me.

But I wonder where the association between metal and gaming comes from. Gamers are by and large an imaginative bunch. Do metal bands also help to scratch that itch, with their songs named after Tolkien characters who live in Mordor and their ranting on about death, doom and destruction? But if that's the case, why wouldn't classical music, which plays with the imagination even more, be a popular choice?

The simple answer might just be that gamers tended to be the 'uncool' kids in school and 'uncool' kids listen to a certain type of music. They like rebellious, moody and resentful sounding music because they are generally rebellious, moody and resentful themselves. And you don't get much more rebellious, moody and resentful sounding than Pantera or Slayer.

I know metal-loving gamers read this blog. So spill the beans. Is there a connection between metal and gaming, and why does it exist?

Thursday, 29 January 2009

More Molluscs

I won't inflict any more of my art on you after this entry, I promise. Once again, I apologise profusely for this collection of appalling nonsense and laughable scribblings plagueing your RSS feed.

1. The Snail-Elf

This is an elf mage who was forced by his god to take on this form after a faustian bargain. In return for 100 years of vast wealth and power, the mage had to accept 100 years of life in this mutant form beforehand. He is a mighty spellcaster, but can only use magic that does not have a somatic or material component.

2. A Squid Sumo Wrestler

Squid men are fanatical wrestlers. It is their favourite pastime. This rikishi has a long feeding tentacle with which to snare opponents, and a tentacled fist with an octopus-like beak in the palm. Squid-men wrestling bouts are bloody affairs, though their innate toughness usually means the rikishi suffer no long term ill effects.

3. A slug man on the way to a picnic

A more light hearted piece. 'Slug men' are hermaphroditic and display both male and female qualities. This fellow has a sun parasol and a handbag and is off to meet his friends at the mushroom-park.

4. A Snailgiant

A half-snail, half-giant terror. [I don't know why he's wearing a business suit.]

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Isn't it time you got to know....?

[I know I promised more slugmen pr0n; bear with me.]

The music magazine Q runs a regular feature in their review section entitled Isn't it time you got to know [x]? where [x] is the name of an under-rated and/or unfairly overlooked musician or band. This feature could just as well be used for books, films, alchoholic drinks, cities and, of course, role playing games.

Well, isn't it time you got to know HARP?

Now, before you start off on me, I know it has a crap website that hasn't been updated since May 2008. And I know it's easily dismissed as either Rolemaster light or a fantasy heartbreaker. But beneath the naff, cliched exterior is a little gem of a game; like the Deacon Blue of the roleplaying world, what is easily dismissed as a simplistic, well-meaning, polished but bland affair is, underneath, well worth getting to know.

Part of the strength of HARP is its very simplistic blandness. This isn't a game which wears its wacky mechanics or kewl setting like a badge of indie pride. It doesn't pretend to be about exploring conflict, or betrayal, or trust, and it doesn't masquerade under a shibboleth like "story game". It sets its stall from the outset as the High Adventure Role Playing game, without a trace of irony or self-consciousness: this is a game about good old fashioned Adventure and it wants you to know about it, and it's a role playing game and it isn't ashamed to be so.

It also manages to achieve what D&D has always struggled with and what E6 was meant to bring about: doing realistic-seeming fantasy to any degree of success. The abstractions of hit points, armour class, THAC0 (BABs, whatever) and levels means that D&D characters have absurdly steep career trajectories; if they don't die they reach heights of power and invulnerability far beyond that of mere mortals. By level 6 they are practically superheroes. HARP characters improve in much more organic and believable ways. They become increasingly competent, but remain fragile, never growing into the kind of demigod that D&D characters quickly become. Unlike D&D at level 9 and above, in HARP there is genuine risk no matter how much experience a character has. (Which is not to criticise D&D; I like D&D. But it won't let you play a game as if it's A Song of Ice and Fire.)

Another thing: it uses a simplified Rolemaster system, and what can match the sheer joy of its exploding percentile dice rolling? Of felling an orc by driving your sword through its face and out through the back of its skull, and finding out how many rounds it takes a goblin to drown in its own blood after being pierced through the lung? Not boring old d20, that's for certain. Hand me those d10s!

The best thing about it is that it is generic. Nothing bored me more about WotC D&D than its implied settings. Points of Light? Yawn. People pay money for that? What are the rules? Well, ICE have created a setting for HARP, but you won't see nary a mention of it in the core rules. This is a set of instructions for playing a fantasy adventure game, and that's that: you come up with the rest. Come up with your own setting or make it up as you go along. There are no designers trying to indirectly influence what you do. This is a game that I can get on board with.

So isn't it about time you got to know HARP? Really?

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Mollusc World

I think I'll put up some more invertebrate people pictures tomorrow - including a squid man sumo wrestler. So I've given fair warning.

I'm feeling inspired to create something, mainly because I've been reading about the exploits of others in creating old school supplements, but also because I want to make a more permanent contribution than this blog. I love posting here, and have put up quite a lot of gaming-related ideas, but most of it disappears into the ether - the nature of blogging being what it is. I'm not in this to make money (anything I release will be free) but it would be nice to have something more solid.

A while ago, as some of you may recall, I was busy writing up a setting idea I'd had for a long time which mixed Australian Aboriginal culture with the Cthulu mythos, but everything I'd written was destroyed in a hard drive accident and the thought of redoing the whole thing was just too bleak a prospect to contemplate. For a while now I've been casting about for something else to do instead, and I'm starting to think molluscs are the way to go. Specifically, a scrapbook of usable stuff that people can take out and insert into their own campaign, whether a single page or the entire ninety-six (or whatever it comes to), based around the theme of mollusc-people: slugmen, squidpeople, octopusfolk and gastropodlians.

Right now my idea is for a collection of monsters, PC races, NPCs, and a mollusc-people city which can be inserted into a larger campaign world or be used as a small standalone campaign setting. It will be detail-light and as 'crunch' free as possible, to allow for easy tailoring to whatever flavour of D&D floats your boat, and will hopefully be a little (very little) twist with which to change the flavour of a game. This time, God and computer hardware willing, I'll actually get the thing done.

Monday, 26 January 2009

A slug is as evolved as you.

I'm not much of an artist. The pictures I draw range in quality from the dreadful and horrendous to the merely crap. I like it though, which I suppose is what counts.

Last night I had a go at freehand sketching for the first time in what must be at least a year. It began as an effort to freak out my wife, but as I got going I started to become more attached to the weird invertebrate people I came up with, and have started thinking about a D&D sourcebook for them. This is a broad sampling of about 15 bits of 'concept art' that I drew up in the space of an hour or so. You'll probably have to click on them and zoom in to see them clearly, because for some reason my scanner decided to save them as gargantuan .bmp files. Be forwarned: they are of course of a quality ranging from dreadful to crap.

1. This is an octupus man. (The Japanese at the top says takojin or takobito; I haven't decided which I like best.) I'm not sure why he's wearing a fez. I started out with the idea of a ghost (which you can probably tell from the face) but then went off in an unexpected direction.

2. A cuttlefish person. I picture his body being a little like Jabba the Hutt, legless and vaguely phallic, but smooth and squid-like rather than Jabba's more snailly feel. Cuttlefish man has to inhabit a big tank of salt water if he ever needs to go on land - he has a gang of slaves to help him with this and carry him around. Maybe on a giant sedan chair, like a Slaad from Warhammer. (The Japanese says either ikajin or ikabito.)

3. This is an old slug-man relaxing in his armchair at the social club. The item he's holding in his right tentacle is a pipe. Note the brandy, port and wine on the drinks table. Slug-people like a tipple.

4. A slug-man warrior. The thing hanging from his waist is supposed to be a sort of sporran, rather than anything rude. It didn't come out very well. He has on ceremonial dress, including a cravat.

More tomorrow, if I'm feeling especially cruel.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

They did the mash - it was a monster mash

On the subject of bestiaries, I've often wanted to create what I call the stat-less monster manual. As the name suggests, this bestiary would have absolutely no rules or stats of any kind. All it would contain would be hastily scrawled eyewitness accounts, pseudo-scientific studies by obscure sages, entries in chronicles of dubious veracity, hand sketches, and rumours and legends whispered by ignorant peasants. From this scrapbook, prospective DMs would assemble piecemeal what they believe the monsters to be like, add a healthy dose of their own imagination, and then create the stats based on their own idea of what they should be.

For example, the entry for a monster called a 'gerrhu' might consist of an entry in a local history book written in obscure and badly spelled script, some rough pictures drawn in charcoal by eyewitnesses of a gerrhu raid, some accounts by adventurers, and a scribed recording of a meeting between an gerrhu chieftain and a minor human noble. The DM would sort through all the rumour and conjecture - much of it contradictory - and make up their mind what a 'gerrhu' was like. Then they'd write down whatever stats and use it in their game.

It would require a lot of work and creativity, but would work very well with a reasonably rules-light game. The beauty of it is that it would be system neutral, so you could use it just as well in D&D, Rolemaster or GURPS Fantasy. And say goodbye to the old problem of players knowing monsters' weaknesses and secrets because they've read the Monster Manual; no two DMs would ever come up with the same version of a monster.

It's one of those things that would be easier to create and release now than ever before. Perhaps I'll give it a whirl one of these days - put it up there on the list with the other two hundred things I've talked about on this blog but never got round to doing.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Son take a good look around... this is your hometown

"Liverpoole is one of the wonders of Britain... In a word, there is no town in England, London excepted, that can equal [it] for the fineness of the streets, and the beauty of the buildings." Daniel Defoe, A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, 1721-26

"Liverpool…has become a wonder of the world. It is the New York of Europe, a world city rather than merely British provincial.” - Illustrated London News, 15th May 1886

"The scale and resilience of the buildings and people is amazing - it is a world city, far more so than London and Manchester. It doesn't feel like anywhere else in Lancashire: comparisons always end up overseas - Dublin, or Boston, or Hamburg." - Ian Nairn, Britain's Changing Towns, 1967

I do love a campaign that's set in a real-life city, particularly one in which the players, or at least the DM, have lived. A sense of place is what's missing from a lot of games (especially fantasy ones for obvious reasons), but by setting events in a real city that problem is eliminated at a stroke. Suddenly the campaign feels infinitely more tangible. I ran a Cyberpunk 2020 game for a year that was set in Yokohama, and it was a very rewarding and fulfilling experience because everybody involved knew the city intimately - its nooks and crannies, its hot spots, its no-go areas. And when I was a teenager our group ran a Shadowrun game set in Wallasey, our home town; one of my most vivid gaming memories was a duel between my shark shaman and a vampire in the car park of a pub just down the road from my parents' house, which ended with my character severing the vampire's head.

I've always wanted to set a game in Liverpool, which is the city I generally say I'm from (because I was born there, and it is right next door to Wallasey....and it's also cooler and more famous). It would be a great place to set a campaign: poor and rich in equal measure, with a baroque history, glorious architecture, a long tradition of sectarianism and a fascinating international past.

40% of all the world's trade once passed through Liverpool's docks, and yet some of its postal districts are now the most deprived in Europe. Its riches were built on the misery and suffering of the Atlantic slave trade, but its population boomed due to famine and plague in Ireland. It has the oldest black and Chinese communities in Britain and the country's oldest Mosque, as well as its best established Jewish population outside of London. It is situated in England but its heart and soul are Celtic - well over half the people living there have their roots in Ireland, Wales or the Isle of Man. It is the kind of place that can give birth to The Beatles but where Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens and Washington Irving also called home. It has the most galleries and museums than any British city outside of London and the absolute highest per capita in the country. It has two mighty cathedrals, one Catholic and one Protestant, a UNESCO world heritage site, and some of the finest public architecture in the world. Yet ten minutes away from the city centre you will find sweeps of empty space where houses once stood, still waiting for regeneration since the air raids of World War II.

The game which would best fit Liverpool is, I think, Unknown Armies. British cities are made for secret cabals of cultists, of course - their narrow cobbled streets and dark alleys ooze clandestine scheming. But Liverpool in particular has the kind of history which generates plot hooks by the bucket load for that sort of dark urban fantasy: vast wealth and great secrets collected from all four corners of the world, sectarian violence between Protestant and Catholic, massive empty and echoing libraries and public fora, ghosts of drowned slaves, rows of deserted terraced houses, relics of postindustrial depopulation and urban decay. Violence and seediness too, like only a great port city can have. The place is like a huge sump of potential skullduggery and weirdness.

One day, my friends, one day. I really will get a Liverpool campaign off the ground.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Are we Human, or are we Dancer?

I'm a big fan of humans, and not just in the sense that I like the female variety rather a lot. I also think homo sapiens has a big part to play in fantasy role playing, especially if pulp and Sword & Sorcery are your thang. You won't find orcs, kobolds and ogres fighting Conan or Elric. For Sword & Sorcery it's pretty much humans or Freakish Things, all the way.

What I like about humans and fantasy role playing is that they can mess with the players' thoughts and feelings in ways that demihuman races often can't. The average D&D gamer isn't much concerned about the mass slaughter of orc children or the murder of kobold pensioners, but give them human foes and they often start to think in more moral terms (albeit only very slightly) about the consequences of what they do. Villains who the players can empathise with are always more interesting than those with whom they can't.

Humans are also scarier than orcs or trolls, say. Players know what orcs are: they're evil and they want to kill you. Maybe torture you and eat you alive. But that attitude is expected and the response is obvious - total war. Kill or be killed. Humans on the other hand have nuance, and when dealing with them the only expectation can be that something unexpected will happen. This can be frightening, especially if you know that humans are just as capable of evil as orcs are - just in less predictable ways.

For that reason I always wanted a bestiary for a fantasy role playing game given over entirely to varieties of human. It could contain everything from Inca priests to Danish stevedores. Cultists, pirates, brigands, priests, labourers, butchers, the lot. Crazed wizards and brain-eating cannibals. That I never found such a bestiary is a source of great regret to me.

Maybe I'll make one some day.

A female human. [With apologies to the female readership.]

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

So it looks like we might have made it, yes it looks like we made it to the end...

I think role playing games are all about the adventures. You can call adventures different things depending on the genre - missions, runs, whatever - but that's just nomenclature. All you're doing, at the end of the day, is heading off into the unknown and seeing what happens.

This makes role playing games and 'story' a bad fit, in my book. Good stories and heading off into the unknown only rarely go well together: for every Stephen King who just sits down with an idea and sees where it goes during the writing progress, there are 10 million frustrated authors writing utter bollocks with the same method. Unplanned story requires a lot of talent to make it work. And this goes for role playing adventures too: for every unplanned campaign that you can look back on and say "that could be a novel", there are 10 million which were a lot of fun but which you know could never mean anything to anybody who wasn't directly involved. Try telling somebody about your gaming session last Sunday; they'll get the same look in their eyes that you get when somebody starts telling you about the dream they had last night, or when somebody at work is going on about how many shots he did at the club on Saturday. The last thing they'll say is, "Ooh, tell me more!" Unless they're very polite. That doesn't mean it was a bad session - it's just, really, who gives one about what Gwenda the Paladin said to the white dragon if they weren't there?

I was thinking about this last night when I sat down to watch No Country for Old Men. In many ways, it reminded me of a Cyberpunk 2020, Shadowrun, Deadlands or Unknown Armies game: there was a lot of tension, a nice set up planned by a good DM, some interesting characters, and a good mixture of violence, action and role playing. But in the end the whole thing kind of stumbled out of rhythm when it came to the narrative. People died due to unfortunate dice rolls when it would have been better if they hadn't, some random encounter checks came up with crazy results and the DM didn't quite know how to deal with them, and in the end as a 'story' it just didn't work out. I'm sure it was a lot of fun for the players, but to a neutral observer it seemed fundamentally unsatisfactory. A lot of the Cyberpunk or Shadowrun games I've been involved with could be described like that.

Those games weren't any the worse for it, of course. I don't play for the story; I play for the adventure - because that's where the fun is.

Monday, 19 January 2009

On Steampunk

I've always loved the aesthetic of Steampunk. The problem is that I've never really been sure what the genre is supposed to be about.

Let me expand on that: Science Fiction is, for me, about examining issues of humanity, politics, sexuality etc. by taking them out of our context and placing them in another, very realistic and plausible one. Fantasy is about escapism - getting out of this world and exploring a better and more interesting one. Horror is about "the oldest and strongest emotion" and the adrenaline kick it gives you. But what is steampunk about, other than the certain visual style with which it is associated? Is it just a sub-genre of Fantasy or Science Fiction, or is it there to explore something else?

One idea is that Steampunk is about the fraught and nervous relationship between mankind and technology. New things are being created, but their very production and maintenance - the coal it wastes and pollution it produces - is debilitating for society as much as it works for the good. This neatly reflects our uncomfortable relationship with scientific progress, wherein new technologies create further problems for our culture and the environment.

In that respect Steampunk should be the genre of choice for a new supplement for 'legacy' games: as Gamma World was a way to play around with the world's crisis of the day (nuclear war), so a Steampunk game would be ideal for tapping into some form of zeitgeist or contemporary angst about environmental catastrophe. I can envisage a world in which the Industrial Revolution never stopped, and pollution-belching factories and vehicles ruined the atmosphere to such an extent that global warming has become frightening reality, with sea levels rising, desertification increasing and disappearance of animals. As land becomes scarcer wars and famine ravage the nations and societies collapse. And hey presto, Steampunk post-apocalypse is the result.

You could call it, "Carbon World".

Sunday, 18 January 2009

[Alignment Breakdown VII] Lawful Evil

These characters believe in using society and its laws to benefit themselves. Structure and organization elevate those who deserve to rule as well as provide a clearly defined hierarchy between master and servant. To this end, lawful evil characters support laws and societies that protect their own concerns. If someone is hurt or suffers because of a law that benefits lawful evil characters, too bad. Lawful evil characters obey laws out of fear of punishment. Because they may be forced to honor an unfavorable contract or oath they have made, lawful evil characters are usually very careful about giving their word. Once given, they break their word only if they can find a way to do it legally, within the laws of the society. An iron-fisted tyrant and a devious, greedy merchant are examples of lawful evil beings.

2nd Edition Player's Handbook

It is often said that Lawful Evil is the alignment of tyrants and dictators - Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. That seems persuasive, inasmuch as those individuals used the law as a weapon with which to crush opponents (real or imagined) and perverted it to their own ends.

However, there's something a little unsatisfactory about that label when it is applied to player characters. Don't get me wrong: I don't have a problem per se with player characters attaining power and then abusing it in egregious ways. It's part of what role playing is all about, and I don't believe I'd ever game with anybody who I thought would support iron fisted tyrants in real life. But at the same time are budding Hitlers and Pol Pots all that Lawful Evil characters can be?

This is where we see a disconnect between what D&D always could have been, but never was, and was never likely to become. Lawful Evil is a perfect alignment for a 'devious, greedy merchant', an amoral lawyer, a scheming lower-rank politician, a sophist philosopher, or a con man. But the trouble is that none of those archetypes are viable in a game whose rules are fundamentally about killing things in dungeons. And unless you have a group of very like-minded friends, using that game about killing things in dungeons to play something else can be tough.

That isn't a complaint, of course. I would love to play D&D games involing amoral lawyers or sophist philosophers, but I recognise that such campaigns would have to be achieved in spite of, not through, the rules. They just aren't D&D. You might as well play a free-form game instead, for all the support the rules will offer you. Such is life.

The existence of Lawful Evil shows how fundamentally odd aligment is - a system which categorises all of human life into 10 sections, and which allows a very slender sub-section of society (adventurers) to choose from all 10. It shouldn't be surprising that there are some alignments which fit the adventuring lifestyle less well than others. The fact that the designers did not seem to have considered this is an indication of the amazing scope of their ambition: D&D was a game whose rules were for killing things in dungeons, but which reached for something far greater than that - literally, to be anything its players wanted to use it for. That the rules didn't always jibe with this ambition is obvious, and it stands in sharp contrast to the very narrowly defined games which the modern 'indie' movement produces - where every rule is there to serve a specific goal and any superfluity is ruthlessly severed. I know which I prefer.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Fantastical Fantasy Art

I've just made my way back over to the opposite side of Eurasia and am suffering from the old bone ache again. So all I have for you is a content-light post of pretty pictures.

There have been a few recent posts in the blogosphere singing the praises of two sub-genres of fantasy art: Fantastic Realism and Extraordinary Ordinariness - both which I love in their own right, but neither of which are my absolute preference. I always liked best what we'll call Fantastical Fantasy: the strand of art which runs from Fuseli to Brom, via Blake, Diterlizzi and Alan Lee, and which creates pieces which are notable for how different they look from our reality. This sub-genre is all about worlds which Could Not Be; what distinguishes it from Fantastic Realism and Extaordinary Ordinariness is that it postulates a fantastic universe which looks nothing like our own. Whereas in other sub-genres of fantasy the dragons, elves (and whatever else) seem real and the artists imagine how they would look in a world like ours, Fantastical fantasy throws reality out of the window and focuses on the gothic, the dream-like, and the unnatural.

There is something genuinely creepy about this Brom piece - I can't work out whether it's the androgyny, the rictus grin, or the hint of Jame Gumb. Perhaps it's all three. In any case, not somebody you would want to run into on a dark night. Or in any other situation you can name.

Take a look at this fellow, penned by Dom Maitz. It isn't enough to have a gigantic spellbook which is probably made from human skin and written in blood - and you can see in the wizard's eyes and the way his fingers flourish as he starts to turn the page how much he relishes reading it. You also have to be able to levitate, and the experience just wouldn't be the same without a hookah to puff. He is clearly relaxing on a Sunday evening, enjoying perusing his collection while he searches for the perfect curse with which to smite his rival.

One of Fuseli's elves. Imagine if Gygax and Arneson had taken this for their inspiration, rather than Tolkien's idea. It's doubtful we'd ever have seen drow, that's for sure. This piece was drawn in 1790; Fantastical Fantasy has the edge over other sub-genres in terms of its age.

The forest is dark, and things which live in it are watching you from the shadows. Is the figure in the background a comrade or an enemy waiting to strike? Like Brom, Diterlizzi was one of the major 'Silver Age' TSR artists who bucked the Fantastic Realist trend, to create art that was Fantastical in the term's purest sense.

Whither now Fantastical Fantasy? WotC have discarded Fantastic Realism, but their art now takes comic books (from the US, Europe and Japan) as its major inspiration. These things go in cycles; by the time D&D 5th edition comes around the wheel will undoubtedly turn once again.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

[Inspirational Pictures V] Planetary Cartography

Mars, I'm sure you'll agree, is a bit of an attention-seeking bastard when it comes to sci-fi and space opera. The red planet gets all the terraforming and colonisation while the other planets just have to watch from the sidelines. This is a great injustice that must be rectified.

A topography of Venus, complete with a handy colour scheme to make it easy to envisage seas and oceans. From this distance it almost looks like a pleasant place to pay a visit - though of course you can't see the clouds of sulphuric acid howling around its surface.

Titan's gigantic sea. Not composed of water, but of liquid methane. What form of life has it given rise to?

Nobody can see much of Pluto's surface. This is an imaginary map, based on that of Jupiter's moon Ganymede. I love the icy feeling of this image. Like Great Old Ones could be slumbering beneath its translucent surface, or The Thing - waiting for milennia after milennia for a host to inhabit.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien

I've just finished this book, a collection of Tolkien's correspondence spanning the years 1914-1973 and concentrated on the years spent writing The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. I'm a great fan of collections of letters, perhaps mainly because I never manage to write letters myself and see the process as a dying art. But they also provide fascinating insights into how authors viewed their own work. Raymond Barthes might protest all he likes, but I still find that worth investigating.

What I think is most interesting about Tolkien's thoughts on The Lord of the Rings is his idea of the trilogy's main theme. It surprised me to learn that he didn't consider it to be friendship, adventure, exploration, the triumph of good over evil, or hope - which are the things that come to my mind when I think about the books. In fact, he states on several occasions and to several different correspondents that the trilogy is at root about Death. That strikes me as highly unusual, and isn't very well explained. Next time I read the books (which I do about once a year), I'll have to give it some thought.

Another example: Tolkien seemed to consider Frodo to be a rather boring cipher and in the final analysis a failure. He believed strongly that the true hero of the piece was in fact Sam. This is something that I had felt was true for years, and it was both pleasant and surprising to find that the man himself had the same idea. It was Sam, after all, who managed to resist the temptation to take the ring for himself, who saw Gollum for what he was, and who saved the day (and the world) when the entire quest was at its bleakest moment. All Frodo did was carry the ring - and then, crucially, give in at the last minute.

Tolkien also felt that he had made a crucial mistake in making The Hobbit too childish. He regretted that it became relegated to a "children's book", and only originally submitted it as such because he wasn't sure what other category it could go into - given that "fantasy" as a genre barely existed at the time. This wasn't due to churlishness about children - he even notes on a few occasions that children often wrote to him to complain about the book's most 'childish' aspects - but because all the stuff about Bullroarer Took inventing golf etc. clashed with the verisimilitudinous nature of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

These days it's often said that The Lord of the Rings wasn't nearly as much an influence on the development of fantasy role playing as were the writings of Howard, Moorcock or Leiber. This may be the case. But where I think Tolkien directly influenced play was in his love of world building and tinkering with races, geography, language and history - and his absolute denial of allegory. D&D and its like draw a direct bead from that; the creation of a consistent reality different from our own. Even if he is not the spiritual father of The Game as he is with fantasy fiction, he's certainly the one who made it all possible.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Roleplaying Myth Number 1 - Roleplaying = Acting

One of the controversies that rages between RPG enthusiasts of various stripes is the awarding of bonuses (usually experience points or whatever the equivalent method of advancement is in that particular game) for 'good roleplaying'. On one side there are the Patronising Overbearing Paternalists, who see it as the GM's job to reward good play and, in particular, good roleplaying (since that is the purpose of the Game). Arrayed against them are the Limp Wristed Pseudointellectual Pansies, who argue that, hang on, just because somebody isn't great in the amateur dramatics department or suffers from a crippling lack of social skills, they shouldn't be penalised or discriminated against for their 'bad role playing' (which should be read: bad acting/lack of confidence).

These days the views of the Limp Wristed Pseudointellectual Pansies tend to win out over those of the Patronising Overbearing Paternalists, and role playing XP awards no longer seem to be de riguer. But I think both sides are really arguing over the wrong thing: the Limp Wristed Pseudointellctual Pansies seem to believe that the Patronising Overbearing Paternalists are too deferential to the GM and too into "acting", while the Patronising Overbearing Paternalists see the Limp Wristed Pseudointellectual Pansies as a gang of weak-willed, callow quislings without backbone and a pathological fear of competition. Neither of those is actually the case.

Let me make one thing clear, first of all: I don't see role playing as amateur dramatics. As a player or GM you'll never find me "doing a voice", delivering tedious tortured monologues, or otherwise inflicting my akting skillz on the other players. When all's said and done role playing games are games, not theatre, and if I wanted to humiliate myself and irritate others I'd play a LARP.

But it is indisputable that role playing games involve playing a role. It's right there in the title. So what does 'playing a role' mean, if it isn't amateur dramatics?

What it means, quite obviously, is taking on the persona of somebody who isn't you, and behaving in the way in which they would behave in a given situation. That doesn't involve pretending to be them. It merely involves taking the decisions, in-game, that they as the character would take - not what you as the player think is best. This could mean doing stupid or irresponsible things if the character has low Wisdom or Intelligence, running away from a fight if you've established that they are a coward, or doing something callous if you've established that they're a sociopath. That is what good role playing is, in my opinion: playing the character as a character, not as a mere cypher or mouthpiece for you as a player. Acting skills are irrelevant; it's about the characterisation.

And there is nothing wrong with the GM awarding experience points for players who are doing this well. It isn't about rewarding good actors or those who are socially confident - it's about rewarding people who play the game the best, i.e. those who play their roles in a consistent and believable way.

Monday, 5 January 2009

[Alignment Breakdown VI] Neutral Good

These characters believe that a balance of forces is important, but that the concerns of law and chaos do not moderate the need for good. Since the universe is vast and contains many creatures striving for different goals, a determined pursuit of good will not upset the balance; it may even maintain it. If fostering good means supporting organized society, then that is what must be done. If good can only come about through the overthrow of existing social order, so be it. Social structure itself has no innate value to them. A baron who violates the orders of his king to destroy something he sees as evil is an example of a neutral good character.

- 2nd Edition Player's Handbook

As with True Neutral, Neutral Good is hobbled as an alignment by the weird Moorcockian/Weiss-Hickmanian 'balance' baggage. Rather than being about pursuit of 'good' objectives for their own sake, it turns into an attempt to "maintain the balance" in a "vast universe", and again we are forced to ask: Who thinks about reality in those terms, and why would Balance be the concern of an ordinary adventurer?

Neutral Good characters, I think, should be idealists (more idealist than the straight-as-an-arrow Lawful Good types) - people who have Dreams, who want to achieve Peace on Earth and Goodwill To All Mankind, and who will stop at nothing in the pursuit of What's Best. In a modern context they would be animal rights campaigners, peace activists, international volunteers and freedom fighters. In the medieval high fantasy settings typical of AD&D, they might be Knights Errant, undertaking quests for the betterment of mankind, peasant heroes standing up for the underclass, or wandering healers. The do-gooders and starry-eyed of whatever world in which the game is taking place.

Unlike True Neutral types, Neutral Good characters make natural adventurers, especially if reasons are contrived: Bob the Knight Errant goes on adventures to raise money which he can distrubute to the poor; Gwenda the Healer enters the dungeon to try to find artifacts to make her work more effective; Job the Cleric goes to the goblin lair to end their privations on the poor people in the valley.

Once again, I find myself wondering whether 'Neutral' is the best choice of term for the diametric system. The alignments make more sense when they are thought of as Lawful Good, Lawful and Lawful Evil; Good, Neutral and Evil; Chaotic Good, Chaotic and Chaotic Evil. Thus the idea about Balance can be left to the philosophers and the DM where it belongs, and characters can just have personal motivations, as we would expect them to. But such are the rules that were given.

Friday, 2 January 2009

The City, it's The City y'all.... The City

Giant fantasy megalopolii, how do I love thee, let me count the ways.

1. Sigil, City of Doors. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but the 2nd edition AD&D designers collectively created some of the most innovative fantasy settings not just in the history of D&D or even fantasy role playing, but in the genre itself. Even I, compulsive homebrewer, couldn't resist their allure.

The crowning jewel of the 2nd edition campaign settings was Planescape, and its crowning jewel was Sigil: a giant city built on the inside of a horizontal hoop, floating above the peak of an infinitely tall mountain. It never made sense, but it didn't matter with an idea that freakishly good. The Rule of Cool, indeed.

What made Sigil really special, though, were the trappings: the Lady of Pain, silent ruler and talisman; the Dabus, civil servants who speak in images; the Mazes, dungeon-like labyrinths which grow out of the city's very passageways; and the factions, "philosophers with clubs", who each keep one aspect of Sigil running and thus save the city from utter disintegration.

2. Armada. China Mieville might have one of the worst cases of mouthpiece-itis when it comes to characterisation, but boy can he come up with some imaginative goodness. Armada, the city where the main action takes place in The Scar. It's a giant floating city made entirely of boats, strung together by a nation of pirates, which roams the world's oceans like a rumour or a legend.

As with Sigil it's the details as much as the concept which make it what it is. Armada's leaders are a pair of lovers who may or may not be twins and who are covered in tiny scars. Their allies include a vampire and a man armed with a sword which can kill thousands of times a second. Its citizens include a race of people whose blood coagulates and hardens into rock as soon as it leaves the body. And it has a mission, too, although you have to read the book to find out what it is.

3. Viriconium, the Pastel City. The Viriconium books are my absolute favourites, and the eponymous city is among the strangest in fantasy, though it doesn't flaunt its weirdness in the way that Sigil or Armada does. It is the last city left on earth after many millions of years have passed; it has existed for so long that its very reality has begun to fray from overuse, so that time itself has ceased to have meaning. Over the course of the novels the city transforms from a far-future metropolis to a pseudo-Dickensian London to a weird amalgamation of the Parisian Left Bank and Wolfeian fantasy/horror. Its rulers morph from a god-princess to a fat fortune teller and finally to a psychotic dwarf in league with two mad deities.

4. Khare, Cityport of Traps. It isn't entirely nostalgia which puts this city in the list, as the first fantasy metropolis I think I ever encountered in a novel or otherwise. The centrepiece for the Fighting Fantasy book Khare: Cityport of Traps (from the Sorcery! sequence), the settlement began as a camp for river pirates and grew into a mighty city - with streets so violent and dangerous that every dweller fortifies his or her house with one or more traps of some kind. It is ruled by as many as seven Nobles, one of whom is an anonymous beggar and another a vampire, who are the only citizens who know the magic which will unlock its North Gate.

5. Indigo, the Vertical Seaside Metropolis. Described by its creator as an attempt "to envision what a huge -vertical- seaside city would look like in a world where dry land is very precious", it was linked to in a recent rpg site thread, and I fell in love with the idea right away. Essentially a city built way below sea level but situated on the tiniest of islands, it takes the appearance of a sort of reverse Sigil, as if built around the outside of a vertical tube. Take a look at the link to see some beautiful fantasy art by Jesse van Dijk and proper explanation for how the whole thing works.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Top 10 Things That Have Pissed Me Off About Role Playing This Year

So shopping for a present for the wife put me in an ornery frame of mind earlier today. (We're spending the holiday period in different countries, for various unavoidable reasons; this allows me to shop for extra Christmas presents in the January sales and earn totally undeserved brownie points for buying lots of gifts. Fortunately she doesn't read this blog and I can get away with announcing my cheapness like this. But I digress.) And I feel that, since everybody else has been doing similar things, I should do a kind of Top Ten List. So here is the top ten most annoying things about role playing that I've experienced this year.

10. The fact that I don't get enough gaming in. Probably everyone reading this blog can relate to that (at least everybody who has a job/is married/has children/a social life or any of the above).

9. The idiotic moderators. Is there anything worse than a role playing nerd given a tiny amount of power over his fellows? That whole damn website is like an extended, free version of Zimbardo's simulated prison experiment, where a random cross section of geek society is elevated above its peers and immediately starts to abuse its position. With the redeeming quality that 90% of the other users are actually pretty nice.

8. 4e D&D. Just because, okay? You like it if you want to. I don't.

7. Online nerdspeak. Awesome involves awe. Sweetness is a taste. "Wicked cool" is not proper English. The abbreviation for "For example" is not "F'rex". Do piss off with your stupid, infantile, depressing, moronic shibboleths.

6. All that guff about the Rule of Cool. "
All but the most pedantic of viewers will forgive liberties with reality so long as the result is wicked sweet and/or awesome." No. The Rule of Cool may work with doltish audiences, but stop acting like it's a good thing. Wicked sweetness and awesomeness is not an excuse for lazy writing, planning or execution. Or are we now going to start giving Michael Bay Oscars? See above re: mauling of the English language.

5. The wearing of geekiness as a badge of pride. As Bill Hicks said, it's a judgement call, and I'm making it: You shouldn't be proud to call yourself a geek. It's an insult, and no, using it to label yourself is not "reclaiming the word". Love the things you love, and don't stand for other people calling it geeky. And don't allow yourself the lazy way out of life that geekiness provides. Comic books and role playing games are not a shield to protect you from the world, and they are not really living. Get off your arse and do something with your life, for Christ's sake.

4. GNS Theory. I hadn't heard about it before this year, and I wish I never had. As if pseudo intellectual buffoonery wasn't a problem enough in the real world, it has to pervade an innocent hobby in which fat bearded guys pretend to be elves.

3. Vampire: The Masquerade. Every year since its release until the end of time. Yeah! Let's take Dracula and turn him into an emo goth kid with black makeup who self harms and listens to crap music! And then we'll laugh all the way to the bank!

2. Japanophiles. See Appendix A. Get your own culture and stop ransacking other people's.

1. People Who Want to 'Do' Another Game With Another Game. You know, all those people who post messages on rpg-related forums saying things like, "I want to do a game set in the fourth age of Middle Earth, except using Spirit of the Century rules, but with the combat system from ORE, and the critical hit tables from Rolemaster, and the task resolution from Sorceror, whaddaya reckon? Aren't I just the best?"? Those people will be first against the wall, my friends, come the revolution.

I feel better now that I've got that off my chest.

Normal non-ranty service will resume in the New Year.