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Call of Cthulhu is missing an act

September 20, 2011 3 comments

Through all this endless back and forth about when and why it absolutely isn’t OK to drop an encounter on somebody that you thought they might like, a realization came to me – one that James Maliszewski apparently had years ago but, y’know, I can be a bit slow.

The best way to start an adventure path is probably from a sandbox.

James does this all the time in Dwimmermount, by dangling hooks in front of his players, which they just happen to find while they’re doing what they do every day – looting Dwimmermount. Here’s a magic item. It transports you somewhere mysterious, where there’s a load of peculiar stuff, that seems relevant to Dwimmermount. There’s a scroll which tells you about another location elsewhere. The guy who translates scrolls wants magic red spoons: he’ll trade info for them. Info that leads into or back to or across other plots. And so on.

Yeah, I know, it’s not rocket science. But thinking about it made me realize how often I haven’t done it in the past. How whole games have somehow decided to forego this bloody obvious method.

Including my most favouritest game of all, Call of Cthulhu, which routinely starts with some bunch of freshly rolled characters receiving a disturbing letter from their uncle – ie a mission briefing that tells you “the plot’s that way, go engage with it.” Now I’d felt uncomfortable about this method in the past. I’d agreed with other players that it was “a bit contrived,” that the PCs often didn’t have good reasons for abruptly getting in up to their necks in trouble that would probably kill them, after driving them mad. But I hadn’t really thought about what was wrong with it from an RPG point of view.

Here’s what I think is wrong: it robs your 3 act drama of its first act, which is normally dedicated to getting to know the PCs. Zak pointed out that CoC is about The Menace, and that’s what everyone cares about, and nobody’s really interested in the 1920s as a setting itself. And that’s Act 2 stuff* – the antagonist or antithesis – but skipping Act 1 means you don’t lay out the stakes – what The Menace menaces. And that’s probably why The Menace always threatens to unmake the world and all creation – because that’s a stake the players can get without any context. But if you had an Act 1 and you actually knew and cared about your characters and they had some history and some bit of the world that was their own to defend, then The Menace would have more purchase in the world: it would have specific things to get its claws into. And the PCs would have more tools or situations against which to place it.

So I still love CoC, but in future I think I’m going to seed CoC adventures in other, persistent settings. Let’s say the PCs are pirates. They do their pirate thing: they annex some secluded coves and get some reliable fences for their loot and try to recruit crewmen and follow rumours of richly-laden ships and periodically pretend to go legit so they can knock over a warehouse or a governor’s palace and so on. And while they’re doing this they get to hear about disturbing stuff, and they get to choose what to do about that. And in this way they can build up a general picture of the world and make their own deductions about what might and might not fit in it. And they’ll get to hear about some things that definitely don’t fit: that menace the world they’re adapting themselves to exploit.

The Orthodox School of Robbery would chime in at this point and say “yes, yes, but you’re still thinking about it wrong right up front there: you’re not running a CoC game at all, you’re running pirates, and if you try to force your players into one when they came to play pirates they’ll be pissed off – because you’ll be railroading in their sandbox.” Yeah well, obviously it’s player directed: as a DM I’d have to chill, have NPC schemes going on but no overall plot and all that. Sure. But there’s a cost to the pure sandbox model, too: where CoC classically lacks a first act, the classical sandbox never gets out of first. Because nothing else in the world is as important as the PCs and their decisions, the world can never develop its own “agency,” to use the buzz-word of the month. Start actually making important changes to the world because the PCs didn’t engage with that scheme you told them about and you’ll be accused of railroading them into engaging with it.

Well, perhaps. But that’s actually how the real world works. That would be a breathing, dynamic world with consequences both for action and inaction. Maybe in such a world the opinions and actions of NPCs could also matter. In a world like that there might even be room for an Act 3 that didn’t consist purely of bookkeeping – counting loot, leveling up, looking for the next dungeon.**

* CoC seems to be deliberately stuck in Act 2 all the time, actually: Sandy Petersen’s onion skin model, in which solving each mystery leads to a bigger, deeper one, is an ingenious method for turning Act 3 resolutions back into Act 2 introductions of the antithesis. And it’s orthodox dogma that you cannot eventually win.

** Note, I’m not talking about an “end game” here, I’m talking about closing particular chapters or threats or opportunity windows in the world, not the End of the Campaign.

Reward for getting this far:

Mirror of Heissenbergen. Using this mirror the PCs can capture one creature or object from the world. It will then remain in the mirror until released (say, by a magic word or gesture). If the creature or object has some sort of will of its own, roll a D30 and subtract the creature’s wisdom or charisma from the result. It will escape from the mirror in that many days, unless released earlier. If nothing has been captured but the mirror is set to release anyway, small hot stones will spit intermittently out of the mirror until the release order is canceled.

A surfeit of ogres. Every road out of town abruptly has exactly the same ogre encounter on it. If these ogres are dispatched they will be replaced within d12 hours with a duplicate. The ogres are being put there by the wife of a retired adventurer who lives in town. She’s worried her husband will leave unless he’s discouraged, and she’s got hold of a magic or ultratech replicator from his hoard, that works something like the mirror, above. It’s set to release ogres right now, so that’s what she’s using. If the PCs find the replicator it will have exactly 2 charges left. The retired adventurer may tell the PCs where he got the replicator for a consultancy fee, payable half up front, half on return, but there’s no way he’s going back in there.

On levels as a philosophical category; or, esse quam videri

May 17, 2011 2 comments

Jovial Priest asks an extremely interesting question regarding his Universal Survival Guide project: Should character level lead to an increase in ability? with the addendum Are we creating rules for heroic fantasy or rules for the simulation of a world that obeys Earth laws? Robert Fisher responds;  The “realistic” part is there to make the players feel more comfortable and to make the fantastic parts feel more fantastic. It also helps them to have a framework to judge their character’s chances. The fantastic elements are there to make the players feel (among other things) uncomfortable and to be interesting.  Yup. That’s eminently practical and makes sense and anyway, how else would you run a game? Players gotta have a comprehensible, stable world in order to take meaningful action, make plans, take reasonable decisions, participate. Fine.

But where is “realistic?” What will your players will feel to be natural or appropriate? Which camels are they happy to swallow, and which gnats will strangle them?

Here’s the thing: levels are simply non-naturalistic and their presence in D&D is a huge part of the anti-naturalism of the game’s implied setting. This game takes your character from almost-hopeless shlub to as far up the god ladder as you want to go, and that is your character’s arc. But it’s still not simple heroicism. Because levels represent a very particular take on what makes a hero: one that’s these days quite unpopular among screenwriters.

Levels model experience, not talent. That’s important, because it explains competence in a particular way, which works for certain kinds of characters – like Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger or Yoda in Star Wars or Higgs in Girl Genius. These characters have been around a long time, they’ve learned the tricks, they’ve earned their levels. Their amazing actions come with an explanation – diligent hard work, discipline, heartfelt application. All very midwestern virtues. Levels don’t explain other characters (often the actual protagonists) in those same works, though, like young whippersnapper Zhang Ziyi or Luke or Agatha. For them you probably need GURPS’ “starting points” system. So in one way they seem “naturalistic,” rather than mythic, and people like or dislike them on that basis.

Except increasing HP or saving throws with level doesn’t really model increasing skill. The old OSR argument that “PCs become heroes through play” is really a kind of selection or confirmation bias; they’re heroes because they’re still here. They have high hit points because they’ve demonstrated they’re hard to kill. In other words, they’re mechanically mythic. What about the other not-obviously-learned benefits of leveling up, though? Why can higher-level MUs and clerics cast more powerful spells? There are 3 game design reasons – because novice players should have simple toys to master first; because usually the bigger hazards are not right next to the First Level Graduation Canteen, and that’s probably because sequels gotta get bigger; and because players love finding cheese. But is there an in-game reason? Sure, you can rationalise one: this spell is harder than that, or only given out by the Spell Angels to initiates of a certain standing, but look at the mechanics, especially of what MUs can learn/remember. They’re very mechanical. Your brain won’t absorb spell x until you’re level y.

Which brings me to the thing my inner munchkin loves and my inner book-reading, vicariously-thrilled child hates about levels. They tell you exactly how powerful you are. They offer a predictable, orderly progression of powers, like freemasonry or scientology or belt systems for martial arts. So they act as a ready explanation for anything extraordinary the characters might do – the characters aren’t really amazing or freakish, just high level. In a perverse way levels glue the gameworld together: they diagnose and contextualize their heroes, by giving the heroic condition a name and number. At the same time they make heroism mundane, obvious. Did you kill the dragon? Really? Oh, but it had 8 HD and you had 9. OK. 

And they offer a kind of reassurance that non-interactive fiction, and quite a lot of RPGs, BTW, don’t depend on. Of perfect self-knowledge – of the impossibility of ever really being fooled. It’s the same neurotic reassurance that demands Charm Person be a trick, not a real friend-making spell. Because you shouldn’t be able to affect people deep down in their hearts, and that means you should know what’s down there, on the player/character layer. Levels reveal the character’s essence, their potential, who they really are, in a way that’s not just intelligible, but ironclad, unalterable, unmaskable truth. And they tell you what you can expect in the next n adventures. So they take away surprises – both the kind that destroy play and the kind that players might really enjoy. You can’t have that moment of divine realization, that puts you ahead of the villains at last, because the game is set up to dribble out power in known increments. The most you can hope for is to get your hands on some kryptonite. And you can’t learn that you were secretly someone else with different prospects because the character sheet does not lie to you. You might secretly be the lost prince of Captchaword but it won’t make a mechanical difference. Not because the DM’s hands are tied, as such, but because the structure of leveling would make all such moves look like “cheating:” betrayals of the expectations built into the system.

Don’t get me wrong, I see that levels provide a stability that’s useful in a game, for all the reasons Robert Fisher said. I see that they help players gauge threats and plan and understand what kind of game they’re playing. But right there in that knowability, that predictability, they do a pretty good job of destroying heroism.

Because of course you’re not going to take that dragon on, idiot. You’re third level!

On CHA, WIS and POW-based magics

May 12, 2011 2 comments

Hill Cantons considers treating Charisma more directly as reputation and ditching all non-physical stats for D&D PCs.*

This post is not really a response to that, but instead a repost of something I said in 2007 regarding That Stat That Means Magical Potential. I propose that we mostly don’t know from the rulebooks what to do with INT, WIS or CHA, beyond a couple of standard applications/effects, and that POW in CoC and Runequest is even worse. The effects of STR are easy to visualize: it tends therefore to get a lot of in-game use. But the effects, the meaning, of the “mental attributes” are less understood, so we have less to apply tactically at the table. And the same is true of vanilla D&D’s magic systems, which is too bad because they could actually give us some insight into the in-game meanings of the attributes.

What do I mean by that? My gold standard for a rule is, can the players take tactical advantage of it? Can they use it as a tool, plan around with it? Can they imagine uses for it that I do not feed them? For me,  AD&D 1e MU and clerical magic do not meet this standard: the way the magic works is a glassy, impenetrable surface. (Same goes for magic in CoC, but there it seems intentional.) Players get spells and they apply them. Maybe they invent clever applications, but they can’t try out new spells unless you provide a novel system for doing so. This model of magic reminds me of what lots of folks hate about thieves: it’s like they have their explicit skills and nothing else. And if those are special thief skills, then nobody else can hide in shadows.

But if they had some understanding of how magic worked then maybe they could ask questions and invent their own effects and just plain be a bit more magical. Rangers do this all the time – “I search for tracks… I collect firewood… is there a plant that can help here?” So I find that rationalizing the magic system is one of the most important elements in making it usable by the players. And I think the following might help with that. And it would probably base magic off CHA, though WIS could do, too.

So. POW. The influence of classic works of anthropological theory on CoC is obvious: it’s written all over Petersen’s rule- and sourcebooks. Oliver Wolters (dead anthropologist, historian, colonial officer) had a theory of personal political power (the ability to influence people and events: Charisma, in D&D terms) in SE Asian society. He said such power was seen as a symptom of inner, spiritual power, which he called “prowess” or “soul stuff” (pretty much POW in CoC. Bear with me).This power varies from person to person, and determines personal effectiveness, leadership ability, ability with magic and ritual, and the occupations associated with magic (fishing, hunting, navigating and war). It doesn’t imply wisdom or education or knowledge or physical strength, but it has a direct effect on success because the universe would be inclined to go with your actions and leadership (luck), just like people would be naturally drawn to your innate superiority (“as bees are drawn to nectar”).

According to Wolters’ view of the Indonesian belief systems he observed, you were born with a certain amount of it, based either on your lineage or your conduct in past lives (opinion differs). Some further social implications follow from this, to do with the natural aristos of aristocrats, and an ever-diluting and sinking system of status, which Geertz wrote about in his book Negara(which really does read, in its completeness and airtightness, like a gaming supplement).

People are naturally drawn to follow charismatic leaders (per Wolters prowess is both POW and CHA) both as a compulsion and because, as cogs in the greater machine, they share in a larger total group POW (spiritual rapport with the leader yields a whole that is greater in combination than separately, although not necessarily greater than the sum of its parts).

This smells like a theory of gravity to me, but I don’t think any model of its relative strength over distance has been put forward – such a diminishment of force over distance seems to operate in Lovecraftian literature, though:  without it there could be no ‘moment of introduction,’ on which to hang the horror. What interests me is that this neatly explains the slippery and weird attribute POW and its associated effects. It also suggested some links with the Mage line of products. POW governs magic (natch) and also luck (which is explained as unconscious magery).

Note that on this schema, magic of all kinds is an appeal to the way the universe works, it’s neither “reality hacking” (something like James Maliszewski’s Termaxian magic) nor the trust in the Powers of Fate that prayer tends to become in RPGs. Instead, your world-view is a sort of spiritual extension of yourself, like a field of force: it exerts an influence on people and things around you.  When you encounter someone or something else your influence competes with theirs (in Greek terms, your genius has a chance of overmastering theirs).

So how do you use it? What I like about this interpretation is that it makes the attribute a more active part of the magical exercise – untrained magery could work something like Clerics without Spells, turning undead could be a POW vs POW (or WIS or CHA) battle, and raising the supernatural stakes is liable either to draw the heroism out of your spellcaster (as their POW overmasters the opponent’s) or turn them (either away or to join the enemy, who has superior supernatural charisma). The ability to increase POW through a POW vs POW battle is not analogous to spiritual ‘exercise’ or ‘increasing skill’ – when you overcome someone else’s POW you effectively snip off a bit of their authority – they spiritually ‘pay tribute’ to you, increasing your authority directly (though this is not modelled in the game as a zero-sum operation… not sure why, or if there’s some further bit of thinking here). This maps neatly onto Polynesian ritual cannibalism, BTW, in which one ritually ingests the strength or force of one’s enemies.

There are other implications for games with Cthulhuvian elements, which might include your flavour of D&D:

– POW also governs SAN, because it represents one’s spiritual negotiation with the world. Encountering another person’s POW is dangerous but intelligible: no matter who wins, you stay in much the same mental/spiritual place. CoC Monsters are spiritually powerful and fundamentally other (we’re not really in Wolters’ territory any more, but you can kind of follow him in this direction, with the right twist of mind…). When you encounter them, their power actively disrupts yours, their world-view intersects with yours and is toxic… modeled as SAN loss, a loss of self-guided mental structure. This is the sense in which I’ve understood John Tynes’ discussion of the more powerful monsters as a kind of mental plutonium. The disruption of your POW is either experienced as trauma (simple diminishment) or a reconfiguring to the monster’s perspective (which is why you can’t play a permanently insane character: all such folks go over to the enemy, as reprogrammed but disfunctional drones). Implications for the undead are left as an exercise for the reader.

– The pooling or investing of POW explains the formation of cults and the strange hold cult leaders have over their followers: they start when the cult leader is overborne by the POW of a monster. The resultant collective POW (that of the monster reflected through the leader) acts as a honeypot for impressionable souls (those with comparatively lower POW), who ‘pay tribute,’ to the collective POW pot, further emPOWering the monster/leader. This is why you have to both mentally and physically separate followers from their leader before they will be ‘cured’ of their cultism. It may also explain why monsters adopt mad human leaders as intermediaries between themselves and larger groups of followers, rather than leading cults personally – aside from the scaleability advantages of a franchise organisation model, the monster may realise that its own direct presence will disrupt the POWs/SANs of its followers, making them somewhat more loyal but a great deal less functional – the leadership effect can be had without the damaging side-effects by refracting their personal magnetism through the leader, who acts as a sort of power-translator or transformer [Ken Hite notes: must write up the “magic as electrical engineering” rules in my head.Yes]

From this perspective, the tendency of cultists to enact summoning rituals may be seen by the monsters as an annoying pathology in their control network (because it brings cultists into direct contact with the monsters, reconfiguring their own POW/worldviews), a bit like being stalked by fans. On the other hand, the whole cult-formation thing might be seen as an irritation or simply irrelevant: there’s no evidence that anyone can control or ‘switch off’ their charisma/soul stuff/POW – it might just be a side-effect of high POW that people trail around after you.

Now I just wonder why Sandy Peterson did such a poor job of explaining it in the rulebook, and if Greg Stafford (or whoever first put POW in Runequest) also read Wolters, or came up with the whole thing in yet a different form. Which, given Greg’s penchant for shamanism,  he may have.

Best short ref to Wolters’ own work: his essay “some features of the cultural matrix” in O W Wolters: History, culture, and region in Southeast Asian perspectives (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982)

*In response to ckutalik, yes I see what you mean. But I like having mental stats for PCs, even if they’re hard to roleplay. Challenges are good. They help you visualise who your character is, even if you don’t always succeed in being them. And you can save against them (INT for memory/education, WIS for common sense, will, morale, CHA for persuasion).

On mere valour

May 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Toynbee convector offers an extract on the extraordinary bravery of some exterminated Inca.*

If I were running a smart-ass Vancian or Lieberian 4-colour fantasy I would certainly include Goblin and Kobold bards who sang the bitter defeats and astonishing sacrifices of their brethren into immortality. I would have the self-righteous humans pick these songs up on broadsheets and propagate them, sometimes changing the names or fitting them to their own tragedies of war, sometimes rendering them as romances or fantasies, sometimes simply repeating them verbatim and adopting their heroes as universal icons. They’d be chanted on playgrounds and chain gangs. Maybe these laments would not be accepted in the salons of power until they’d been gussied up, arranged for string band and majestic horns, their themes all but submerged in a layered, repetitive formalism. Maybe nobody would know that the Marcus Garvey or Che Guevara or Olaudah Equiano of my world was a Kobold, maybe they’d know but it wouldn’t matter. Maybe none of that would change the humans’ genocidal urges.

Alas, I missed scurvy awareness day.

While I’m tilting at sacred cows, here‘s a nice analysis of the British royal family as a brand. I actually think none of the four worlds the author describes is quite the one we live in, each of them could be a nice graft onto your own snoozing former empire.

* I’m not going to make any friends around here posting about my discomfort with the implicit politics of a relentless stronghold-raiding game – its colonialism, its orientalism, its racism, its historical echoes or its home ethnicity, its reliance on unexplained categories like “good” and “evil.” For me, these days, part of the attractive puzzle of the game is that I nonetheless find it puzzlingly attractive, despite its many unattractive qualities. I hope you can enjoy this post without being derailed by this note.

Pirates, privateers or psychopaths?

April 14, 2011 4 comments

So Eric Minton of The Mule Abides has been wondering what to do with players who slaughter their hirelings once the horses are loaded, and Cyclopeatron’s been worrying about how the sleep spell turns his players into sadists and murderers. In short, why do players act like psychopaths, and what should you do about it?

The comments show the obvious poles – do nothing, that’s the game on one side and punish them mechanically on the other, and a larger punishing camp who want the pain to be felt in the idiom of the game-world. Although so far the extent of that re hirelings seems to be have the free market sort it out (make reputation count, have hirelings sign on with other groups who sometimes bring a few back alive, reduce the quality/usefulness of the hirelings who stay with the group). The most popular solution seems to be to reduce the mechanical motivations for hireling slaughter (by decoupling xp from hireling wages) and to make sleep less useful.

I think the root of the problem lies elsewhere. St. Yossarian’s comment on Cyclopeatron avers:
your actions should always be defined in context, with the social mores of the world, region, and dungeon in which your gameplay is taking place

and then proposes a bunch of ways in which the world might act back against PC-perpetrated outrages against those mores:
Do the goblins refuse to surrender, knowing there’s a party of people around murdering defenseless goblins in their sleep?Do the goblins raise a huge party and slaughter the children of Pleasantshire in retribution for the slaughter inflicted on their hunting party?

That’s fine, if there’s a world out there with mores to act back, and if the players have some mental model of that world that expects consequences. But very often those worlds are woefully thin backdrops to the real action, which happens in a purpose-built, limited-consequences, racialized funhouse heterotopia, made specifically to support pyschopathic behaviors – what happens in the Tomb of Horrors stays in the Tomb of Horrors. In particular, very often PCs have no social role to play at all outside the dungeon. They are defined functionally, by the means they use to extract cash from monsters: fighting, stealing, fighting with magic or fighting/turning/healing. They may possibly belong to guilds. They may possibly get hit up for taxes and tolls. They may be given jobs to do by the local lord. But none of this gives them any more traction in the world than the Man With No Name or High Plains Drifter. They don’t expect to find romance or support dependents or receive gratitude from the populace even enjoy their famous carousing (which tends to wind up in fights. Ahem).

And that’s pretty much a definition of pyschopathy or sociopathy: the PCs don’t engage with the world or other people like they matter because they can’t see them mattering: it’s a problem of suspension of disbelief. The DM who is disturbed by torture or summary execution is probably working with Kantian ideas – bad acts are bad in themselves – modified by racial categories – killing goblins isn’t bad – which they take for granted because it’s their world. They know where they’ve drawn the lines between the people who matter and the ones who don’t. But the players are in a landscape that consists only of threats. Villages are cute scenery because they are low-threat areas, but they have little to do with the reward system of the game.

I propose a different, not very OS solution: get the players to define their social role and history. They aren’t fresh out of the character mills. They have mothers and maybe kids. And they aren’t PCs, nor even “adventurers:” nobody considered themselves an “adventurer” until the 19th century had made the East safe and pliable enough to support such a conceit. Are they bandits, pest control, defenders of the faith, knights errant or what? Mike Monaco reckons “pirates” is a good description for his players, and I think that’s probably true of most groups conceptually but it’s already a big step up socially from where most groups are today, because many pirates drew up constitutions to maintain peace and order among themselves, because they knew their categories between hunter and prey weren’t all that reliable and they planned, many of them, to retire some day and actually spend that loot.

Maybe more desirable than “pirate” (or bandit/gangsta/warlord) is “privateer.” History is not authoritative, but it does come up with good ideas, even for handling dungeoneering groups, hireling fees and murderous employers. A sailor on a Dutch privateer in 1600 could expect 2 months’ advance, one share of all loot (compared with the captain who could get 4-8 shares) and compensation in the event of being disabled or killed, paid to a named beneficiary. They also organized their own insurance cooperatives, to bail them out if they got ransomed by slavers. All this was handled by independent agents so everyone knew it was equitable. If you signed on you got a license to kill, pillage and spend, as long as you only did it to enemy forces. You weren’t generally required to keep prisoners alive but you could face legal consequences for abusing your own people, and those prisoners might be worth money or influence back in town. And you got benefits, both on the job and back home: privateering was a respectable business. It could even be heroically patriotic. It could lead to riches, good marriages and political power – a direct stake in the business and government of the city, region and state. And you could keep sailing and adventuring while you did it. Don’t fancy becoming a burgher with a little garden and a Calvinist governess for the kids? Malay and Bugis captains around the same period had similar career paths and social status while evoking more of a piratical or Beowulf vibe. Think it all sounds too modern? Warrior cultures the world over, from the Masai to Beowulf’s Geats to pre-Islamic Bedouin tied their fighting men to the communal hearth: you brought riches back from the unknown and you made them valuable by exchanging them back home for reputation. Through your mighty deeds you fed and protected the village, under your watch no poor child went hungry, and the men who went out with you did so to share in your success, not because you paid them a pittance like the semi-slaves of early modern merchant shipping, but because you were showing what heroism was.

Just imagine that.

I aim to pay my Joesky tax in the next post with a bunch of real-world solutions to the hireling hiring problem, and extra-disgusting ways in which people could get forced into dangerous, dirty jobs, all courtesy of the Dutch East India Company.

Why I hate “pseudo medieval”

April 6, 2011 4 comments

Trollsmyth responds to Hill Cantons’ question: “what really is the historically-analogous period implied in the garden variety D&D?” with the answer Hill Cantons anticipated: there isn’t one, it’s fantasy.

But his response doesn’t grapple with the important/interesting bits of that question: (1) waddayamean, there isn’t a world? Every rule contains a theory about how the world works and (2) why does 0/1e D&D borrow so heavily from European history (ca. -1000 to +1600) when it really wants to be Conan/Lankhmar/Dreamlands/Vance? Sure, those sources borrow from European history too, but D&D’s rulebooks go off on disquisitions about polearms and the qualities of riding horses, while players get into

“debates about medieval demographics: what the exact number of bushels of grains in a harvest were, what the percentage of clergy and townsmen was compared to land-bound serfs, what population density was like in say England in 1253, what the weights and denominations were for the Angevin-era penny, etc.”

I could easily spend the rest of the month working through implications of the question – how closely does D&D map onto any familiar world? But I have limited time and maybe you would have limited patience for such a thing. So I’ll quickly list a set of issues that I think that deceptively simple question raises, and maybe revisit them in time. These are questions any DM should think about for their game world. The trouble with the fudge of “pseudo medieval” is that it covers them up or, worse, renders the answers ambiguous for DMs and players, because every player or DM ever has some model of what’s properly “medieval” kicking around in their subconscious, and the chances of them agreeing are not good.

How common are parties of adventurers? How common are dungeons/monster nests? (From Beowulf to Sindbad to Tolkien the answer is very uncommon or unique. In Mad Max and MMORPGS there are only adventurers and monsters)

What does everyone else do? Is there an implicit economy the players could engage in? (not in the rules, that’s for damn sure. And there are those who know they don’t want it. But their worlds usually do feature some peasants and tradesmen and armourers, for all that they keep them deliberately off-stage)

Where does technology/equipment come from? Can the players make it themselves/have it made, or must they work with what they find? (There’s a power gaming side to this, involving half-informed players who’d like to invent gunpowder, please, but I mean something more fundamental: how much command do PCs have over their own resources? Is all the really good cheese is to be found down the catacombs, or can you dramatically increase your effectiveness by hiring a dozen farmers and using basic tactics?)

What is the power differential between PCs and other people in the setting? What is the power relationship? (Can they bully people like warlords or are they sworn soldiers of the king? Are they 6th level in a world of 0 level farmers’ boys? Does the vizier have to be 12th level? What does any of that mean, practically?)

What world does the shopping list simulate? How does that simulation work against the balancing of game tokens? (I’m thinking in the first place about plate mail, which if it were a magic item would be like a +8 iron statue of defense. What if you replicate the effects of all mundane items with magic ones – what would their relative value be to an adventurer? Oil flasks, I’m looking at you: are you safflower, spermaceti or kerosene?)

What is special about the PCs’ contribution to the world? Are they mythical golden-fleece-retrievers or pest control agents? Is dungeon-swag suitable for decorating palaces or for cleaning toilets? Do they need to undertake special quests to be considered special/heroic, or does mere adventuring count? (goes to the common/unique question above, but also, what does it take to be celebrated? or consulted by the town council? Or feared by the thieves’ guild?)

What are the PCs’ social ties and responsibilities? How often will they come back to this town? (the sandbox default is zero here. Zak made a point that PCs having relationships of any kind is sorta New School storygaming. But the only non-D&D-influenced fantasy world I can think of where this is true is Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns)

What’s considered appropriate behaviour for wandering warriors? What is their social status, and will adventuring improve it? Will the PCs’ reputation spread? What will that mean? What will people expect from them? (The A Team turns out to be more nuanced than most games on this one. There’s soul-searching to be done for most parties – especially Cthulhu investigators – around the question are we heroes or villains? But more generally, how will strangers be likely to consider the PCs? Malory’s knights errant, or Ip Man’s itinerant thugs? AND WHY?)

How much interaction is there in the world in general? Is every valley its own Balkanized, introspective fiefdom, or are there great capitals and pilgrimage routes? (9and30kingdoms actually addresses this, most “pseudo-medieval” gamers think nobody ever went anywhere. I’d rather inhabit a world with a Hajj so that every village would have at least one person who’s seen beyond the horizon. It seems like fluff, but it’s replete with implications: can the world be revolutionized by a commodity? How long will that take?)

And only after all this, then what is the flavour of this game? What does its setting look like? And maybe, just maybe, a long way down the line, how many jewelry appraisers can I expect to find in this town?

For my JOESKY tax I’ll propose another month-long project: the Lady Gaga Bestiary. Entry 1: the Red Devil

Encountered alone, or more frequently in groups of 6-8, this creature will most frequently be found writhing in otherworldly agony. Its apparent helplessness is an act, however: it can jump cut (as a blink dog) up to 50 feet, in order to close to attack. It is activated by the rhythmic drumming of a cadre of priestesses: disrupting the drumming will confuse or immobilize it. Its main attack is a slow finger drag over the victim: this slices points of attributes off them randomly (d6), which can only be restored by a remove curse or wish. The Red Devil can choose instead to slice armour off the victim: a successful attack worsens AC by 1d6, to max AC10.
Hit Dice: 5
Armor Class: 7
Move: 5′ per round, or jump cut up to 50′
Damage: special: 1d4 to an attribute
Special: Requires ritual drumming in order to act.

BLAHBLAH: why I’m not really OSR

April 5, 2011 Leave a comment

James asked “how many character classes do you use in your games” and the variety of responses is amazingly wide, from “I have no character classes or level advancement, players can try what they want” to “I only use the OD&D 3 (or AD&D 8 or 16 from supplements such-and-such)” to “20 or more, including setting-specific ones” to “I encourage my players to make up new ones.”

That shouldn’t surprise me, I guess: I became a game designer as a response to what I saw as the inadequacies of existing games (they didn’t address the worlds I wanted to play in) and because the early rule books explicitly encouraged me to make up my own game. Although perhaps Lego was as responsible as the “guidelines, not ironclad rules” text in most rulebooks of the 80s. Of course, it would be just as easy to do all that while nominally under the D&D banner, and you could bait-and-switch D&D-only players that way, too. But. It’s one thing to hear that people make D&D their own game, quite another to see it laid out like this – it makes D&D look like an identity category; people are playing D&D because they say they are.

I haven’t played D&D in years, and I don’t think I’ll be using it as an armature for anything I do next: I don’t want its baggage. I’d much rather start with a cleaner – maybe single/universal mechanic – chassis. And I’m impatient with learning complex systems these days – I want something with the pick-up-ability of Othello or liar dice. So can anyone suggest such a thing? GURPS is too crunchy for my current tastes, too simulationist, too many options built right in, but I like the ads and disads, the skills and design attitude. I’ve heard BESM is quite elegant, but I’ve never played it and I’d be fighting against the manga associations. I liked the approach of Space 1889 but the system strikes me as untested and unstable in play. What’s just right?

Another thought occurs to me: computer games have been teaching their players for years, by introducing modules of rules that complicate the core mechanic in a series of introductory levels. Is anyone making RPGs like this, starting everyone out as a basic (fighting man?) character and then adding world details and options slowly? Because really, with a level system in place, the decision to split fighter and magic user at root seems like a strange one, since the magic system is so obviously a bolt-on module added to a fighting game. And of course the separation is resisted in many gaming groups.