Friday, 30 August 2013

D&D Combat is More Abstract Than You Think

Conversations on G+ led me to think some more about this recent post about the abstraction of D&D combat in general.

Older editions may have changed the game, but it's important to remember that the D&D combat rules evolved in a context of a 1 minute combat round: in OD&D and AD&D 1st edition, the combat round is a minute in length. This is quite deliberate - and I am sure that most readers of this blog will be aware of the famous idea of Gary Gygax's that a D&D fight should resemble the sword fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisborne in the Errol Flynn iteration. (For further information on that, see this en world post.)

Once you accept this notion - that the combat round is long and what goes on in it is necessarily rather abstract - D&D's combat system does make a sort of sense. Not perfect sense, but a sort of sense. The 'to hit' roll is a misnomer: you're not rolling to hit. You're rolling to see if, over the course of 1 minute, you manage to wear down your opponent's defences, either through actual physical damage or moral 'damage' or exhaustion or whatever. The opponent's armour impacts on your ability to do this, which is why AC is essentially a penalty applied to the 'to hit' roll, rather than a damage reduction effect. Your hit points represent you capacity to stay in the fight, which slowly gets reduced over time (the higher your level, the longer this takes). And your movement rate, which seems absurdly slow, represents the fact that you are scooting around and manoeuvring for position while avoiding blows, missile attacks, what have you.

The only thing that seems strange in this paradigm is missile attacks - why only one or two shots over the course of a minute? Even this, however, has a kind of logic to it if you think about it: it is surely very difficult to hit a moving target, who knows that you are shooting at him, with a bow. Especially at range, where he can watch the path of the arrow and just step away or check his movement. The fact that only one or two shots are permitted in a 1 minute round indicates that the archer is waiting to pick his moment to fire.

Once you've accepted that there is a certain logic to all of this, and that D&D combat is not really tied to anything particularly concrete, I would question why there really needs to be even an arbitrary length to a combat round of 1 minute. What is the purpose of a combat round? It gives a chance for everybody to decide what they want to do and then act. On that basis I would prefer the following definition: a combat round is how long the time it takes before somebody next makes a decision to do something different to what they are currently doing. This could be 10 seconds. It could be a minute. It could be 5 seconds. It could be 40. It doesn't matter: there is no credibility to stretch because we are not dealing with a system which has to make sense in the way that a less abstract one does. We are not rolling dice 'to hit', despite the name: we are rolling to see how far we attrit (that is a word: I looked it up) the opponent. "Rolling to attrit" has less of a ring to it, but that is the core of the D&D system.

Another good reason for preferring abstract combat is just that realism may be something of a fool's errand. I think that there is a kind of Western Martial Arts mafia that is slowly taking over these sorts of discussions online. I really like the idea of Western Martial Arts but I'm not persuaded that they are entirely realistic; until people start actually fighting to the death using these techniques, and agreeing that if they are injured they will only use medical techniques that were in use in the 14th century, I think that "what happens in a real sword fight" is still a matter of considerable conjecture and will likely remain so. That doesn't mean I don't like messing around with that sort of thing, as I did here and here. It just means that I don't think we lack justification for saying that a D&D combat round is an indefinite length of time, and that doesn't matter because nobody really knows what would go on in a combat round anyway.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

The D&D Brand

So there is rampant speculation and rumour-mongering at therpgsite regarding Pathfinder and the D&D brand. As is often the case, the consensus seems to be that D&D in particular and role playing games in general are doomed and will gradually die out as older players, well, die out.

There is something odd about this notion. We are living in an age of booming popularity for nerdiness. On the one hand there is a whole section of Western society who now define themselves as 'geeks' in a manner almost religious or ethnic in its tenor. (I am not one of those people, but I know that they exist.) And on the other, fantasy and SF is conquering the mainstream like it has never done before - whether it is Harry Potter, Twilight, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, or whatever. Fantasy and SF films dominate our cinema screens. Fantasy and SF games dominate consoles. The world is embracing what used to be the province of only the unwashed neckbeards.

So why on earth can't somebody make a play at bringing D&D into the mainstream in the same way?

One problem, as I see it, is simply that the powers that be are very out of touch with modern tastes. Pathfinder and D&D in its recent iterations have been stuck in a rather drab and bland place: fantasy may be more popular than ever, but elves, orcs and the tropes of high fantasy are simply not part of the zeitgeist. People want their fantasy rooted in the real world (Harry Potter, Twilight), they want it grim and bloody (Game of Thrones), and some of them want it to do something genuinely different (China Mieville, Paolo Bacigalupi, and so forth). They don't want Dragonlance, they don't want Forgotten Realms, and I'd suggest the lukewarm reaction to the first Hobbit film suggests they don't really want The Lord of the Rings anymore either. D&D can get on the bandwagon to success, I would suggest, but if it wants to do that it needs to recognise that times have changed, and what a 40 year old nerd likes won't cut it with a 15 year old.

I don't particularly have an interest in the hobby being massively successful except in the sense that it would be nice to imagine a world in which playing RPGs is relatively normal, for many reasons. But seriously: the idea that our pastime is doomed just seems crazy to anybody who is keeping up with current cultural developments.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Random Zonal Map Generation for Random Encounters

A while ago (it's actually over a year ago; fuck me, I'm getting old) I posted an idea of how to use Diaspora-style zones in D&D or other games. It's easier if you actually go back and read the post than have me precis it here, but I expect that you are too lazy to do that, so here is the main body of the post reproduced for your convenience:

When combat looks likely, the DM draws a map, and then divides it up into zones. Zones are not a grid, and do not represent strict distance. Rather, they represent a combination of space, ease of travel, view, and time to pass through. Thus, an open field might be one zone, but a nearby cottage with three rooms might be made up of three separate zones, because the time it takes to sprint across the open field is the same as the amount of time it would take to move between rooms cluttered with furniture. Likewise, a thick forest full of boulders might be divided up into three zones, whereas an area of light woodland of the same "size" might just be one zone - representing the speed with which one can move through each area.  
With me so far?  
If there are borders between zones (a hedge, a wall, a ditch, a door) these have numerical ratings indicating how long it takes to pass through them. So a hedge might have a rating of "2", indicating that it takes 2 "zones" worth of effort to cross over. (You can climb over in the same amount of time it would take to cross 2 zones.) This is called the "pass value".
Pass values can change if there is a doorway. If there is a doorway, the pass value is 0 - unless the door is shut, in which case it costs "zones" to open it, indicated by a number, called the "opening value". (A wall would cost 2 "zones" to climb over, so it has a pass value of 2, but it has a gate which would cost "1" zone to open, or an opening value of 1. So the hedge has a pass value of 2/1.)  
Each turn, the player gets one zone of movement and an action. The zone of movement might consist in eroding pass value (e.g. getting half way over a hedge with a pass value of 2), or opening a doorway (e.g. eroding an opening value from 1 to 0.) The action would be the usual sort of thing (cast a spell, attack, whatever). Or he can give up the action to make two zones' worth of movement.  
A turn is however long it would take to cross a zone. This means that combat can scale up and scale down to suit the situation. A fight taking place in an area covering a square mile of countryside, or taking place in a few rooms in a hotel reception, would follow exactly the same pattern - it's just that the zones would represent different levels of abstraction. The zones in the former would probably be bigger by area on average, and a turn would be longer (maybe two minutes in the former as opposed to around 10 seconds in the latter). But the rules are exactly the same. Only two things would really change. First, the larger the zones and the longer the turns, the more abstract attack rolls (the attack roll would represent a period of maneuvering and trading blows), and the smaller the zones and shorter the turns, the less abstract attack rolls would become (the attack roll would represent literal single attacks). The other thing that would change would be pass value. A hedge separating two open fields, each about 100 square yards and represented by a zone each, would perhaps have to have a higher pass value than a hedge separating two small gardens of 10 square yards each.

Did you spot the deliberate mistake? The last sentence of the last paragraph is clearly me talking out of my anus. If the approximate average size of a zone is 100 yards, then a hedge separating two such zones will obviously have to have a lower pass value than a hedge separating zones where the average zone size is about 10 yards. If you can tell me why, you win the prize of one coconut, delivered for £27.99 P&P.

Anyway. Talysman's excellent subhex crawl posts got me thinking about ways to generate an immediate wilderness area for wilderness encounters. One thing that I've always found dissatisfying about random encounters in D&D is that they never really pan out in a manner which I think remotely reflects reality. I do quite a bit of hiking, so I know that wild places are extremely interesting and varied, and full of gaming potential that is largely untapped.

By which I mean: I know how to run a random encounter in the wilderness. I just think there could be much, much more to it than D&D currently envisages.

So let's mess around with some ideas. I've not devoted a great deal of thought to this - I'm just ruminating out loud - but bear with me.

1. When a random encounter is rolled, grab a piece of paper and a pencil as you normally would.
2. Pick up some d6s and thrown them on the paper. Four or five will do. These represent areas of the same terrain that are going to be subdivided into zones. The d6 position indicates the rough centre of the area on the map; the number on the dice represents the number of zones contained within it. From this, you can extrapolate terrain type and size, with a large number of zones indicating "denser" terrain (e.g. 1 = totally clear and unbroken terrain, 6 = dense deciduous forest) or a larger area (3 zones of flat grassland will be much larger than 3 zones of thick swamp).
3. Roll a couple of d4s. (I'm stealing this from Talysman.) Light coloured d4s indicate elevation above the average value. Dark coloured d4s indicate lower elevations.
4. Now everybody at the table (DM and players) roll 5d6 each. If they get a pair, they get to place a terrain feature: 1-2 - Hedge, wall, lake or river, 3-4 - Gate, bridge, cave, fallen tree, etc. 5-6 - Building or special terrain-appropriate feature. If they get three of a kind, they can place two features. And so on.
5. The players then roll a d4 to determine which quadrant of the map they begin the encounter in.
6. The DM decides where the encountered creatures are, based on encounter distance and surprise. 

It feels fiddly. But I think you get the aim, which is to create an actual physical wilderness environment on the fly which doesn't just come down to what I always do, which is jotting down a shitty map off the cuff. Jotting down a shitty map off the cuff is okay, but there has to be a better way. Moreover, I like the idea of giving players input into the map itself - the crucial caveat being, the players won't know where they are on the map until after all the terrain is placed, and they don't know where the enemy is either.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Play By Post

I've done a bit of play-by-post and play-by-email in my time, but I've never been very satisfied by it. The burden it places on interaction between the DM and the players is simply too heavy: as I put it in a G+ post recently, in a face-to-face game the simplest tasks (a player asking a DM for clarification; a DM asking a player to quickly roll a d6; scrawling a quick map to show where everybody is at a given moment in time) can take not seconds as they should, but days. This has the effect of making all such tasks so idiotically time consuming in comparison to their pay-off that you're simply better off not doing them. (Play by chat, on the other hand, is just about do-able, although I suppose there's not much market for that any more now that Google hangouts exist.)

For this reason I very much doubt I'll either run or play in such a game again, if the attempt is to emulate what goes on in a 'real life' game.

Nonetheless, I do think that there is a space for play-by-post games in specific contexts. A one-on-one game is such an example, where the player and DM can just interact as normal without having to worry about the fact that everything is taking ages longer than it should.

Microscope is another option, and a play-by-post game might be where that game could really shine the most: each player would have the space to get as creative as they like, and a blog or wiki would be an easy way to keep track of everything that had taken place.

However, my thoughts turn most towards domain management games - particularly ACK and Birthright. I never had much of a chance to play or run Birthright back in the day, but it strikes me that it would be exceedingly easy to run as a PBP game, assuming that the PCs start off as minor regents, each with their own small domain. The way I envision it, at least, this game would run something along the lines of a turn-based version of the Paradox Interactive games like Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis II. Each domain turn the players would decide on what they wanted to do and send it privately to the DM, and the DM would do the necessary. Then, as and when was required, the action could "zoom in" on and individual PCs could go off on adventures one-on-one with the DM in separate threads, or in groups. Or, fuck it, you could just do the adventuring bits as weekly hangouts and the domain turns in between. Simples.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Emotional Investment in Megadungeon Exploration

On a post somewhere on G+ Jez Gordon asked:
What motivations are there for megadungeoning that matter to the PCs? Is gold, glory, and exploring the unknown enough, or does it need to be something personal?
The answer, of course, is that it doesn't need to be something personal. Actually, the explanation/motivation really ought to be, at the most basic level, "You're playing a game, the DM has gone to the trouble of creating a cool megadungeon, so go and explore it, for goodness' sake."

That said, I'm enough of a 1990s gamer to think that having pseudo-emotional connections amongst PCs, and between PCs and NPCs, lends weight to what is going on at the table. So why does it always have to be gold, glory and explore the unknown? Why can't there be a bigger reason than that?

Reasons For Entering the Dungeon, Part 3

1. To rescue a missing son, daughter, wife, husband, cousin, niece or nephew kidnapped by slavers or worse
2. To recover the remains of a slain friend so he can receive a proper burial
3. To find a family heirloom which your adventuring father lost as a young man while fleeing the terrors within
4. To impress a potential bride or groom
5. To gather enough treasure to pay off crippling debts
6. To conquer inveterate cowardice
7. To find a cure for a sickness affecting a beloved family member
8. To find a cure for a sickness affecting yourself
9. To wreak terrible revenge on a hated foe who has hidden in the dungeon's depths
10. To search for the rumoured El Dorado-style utopia which lies in the roots of the world

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Quick and Dirty (Untested) Dungeon Mapper

1. Take a handful of dice - preferably a mix of d4s and d6s, although you can throw a d8 or two in if you are feeling daring.
2. Throw them on the table, not too violently.
3. The position of each dice is a cavern or chamber. Note the approximate positions on a piece of paper.
4. The number on each dice is the number of exits for the respective cavern or chamber.
5. The number on each dice plus the number of sides on the dice is the approximate number of squares covered by the chamber or cavern (or the approximate number of square yards). 
6. Draw tunnels as necessary, using dice faces as a rough guide - so if two dice have sides facing each other, draw a tunnel/doorway between those two faces, and so forth. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Rationalism in D&D (II): As The Crow Flies Perfectionism

One of Oakeshott's terms of art in "The Tower of Babel" was "pursuit of perfection as the crow flies". This, in essence, refers to the tendency on the part of a society educated in the the self-conscious pursuit of moral ideals to actively strive towards ideals. For him, the myth of The Tower of Babel was an excellent metaphor for this tendency: here was a society which attempted to reach heaven, and the penalty was "a chaos of conflicting ideals, the disruption of a common life, and the reward [was] the renown which attaches to monumental folly". The people of Babel bet everything on realising an impossible ideal, and utterly destroyed their way of life in exchange.

This did not mean, of course, that the pursuit of perfection is wrong. To repeat what I quoted in the entry yesterday: "the individual must be allowed to bet according to his inclination [but] society should always back the field". The individual can pursue perfection as the crow flies, and he will fail because perfection is unattainable, but when he does society will be there waiting for him. Society, on the other hand, when it reaches its inevitable failure, will have nothing to fall back on because it will have already destroyed its precious customs and traditions in its quest for ideals.

What is the result of a society's pursuit of perfection in the moral sphere? It is one in which everybody is required to undergo intellectual training. We need to be trained to know what the moral ideals are. We need to be trained in the intellectual management of those ideals. And we need to be trained in how to apply them to real-world situations. This gives us (if it is successful) the utmost confidence in those moral ideals, and moreover allows us to know at all times exactly what we are doing and why. But this, to Oakeshott, was its downfall, and it is this which he is referring to when he bemoans the way we see the dominance of the pursuit of ideals as "a benefit for which we should be grateful or an achievement of which we should be proud". Because far from being helpful, the pursuit of perfection as the crow flies inhibits us:

[A] morality that takes the form of the self-conscious pursuit of moral ideals is one which, at every moment, calls upon those who practice it to determine their behaviour by reference to a vision of perfection...[W]hen the guide of conduct is a moral ideal we are never suffered to escape from perfection. Constantly, indeed on all occasions, the society is called upon to seek virtue as the crow flies....And the unhappy society, with an ear for every call, certain always about what to action shies and plunges like a distracted animal.

This is because, according to Oakeshott, moral rules are not the products of reflective thought. Rather, they emerge from activity. Setting in place an ideal and then striving for it in activity is putting the cart before the horse; it is the wrong way round. In fact, the correct order is that human beings first engage in action in society and from their action emerge customary rules and norms; these are then reflected upon and made abstractas rules. In Oakeshott's vision, society generates moral rules in an emergent, evolutionary, unconscious fashion, and subsequently people note that moral rules have been created and reflect upon them. So while morality without reflection is "defective", reflection ought to be subservient to habit; reflection is just the matter of "giving verbal expression to [already existing] principles of behaviour". It is supposed to protect us from degeneration into superstition. Out mistake is that we have given "that which has the power to rescue from superstition...the task of generating human behaviour" in privileging idealism over habit.

You can over-egg the pudding in drawing too direct a comparison between what Oakeshott was saying about moral rules and game rules. The two things are not the same: rules in games require a much greater element of his technical knowledge than do moral rules, for obvious reasons. Games require some rules to make them work as games at all.

Yet there is something to the notion that the pursuit of perfectionism and idealism in a set of game rules also falls victim to this category error that Oakeshott identifies: putting the vision of perfection first and then developing the rules with that vision in mind seems (if it is successful) to be likely to give us confidence in those rules and know all the time what rule we are supposed to refer to, how to apply it, and why we are applying it. The rationale would be clear at all times. Yet this, in itself, will be paralysing. The need to be perfect, to be impervious to criticism, to stand up to reflection, to be "naively coherent", will get in the way of free action. It will leave us certain about how to think but uncertain about how to act.

It seems to me that the project of the Old School Renaissance, by contrast, has been an embodiment of Oakeshottian thought - though naturally and entirely appropriately, it has done so in an entirely unconscious and emergent fashion! This is because the entire process, especially in its early years (around 2007-2009) was almost totally a matter of reflection on, and abstraction of, pre-existing habitual/customary rules and norms. That is, there existed a habit of play which had developed over the course of the decades from 1974 onwards; and though the pursuit of as-the-crow-flies perfectionism had intervened in the meantime to a large extent, it had not quite resulted in the absolute destruction of those customs and traditions. So that when OD&D, B/X etc. came to be "rediscovered" during this period, people were able to look at a wide array of pre-existing intuitive, often unwritten, often implicit, modes of conduct and ways of making rulings - a huge body of practical knowledge - and make them comprehensive and abstract (in projects like Philotomy's Musings, for instance). We might say that, in the OSR, reflection gave "verbal expression to principles of behaviour", in other words. Everything is the right way round.

What this means is that, when one uses the OSR play style, one is rarely if ever concerned about "naive coherence" and is, by contrast, primarily concerned with appropriateness of action: let's say with making rulings, not rules. This we know.

But perhaps more importantly, thanks to the manner of its creation - the fact that the internet allows the sharing of the habit of play between players (the verbal expression of the principles of behaviour) - it means that, in effect, those of us using that play style act as a society which retains its customs and traditions and can be confident in them as non-reflective, habit-producing, largely implicit guides of behaviour. This means that we are always able to pursue individual eccentricities safe in the knowledge that our society is backing the field. Whatever lunatic schemes we might come up with as ways to improve our games, the principles of behaviour - the habits of play - remain. No one individual project will result in a Tower of Babel which "disrupts our common life".

It would be going too far to suggest that this play style which we sometimes refer to as the 'OSR' or 'traditional games' is the best, but I certainly think the case can be made that we have the balance between habit and reflection right: habit dominates; reflection gives verbal expression to it and makes it knowable, teachable, and restrained from blind superstition.

Rationalism in D&D (I): System as Habit

Michael Oakeshott wrote a lot about habit - in particular in two essays, "Rationalism in Politics" and "The Tower of Babel". To grossly oversimplify, the main thrust of his thinking in this area was that the problem with the West since the Enlightenment had been the privileging of rationalism, reflection, ideals and rules over intuition and habit. Or, as he put it, in "The Tower of Babel":

The predicament of Western first that our moral life has come to be dominated by the pursuit of ideals, a dominance ruinous to a settled habit of behaviour; and secondly, that we have come to think of this dominance as a benefit for which we should be grateful or an achievement of which we should be proud.

What he meant here was simply that there are two ways to approach moral education: to encourage reflection and "the self-conscious pursuit of moral ideals", or to prefer acting in accordance with a habit of behaviour - an "unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been brought up". On balance, he preferred the latter of these. He did not argue for a moment that reflection on moral ideals was a bad thing, nor that blind following of tradition was good. But he thought in general society should lean on habit rather than idealism. To quote one of his more memorable lines: "human life is a gamble; but while the individual must be allowed to bet according to his inclination...society should always back the field". If individuals want to be "moral eccentrics" that is their business, and indeed to be encouraged, but society as a whole should not engage in the pursuit of moral ideals or grand moral projects. Rather, we should prefer a situation in which people generally follow moral rules unthinkingly and instantly without reflection, by course of habit. And although this might sound like an argument in favour of hidebound, unflexible tradition, he was keen to make clear that he was not against change; he noted, rather, that customs and traditions change all the time, but not in a self-reflective way and not in pursuit of an ideal - they evolve slowly as circumstances require.

His earlier essay, "Rationalism in Politics", made a similar argument in its separation of technique from practical knowledge. He argued, probably uncontroversially, that mastery of any skill involves both technical and practical knowledge. Learning to cook means learning what is in cookbooks (technical knowledge) but that is only the half of it: cooking is also about practising making dishes and learning intuitively what tastes good with what, how much salt should go in which dish, just how long something should be grilled for, and so on. A really good chef can take a bunch of ingredients and rustle up something tasty that he has never prepared before and has no recipe for, because he has intuitive, practical knowledge about what goes well with what - and it is quite likely he won't even be able to explain why. The analogy holds true for any skill you could name - be it poetry, driving a car, playing a sport, whatever.

Oakeshott then goes on to explain why in his view the privileging of technical knowledge in politics has led to rampant rationalism which has been a negative influence in the British political system in modern times, but we don't need to go into that; this isn't a political post. Oakeshott was a political philosopher but there is much more to his work than that. What I like about the emphasis he placed on habit and practical knowledge, not as the be-all and end-all (a cook still needs to be taught technique through books or from a teacher; a driver still needs to know the Highway Code and which pedal does what) but as where true value lies. A book of recipes is extremely useful, but nobody wants to eat at a restaurant where a beginner chef is just following uncreatively what is in a cookbook. The best chefs create their own dishes using their experience, know-how, and tacit knowledge. You can study iambic pentameter all you like, and knowing techniques of poetry-writing is useful and important, but that isn't going to turn you into Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Moreover, practical knowledge allows for responsiveness. Oakeshott was not the first person to observe that you can read all the books on a given subject in the world, but all of that technical knowledge will never cover all of the situations that might arise in the real world in that field. The master of technique can never amount to the mastery of the entire art. It doesn't allow you to react to the unexpected - only practical knowledge can provide that. Only experience and intuition.

You can probably see where I am going with this: who is the better DM - the person who has only been trained in the rules or the person who knows the rules but has 10 years' experience at the table? The latter, of course. A banal observation. But an important one: a DM with a high level of practical knowledge is going to be able to do things that one with only technical knowledge simply can't do: he is going to be able to react to the unexpected in a way which makes sense within the context. He is going to be able to make rulings effectively based on his own intuition, and because of his mastery of practice these rulings are going to be fair and reasonable ones. This is not to say for a moment that beginner DMs can't do the same thing. Just that the more they do it and the more they develop their practical knowledge, the better they will get at it.

You may go so far as to say that the aim of a DM should be to develop a habit of play. That is, the aim should be to be in a position wherein one makes rulings not out of reflection but out of instinct - as a matter of course. Why? Because reflective judgement-making is slow and inefficient, but, much more crucially for Oakeshott, reflective judgement is prone to the pursuit of perfection, which prizes what he called "naive coherence", preferring intellectual defensibility over rough-and-ready suitability - which in turn makes it sterile and inflexible. In other words, it will be more important that a decision is impeccable and impervious to criticism than that it is appropriate to the moment. This will give rise to an approach that is perfectionist and paralysing rather than confident in itself as a method of action. Reflection will inhibit sensibility. As he said, "[T]ogether with the certainty about how to think...must be expected to go a proportionate uncertainty about how to act."

As with practical and technical knowledge, Oakeshott was at pains to make clear that he did not believe that habit could or should exist without any reflection, critique or effort to explain. Habit on its own very quickly degenerates into superstition, and has no way of rescuing itself: since it has no reflection, no means of analysing itself, it has no method for escaping a descent into blind, unthinking inflexible copying of ancient ways of doing things. But given the choice of emphasising habit or reflection, in his view, the dominance of habit is to be preferred. (At least in moral matters; though I think the line of thinking holds in other areas.)

So much for that. If anybody has the energy for more of this tomorrow (or even if you don't; I'm going to write the entry anyway so fuck you), I'll be relating what is contained in this post more closely with the OSR and the development of RPG rulesets.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Frankly, Mr Sicherman

Thanks to this, I discovered this - the Sicherman dice. These are 2d6, one of which has sides bearing the numbers 1, 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, and the other bearing the numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8. Why, you might ask? Because, you idiot, rolling these two dice gives you the exact same probability distribution for the sum of two normal d6s. Duh.

I don't know if Mr Sicherman was a gamer, but his creation has some quite profound implications.

First, as somebody in the therpgsite thread pointed out, you could use the Sicherman dice to represent, say, speed and quality. Since one of the dice gives quite low results and one quite high, you could roll 2d6 (actually, let's use 2sd6) and have the higher result represent speed and the lower, quality; or the higher quality and the lower, speed - thus nicely representing the way in which you have to sacrifice speed for quality sometimes and vice-versa.

Another possibility is to use 2sd6 for a unified combat roll: one dice representing defence, the other offence. Again, the trade-off between going on the offence but leaving yourself open to attacks versus focusing on defence at the expense of dealing damage is neatly represented in a single roll this way.

Yet another: roll 2sd6 and assign one dice to initiative and the other to damage. The longer you take to pick your moment, the more damage you do. Or, the quicker you act, the more likely it is that you will give a glancing blow as you frantically try to act before your opponent. Perfect for OD&D, actually.

George Sicherman, wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, I salute you and your crazy dice.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Yoon-Suin Hexes

It's a while since I've posted anything creative on the blog. There's a reason for this: I'm nearing completion of Yoon-Suin, and my creative energies are going almost entirely towards that. Last time I posted an update it was to brag about being nearly finished; I underestimated what a ball-ache it would be to type up my notes and lay them out properly, and I need to write some "what to do with this book" style essays. But I anticipate completion within, say, a month or two.

But anyway, here are some hexes. It isn't a hex-crawl product: I provide a blank hex map with geographical features only, and you fill in your own entries as desired. But each I've also got around 20 sample hexes for each of the 5 regions of Yoon-Suin so people can also just arrange them to taste if they're lacking inspiration.

Here are the ones I typed up this afternoon, around the Topaz Isles:

The Dreaming Crabs. An area of beach infested with small white crabs. They have been eating the local seaweed, which is imbued with magic due to the proximity of ancient ruins, which are now entirely covered by sand. Anybody passing through the area will see strange illusions caused by the collective magical dreaming of the crabs. (Roll d6 to determine illusion type: 1 - Giant crabs, 2 - Giant urchins, 3 - Giant starfish descending from the sky, 4 - Giant blennies diving out of the sky to bite, 5 - Giant slithering ragworms, 6 - Giant tentacles appearing out of thin air). The illusions are as those generated by a phantasmal force spell and will do 'damage' unless disbelieved. A mage staying the night in the area will find he can memorise an extra level 1 spell from his spellbook.  
Yuhapu, the Beach Comber. A stretch of beach patrolled by Yuhapu, a beach-comber and hermit. Yuhapu is a magician of some power (level 5) but appears as an old man, decrepit and in rags. He has befriended 4 kelp dryads who act to protect him if necessary. In his hut is Treasure Type N and O in special items, potions and scrolls. (Kelp Dryad: HD5+1, AC4, #ATT 1 DMG D8/Energy Drain, ML10; damaged only by magical weapons); he knows the Topaz Isles extremely well and will provide information in exchange for magical gifts.   
The wreck of The Red Lady. A shipwreck can be seen on the rocks 50 yards from shore, gradually decaying. Jetsam is still strewn on the beach; concerted searching for a day will uncover d3 special items here. In the channel separating the rocks from the shore lurk sharks (roll number encountered as per bestiary entry). On the ship itself is a figurehead of a woman carved from red wood. She cannot move, except for her head, but she shrieks constantly if anyone approaches, causing fear and slowness. She can cast a ray of enfeeblement 5 times per day, lightning bolt 5 times per day, and summon storm once per day. The ship contains treasure type B.  
The Fuyipi grove. A grove of jungle trees which bear a fruit called the fuyipi. This fruit, if thrown, explodes and sprays vomit inducing, stinking liquid over a 3 yard radius. Anyone in this radius must save versus poison; a failure is as a stinking cloud spell, while success is incapacitation through retching for d3 rounds. Fuyipi fruits hang 30' up and are fed on by a breed of beetle monkeys (3d6 encountered) which vigorously defend their territory with shrieks and thrown fruit, but will flee combat. (Beetle monkey: AC7, HD1-1, #ATT3, DMG d3/d2/d2, ML 5)  
The Corpse of the Sea Beast. A huge vertebrate sea beast died here long ago. Only the bones remain, picked clean and bleached by the sun. It is used as a cache by smugglers (generate on the appropriate table) who stash opium or tea in the massive skull, ready to be collected by comrades and taken to the Yellow City. On any given day there will be 500 cn in weight of randomly determined opium or tea in 10 small barrels. A lookout is permanently positioned in a well-hidden stone cairn nearby and will summon aid (20 smugglers in 4-man skiffs) with smoke; they will arrive within d6x10 minutes.  
The Sacrifice Grounds. An area of rocks used by the local sea nomads (generate on appropriate table) as an attempt to appease squid man raiders. Every month 12 people are tied to iron poles planted into the rocks above the line of the high tide. There is a 1 in 4 chance the poles are occupied when the hex is passed through. Roll d6 for each to determined the occupant: 1-3 member of a rival tribe, 4 - member of same tribe, 5 - stranded fisherman, 6 - special (1 - minor noble from the Hundred Kingdoms, 2 - slugman from the Yellow City, 3- Outsider).  
The Pool of Éhúlé. A tidal pool which, when full, can be used to see clairvoyantly. The user must hold in his mind what he wishes to see (a place, a person, an object, etc.) and slice open his forehead, spilled 1 hp of blood into the pool. What he wishes to see will then materialise in the pool in the form of the blood as it spreads through the water.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

A Philosophy of RPG Combat

While posting in this thread it occurred to me that what I value most in an RPG combat system is deadliness. And this is because I want combat to be something players think twice about: I want the decision to engage in combat to be the most important and weighty kind of decision in the game.

This is not because I'm one of those people who is of the view that real combat is nasty and horrible and people should resolve conflicts in make-believe games peacefully. Real combat is nasty and horrible, but fictional combat is both enjoyable and interesting, and to be encouraged.

Rather, it is because of two related reasons:

a) In order to make players genuinely invested in a game, their decisions have to matter. And as a general rule, in order for decisions to matter there have to be meaningful consequences. If the decision to fight a gang of orcs is a simple one because the orcs are easy to defeat and there is almost no chance of death, then what business does that decision have being in a game at all? It makes almost literally no difference whether the characters have that fight or not - so why have it? At best it satisfies the largely masturbatory impulse to show off how powerful your fictional character is in a fictional universe. I'm not sure what on earth the point of that is; your mileage may vary.

b) I like to reward player skill, and easy combat does not reward player skill: it rewards character skill. I like to play Steel Panthers: World at War, and what I always find interesting about that game is the way it rewards intelligent use of command & control, terrain and subterfuge: in a good, well designed wargame like SP:WAW victory is as much, if not more, about where you concentrate your forces, when you time your attack, where and when you commit your reserves, and how you predict your opponent's moves, than it is about Tiger tanks being more powerful than Shermans. Similarly, in an RPG, I'm much more interested in how PCs pick and choose their fights, try to manipulate circumstances to their own advantage, and use the terrain than I am in the fact that a 6th level fighter can easily beat up a goblin.

Which isn't to say that the actual fight itself should not be one which the players have made easy through their own intelligent play. The crucial point is that, when players win a fight, I want it to be because they are good and clever players and not because they have kick-ass characters with super duper magic swords.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Order of Stats

I started playing D&D with the red box and then AD&D 2nd edition, so the order in which I write stats tends to be STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, CHA. Other variations exist depending on the edition. However, I think I am right in saying that almost everybody will at least put STR first and CHA last. Anything else seems somehow wrong.

Undoubtedly this is mostly because of tradition, but I also think it is because adolescent boys will tend to think of STR as the most important stat and CHA as the least, and most D&D players started playing as adolescent boys.

I wonder if one very simple element of the minimalist approach to setting design could be the re-ordering of stats. A rarefied, high-magic setting might have the order: INT, WIS, CHA, DEX, CON, STR. A setting of tiny principalities where diplomacy and courtly intrigue are all-important might have: CHA, INT, WIS, DEX, CON, STR. A harsh desert setting might have CON, WIS, INT, DEX, STR, CHA. While there would be no mechanical effect, something about mood would be very efficiently communicated through such minor tweaks.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Arguing on the Internet

There's been quite a bit of controversy around our little corner of the internet regarding, amongst other things, sexism in Monte Cook's new game, "concern trolling", moderation on, and offensiveness in art. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, take it from me that it is all so utterly stupid that you will not be able to stand it, and be glad that you are aloof from the whole affair. 

Anyway, Roger the GS writes an interesting and thoughtful piece about arguing on the internet in general. I'm somebody who engages in that idiotic pastime rather a lot (although I like to think I've toned it down a little bit); being an academic, I also find myself arguing with people face-to-face on nearly a daily basis, and will even argue about things I absolutely care nothing about (I once had a very long, heated argument with a colleague about the morality of vegetarian sausages at about 1am at a pub; by the time we'd finished we'd well and truly painted ourselves as nutjobs in front of the entire department, but I was right about the stupid sausages.)

I used to have a high-minded view about discussion and debate. I used to think it was a matter of changing minds, and in my particularly self-congratulatory moments I would look on myself as somebody reasonable and sensible who would change his own views through debate. I now think that neither of those things happen very much, if at all. I do occasionally refine and evaluate my views through argument. But you are never going to convince me that, for example, Catharine MacKinnon is right about pornography, to pull an example off the top of my head as something I have argued about at the pub recently. And I don't think I have ever witnessed anybody change their mind through an argument; the best that can usually be hoped for is an agreement to disagree. 

A good friend and regular sparring partner down the years, J, was unfortunate enough to share an office with me for a long stretch. Coming from near opposite ends of the political spectrum, as we did, we usually found ourselves arguing, on a more-or-less daily basis. He often used to say that arguing was a sport, rather than an actual exchange of views. I agree with this more and more. Arguing, for some people, is fun. It is like exercise for the mind. You get a little endorphine rush when you think you are right, just as you get an adrenaline rush when you score a goal. But you rarely have any intention of even entertaining the possibility you could be wrong, even if you will not admit that to yourself.

I'm also of the view that arguing and putting forth your views eloquently and passionately is a form of preening. It's showing off: "Look at me and how big my brain is". It is a manifestation of the human (particularly straight male) urge to say to prospective mates: "I am worth a good shag, so what are you waiting for?". I don't believe that this is at all a conscious impulse, but I think it is there at its roots, deep down inside that ancient reptilian part of us. As I said in the comments to Roger's post (and I'll repeat it because I like it): its ironic that this manifestation appears on nerd forums on the internet, where it is the least likely platform for attracting mates imaginable. What isn't ironic is that, as we all know, sexual chemistry and arguing are inextricably linked. 

I imagine that there are people out there reading this who are thinking to themselves no, when I argue I do it because I am passionate about my world-view and want to convince others of its fundamental truth. There are others who will be thinking no, when I argue I do it because I am genuinely interested in exchanging opposing opinions and thus broadening my mind. To that, I'd say yes, I often think that is what I am doing as well, at the time. But if I look deep down inside I have to admit that much of the impulse to argue is simply to stroke my monstrous ego and remind myself how right I am. I'm not proud of that. But I am right about it. 

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The 8th Deadly Sin of Obsessive World Building

The older I get, the less interested I become in having a detailed setting that all makes sense. Somebody on the rpg site linked to this io9 article, in which a painfully hip and clever journo sets out "The 7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding"; it's the sort of thing I probably would have appreciated 10 years ago, but which I now view as dangerously wrong-headed. Setting aside M. John Harrison's critique (which is that what we know about our world fills umpteen libraries and not even that is enough, so why on earth would you expect a fantasy world to be that detailed?), no fantasy author who you would care to label as being "great" has ever cared about any of those things. Especially not Tolkien, who for some reason is always seen as obsessing over detailed setting creation but who clearly didn't care a jot about economics, infrastructure, non-monolithic socio-political groups, or portraying members of different ethnicities in three-dimensional ways (or having three-dimensional characters in general, really). You could say exactly the same thing about Peake, Wolfe, Vance, Howard, Zelazny, Moorcock, Lewis, Harrison... Even modern authors who are renowned for being interesting "worldbuilders" - Mieville and Martin spring to mind - show no real evidence of considering the creation of a world that makes sense to be one of their key tasks. (I remember reading an interview with GRRM in which he said something along the lines that the Dothraki language has 7 words because that's all it has needed so far, and when he needs an 8th word he'll create it; this seems to neatly sum up his philosophy towards worldbuilding.)

This is because fantasy in general has always been about theme. As long as things are thematically coherent, readers tend not to care about much else: it's never bothered them exactly why it is that The Shire is so prosperous and why we never see female orcs, or where Gormenghast gets all of its luxury goods from. They're interested in the story, and the themes which underlie it, and as long as things aren't egregiously ridiculous they couldn't care less about these "7 Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding". (Indeed, you might say that the moment a reader starts nitpicking about stuff like that is the moment you've lost him as a reader: the reason he's nitpicking is because he's bored by the story.)

I tend to think that the growth in fan-dom amongst nerds in the internet era has contributed to this strange notion that everything has to be perfectly thought-through. Unlike in the 1930s and 40s, when Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, there are now baying throngs of fantasy and SF fans who define themselves by their geekdom and who veritably froth at the mouth at the prospect of debating the minutiae of their favoured franchises with people who are Wrong On The Internet. The game has changed, and not for the better; ultimately I think it is a childish expectation that everything has to fit together, and a childish expectation that everything can be explained.

Of course, I'm not a fan of that other disease of nerd-dom, which takes the view that theme doesn't matter and literally everything that you like should be mixed together, on the principle that I like ice cream and I like spaghetti bolongnese so why on earth wouldn't you want to mix them together? It seems to me that all that's required is thematic coherence and if you have that taken care of, you've won.

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Problem of Horror Games

Let's talk about the problem of running horror games.

Last year I went through a phase of reading almost exclusively horror - I was ploughing my way through Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, and Thomas Ligotti stories faster than you can say "the blind, voiceless, tenebrous, mindless Other gods whose soul and messenger is the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep". I naturally started thinking about running Call of Cthulhu again, and even bought the 6th edition core rules.

But I also started thinking about how difficult it is to run an actual horror game. I use that wording advisedly, as a way of distinguishing it from games with the furniture of the horror genre. These are not difficult to run: it isn't hard to run Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies, especially if you are making things a little bit rail-roady, but also if you are willing to set up a more sandboxy investigative type game.

However, having the furniture of horror is not the same thing as horror itself, and there are elements of the horror genre that I think are not only nearly impossible to emulate in a traditional game, but actually militate against it. Proper horror, in my view, revolves around two things:

1. Powerlessness of the protagonist. While a protagonist should be active, and usually is, ultimately his fate should be out of his hands. That's what makes it scary. It may simply be that the protagonist is unable to curb his own curiosity. But still, horror seems crucially to be, to some degree, about DEPROTAGONIZATION. And I don't mean whiny "I'm not allowed to be awesome, boo-hoo" style deprotagonization. I mean the GM mandating that unutterably shit things happen to your character for no other reason that "It's horror and your fate is out of your hands".

2. Bleakness. I'm not a believer in the hero or heroine triumphing over evil in a horror story. Even if he survives, he should be physically or mentally ruined. Ramsey Campbell is the master of coming up with endings which imply that some unfortunate soul will be in torment forever, and Ligotti is expert at implying meaninglessness and complete lack of hope, but more mainstream horror can be just as pessimistic - in most of Stephen King's books there is a genuine streak of sheer nastiness in the endings, giving the sense that everything has changed for the worst. But this, in a traditional game, would be equally as DEPROTAGONIZING; generally, you want your character to have goals, to improve, and raise his or her standing. Not face ever more hopeless situations unto gruesome death or eternal suffering.

That's not to say you can't have powerlessness and bleakness in short bursts. Murderous Ghosts manages this - it lasts an hour, terrible unspeakable things happen, and then it ends. And you don't care because it's an hour and it was fun. But it isn't the stuff campaigns are made of.