Tuesday, 31 January 2012

What I want in a Star Trek Game

Amongst my many sins, I am a fan of Star Trek. Well, let's be more specific: I love The Next Generation; you can keep the rest.

The thing about NextGen is that it's episodic. There might be recurring characters who sort of develop over the course of the 7 series, but ultimately it's rather like The Twilight Zone in space - every week the Enterprise rocks up at a new planet/space encounter and there's a new, self-contained story, almost always presenting itself as a problem followed by a solution. There may or may nor be a sub-plot.

I want a game that emulates this. It would need, primarily, three things:

  • A way to randomly generate unique planets/space encounters quickly and easily. (Examples: A large gas giant orbited by a Ferengi space station. A jungle planet populated by ostrich people. A huge space fungus.)
  • A way to generate unique problems. (Examples: A disease which makes the sufferer invisible. A Klingon spy. A star that's about to explode.)
  • A sub-plot generator. (Examples: An ensign is in love with character Y. The holodeck is malfunctioning. Lieutenant Barclay thinks he's gay.)

The important thing here is, you don't know what the solution to the problem is - not the players and not the GM. You just have a hurdle, and how it gets solved is open-ended, with the GM acting as a sort of ideas arbitrator, deciding what would or would not make sense.

Ideally, there would be some sort of teching the tech pool, whereby the players could spend a finite number of tokens to pull technological bullshit out of their arses, so long as they made it sound sufficiently plausible/amusing/Star Trekish:
Picard: Mr. Data, can't you figure out a way to re-route the manganese sub-particle detector shield to emit caesium rays?
Wesley: Yes, sir, and that might positivise the helium ions and create a mass-resistant vortex to pull us out of the radon nexus! 
Face it: it would be awesome.

Monday, 30 January 2012

When All Else Fails, Forge Monsters

It's been a while since I've done any of these.

Petal Zombie

Malevolent spirits inhabit groves of cherry and plum trees, waiting for spring. When it arrives they inhabit the fallen blossoms, which they animate and use to kill passers-by. They attack by suffocation, forcing themselves into nostrils, mouths, and throats; a successful hit does no damage, but the victim must contine to succesfully save vs. paralysis each round from that point onwards or choke to death. Petal Zombies can only be harmed by magical weapons. They always surprise their victims unless forewarned, and they never stray more than 60' from their grove.

Frequency: Rare
AC: 6
Hit Dice: 2+1**
Move: 90' (30')
Attacks: 1 (envelop)
Damage: Special
No. App.: 1d6
Save As: D2
Morale: 8
Treasure Type: U
Intelligence: 9
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 45

Root Voice Demon

These malicious but harmless beings live amongst tree roots, under the surface of the earth, and call out to passers-by. Being able to sense the contents of a man or woman's soul, they will often divulge personal secrets - careless of who might overhear. They have a 50% chance of doing so per round a person is in ear shot.

They are ethereal and invisible, and very rarely approach the surface.

Frequency: Very Rare
AC: 8
Hit Dice: 1-1
Move: 90' (30')
Attacks: 0
Damage: None
No. App.: 1d6
Save As: C1
Morale: 6
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: 6
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 10

Urn Wraith

An urn wraith is an evil undead entity which imbues itself into the ashes of a funeral urn and animates them into a human form - which emerges at will. It does this for its own amusement and satisfaction, to enjoy the misery and terror it instills into its victims before they die. Its touch causes the soul to wither.

Frequency: Very Rare
AC: 3
Hit Dice: 4**
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks: 1 touch
Damage: 1d6 + energy drain
No. App.: 1
Save As: F4
Morale: 8
Treasure Type: Nil
Intelligence: 7
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 175

Sunday, 29 January 2012

D&D and the Open Marriage

I think most gamers have a relationship with D&D that's similar to an open marriage. You're allowed to see all the other games you like, and you can even bring them home sometimes, but in the final analysis there's only one truly lasting love - and that's Dungeons and Dragons. The other games are fun, and they add a lot of spice to your life, but D&D is the only one that feels like home.

It's only by virtue of the fact that D&D is usually the gateway to the hobby, of course. And for people who came to role playing through other systems, I guess it doesn't apply. But I'd estimate it's true for 75% of gamers.

So I miss D&D when it's not around. I'm running a weekly Cyberpunk 2020 game at the moment and really enjoying it. But that hankering for hit points, THAC0, orcs and random encounter tables won't go away. In fact it's growing stronger. I'm not sure how much longer I can take it.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Inspirational Classics

I'm not the world's biggest expert on classical music, but I know what I like, and I know what's good inspiration for a D&D DM. I don't generally like to have music on during game sessions, unless it's just in the background, but during planning or setting creation some pieces can really get the synapses firing. Here are a few favourites:

  • Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, and his symphonic poem The Song of the Nightingale (the latter not to be confused with his opera, The Nightingale, from which it was born). The first is famous because of its use in Fantasia, but the performance is terrible and the piece cut up and bastardised. In its original form it is a stunning, brutally rhythmical musical depiction of a human sacrifice, which makes it pretty D&D in my book. The Firebird is a gorgeous and exotically alien piece, starring an evil and immortal sorcerer-king called Kaschei the Deathless. The Song of the Nightingale is perhaps not for everyone - it's discordant and extremely strange, like an opium-fuelled vision of the orient. But it's one of the most genuinely 'fantastical' pieces of music ever written.
  • Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, which is a very popular piece - for a reason: it's beautiful, exciting, uplifting and mysterious, and it draws on the 1,001 nights, one of humankind's great artistic achievements. Here's Rimsky-Korsakov's own description of the story it depicts: "The Sultan Schahriar, persuaded of the falseness and faithlessness of women, has sworn to put to death each one of his wives after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by interesting him in tales she told him during 1,001 nights. Pricked by curiosity, the Sultan put off his wife's execution from day to day, and at last gave up entirely his bloody plan." 'Nuff said.
  • Sibelius's Violin Concerto in D minor. It is the very essence of Scandinavian cold: icy, exotic, dark, brooding - like what a fjord would sound like if you put it to music. The Lord of the Rings would be set to this.
  • The Paris Quartets, by Telemann, for a slightly different feel: if you want the sound of 17th/18th century Europe, this is it. The kind of chamber music that, used in a film, is a lazy shorthand for "the court of a monarch in an indeterminate post-renaissance age". 
  • If you ever need something lithurgical, mournful, awe-inspiring and like it sounds as if it comes from the heart of some huge temple, you can't go wrong with J.S. Bach's Mass in B minor. Conjurs images of heaven, but also of weird magickal cults who worship the chaos gods.
  • Bartok's String Quartets, especially numbers 1 and 2. Forget death metal. If you want a disturbing, unsettling listen that will give you nightmares, put these on your Spotify.
  • Rachmaninov's The Isle of the Dead, based on this picture. Again, 'Nuff said:

Random Boss Generator

Need the name for a BBEG, or just a sinister-sounding weird NPC who lives at the bottom of a dungeon/in an ancient tower/in a ruined manse/in a volcano/in the sewers? Use this table. Can be used for [name/no name] +[qualifier+noun] or [noun+qualifier] -e.g.:

Elizabeth, the Queen of Bats
Ugpapa, the Dog Chief
Snurri, the Dreamer of Knives
The Worm Lover
Osman, The Famine Pope
The High Priest of Frogs

Should have d100-worth of entries. Make your own.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Why Having No Character Background Makes Sense

My preference, when creating D&D characters, is to have no, or minimal, background details. I think this is common to most people who play older versions of the game, because bitter experience shows there isn't much point wasting time creating a special snowflake PC given they have a 75% chance of dying before level 3.

This is one reason why outsiders are sort of snooty about old versions of D&D, I think.

But there's a good, sensible in game reason why not having detailed character backgrounds makes sense, at least in D&D. And it's this:

People go off and do crazy adventurous things when they have no responsibility and no ties. When I was 18 I went off to Kyrgyzstan for a few months to volunteer. When I was 21 I graduated from university and hopped on a plane to Japan with the intention of working my way around the world. I did these things because I was young, single, and fancy free, and didn't feel any real connection with where I grew up. In D&D terms, I had no 'character background' - you could have summed me up in one sentence (probably even less than that). I was a "Level 1 University Graduate". It was only after I'd lived for a while that I started to get anything like an interesting background worth speaking about - in other words, it was only after my 'adventuring career' had started that events in my life became worth cataloguing.

This would be even more true for D&D characters. In a typical D&D setting, life is nasty, brutish and short, and not only that - there are actual fucking orcs out there that will skin you alive if they catch you. The people in such a world who would be starting off an adventuring life would be, not to put too fine a point on it, young, dumb and full of cum. They wouldn't have interesting and elaborate back-stories tying them down to home and hearth. They'd be wet behind the ears. They'd probably be the youngest child in the family with nothing to hang around for. They might be orphans or urchins for whom the adventuring life is all upside (the alternative is dying in a gutter with leprosy). These are not the sort of people with interesting back-stories. It's when they set off into the dungeon that their lives really begin.

Player Responsibilities

I phoned it in tonight at my weekly game session. It was still fun for me, and the players still had fun too, I think - but I was low on energy. I was like the other bunny in the Duracell adverts. The one whose energy slowly drains away as he collapses, with a pathetic blank expression on his furry rabbit face.

It got me thinking about responsibilities. I've written about my DMing philosophy before, such as it is, and one of the things I emphasised was that one of the most important responsibilities of the DM is setting the tone. The energy flows from you, to a large extent. And if you feel flat, it's likely the game will feel a bit flat too. I think that's what happened tonight.

But that got me thinking: what are the responsibilities of players when they come to the table?

There's the obvious stuff:
  • Don't hog the limelight.
  • Don't try to browbeat or fast-talk the GM into changing every single piddling little decision.
  • Don't cheat.
  • Don't drink a lot if nobody else at the table is.

But this really mostly boils down to "don't be a dickhead", and it sounds more like a set of rules or guidelines than responsibilities. So I guess I'd start off with:
  • Take agency. Be an actor and not a reactor. You're the engine of the game, not the GM, and he's not your own personal dancing monkey.
  • Try to buy into what the game is about. It's fine not to take everything 100% seriously, but try to judge the mood and help build it.
  • Take everything that happens in the game with good grace, unless it's conspicuously a case of the GM being unfair or stupid.

Not particularly pithy or interesting, but it'll do for starters. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

To Whoever Is Doing the Google Searches...

...on whether or not I'm Ron Edwards' love-child or secretly "a swine":

a) No.
b) I think the whole "swine" thing is probably the pettiest and most childish phenomenon I've ever witnessed, and there's nothing secret about the fact that I like some story games.

K thx bye.

Monday, 23 January 2012

I Got Some Lovely Fantasies

Because I've spent a lot of time on story-games recently, let's throw some love to the Big Purple. An interesting thread came up entitled The older I get, the less I want fantasy (in which the poster feels that his liking for the fantasy genre has declined with age, and he now prefers historical or modern-era gaming).

This struck a bit of a chord with me, though my feelings aren't quite the same as him. For me, what I can definitely say is that fantasy fiction has lost its lustre as I've got older. From the age of 11 or so, when I first read The Lord of the Rings, to the age of about 25, I read absolute shit-tons of fantasy novels. (And most of it was shit.) You name the series, I'd probably read at least one volume and probably the lot.

Nowadays, I barely read any, and to be frank, while the Fantasy & SF section is the first one I go to when I go to a bookshop, whenever I pick up a new fantasy book and flick through to see what it's like, it usually makes me cringe. Boring, samey writing; banal dialogue; by-the-numbers plots; awful unimaginative world-building dressed up as "unique" settings; inside-front-cover maps covered with place names like 'Franconia' and 'L'k'xhklhaj'... It's a veritable hell-on-earth of literary bollocks, only a step removed from Mills & Boon, and without the compensating factor of sex (unless it's GRRM, who only writes The Most Stupid Sex Scenes EverTM anyway).

There are nowadays only a handful of fantasy authors who I can really stand to read: Tolkien, Dunsany, Howard, M. John Harrison, China Mieville, Wolfe, Vance, and, okay, GRRM, because I have to finish off that bloody series if it kills me. The rest of the genre can go hang, quite frankly.

But this is why, I think, I'm still very much into fantasy gaming: a function of finding modern fantasy literature so soul-destroyingly awful that I can't bear to read it is that I have to get my imaginative kicks elsewhere.

Moreover, I'd say that if what you're interested in is expanding your mind, imagining weird shit, dreaming up half-crazed nonsense, escaping somewhat humdrum reality, and many of the other things that fantasy lit is supposed to do, I'd argue that fantasy gaming does it much better. Your imagination is constrained far less if you and your friends are the ones coming up with the entire thing - if you are not letting some third-rate author do your imagining for you - so why have cotton when you can have silk?

In fact, maybe that's what my rule of thumb for fantasy literature is: from now on I'll look at the blurb on the back of the book, and if the whole thing sounds like I could imagine something better in a session of D&D, the author isn't trying hard enough and the book gets binned. If I can't imagine something better in a session of D&D, it's worth a try.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Doing what your character does is immersive.

The story-games thread I started on Dungeon World has meandered into something quite different and interesting. Somebody made the remark, commenting on the way Old School games can lead to brick walls, that:

If setting is largely indeterminate, then the Players actions and Move/Abilities will determine the fiction. However, if the setting is largely pre-determined, it will heavily constrain the the actions and outcomes of the Players.

For example:

[I]f there's a puzzle-trap in [Apocalypse World] as a result of a role, the MC can just ask how the character solves it or knows the solution: "I've dealt with Sand Mutants before, they always use the same snares." In D&D however, the trap is what is it is. While the party might come up with a clever solution to solving it, that solution is always heavy constrained by the specific details of the puzzle-trap. Fr'ex, touching the pressure plate with a ten-foot pole. But if that puzzle-trap says range 20ft, then the party is still effected.

 I don't really see this as a problem, because, as I put it in the thread:

I wouldn't disagree, but this is when it starts to become interesting for somebody like me. When the players' actions are constrained, they have to think hard about how to do things. They have to brainstorm and come up with solutions. And when they overcome an obstacle, they feel like they really have overcome an obstacle.

It's very 'gamist', but also in its own way very immersive, because the players invest a lot in this problem-solving aspect of the game, just as their in-game characters probably would. 

It's something I've noticed - and this may merely be a result of my GM-ing style, which doesn't have a heck of a lot of truck with "story" - that in my games, the moments when players seem to be investing the most emotionally, psychically, and psychologically in their characters are the moments when they are doing exactly what their characters are doing within the game. They may like combat because it's exciting and you get to roll lots of dice to see how many people you kill, (in fact they like dice-rolling in general), and they may like monsters and magic and big guns, but it's when they are "inhabiting" their characters that I think the game really comes into its own.

And these moments happen in certain specific scenarios: when the players are deciding on a strategy, brainstorming plans, trying to solve a problem or puzzle, and (to a certain extent) interacting with an NPC. Those moments when the players are sitting around heatedly debating what to do next, and everyone is really involved in the process, offering opinions and counter-opinions and bickering, and you can just imagine their characters sitting around doing exactly the same thing in the game, are probably my favourite moments as a GM. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, really, it's what role playing's USP is.

But this arises at least in part through precisely the kind of restrictions talked about above. If you have a trap with concrete, specific details, the players are forced into doing precisely the kind of immersive problem-solving process I'm talking about. If you, however, have a system in which a player can just roll dice and posit a solution based on succeeding ("I've dealt with Sand Mutants before, they always use the same snares"), you lose the opportunity for that.

Which isn't to say that I don't like games like Apocalypse World or Blood & Honor, which don't restrict players with the setting the way that Old School D&D does. The setting-creation-through-play-by-ceding-narrative-rights-to-the-player thing they do is something I really enjoy. But at the same time they're missing something in limiting the opportunities for immersive brainstorming/strategising/problem-solving/arguing on the part of the players.

In any case, the discussion continues here and here. Food for thought, if nothing else.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Time - that black and narrow isthmus between two eternities

Richard has posted a page of "one-sentence adventure pitches" on his blog. All of them sound eminently enjoyable, interesting and playable. It reminds me of two similar posts I made, here and here, in October 2008 and March 2009 respectively, in which I mooted 5 or 6 possible campaigns I'd like to run. Naturally, I haven't run any of them. Probably, I never will. Life's too short, and it's getting shorter.

I sometimes wonder if being too imaginative a person is more a curse than a blessing. You can lose yourself in ideas, and the little endorphine rushes that your brain gives you when you have a new brilliant thought, but it doesn't let you achieve anything concrete. And ultimately it leads only to regret about the fact that so little of what you dream up will ever see the light of day.

There is something tragic about this, in its own way. Yes, okay, it's only a "first world problem"; but I live in the first world, so fuck you.

My Favourite Supplement Ever

...is Renegade Crowns: A Guide to the Border Princes, by Black Industries, for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition.

The thing about Renegade Crowns is, it's not what you think. Normally books detailing a certain area of a campaign-setting follow a staid, trite, and rather bland formula: lists of settlements, adventuring locations, important NPCs, with a few sample adventures at the back. Snore. And all the WFRP setting supplements tended to go down that route, basically constituting detailed but rather by-the-numbers gazeteers of various regions of the Warhammer world.

Renegade Crowns is something different, though, because with this book the designers chose to create what can only be described as a random sandbox generator: a big set of tables for drawing up a map; populating it with settlements, rulers, wandering monsters, adventuring locations and lairs; creating a several-thousand-year history for the area; and planting the roots of conflict with various subplots to give the whole thing flesh. It really is a tour de force - that rare supplement that doesn't just give you something to play out of the box, but which gives you the tools to do something original of your own. The difference between Renegade Crowns and, say, the Forgotten Realms, is rather like that old adage about giving a man a fish so he has fish for a day versus giving him a man a net so he can have fish whenever he wants.

And it's not just a nice idea. As a random sandbox generator it works exceptionally well, striking the balance between giving you enough detail to mould your creativity while being abstract enough not to act as too much of a constraint. For instance, if you randomly generate an ancient ruin, there are tables to generate the Ruins Type (e.g. dwarf, chaos cult, or recent human), the Ancient Menace inhabiting it (e.g. a daemon, an undead being, or a degenerate tribe), the Original Purpose (for instance a temple, a tomb, or an outpost), the Age (from dozens of years to thousands of years old), the Reason (for example, abandonment because of famine, war or resource loss), and a means to link it with other ruins (if you get two Arabyan ruins around the same area and of around the same age, for instance, it might mean that during that era an Arabyan sultan ruled the region).

And that's just one example. There are random tables to generate regional leaders and their conflicts, relationships and secrets, for creating settlements and "oddities", for special geographical features, for economic resources... Anything that you need to create a sandbox and make it tick.

The greatest achievement of Renegade Crowns, I think, is that it manages to ooze flavour at the same time as avoiding providing any real setting detail. It precisely captures the mood of the Border Princes, as a chaotic, sparsely settled Wild West full of rogues, adventure and wealth, with nary a map or an NPC in sight. What the designers have done, in other words, is to give the reader a way to create a Border Princes of their own, rather than foist a Border Princes on them.

Imagine if all campaign settings books were like that: giving you a way to create your own Forgotten Realms, your own Athas, your own Mystara, rather than only providing the officially-sanctioned version the designers themselves created. Imagine if all writers took the attitude that their own special-snowflake campaign ought not to be canonical but merely inspirational. Imagine if designers tried to give you useful stuff rather than pretty stuff. Imagine if they weren't all wannabe novelists. Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

23 Questions

I was at a loose end for a subject for today's blog post, yet by some strange movement of the cosmic ballet Zak happened to come up with a reason why I don't have to think of one:

1. If you had to pick a single invention in a game you were most proud of what would it be?

variant on my relationship hex-map idea that I haven't had time to blog about yet.

2. When was the last time you GMed?
Last night.

3. When was the last time you played?
I guess this means not GMing, in which case it was probably mid-November.

4. Give us a one-sentence pitch for an adventure you haven't run but would like to.
Unknown Armies or Call of Cthulu set among the Japanese community in Brazil in the early 20th century. May or may not involve the Black Ocean Society.

5. What do you do while you wait for players to do things?
"Train" my dice by arranging them in lines with the highest number facing up.

6. What, if anything, do you eat while you play?
Nothing usually. 

7. Do you find GMing physically exhausting? 
No. I'm 30 years old and pretty healthy, and I only run sessions for about 2 1/2 hours.

8. What was the last interesting (to you, anyway) thing you remember a PC you were running doing?
Being the head of a crazed cult who believed that I was a kind of avatar of the Spirit of Justice and using my power and influence to take over the entire town.

9. Do your players take your serious setting and make it unserious? Vice versa? Neither?
Probably they unserious it a little bit, but then once play starts I always do the same thing.

10. What do you do with goblins?

11. What was the last non-RPG thing you saw that you converted into game material (background, setting, trap, etc.)?
A cyberpunk version of Liverpool.

12. What's the funniest table moment you can remember right now?
One of my players deciding that it would be a good idea to create a distraction by faking having a seizure in the middle of a crowded bar full of Lithuanian mafioso types. It was more the deadly serious expression on his face as he declared this action that made me laugh. You had to be there, really.

13. What was the last game book you looked at--aside from things you referenced in a game--why were you looking at it?
Iron Heroes. I was just idly perusing through it and wondering if I wanted to invest the time in it.

14. Who's your idea of the perfect RPG illustrator?
Probably John Blanche, although I love Diterlizzi too.

15. Does your game ever make your players genuinely afraid? 
Sometimes, but it depends very much on the game.

16. What was the best time you ever had running an adventure you didn't write? (If ever)
Never. I don't do that.

17. What would be the ideal physical set up to run a game in?
Six nubile 18-year old girls of various ethnic backgrounds with a love for OD&D. Failing that, probably at a table on the balcony of an apartment building on a warm day in Rome, Paris, New York or Tokyo.

18. If you had to think of the two most disparate games or game products that you like what would they be?
Hmm. Rolemaster and Risus, probably.

19. If you had to think of the most disparate influences overall on your game, what would they be?
Gene Wolfe on the one side and Fighting Fantasy on the other. 

20. As a GM, what kind of player do you want at your table?
Creative, intelligent, active people. Really anybody who wants to get involved rather than be passively entertained.

21. What's a real life experience you've translated into game terms?
I'm not sure I've ever done that, actually. Unless you count running games in real places. I suppose I've spent a lot of time in "exotic" climes, which trickles into the sort of games I run.

22. Is there an RPG product that you wish existed but doesn't?
Now there's a question. I wish there was a version of Pendragon set in feudal Japan that was actually complete. I've seen an incomplete one online, but not a final version.

23. Is there anyone you know who you talk about RPGs with who doesn't play? How do those conversations go?
No. RPGs are my secret shame.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Spontaneous Order

A long while ago - in fact it was September 2009 - I wrote this:

Joe the Lawyer has put up an interesting thread at therpgsite: If you could play D&D with anyone, real or imaginary, from any time in history, who?

My answer was JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Johnathan Swift and Roald Dahl. On reflection I'd also like to include Jorge Luis Borges. Our games would take place in a Member's club, complete with leather seats, tobbaco pipes, and plentiful bitter served by buxom wenches. We'd have a rotating DM-ship, meeting up every Sunday evening. CS Lewis would grumble about Tolkien's insistence on correct pronunciation of Elvish names ("Not another bloody elf..."); Borges would rile Tolkien with his anti-clerical barbs; Roald Dahl would amuse everybody with his comic creations; and Swift would confound with his unusual 18th Century phrasing.

When China Mieville, M. John Harrison, Richard K. Morgan and Michael Moorcock came in to the club for their weekly game of Dogs in the Vineyard, it would be like the Sharks vs. the Jets. Dice-downs with fistfuls of d12s flying. Bruised lips, bloody noses and black eyes. Finally everybody would settle down and it would be Tolkien's turn to get the drinks in.

It's only very rarely that I look back at something I've written and decide that I like it, and in this case, I do. That piece makes me smile. Although on reflection Mieville, Harrison, Morgan and Moorcock probably wouldn't be playing Dogs in the Vineyard - I've since discovered that Mieville is a Chaosium fan, and I think Moorcock would probably be more of a Lamentations of the Flame Princess sort of person.

Anyway this is a roundabout way of saying that I ended up writing something similar here, except what I wrote was that:

OD&D is sort of like what Michael Polanyi, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott would have created if they had been game designers. It was pretty much all generated in a chaotic, emergent fashion through trial and error. And that's what made it crazy but also kind of perfect, in its way.

I don't expect this to be particularly interesting to those of you reading this who aren't terrible pseuds like I am, but anyway, I do sometimes think of the origins of D&D as being a very good example of Polanyi's spontaneous order in action: a couple of dozen people playing around over the course of several years with many different rules, and a set of mechanics slowly evolving and coalescing over that period without any real top-down guidance - until, finally, something like a "game", with a sprawling but lean and quite tightly evolved structure, focused specifically on achieving a certain end.

It reminds me of one of Stephen Jay Gould's old essays, in which he talked about the origin of baseball. Rather than being the invention of Abner Doubleday, he argues, citing a wealth of evidence that proves it, baseball evolved organically over time, without any top-down management: it developed from a number of more primitive games which came from a "a complex lineage, better called a nexus, from which modern baseball emerged, eventually in a codified and canonical form."

And that's really rather like the OSR too, don't you think? Many different people playing different variants of D&D, and spontaneous order emerging through the blogosphere and things like ConstantCon, producing a new structure, and a new way of doing things, quite tightly focused but having emerged through trial and error and disunity, rather than because of the actions of a small group of designers.

Anyway, I like to imagine sitting down with Polanyi, Hayek and Oakeshott for a game of D&D with Tolkien, Lewis, Swift and Dahl. I imagine Polanyi being a paladin, Hayek a mage and Oakeshott a fighter. Tolkien would probably be a druid, and Lewis a cleric. Swift, I'd peg as a rogue. Dahl would be an illusionist. Given their disparate backgrounds and interest in the philosophical, I'd run them through a Planebox campaign, of course. Start them off in the Abyss and take it from there.

Twitter Is Good For Something

I was going to write a long post about Michael Polanyi after some interesting comments on this story-games thread, but it'll have to wait, because there is something much more important: somebody has created a twitter account purporting to be "Plots from the unaired 8th season of Star Trek: The Next Generation", the conceit being that each 140-character tweet is a plot synopsis for a NextGen epsiode. And it's brilliant.

As my friend who sent me the link put it, the tweets are comical, but there is something on the nose about them. You actually really could imagine all of them happening. Examples:

Geordie falls in love with a beautiful girl who turns out to be the exotic pet of a visiting dignitary. Riker's birthday party is a success.
Worf brags about a new ceremonial knife for a week, then must prove his innocence after a mysterious stabbing. Riker does 150 pushups.
A rakish pilot from Beverly’s past steals a dangerous prototype space fighter. Riker’s play ignites a sexual hysteria among the female crew.
Wesley returns from a trip to discover that the Enterprise crew has been transformed into pigs. Worf is a mean pig.
An alien judge imprisons Picard in a carnivorous plant for doubting his justice system. Guinan invents an amazing new "single level" chess.
Data must solely represent non-carbon-based life at a Federation symposium on galactic civil rights. Riker fights a bear.

And my absolute favourite:

Picard is trapped inside a sentient turbolift. A clip show highlights the most memorable “Picard is trapped on a turbolift” moments.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Helaxa and Her Sons

Some miles north of Ordoquoy is a shallow bay, surrounded by hills. The locals say this place is cursed, and do not hunt or fish there; its forests are dark and windswept, and its waters cold and grey.

The Helaxa lives here. Nobody knows where she came from, or what she is; all they know is her insatiable need. Hideously ugly, with gaunt limbs and pallid grey flesh, she pursues human males with singular intent, and their seed gives her the young which she breeds.

The Helaxa is only encountered at night, and is never surprised. She will attempt to charm the most charismatic male in any group she comes across with her powerful gaze, an ability she can use 3 times per day (characters of 4th level or above may save versus magic at -2 to resist). Charmed men will be desparate to have sex with her, and will follow her single-mindedly: after congress, she kills and eats these unfortunates. Females and unattractive men are ignored or slain if they pose an obstacle.

After being impregnated, the Helaxa gives birth to a son after d6 weeks. Her sons are small, grotesque bipedal things more animal than human, and the Helaxa makes no attempt to raise them. They roam about the local area eating what they can, generally attacking anything living on sight, and often die of exposure or starvation.

The Helaxa
Frequency: Solitary
AC: 4
HD: 6+1
Move: 150' (50')
Attacks : 2 fist (1d8/1d8), 1 special (charming gaze)
No. App: 1
Save As: M6
Morale: 9
Treasure: None
Intelligence: 9
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 650
The Helaxa's Sons
Frequency: Rare
AC: 7
HD: 1
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks : 1 bite (1d4)
No. App: 2d4
Save As: F1
Morale: 6
Treasure: None
Intelligence: 3
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 10

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Project Gutenberg Appendix N

Another world I'd one day like to set a game in is something I'd call "Project Gutenberg Appendix N". As the name suggests, this is a game whose basic influences/inspirations come entirely from books whose copyright has expired in the USA, and which are thus available for free from Project Gutenberg.

Some ideas, many of which I'm sure you have read (and if not, why not?):

  • Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter stories. They may be very silly, they may have a main character who is practically of Superman-level ability, they may be of the most throwaway quality (you'll forget 95% of the plot the instant you finish reading), but they are full of brio, imagination and atmosphere.
  • The Suprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by Rudolf Raspe. A collection of the tall tales and far-fetched stories of a bragging Flashman-esque minor German nobleman who died in 1797. Amongst many other things he keeps bees for a Sultan in Turkey, throws a hatchet that flies all the way to the moon, shoots down a hot air balloon, turns a wolf inside-out, and slips from one side of the world to the other by falling into a volcano.
  • The Gods of Pegana and Time and the Gods by Baron Dunsany. Twin works of sheer fantastical genius by a man cited by Lovecraft, Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges AND Clark Ashton Smith as a strong influence. Was there ever a writer with as strong a D&D-inspiring credibility as that?
  • Really anything published by Richard Hakluyt, as an important reminder of how big the world really is, and how renaissance or pseudo-renaissance societies were so very different and yet oddly similar to our own. His Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, composed almost entirely of eyewitness accounts, is hard to read but full of inspiration.
  • Kubla Khan, from Coleridge's Ancient Mariner and Selected Poems, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Do you get more D&D than "Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea"?
  • George MacDonald's Phantastes. I always preferred this to The Princess and the Goblin, which is really a book for kids. Phantastes is something else altogether. The scene in which the main character encounters his own shadow has stuck with me forever.
  • Frankenstein, natch.
  • Voltaire's Candide, which sort of reminds me of a D&D campaign committed to paper: a constant stream of improbable events, brushes with death, horrible occurrences, and bizarre absurdities. It maybe says something about D&D that it often feels like a satirical comedy from the 18th century. But that something is good. 
I'm not sure what kind of witches' brew of a campaign setting this would create. A group of European noblemen from the 17th or 18th centuries exploring Mars? Except Mars is full of strange creatures and petty Gods?

Friday, 13 January 2012

Utolso Varos, the Last City

If I were to run an Iron Heroes game for my next campaign, it would be set in Utolso Varos, the Last City. This, as the name suggests, is the last city on earth, and mankind has retreated to it as the world grows old and fades, and life for human beings becomes hostile.

Like Nessus or Viriconium, Utolso Varos is almost collapsing under the weight of its own history. It is many thousands of years old, and feels it - it is decadent, listless, and resigned, although it still possesses a faded and elegant sort of beauty. It is situated on an island in the middle of a great inland sea, and beyond that sea is the wild, dying earth, peopled by beings wondrous and alien, and scattered with the ruins and remnants of the civilizations of aeons past.

The earth has become so old that its very existence has become tattered and frayed. Time passes slowly, and the light of the sun has become flat and dull. Alien spirits and demonic things from other realities slip through the decaying fragmentary boundaries between their worlds and ours. Those who can practice magic hoard it, as if it might protect them from the inevitable end of all things. Gradually the human race dwindles, and history turns its face away.

And in this world we find the PCs: a bunch of guys with big swords raging against the dying of the light by killing things and taking their stuff.

New Blog/Project

I've set up a new blog, called The Journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl, at http://yoonsuin.tumblr.com.

The conceit of this blog is that a traveller called Laxmi Guptra Dahl wrote an account of his journeys through Yoon-Suin, and his journal washed up on a distant shore some time after his death. Now, scholars in that faraway land have salvaged what they could from his account, and put it together into an edited volume. The blog is a representation of their handiwork.

It stems from my desire to present the bulk of the Yoon-Suin setting in the form of a travelogue, or an item of "in-world" realia, rather than a boring campaign world source-book.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Shadows of the Iron Sorcery

Being a bit of a contrarian, I'm starting to think about what's become the red-headed stepchild of D&D in recent years (at least, as far as I'm concerned): 3rd edition. It's been left behind by the OSR, by Wizards of the Coast, and by most of the remaining fanbase (who all now seem to play Pathfinder), and it now feels like a somewhat forlorn and desperate figure at the fringes of the D&D pantheon. We won't talk about 2nd edition, which is even worse off, but at least that has the saving grace of partially coming under the OSR umbrella - if only due to compatibility issues.

I didn't like 3rd edition when I came across it, which was years after it came out (there was probably a 10 year period in my life where I didn't play RPGs at all), and d20 always struck me as a bland and quite irksome way of running a game. D&D never had a really sensible or coherent set of rules, let alone an elegant one, and shorn of D&D there was just no point in using the system whatsoever when so many others were available. I played in a d20 Modern campaign fairly recently and loathed that particualr iteration in particular.("You get hit by a 7.62mm round. Lose 12 hit points!")

But I have a vague hankering to run a more Sword & Sorcery, Shadows of the Colossus-tinged affair, in which the PCs go around taking on mighty mythical beings, horrible ancient demons, and gargantuan Things That Should Not Be (something I've written on in the past) in a Fantastical Post-Apocalyptic World Populated With All Sorts of MenacesTM, and I've got something of an idea that Iron Heroes is the way to go with that.

The more I read about Iron Heroes, indeed, the more I start to like the thought. Listen, I love tactical combat in a wargame setting, so why not in an RPG? I like the notion of taking magic out of the hands of the players. Something about starting off the PCs as relative "bad-asses" also appeals to me, since almost all my games start off with the opposite approach. And above all, there's something almost perverse about playing Iron Heroes in this day and age, given that it's sort-of proto-4e-while-retaining-elements-of-the-worst-edition-ever, which is what I really like about the idea.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Sentient Doors

"NEEDS YOU," intoned the door abruptly, in a precise, hollow voice: "NEEDS YOU, BAA, BAA, BAA. OURUBUNDOS — "

The gathered Northmen dropped their spades. Many of them made religious signs with their fingers. Eyes round, they clutched their weapons, breathing through their open mouths.

"DOG MOON, DOG YEARS," moaned the door: "BAA, BAA, BAA."

And to each ritualistic syllable, Tomb made a suitable reply. Their dialogue lasted for some minutes before silence descended and he began again the process of moving his hands across the ancient script.

"GOLEBOG!" screamed the door.

A brief, intense flare of white light obscured the Dwarf. He staggered out of it, beating at his clothes. He chuckled. His hair reeked, his leggings smouldered. He blew on his fingers. "The door mechanism has become insane over the years," he said. "It — " Here, he said a word that no one knew " — me, but I misled it. Look."

...As Cromis entered the bunker, the door whispered malevolently to him, but it left him alone...
- M. John Harrison, The Pastel City.

Sentient doors in ancient dungeons often go mad, having long ago forgotten their original purpose, or failed to perform it for so long that they have become confused. Each time a group of PCs comes across a sentient door, randomly generate how it reacts by rolling a d12 and consulting the following table:

1. The door whispers vague threats about what lies ahead. This has a 10% chance of being accurate.
2. The door hisses "I'm behind you" after being passed through.
3. The door shuts itself 10 seconds after being opened, regardless of who or what is standing in its way. It causes d4 damage.
4. The door shouts incoherent gibberish if disturbed (i.e. touched).
5. The door announces that it is offended by the presence of intruders, and has to be begged and cajoled to open.
6. The door makes a very human weeping sound as the PCs approach, and begs them not to open it. There are no consequences if they do so.
7. The door is apparently friendly and offers information about who has opened it recently. 10% of the time the information given is accurate.
8. As above, but there is a 90% chance of the information being accurate. However, the door will also tell the next set of passers-by about the PCs.
9. The door makes a loud, horrible wailing sound when opened, and doesn't shut up.
10. The door can be opened, but the next time the PCs come this way, it will refuse to do so.
11. The door sucks magical energy. There is a 50% chance that each passing magic-user will forget a randomly-determined spell.
12. The door offers in a loud voice to answer three questions about the dungeon. Its answers are absolutely truthful about the state of play as the door understands it, i.e. 3000 years ago.

Monday, 9 January 2012

He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

-C has been putting up a series of posts deconstructing skills in D&D. The most recent is about knowledge skills, and the problems attending them:

I am confused by the purpose of this skill [he writes]... I just fail to understand how [it] is supposed to be used in play. Here are the situations I can imagine.

There is a piece of information. It is either trivial and of no importance, or it is interesting providing some depth and background to the game and not vital, or it is a crucial piece of information.

In any possible conceivable case is the game improved by withholding any of the above information?

The answer to this question, for me at least, is a qualified "yes". There is one knowledge skill I can think of for which there is a justification, and one area in which it is concievable that the game can be improved by it. That's "Local Knowledge", or similar.

This much we know: there is a dilemma facing all DMs, especially the ones who create their own settings. On the one hand, you think your setting is interesting, and you think the players enjoy finding out about it. You also think it would really enrich the game if the players knew things that were going on, knew where things were, and knew who various NPCs were. But on the other hand, you know that your players' patience for reading or listening to infodumps about the setting are essentially nil.

This is where Knowledge skills come in: they allow you to give information to players, about the setting, that they want, at a time of their choosing. So we might imagine the following scenarios:

Bob has discovered an iron gauntlet of strange design in the dungeon. He doesn't know what it is. He rolls his "Local Knowledge" skill and the DM tells him he knows an armourer in a nearby town who could know more about it. The players go there and find out.

Gwendaline sees a strange monster she's never encountered before. After wisely fleeing, she rolls her "Local Knowledge" skill and the DM tells her of a sage who might know more. The players go to meet the sage and in exchange for performing some non-trivial task, get the information.

The party need to find an alternative route to such-and-such town because the regular road is blocked off by their enemies. Successful local knowledge rolls allow them to determine that there is a hunting trail through the forest. They go that way instead.

Hey presto! Local Knowledge makes the game better. It expands the players' knowledge of the setting in an organic way (because the information they glean is always something they actively want to know), and expands their options.

Now, of course, there's an obvious comeback that goes something like this: implicit in the above argument is the notion that for players to do or know anything, they have to roll to find out. But as -C says, it is hard to imagine how making players roll for this sort of thing really makes the game better. If the players fail their rolls, they don't get the knowledge, and the game suffers as a result, because the setting doesn't get fleshed out and the players' options don't get expanded. So why bother rolling? Why not just tell the players what they know if they ask? Or just have them ask an NPC?

There are a few reasons:

a) Having them just ask NPCs about stuff is time-consuming and quite boring. In the first scenario I included above, for instance, it would involve the players asking other NPCs they know if they know anybody who knows anything about gauntlets. Snore. Easier to roll and just say "yes" or "no", and if "no", then they can do the boring ask-other-people-if-they-know-anybody thing.
b) Having players ask the DM "What do I know about this?" or "Do I know somebody who does [x]?" or whatever puts a lot of narrative control in the DMs hands, and might prove an irresistable temptation to try to guide the "story" unless that DM is a paragon of objectivity. It might lead to scenarios in which the DM thinks to himself, "I'll tell the players this titbit of information/withold it because it'll make the story more interesting." That way madness lies. Having players roll for things like that keeps the DM honest.
c) Sometimes mystery is fun, and can make the game enjoyable in its own right. When you don't know what a monster can do, it makes it scarier. When you are carrying around some weird artefact that you don't know anything about, it makes it intriguing. When you don't know what lives in the hole in the mountain, you scout it out. Not everything ought to be mysterious, but there's nothing wrong with it in small doses.

I expect some people to disagree with this.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Sage/Archmage/Wizard's Book Case

Your players find a book case. They root through its contents and you need to make up some titles on the fly that may or may not come in useful. Here's a random table to generate author, subject, and format.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Oh Dear

I was watching some video on youtube, and before it came on, I saw this crappy movie trailer. I watched it thinking, "Oh dear, another naff and cliche-ridden SF blockbuster that will probably just give me a headache", and wondered what daft title it might have.

Then something slowly dawned on me: this is the John Carter of Mars film.

Oh dear. I wasn't expecting much, but all the same. Oh dear.

Potential Dungeon Hazards

Here is a list of various hazards I'd like to include for D&D dungeoneering:

  • Magical wall paintings. These would be akin to those found in the Chauvet Cave and other neolithic subterranean labyrinths, but rather than merely being paintings they would come alive as intruders walked by.
  • Some system for, basically, randomly discovering whether the party become the target of dungeon muggers. If an adventuring party went away somewhere, came back with lots of treasures, then went off somewhere again and came back with lots of treasure again... Wouldn't opportunists begin to notice this? And, like, follow them, and lie in ambush waiting for them to emerge from the dungeon and then rob them of all their gains? I want to think up a system for determining the likelihood of this, the type of muggers encountered, and so on. Likewise, I think any DM worth his salt has used the "somebody notices that suddenly those impoverished adventurers have lots of cash" motif to annoy his players, but I'd like to think up a system for determining how frequently this occurs, who notices, etc.
  • Build-ups of hazardous gases from mining operations of dwarves, orcs, and the like. Hydrogen sulphide, carbon monoxide, you name it. PCs would have to be able to smell the gas, of course, before it just killed them randomly, but whether they knew what the smell meant would be based on their own research (or lack of it).
  • A quasi-runic magic system, like you get in many roguelike games, like Angband, allowing magic-using monsters (and PCs) to learn how to scrawl runes on the floor or wall of the dungeon to ward off good or evil, explode, cause a collapse, summon a monster when stepped on, etc. 
  • Subterranean lakes... of acid!!!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Table is Creative

P., my Apocalypse World MC and regular in my CP:2020 game, came up with a great idea on his blog: take the "Isle of the Unknown" hexmap, write down a list of all the hex numbers, use the list randomiser at random.org to scramble them, then past the random list back into the original. Suddenly all the hexes are randomly "paired" and connected:

This forms a list of connections between every hex in the map. For instance, in my first attempt I found the B-Located cleric in hex 0114 is connected to the crystal statue in 1709. Maybe that's where he got his bi location power? The statue used to be a person whose soul was taken by the poisonous giant woodpecker in hex 2410. The woodpecker is connected to the weird island in 2415. Is that where it lost it's original soul? Is it still waiting for it to re-appear?

The only problem, according to P., is that:

[T]his pretty locks down the whole island from the beginning. I prefer it when things are generated randomly at the table. It provokes a more interesting state of mind. But to do that I need a dice method that can randomise 343 hexes.

But one of my other players, N., had a solution. Put all the hex numbers into 7x7 tables. Roll 3d8: the first d8 gives you the table, the second gives you the row, the third gives you the column (re-roll 8s). Hey presto! The hex you are in is connected to the numbered hex you just generated.

Instant-random-hex-connection-generator: sorted.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

"Doing" Vance

I came across a link to this Forge thread while on my ramblings through Google reader this morning. Long story short, it's a a game designer who I respect (Vincent Baker) saying a lot of weird things, and then a whole load of very very pretentious people literally talking gobbledegook. But! It contains an interesting line (to me, anyway):

Then I remembered how much I love Vance, of course, and how much I'd enjoy trying to channel him, and just how much fun his ironic, cynical relativism is. So now it's great.

And it got me thinking about games that set out to "do" Jack Vance. It turns out, from a little bit of Googling, that not only is there already a Dying Earth RPG, it was written by no less than Robin D. Laws and John Snead, two of the least Cugel-like people in the entire world. Curiouser and curiouser!

I'm just perusing the quick start rules on my lunch break. No time for an in-depth analysis now, but suffice to say there's stuff in here that's likeable (spell titles like "The Astonishing Oral Projection"). I'm a bit more dubious about this:
In [this] game we're not always rooting unreservedly for the characters to succeed. They are often selfish, greedy or overconfident... What matters is not victory or defeat, but how well the story entertains us... We reward you, the player, for making the game entertaining.

It might just be my nautral prejudices, but when I read stuff like that it sets alarm bells ringing: there's nothing less entertaining than people trying too hard to be entertaining. If I was designing a Dying Earth RPG my main focus would be on getting the players to be interested in self-advancement and self-aggrandization, rather than on being entertaining - which, it strikes me, is more of a by-product.

But we'll see. I might be tempted to make a purchase all the same.

Monday, 2 January 2012

You Are The Problem

So somebody called Ryan Dancey, "former VP of RPGs at Wizards and marketing guru at White Wolf/CCP", reckons that

"[T]he tabletop RPG market is enduring a kind of death. I think it is transforming into something that isn't a viable commercial business for more than a handful of people [like model trains]... Kids stopped playing with trains, and the businesses that remained dedicated to hobbyists who got more disposable income as they grew up, until the price of the hobby was out of reach of anyone except those older hobbyists. Eventually, it became a high-end hobby with very expensive products, sold to an ever-decreasing number of hobbyists. As those folks die, the hobby shrinks. That is what is happening to the tabletop RPG business."

Where do they wheel these people out from? And doesn't it sound to you like the last bleatings of the CEO of Netscape, declaring that the web browser is dead, before the men in white coats coax him out to the back alley to put him out of his misery?

I'm sure you can read between the lines, just as I can: the big RPG companies like Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf are dying. They got fat and bloated and have been mostly engaged in the production of horse manure for the past 10 years. QED: tabletop RPGs are dying - the comfortable myth high-ups in those companies can tell themselves rather than face the ugly truth, which is that they're nothing like as innovative or interesting as they should be. Cognitive dissonance is a funny thing.

Tabletop RPGs are in fact in rude health again. They've undergone some lean times, but they've emerged from their long semi-hibernation bleary-eyed and pale but with a feriocious hunger. This is thanks in no small part to the internet and blogosphere. Gamers all over the world can now connect with each other instantly, create endless new material, publish entirely new game lines to sell to each other or even give away for free, innovate and create beyond anything in their wildest dreams 10 years ago, and they're doing it in huge numbers. If you're a "former VP of RPGs at Wizards and marketing guru at White Wolf/CCP" I'm sure you'd also take the view that this represented the death of tabletop RPGs, because none of it results in a single penny being forked over to either Wizards or White Wolf. But you're not. So I think you take the same view as I do - things are looking up.