Friday, 23 March 2018

The Phantom Force Awakens a Menace

I feel like I may have courted enough controversy for a while, but, goaded by a comment on a recent entry, I'm going to put myself out on a limb again. So here goes: in hindsight, I find myself appreciating George Lucas's efforts in The Phantom Menace a little bit more than I once did.

Now, hear me out. I'm not crazy. I recognise that as films, the prequels taken in toto are dreadful. Attack of the Clones may be a genuine contender for the worst film ever made. It's awful. It has no redeeming qualities at all. Revenge of the Sith is a little bit better, but not much. Nothing about it is good, but passages of it rise slightly above the level of shite. 

But, say what you want about The Phantom Menace: at least George tried to do something genuinely ambitious. The attempt to tell the story of Darth Vader by actually beginning with him as a "lovable" (I use that adjective advisedly) child is, when you think about it, a pretty bravura act that I don't think has a parallel in film history. Certainly not genre film history. The execution doesn't work. But by golly at least he won't die wondering about what would have happened if he'd made that film. You have to give him that.

This dawned on me shortly after watching The Force Awakens. I don't think history will look kindly on that film in particular or Disney's Star Wars efforts in general. For starters, I think we'll get into "diminishing returns" territory fairly quickly if they keep up the pace of a new Star Wars film of some kind every year or two. But more importantly, The Force Awakens was the opposite of ambitious: it was a safe bet, an underarm throw, an open goal. What could be easier to pull off than a remake of A New Hope given the vitriol that has been heaped on the Star Wars prequels and the incredible juggernaut of nostalgia that sits behind the "originals"?

George Lucas caught lightning in a bottle with A New Hope. He went chasing after it again, bottle in hand, in making The Phantom Menace. He came back not so much with lightning but with bird droppings. But as a human endeavour I appreciate the effort. He tried, didn't he? Goddamit - at least he did that.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology is Indistinguishable from Magic

The interaction between magic and technology has interested me for a long time. But there are fine distinctions between different approaches to that interaction.

What I'm not particularly interested in are fictional universes in which magic takes on the functions of technology, as though "magic" is just another tool, like steam power or the dynamo, available for instrumental ends. Harry Potter is a bit like this: magic is almost just another form of energy transfer which can be used to, say, imbue a mop to make it clean the kitchen for you or transform a chair into a butler who now sets the table for dinner or whatever. Boring.

I'm also not very interested in fictional universes where magic can be explained through physics just like technology can. The best example of bad practice in this respect is, without question, midichlorians. How to make something mystical and awe-inspiring seem bland and uninteresting in 5 seconds: provide a pseudo-scientific explanation for it.

No. What I mean by the interaction of magic and technology is something akin to what I described in my last post: the deployment of technology to achieve a magical end, or vice versa. Recording a curse on a cassette tape and then putting the tape near the victim is a great example. Some others: translating spells into binary code to allow them to be read and processed by computer. Making voodoo dolls for technological objects (create a model of somebody's car and then puncture its wheels to stop the actual real-life vehicle from moving). Charm Person delivered via a snapchat message. Creating a doppelganger of somebody by downloading all the data Facebook holds on them.

Have there been any RPG settings which have mixed magic and technology in this way? The only examples I can think of that come even close are the different character classes in Unknown Armies (Pornomancers and Videomancers and all that), and maybe some of the ideas implicit in Mage: The Ascension?

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Curse You! Or, Putting "Spells and Magic" to Use

When I was in Kyrgyzstan, I'd sometimes come across reams of cassette tape, pulled out of the actual cassette, and hung on shrubbery by somebody's house or at a roadside or on a piece of waste ground. Spools of unnatural, metallic black string spread about in a vaguely menacing way, like the excretions of some predatory cybernetic insect that had just passed by.

I asked some friends about this, and they said that these things weren't usually there by accident. This was modern shamanism at work. If you've got an enemy, get a shaman to record a curse on a cassette recorder. Then unwind the tape and put it near your target's house and the curse will take effect.

I was fascinated by this concept and found the whole thing genuinely creepy - a 21st century Central Asian equivalent of the voodoo doll. There's something I find horribly compelling about the idea of one person taking the trouble to put all the spite and malice they hold against another person into a physical manifestation in that way. You don't just sit at home and stew about Ulan and how he stole your girlfriend/killed your brother/robbed you/eats with his mouth open/whatever it might be. No: you hate that fucker so much you're going to make your hatred take metaphysical effect. That takes some extra special meanness of spirit, doesn't it?

Curses in D&D are uninteresting. There are cursed items (a Sword -1 or whatever, or a ). There are creatures who attack with a curse, like, I suppose, lycanthropes. And there are the reversals of the Bless and Remove Curse spells, which basically inflict the target with annoying negative modifiers for a period of time.

This is a shame, because curses can spur interaction with the game world in a number of ways. First, if a PC is inflicted with a curse they may have to find a certain person to help cure it, or a certain item, and that could require travel and various adventures. Second, if the PCs want to inflict a curse on an enemy, they might have to, again, find help or a certain ingredient to put the curse into effecft. And third, if the PCs are inflicted with a curse but aren't sure by whom, they may want to investigate. Any of those scenarios are great grist for the adventure mill.

The old 2nd edition Spells & Magic supplement had a Random Insanity table that I'd like to crib for curses. It goes like this:

d100 Result
01-15 Delirium
16-20 Disorientation
21-24 Attraction
25-37 Phobia
38-40 Paranoia
41-46 Alienation
47-53 Amnesia
54-61 Hallucinatory insanity
62-64 Melancholia
65-69 Dementia praecox
70-74 Monomania
75-79 Mania
80-81 Manic-depressive
82-89 Hebephrenia
90-95 Catatonia
96-103 Delusional insanity
104-114 Schizophrenia
115-119 Homicidal mania
120-124 Psychic translocation
125+ Pursuit

("Pursuit" being literally pursuit by a demon or spirit or other-dimensional entity or whatever.)

With just a little bit of work, what you have there is a list of interesting curse types, and all you need then do is decide who gets to cast them, in what circumstances they can be cast, what's needed to give them effect, and what's needed to dispel the curse. Or you could do it randomly. Viz, something like this, but with more entries:

Curse must be uttered by…
Ingredient to give effect
Ingredient to dispel
Takes effect by
Young female dwarf
At a new moon
Severed human finger
Blue rose
Speaking the curse in the victim’s presence
Old deaf elf
At dawn
Poison arrow frog
Firebird’s feather
Having the victim read the curse from a scroll
Orc child born on a full moon
At winter solstice
Monkey paw
Dragon scale
Having the victim eat or drink something which the curse has been spoken over
Wizard’s widow
On a mountain top
Having the victim looking in a mirror the curse has been spoken over
Galeb Duhr
At dusk
Piece of meteorite
Having the victim spill blood with a knife the curse has been spoken over
Undead spirit
On a body of water
Peacock’s liver
Ice from a glacier
Automatically once uttered

Monday, 19 March 2018

Would You Play D&D with Donald Trump?

So, apparently WotC are going to introduce sexfluidity in elves by releasing a supplement for you to buy. The main purpose of this entry isn't to speak to that, but if you will, please indulge me digressing for just a moment. It always amazes me how people who define themselves as "geeks", who also I think in general tend to define themselves as being roughly "on the left" so much as they think about those things at all, will so readily and uncritically take on the status of capitalist consumers. A sizeable portion, indeed, will even do this to the extent that they buy (no pun intended) into the notion that progressive values themselves can be happily and unproblematically commodified. Do you want to be progressive when it comes to matters of gender, sex, and sexuality? Great: now buy a product to confirm it to yourself and others. For US$50 no less.

What a strange world we live in. Let's make no bones about it: in D&D you can play a dwarf with three penises married to a genderfluid asexual baboon if you really want to. Your imagination has no limits. Why buy a book giving you permission to enact the values you supposedly hold dear, when you can just do it anyway?

But so much for that. Lately I've been good about using the blog for fewer rants. What I'm more concerned about is the reaction to this announcement. And no, by this I don't mean that I've seen hundreds of blog posts or forum comments or had any conversations in which people have been expressing their opposition to sexfluid elves (who were always pretty genderfluid at least anyway, weren't they? I mean, come on). No: the reactions I have seen can be categorised as follows.

  • Roughly 50% saying "So what?" (The correct reaction.)
  • Roughly 50% saying "I wouldn't game with anybody who would have a problem with this, and I'm glad WotC have done this because it means people who are on the Wrong Side of the Debate will be flushed out and I won't have to game with them as a consequence."

I don't believe that the latter 50% actually proportionately represent half of all gamers. I think they are a tiny minority. But they are becoming ever more vociferous. For these people, social interactions, particularly the games one plays, are not just part and parcel of being a human living in the world, but are vehicles for expression of political stances. For them, being on the Wrong Side of the Debate doesn't just make you misguided or even stupid. No: it makes you worthy of being only an outcast, a pariah, somebody with whom no interaction of any kind can be permitted, least of all pretending to be elves together (sexfluid or otherwise).

I hate that kind of thing. I think it is awful. I look back in my life and think of all the great friendships and conversations I've had with people who hold diametrically or at least very fundamentally different views to mine: Communists, atheists, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, born-again-Christians, Northern Irish republicans, Scottish Nationalists, UKIP voters, Manchester United supporters, Black Supremacists, White Supremacists, gun nuts, Daily Mail readers, Guardian readers, radical feminists, Australians, even fans of Doctor Who. In the abstract I might have thought, or still think, that the views of those people are wrong - in many cases even odious, dangerous and appalling. But almost invariably, when opinions are filtered through the good humour, self-deprecation, negotiation and common sense of face-to-face conversation, they are revealed to be absolutely no reason for anybody not to enjoy another person's company. 

My heart sinks that so many intelligent people are turning their back on the possibility that those who violently disagree can get along. Not to be melodramatic about it, but what future is there for our poor sad species if we get to the point where people are no longer even willing to put certain differences to one side for the sake of having a bit of fun? I mean, hop on a plane to Israel or Kashmir or Belfast and you'll find endless swathes of charitable organisations trying to get people who would willingly actually kill one another for being on the Wrong Side of the Debate to just get together and enjoy a meal or play football or music or whatever. They do this in the entirely creditable and sensible belief that having people set aside their differences to do fun things together might actually help find ways round problems. Meanwhile in nerd land people are busy sticking their fingers in their ears and proclaiming loudly how vehemently opposed they are to playing D&D with imaginary people who wouldn't be in favour of sexfluid elves.

When I write down the list of types of people who I would categorically rule out playing D&D with, it's really very tiny indeed: it's just people I personally don't get along with or people whose behaviour has been such in the past that I would have difficulty trusting them. In other words, people I consider to be dicks. If you are going to be a dick about your opinions, whatever they might be, then fine - that qualifies you as somebody who I probably wouldn't willingly associate with. But in life I tend to find that actually most people aren't actually dicks (except on the internet, that is) - even people whose views I would actively probably find repellent if written down.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Caesar, Homer, Pytheas and Lugh

What if, when Julius Caesar first sailed across the Channel to carry out his first abortive foray into Kent, he had discovered that refugees and returnees from the Trojan War (Achaeans and Trojans alike) had got there first? And what if those larger-than-life heroes of Homeric myth had mingled with the figures of Celtic legend, the Fomorians, the Tuatha De Dannan, Math ap Mathonwy, the black dog and all the rest?

Fast forward a hundred or so years, and there would be a walled Roman settlement there on the Thanet coast. It would be a place to trade for tin, slaves, and other commodities, and also for magic and druidic mystery and wisdom. Inland, there would be hill forts and towns, some ruled by native Celts, others ruled by Achaean and Trojan demigods, living in an uneasy and chaotic network of alliances, rivalries, conflicts and betrayals. In the forests would be fey beings of Celtic myth, "fair folk", dragons and giants. And the glory-obsessed Achaean and Trojan sons would be forever straying into the fairy realm to try to win eternal fame for themselves.

That would be a good place to run a campaign of D&D.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

RPG Books as Imagination Training

We are now in the Bronze Age of OSR blogs (the Golden Age being 2008-2009 and the Silver Age being around 2009-2012), and I think Joseph Manola's Against the Wicked City may be the best and most important blog started in this era. By which I mean he is consistently finding new and useful things to say at a point where most other blogs have grown jaundiced and tired.

A case in point is his most recent post, RPG Books as Fiction. Go and read it. It's long, but worth it.

Where I think Joseph is precisely on the money (the whole thing is on the money, but on this point it is especially so - if that isn't a tautology) is here:

"I suspect that what [most RPG books] primarily provide, which traditional adventure fiction does not, is a form of meta-fantasy: not a chance to imagine yourself as a fantasy hero, but a chance to imagine yourself as part of a group of RPG players who are, in turn, imagining themselves as fantasy heroes as they experience the material in the book. People read RPG rulebooks, and they imagine how much fun it would be to play a character with a certain set of abilities. They read monster books, and imagine how much fun it would be to encounter those monsters during an RPG session. They read setting books, and imagine how great it would be to participate in a campaign set in that world. They read adventure modules, and imagine how much fun those adventures would be to play in. Then they put them back on the shelf and do something else, instead."

This describes much of my teenage experience of reading RPG books to a 't'. Yes, my friends and I played a lot of games. But how much published material did we actually use for its intended purpose? I can remember a couple of sessions where we played some published Planescape adventures. But the vast bulk of my memories associated with RPG books was paging through them on long car journeys or while on holiday and just, well, imagining what it would be like to use them. "Wouldn't it be great to be in a session where we encountered a morkoth?" I would think as I browsed through the Monstrous Manual. "Wouldn't it be great to have a PC find the Hand of Vecna?" I would think as I read the section of the 2nd edition DMG on 'artifacts'. "Wouldn't it be great to run an all-druid campaign?" I would think as I flicked through the Complete Druid's Handbook. "I'd love to run a campaign set in the Philippines," I would think as I sat reading the Cyberpunk 2020 Pacific Rim Sourcebook. My experience of actual gaming was a pale shadow of the kind of things that my adolescent brain could come up with left to its own devices.

(Not incidentally, I had a similar relationship, thinking back, to Games Workshop books. My friends and I played a heck of a lot of Warhammer, Warhammer 40k, and Necromunda. But being impoverished 13 year olds, we could barely afford any models. We primarily resorted to using a huge mass of ancient lead figures bequeathed to one of us by an older brother or cousin, and we could only dream about the possibilities of actually being able to buy a Basilisk/Lehman Russ Battle Tank/Dark Angel Dreadnought/Orc Shaman Riding a Wyvern or whatever, while paging through 'Codex' books. With Games Workshop, though, the requirement to just sit around reading books and imagining was more or less a nakedly commercial phenomenon rather than anything else.)

It may seem that this makes buying and reading RPG books an extremely decadent and even perverse activity - like a kind of unexciting pornography in which you don't even get to imagine having sex with a beautiful woman but instead just imagine being a horrendous nerd. One view is that it's basically impossible to sink any lower in the hierarchy of cool than fantasizing about playing D&D; you're so tragic that you can't even find a few catpiss-stinking neckbeards to game with and have to simply wish that they existed.

That's one way of looking at it, but when I look back now I can't help but feel that I would have been wasting my time even more egregiously by, for example, playing video games or even reading bog-standard fantasy novels. It might be true that most RPG books aren't particularly well-written, and you couldn't class any of them as being 'literature' in any real sense. But their great virtue is their open-endedness. They don't pretend to be coherent narratives - except for the most railroady of published adventures. At their best, they are a kind of springboard for the imagination: 96 pages of ideas, some better than others, but all of them at least capable of being played around with and squeezed and squashed and stretched and turned upside-down and kicked about until they turn into something wonderful. I may never have got to play in a game in which a morkoth was involved, but I was able to imagine dozens of potential morkoth-scenarios.

In other words, that time spent just browsing RPG books and imagining never-to-be-realised possibilities was a kind of imagination boot-camp, imagination circuit-training, imagination bikram yoga. Since the imagination is a muscle, I think it came in more than handy. Still does, as a matter of fact: I don't think I'll ever run, say, The Veins of the Earth, A Red and Pleasant Land, Qelong etc. at the table, but the thing about the imagination is, there's never a bad time to tone it up a bit.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

When is a Quantum Ogre a Quantum Ogre?

The answer: when it's really a quantum ogre.

2011. Halcyon days. Summers were warmer then, and chocolate was tastier. There wasn't so much rubbish on TV, and children were polite to their elders. You could get change out of a £5 when you ordered a pint, and Suzanna Reid was still on BBC Breakfast. We will not see times like those again.

The talk of the town back then was quantum ogres. Like paleontologists picking over the bones in a mound of Inner Mongolian dust, it is impossible for us in these much-diminished days to establish just how that discussion began and what colour feathers it had. (A post I wrote in September of that year may bear some important clues.) Suffice to say: in that era, a mighty beast stalked the earth, and its scientific name, "Palette Shifting", gives some indication as to its nature.

I return to the desert to conduct more field work on the topic with some trepidation. But I believe that I may be able to at least provide a footnote to our understanding of the quantum ogre's life-cycle and behaviour.

Let's put it this way: palette shifting, meaning the quasi-railroading practice of substituting one encounter or location for another, to make sure the PCs experience it come what may (or to make sure they avoid something dangerous), is dastardly, rotten behaviour that cannot be countenanced. But the quantum ogre is nothing to be afraid of; in fact, the quantum ogre is your friend. Most of the work of running an RPG is, when it boils down to it, quantum ogres. Quantum ogres are everywhere.

What is a random encounter table, but a list of quantum ogres? An encounter takes place: the dice dictate it. But until the random encounter table is consulted, nobody knows what the encounter is. Like Schrodinger's Cat, until the dice are rolled, the encounter is all the encounters on the random encounter table. It is quantum ogres all the way down.

But that's obvious. Let's think a little bit more: when it comes down to it, isn't most of what a DM does at the table a matter of quantum ogres? Almost all that a DM does is to react to what the PCs do. What does such-and-such an NPC say in reaction to what the PCs say to him? What does such-and-such a monster do when the PCs do such-and-such? What happens when the PCs try such-and-such on the trap? It almost always comes from the same place: you don't know the answer to any of those questions until forced to produce an answer. The DM's head is a Schrodinger's Box: the answers are in there, in a sense, but until there's a need for them, he typically doesn't know what they are.

In that sense, your brain is full of quantum ogres. More than that, it should be full of quantum ogres, because the alternative is preconceptions about what is going to happen in any given circumstance, which is the enemy of flexible and responsive DMing. Quantum ogres in this view are not palette shifts; they are palettes full of colours whose hue you can't see until they're on the canvas.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Japanese Kids' Books

Children's books (I mean little kids' books, not YA fiction) are an often-untapped resource for inspiration. This is especially true of little kids' books from non-English speaking countries. I'm in the lucky position to have access to lots of Japanese kids' books, and thanks to that I've been introduced to the work of the inimitable Katayama Ken.

Here are some pieces from his 楽しい冬ごもり, a particular favourite:

See what I mean? It's like Van Gogh had a love child with Brian Jacques. I especially love the way the firelight in the second and third pictures imbues the scene: it may be the most effective painting of firelight I've ever seen.

Then there's Matsutani Miyoko, whose work is more like brass rubbings made by Monet:

Finally, there's Kimoto Momoko, whose works looks like Salvador Dali crossed with Dick King Smith:

Grainy internet pictures may not do them justice; I hope this isn't the case.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Reaction Dice Which Create the World - Matagi Hunters

Long-time readers may remember three posts I wrote about using reaction dice to build the game world (herehere and here). I still intend to expand on this idea a lot in New Troy. But I am also 'piloting' minor elements of it for The Valleys of the Winter People. In this setting, the men in remote mountains form roaming bands of bear hunters in the winter, the matagi, who gradually revert to a semi-wild state when on the hunt. If they catch and kill a bear, they return to civilization triumphant. If they fail, they gradually become bears themselves.

In encounters with the matagi in the wild, the DM rolls a reaction dice as normal, but this determines both the reaction of the hunters and their current state, which is linked. Hence:

2-3 Attack: The matagi are almost entirely in a feral state - a sliver away from tipping past the point of beyond return. Their senses are all preternaturally heightened, meaning they are not surprised, and they are aware of the PCs from d100 yards away. Their only interest in the PCs is as prey, but they do retain enough sentience to be capable of communication.

4-6: Aggressive: The matagi are a mixed group, who have been long on the hunt without success. 1/3 are fully human, 1/3 are semi-feral, and 1/3 are entirely feral. The senses of the semi-feral and feral members are heightened, as for the 'Attack' result, and these will target the PCs as prey; the other members of the group may be reasoned with and can control the remainder if they are persuaded to do so.

7-9: Cautious: The matagi have been hunting for some weeks without success. They are largely fully-human, but have 1-2 semi-feral members with them. The semi-feral members will not target the PCs as prey without the permission of the full humans. The senses of the semi-feral members are heightened as for the 'Attack' and 'Aggressive' results.

10-11: Neutral: The matagi have recently begun their hunt. They are fully human, and cautious but not aggressive. They are surprised on a roll of 1 and the encounter distance is standard.

12: Friendly. The matagi are returning from a successful hunt. They have a killed or captured bear with them (50% chance of either) and are in exceptionally good spirits; they are surprised on a roll of 1-2 rather than 1, and are on their way back to a random village (1 - Odose; 2 - Shariki; 3 - Bihoro; 4 - Komakai). The encounter distance is standard.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

What is the Blogosphere for now? New Modes of Play

Zak S recently put a post up on G+ (which I hope he won't mind me paraphrasing and quoting from) to the effect the OSR or DIY D&D or whatever you want to call it has been a success: it has its own momentum now and it has actually become possible for people to simply make things and publish them without having to pass by the traditional gatekeepers of the hobby. He closed by saying, "The way of talking about games we had was designed for a situation of convivial stylistic and commercial underdoggery which no longer exists in the same way...different things are going to seem interesting or worth saying, and we're gonna have to figure out what they are."

I think this is especially true of the traditional D&D blogosphere. A few years ago, when Monsters & Manuals hit its 1000th entry, I put up a post bemoaning the decline of blogs. In hindsight, I shouldn't have been so hasty, because actually my own blog entered a bit of a "Silver Age" shortly after that that lasted a good two years, during which my readership exploded to levels never before experienced. It has gone down a bit since then, but that's mainly attributable to me posting less frequently and with less quality, I think, than previously (parenthood has given me a permanent -2 to my INT score; I hope it's not cumulative with each baby).

But it's indisputably the case that blogs aren't what they were, partly because the "stylistic and commercial underdoggery" has gone away, and partly because so much has been written and said that needed to be written and said that it feels as though we've run out of things to write about. There is always going to be call for more creative content (monsters, art, new rules, etc.) but any more writing about the principles of good play would probably now be flogging a dead horse. We've got 10 years of that behind us.

I think, though, that a few big undiscovered countries remain - enough, in fact, to provide plenty of grist for further elucidation and insight. For starters:

  • Nobody has posted anything definitive yet about running underwater adventures/campaigns
  • And for that matter nobody has posted anything definitive yet about running wilderness exploration adventures/campaigns either 

More than that, though, while we have become very good at ploughing the furrow of "rogues exploring a sandbox in order to get rich", what we have only begun to scratch the surface of are different modes of play. Think of all the metaphorical internet ink that has been spilled on how to successfully run rogue-PC-oriented sandbox games, and consider that there is surely an equivalent amount of that ink to spill on how to effectively run games that have different sets of starting parameters. What, for instance, are best practices for games in which the PCs are "good guys"? What about best practices for games about spying or diplomacy? What about best practices for games in different eras - pseudo-Victorian period, pseudo-Ancient Greece, pseudo-WWI? What about games in which the PCs are defending an area from invaders? And so on.

What I think it boils down to is: we've said most of what we need to say about dungeons and hexcrawls. But there are more things in heaven and earth than that.