Wednesday, March 28, 2012

FRPG: Setting design; the little details

I'm a fan of many little details.  For one thing, the little details actually are interesting to me.  I like hiking, for example, so I find that being out of doors in interesting scenic locations is very inspirational to me as a world-builder; I can't tell you how many times I've been in some unusual place, or seen some unusual rock feature, waterfall, natural bridge, bizarrely shaped tree, or narrow trail plunging through a deep gorge or whatever and thought to myself--"wouldn't this be a cool location for a fantasy scene?"

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings makes use of some of this too--much of the story is, of course, spent on the journey--from Hobbiton far in the northwest to Mordor far in the southeast of the mapped area--and all kinds of places in between.  Many readers don't necessarily remember all the little details--what kinds of trees he describes, the rocks and gulleys, the temperature, etc. but in reality, they go a long ways towards making the lands around Weathertop, the Misty Mountains foothills, Fangorn forest, the Dead Marshes, Ithilien, and Mordor itself really "pop" and come alive; if not for some of those details, we wouldn't even remember the story at all, in my opinion.

I'm also kind of a foodie.  I love eating (a habit, which combined with my day job sitting at a desk doesn't help with my hiking at all).  I'm not a gourmet, nor am I super cosmopolitan, but I like eating good food, I like trying new things, I like finding new regional, local or ethnic specialties, and I have managed to get around just enough to have sampled a bit.  Few things fill me with as much simple delight as discovering some quiet mom and pop place with great food, especially while on the road (although local discoveries mean I can go back, of course.)  I also love trying unusual cheese, game meats and more.  And--of course--while hiking and camping, learning to appreciate simpler, easy to pack, carry and prepare foods can be almost an artform in itself (although I tend to focus on learning to appreciate simpler things rather than learning to make more complex trail gourmet.  My focus has never really been on fancier foods anyway.)  And one of these days, I'm going to start my "Cheese of the Week" blog and go through the entire imported and fancy cheese section at the deli of my supermarket one item at a time.

I haven't seen food addressed much in fantasy--but curiously, a few details stand out to me from Eberron.  I haven't necessarily sampled Eberron more than any other fantasy setting; I have the setting book (and I've read it) as well as three or four more detailed ones, and I've read maybe a half-dozen or so novels in the setting so far.  But a few details stand out to me anyway--the fact that in Karrnath, they use lots of spicy sausage and cheese, for example, the tropical spiciness of southern Breland and Sharn, the simpler "farmer food" of northern Breland, and the fancier sauce-drenched flavors of Aundair, the bitter and pickled cuisine of Darguun, etc.  It's amazing that a few of these details really stand out.

These are a few things that I particularly like.  Things that scratch my personal interests, and therefore stick with me a bit.  There are probably other things for you.  How can these types of interests best be integrated into a fantasy campaign--and by extention, into your game?

The first note--just because you find this stuff interesting doesn't mean that your "audience" does.  If you spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the varied flavors of a meal put before your players in a tavern or inn where they're passing through, or belabor all kinds of details about the trees and rocks and streams that they see while passing through a forested stretch of your setting, most likely all you'll do is bore them and lose them.  So it's critical that these kinds of details be used in moderation, and that they be spread out, not lumped together in some big description extravaganza.  If, for whatever reason, you find that your players take an intense interest in the selection of sausages available at your Karrnathi butcher, you can indulge them a little bit (and you never know; that kind of stuff happens) but be careful; chances are that just because one or two players are having fun playing up the shopping trip, doesn't mean that the rest of your group isn't chafing to move on.  A few little details can really make your game seem to come alive with verisimilitude, but too many of them--and a sometimes surprisingly small number can be too many--and all you're doing is bogging your game down in tedious minutiae.

The other way to incorporate these kinds of details is to make them important to the game.  Craft encounters, interesting roleplaying opportunities, or even entire adventure scenarios around them.  Traveling through the mountains or desert--the kind of Western American scenery that I so love to play up, for instance--can come with all kinds of challenges.  Having to climb up (or down) a steep cliff can be a nerve-wracking experience.  Dealing with rivers swollen with snowmelt can make river crossings dangerous, and even if nobody is actually hurt, having to deal with being wet, cold, having packs (or rations!) float away downstream or get ruined, or having your food raided overnight by raccoons or bears--all of them can create interesting scenarios to deal with, not just be boring or tedious accounting details or whatever.  Food can be interesting too--if spices are important in a region, is there a spice trade?  Caravans?  Bandits?  Is game an important part of the diet?  Is it dangerous to hunt?  Is it considered poaching to hunt?  If so, what's the penalty if you're caught?

The availability of certain foods can also be a point of interest in other ways.  Are supplies making it to a town, or are they being diverted by bandits?  Is drought making crops fail (which in turn causes peasants to become bandits to support themselves, etc.)

Keep details to a colorful minimum, and as much as possible, make the details relevant to the game; have them spark potential adventure opportunities.  Do that, and you'll keep your players engaged, and have them remarking long afterwards on how "alive" the game was.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

D&D Next commentary

A couple of points:

"I am going to 100% promise you that, especially if you are a veteran player or DM, we will include stuff in the next iteration of the game that you will ignore. In fact, I'm going to come out and say that we want you to ignore parts of the game." [snip] "Stuff such as XP budgets, treasure tables, encounter charts, and so on are there to make it easier to create adventures and build your campaign. If you are a veteran DM, it's quite likely you won't use any of this stuff.

 I'll let you in on a secret. I DM'ed a year-long Eberron campaign in 3E and I never once used the rules for treasure or wealth by level. I gave out stuff that seemed cool and appropriate, and the game worked fine. I used the challenge rating system as a starting point, but modified stuff to fit my group."

Again; I find myself somewhat surprised at what needs to be said.  I guess I shouldn't be anymore.  After all, how many times did I see gamers I know complaining about rules bloat in the d20 family of games?  How many times did I hear the (patently false) notion that the rules were a tightly interlinked 'system' and you couldn't remove one element of it without throwing the whole thing out of whack?

The paradigm presented here is hardly a secret.  I've been playing that way since about 1981 or so.  And I was still doing so last time I ran--a D&D 3e with extensive houserules and, curiously, a fair bit of ignoring wealth per levels, "correct" XP calculation, CRs (except in the vaguest sense) and all that.

It's a curious notion to me that so many gamers saw the presence of those rules as "mandatory" despite the history of our hobby being one that grew up in a crucible of DIY.  It's also a curious notion to me that so many gamers saw the only solution to that to switch to rules systems that were "lighter" and didn't have so many rules, rather than the immediately obvious and simple solution of just ignoring complexity that you didn't need or enjoy.  And finally, it's a curious notion to me that in the design of D&D Next, rather than removing all those rules, the presentation of them in the rulebooks and elsewhere (I presume, based on this post by Mike Mearls) will be to overtly encourage the ignoring of rules that you don't want.  To my perspective, this doesn't really need to be said, because it was always an available option anyway, and I found that doing so made d20 work quite well for me (I enjoyed the complexity for character definition and refinement, but disliked much of it during the actual running of a game.)  And since it doesn't need to be said, this doesn't actually represent any kind of meaningful change in direction to me at all.

But clearly, I'm not on the same page as a large chunk of gamers out there.  But it does seem that WotC could save themselves a lot of time and resources (as well as gamers a bunch of money--which is no doubt why it won't be done) by just saying that this advice--naturally--already applies to your existing 3e and/or 4e rules.  Or any other RPG rules of any other system you may be playing, for that matter.

If this is the vaunted "appealing to all kinds of fans" direction of the game--telling people that they are free to houserule (uh... no kidding!) then I'm somewhat less than impressed.

"This one is bound to be controversial, but I don't think roles belong in D&D as specific, mechanical elements that we design toward. Instead, I think roles are a great tool to help players focus on how they want to play a character. Veteran players should be free to create the character they want, however they want, instead of feeling that they must take on a job to "help" the party."

I agree 100%, but I do also agree that that's probably controversial.  I've very often talked to people who feel that role protection is very important, and I don't know how many times I've seen people take on a role that they didn't necessary want, but felt like it was necessary to take one for the team, because the game can't operate correctly without the proper roles all being represented.

My approach to GMing a game is to encourage everyone to make the characters that they are interested in playing... and if that means even going so far as not telling the other players what your specific class is, to encourage them to not try and fill out the corners of the party with what they think is missing.  And then, one of my #1 rules for good GMing is:
  • Run a game for the characters you get, rather than expect characters to be optimized for some predetermined notion of what the game will be.
If I end up (in D&D, for example) getting a party with nothing but fighters, or rogues, or magic-users, then I come up with challenges that will challenge the players I have, and not "punish" them for not picking something else.  Isn't that just common sense?  You do want your players to enjoy your game and invite you to run for them again, right?

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Triple Undercity War

In glittering Simashki, the apparent peace and tranquility is only skin-deep, and deep-rooted hatreds, political nuances, underground power struggles and more drive the reality of power in the city.  One of the more interesting balances of power is between the hamazin of the area.

Many, of course, are simply there working their trades or professions, raising their families, and attempting to live their lives, as unaffected by the constant wars for power as anyone can in Simashki.  But many belong to one of three "camps" and the three of them today enjoy a very uneasy truce, but under the surface are hurtling towards a violent confrontation that will change forever the life of the hamazin of Simashki.

The Wazirians are those that follow the philosophy of Grand Vizier Djeser Sanakhte.  Djeser is an older, avuncular hamazin--portly, and Falstaff-like in bearing, who projects an air of equanimity and tolerance to all.  This is only partly true, of course--in reality, the Grand Vizier is a ruthlessly pragmatic political creature, who has managed to hold on to and build his power in the relatively laissez-faire court of the shazada.  These represent, to a great extent, the powerbase of the establishment.  Although the shazada is a drylander, not a hamazin, he greatly favors the hamazin who come from old money and old established families, and they make up a large percentage of the Wazirians--so named because the Grand Viziers have traditionally always come from amongst these families.  Sanakhte has encouraged the immigration of a great variety of non-drylanders to Simashki, and has held himself out as a champion of immigrants and the poor--despite his own extremely wealthy station, and those of everyone with whom he associates publicly.  Sanakhte has taken a more brazen step to court guilds and other forces of organizing labor to be his muscle and presence; many of whom are made of immigrants and therefore stand in opposition to the Cherskii Mafia.  Careful cultivation has turned these labor groups into a competition of sorts for the Mafia, in a power play that has both a legitimate and illegal component.

That said, the guilds are already fairly thoroughly entrenched with the mafia as it is, so the Grand Vizier finds himself walking a very fine line.  Partly for this reason, many of the so-called "poor" immigrants and others who make up the non-patrician supports of the Wazirians are, in fact, little more than sponsored agitators.

The Cherskii Mafia also comes from old families, but they are not the mercantile powerhouses with respectable traditions that make up the majority of the Wazirians.  Rather, the Cherskian families are old scions of the Baal Hamazi military.  They fell on hard times until the Mafia "rescued" them from political and economic ruin--injecting them with money and power both.  The old ideals of reestablishing Baal Hamazi--the original raison d'etre of the Cherskii Mafia--has been long forgotten, as the families are now simply enjoying the money that they've made too much to dream of past empires.

While the Cherskians are certainly "headquartered" in the old territories of Baal Hamazi (and their 'ultimate' headquarters and 'top boss' if such a man does indeed exist is rumored to be within Simashki itself) the majority of their operations take place to the south.  Consequently, much of their manpower is also in the south, and in many cases, only tenuously attached to a reporting structure, despite their history as a paramilitary organization.  In the last few years, ongoing threats at home--including the naked power grab of the Wazirians--have had the Cherskiians starting to try and bulk up their troops, but their jingoistic attitudes have made that a slower process than the leaders would like.

A prominent figure here is Nekhbet Uzilik, a paramilitary leader who is aggressively trying to pull troops from the south--even if they come from the Cherskiians changeling allies.  This is making waves with the leaders of the Cherskiians, and the political situation within the organization is nearly as volative as that without.

Finally, the Hornheads are a nickname applied to those who sympathize with the promise of a reunited Baal Hamazi represented by the reported rise of someone claiming to be Hutran Kutir reborn in the north.  Many of the so-called Hornheads are merely sympathetic locals who are completely unorganized and inactive in any meaningful way, but representatives of Kutir's forces--both openly recruiting, and more clandestinely pursuing other goals--are indeed operating within Simashki, and their goals are such that neither the Wazirians nor the Mafia is interested in letting them gain any more of a foothold than they already have.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Stepsister Scheme

Author: Jim C. Hines

Publisher: DAW, 2009

Format: Mass market paperback, 344 pages

Back cover blurb: Cinderella–whose real name is Danielle Whiteshore (nee Danielle de Glas)–does marry Prince Armand. And if you can ignore the pigeon incident, their wedding is a dream come true.

But not long after the “happily ever after,” Danielle is attacked by her stepsister Charlotte, who suddenly has all sorts of magic to call upon. And though Talia–otherwise known as Sleeping Beauty–comes to the rescue (she’s a martial arts master, and all those fairy blessings make her almost unbeatable), Charlotte gets away.

That’s when Danielle discovers a number of disturbing facts: Armand has been kidnapped and taken to the realm of the Fairies; Danielle is pregnant with his child; and the Queen has her own very secret service that consists of Talia and Snow (White, of course). Snow is an expert at mirror magic and heavy duty flirting.

Can the three princesses track down Armand and extract both the prince and themselves from the clutches of some of fantasyland’s most nefarious villains?

Review: OK, so I'm trying a new format for my book reviews.  I felt like I either just got really wordy and went on and on, or didn't have a lot to say and the reviews were too short.  This will at least give you some more info--although most of it is easily available somewhere (like Amazon.)  I'll try it anyway.

Jim C. Hines, a native of my part of the woods, apparently (kinda sorta a neighbor of mine, I guess) has written a well-regarded fantasy comic/parody series about goblins, and now he's also got a 4-book series about fairytale princesses.  This isn't new; the entire series was completely in print almost a year ago now, but it's still relatively new, since even the first book only was put into print three years ago.  (I've never made any attempt to be trendy with my fantasy reading habits anyway--most of what I read has been in print for some time.  I also dislike starting series that aren't already finished, nearly so, or at least putting out new episodes at a steady and fast pace.)

The packaging; the quotes from other authors, for instance, the art style, the back cover blurb--all lead one to believe that this is a relatively light-hearted and light-toned pseudo-parody itself; a kind of Disney princesses meets Charlie's Angels or something.  And while in a sense that's true, in a sense it's also not--the tone is quite a bit darker than it would appear to be from the packaging.  Hines goes back to the much darker (and frankly sometimes seriously 'messed up') versions of the fairytales, which is all the rage amongst fans of fairytales these days.  So, if you're familiar with the fact that Sleeping Beauty was Jacob and Willhelm Grimm's somewhat "cleaned up" version of a narrative by Charles Perrault, which was in turn a "cleaned up" version of Giambattista Basile's Sole, Luna e Talia, then you'll find that you've already been somewhat spoiled for what are supposed to be big surprises later down the line.

In the end, I found that this tonal dichotomy was somewhat of the novel's undoing.  I liked it, but I didn't love it, and part of that was that it couldn't really decide if it was a dark fairytale, or a light fantasy Charlie's Angels story, and often went back and forth between the two tones and modes.  I also found that using well-known characters and plots (to some extent) as the main characters and backstory for the novel made for a strangely dissociative experience, where it was more difficult to engage with the novel on its own merits.  Which is a shame, because the novel is actually quite good.  The premise, though, felt a little too precious or "cute" at times to support the deeper story that this attempts to be.

Despite that, the book moves along fairly well and is easy to read.  The plot is clear yet contains a few satisfying twists.  The characters are reasonably well developed and interesting--if perhaps a bit too familiar.  Hines makes a few changes to try and alleviate that problem; for example, making Talia (Sleeping Beauty) a bitter, angry, martial artist who hates men.

Although I specifically bought just the first book in the series to see if I want to go on, I don't think I'll be buying the rest.  I may yet pick them up from my library though.  I thought the weight of the concept and all the baggage that that entailed was difficult to overcome, although Hines makes a good enough effort at it that it does work fairly well.  However, for the next three books in the series, he mostly layers in more fairytale concepts--the Little Mermaid and Little Red Riding Hood, specifically, before finally going with a more original take for the last book in the series.  This concerns me a bit, because like I said, the concept and its baggage was already the most difficult thing to overcome as it was.

Friday, March 16, 2012

What NOT to include

I recently had suggested to me by a gamer I know, the article "What not to include" by Arthur Collins in the February 1992 issue of Dragon Magazine.  I don't have Dragons going back that far, but a quick Google search found me the text, and I was able to read it.  The subject—and the discussion of it specifically from that article—brought to mind a lot of FRPG type topics, so I decided to make an FRPG post out of it.

First of all, the perspective of the article is definitely one of a D&D gamer playing a D&D game.  It's talking about the notion of defining your campaign settings as much by what they don't include by what they do.  Less is more, in other words.  In an FRPG that's not D&D, the situation isn't quite so clear-cut, since few of them have as many materials as D&D does to navigate through.  That said, there's some great generic points to be made about designing a fantasy setting, whether for use with D&D rules or not, which doesn't feel like your typical "throw everything in" D&D setting.

And before I begin properly, let me also make a quick aside.  The EBERRON campaign setting is often (falsely) accused of being such a D&D kitchen sink, which incorporates every single D&D element ever.  This isn't really true.  Eberron is designed such that if there's an element within D&D that you want to include, you can find a place where it makes sense to include it.  That does not mean, however, that the element is assumed to be there by default.  I think Eberron is notable amongst D&D settings (although not unique) for having a rather strong twist or thematic focus that differs from "generic" D&D—yet even so, it also suffers a bit from having to be so D&Dish when I think it really is reaching towards being something else quite frequently.

Anyway, neither here nor there as my own setting DARK•HERITAGE is certainly not really a D&D setting, and I don't recommend using D&D rules to play it.  Nor is the focus of this series of posts with the FRPG tag focused on using D&D rules either.  So, I'm going to go through some of the main points in the article, where relevant, and talk about them in another FRPG environment.

1) Peoples.  D&D is notorious for having all  kinds of races.  From demihumans, to humanoids, to subraces within races—there are literally hundreds of different anthropomorphic (to various degrees) races kicking around in the average D&D setting.  This, at best, is too far-fetched to be taken seriously, at worst it's just plain downright stupid.  If the various races and subraces are instead seen as a buffet—take what you want and leave the rest off your plate—they work at least a little bit better.

But honestly, wouldn't it make more sense to have more cultures rather than more races?  Do we really need orcs and hobgoblins (for instance) as separate races when as separate cultures within the same race, they work just as well?  Do we really need at least half a dozen varieties of elf, when wood elves, wild elves, eladrin, high elves, gray elves, dark elves, etc. can all be different cultures under the same banner of simply "elf?"

I think there's some benefit from having some races—they add some interesting "spice" to a fantasy setting, and certainly make it feel fantastic, but too many becomes very counter-productive very fast.

2) Critters.  D&D also "suffers" from an overabundance of monsters.  Again; I always say that its better to have tools you don't need than to need tools you don't have, so it doesn't bother me that there are monsters that I won't use and don't necessarily assume by default are present in my settings.  But for some people, the urge to throw too much in can be too much.

There's actually a very good reason to be a bit careful about what you put in to your game, and be very judicious about the use of monsters.  I won't reiterate it too much now, because I have more topics to cover than just this, but in an earlier post, I discussed how to make sure that monsters remain monstrous.  The key takeaway is never to make them routine.  Which means having them appear much more rarely, and to focus encounters (and maybe even entire adventures) around them, rather than have them just be a case where a typical player character crosses paths with multiple monsters on his daily commute.

Related to that; a lot of just plain animals can be pretty exciting, and not every encounter needs to be a combat encounter.  While you may not need to get all violent slaying the ravenous raccoons who sneak into your camp at night to eat your rations, it could still add an interesting challenge to the game.  And a pack of wolves or a pride of lions or herd of over-protective mother elephants should be a touch-and-go situation for any actual person to have to deal with.

3) Religions.  I've talked about this a bit before; religions in D&D are a bit difficult because of the cleric class (although more recent iterations of the game have tried to decouple the cleric from faith in the divine per se) but in a non-D&D environment, religions can play all kinds of interesting roles.  Religions can compete, of course, or they can be subject to a great deal of syncretism (such as the religion of the Romans, which seemed to absorb cults and gods more often than not—Isus, Sol Invictus and Mithras, as well as the adoption of numerous Greek aspects being the most obvious—although cults of Dionysis, Judaism, Christianity and druidism were seen as divisive alien cults that were viewed with suspicion if not outright hostility—quite famously.)  Religions in D&D are often very monolithic, but in history, such was not the case.  The holy wars that racked Europe such as the Thirty Years War, the English Civil War (and later Glorious Revolution), the Avignon Papacy, etc.—there's plenty of drama to be had even within the bounds of a single or closely related confessional traditions.

Its also possible, of course, to do away with religion entirely—just make it more or less fade so far into the background that it's a non-issue—especially in an FRPG system that doesn't have clerics.

4) The Multiverse.  "Planes" of existence is really a D&D term.  I've rarely heard anyone else talk about fantasy realms, or other dimensions, or what have you as "planes."  It appears Gygax borrowed the term from theosophy—although maybe that still comes through a filter of Lovecraftiana (Lovecraft notoriously loved to refer obliquely to theosophists as being "clued in" to his Mythos, at least somewhat.)  Despite the label, however, most D&Dish planes have at their roots either classical or Norse mythology, or Judeo-Christian cosmology, or something similar.  Because of that, although somewhat specific to D&D and esoteric, they're also pretty familiar to fantasy fans already from their more classical sources.

That said, give some thought to a) what exactly "the planes" or "outer realms" or "other worlds" or whatever you want to call them actually are rather than simply go with the familiar, and b) give some thought to whether or not they actually have any impact on your setting other than mythologically.  Although going directly into Hell, or crossing the River Styx, Asgard, or whatever may be something that happens on occasion in the mythological and literary source material, it's not really very frequent in fantasy, and it may not be relevant to you.  And if it's not relevant, I always remember Ray Winninger's First Rule of Dungeoncraft—don't create anything you don't need.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Dance of the Damned

Last night I finished Alan Bligh's Dance of the Damned, a "Lovecraft Country" pastiche published by Fantasy Flight Games as a novel spin-off of their Arkham Horror board/card game line.  And it clearly is a pastiche.  Making almost gratuitous references to "the terrible old man", Professor Armitage, and the entire Dunwich Horror incident, and other Lovecraftian tidbits here and there.

I also discovered--after I had paid for it, sadly (that'll teach me to pay attention) that both this book and the other Arkham Horror novel I picked up, Ghouls of the Miskatonic, are billed as the first book in a trilogy.  Which, naturally enough, only have their first books released so far.  Blegh.

That said, other than a slightly unresolved and rushed ending, Dance of the Damned is pretty stand-alone, and I don't hesitate to recommend it to fans of Lovecraftian fiction.  Indeed, it's a great deal better than a lot of the pastiches I've read over time (sadly.)  Before becoming too overtly Lovecraftian, it channels a strong noir vibe, which is kinda fun.  When the majority of the action leaves New York to decamp to first Arkham and then Kingsport, it becomes much more "Weird" however.

The action follows two independent though related storylines, headed by two independent point of view characters, Tony Morgan--hard-bitten Sam Spade type, and Daisy Walker, a tougher than she seems dame who works at (no less than) the Arkham University library.  Both of them are independently involved in a manhunt--Morgan because he's hired to and Daisy because her finishing school chum and former room-mate is kinda sorta engaged to him.  A lot of rather predictable Lovecraftian elements are involved--sorcerers, cults, weird books and artifacts, the opening of a gate to another dimension, etc.  But they're rather deftly woven together to craft a story that sparks of a more involved and involving intrigue than your typical actual Lovecraft story would.  And if the elements are familiar, it's long been my opinion that that's part of what many Lovecraft fans come to the party for anyway--without the tour-guide like author pointing out familiar Lovecraftian elements, they'd feel somewhat cheated, I think.

The hints of weirdness early on are not particularly subtle.  If the rule of good fiction writing is to show rather than to tell, Bligh fails in the first act of the book.  Apparently eager for us to know right away that this is a Lovecraftian horror story, his somewhat ham-handed "look, guys, this is really scary--I promise" moments at the beginning don't really have the desired effect.  Luckily, they peeter out after a short while, and the book hits its stride.  In spite of my initial scepticism, I ended up quite enjoying the novel and wishing that I didn't have to now wait around for the rest of the trilogy to come out.

That said... I do.  So, rather than starting the other Arkham Horror trilogy, I'm going to sit on it for a little while and have a look at some other books in my lengthy "own but haven't yet read" list--starting will fellow Michigan resident Jim Hines' The Stepsister Scheme, which bills itself as a kind of fairytale meets Charlie's Angels with Sleeping Beauy, Snow White and Cinderella as the main characters.  Although Hines is more well known for his (I haven't read them; I'm going on reports here) goblin books, which are outright parodies or comedies at least, this series purports to play things fairly straight and in fact delve a bit into the darkest versions of the fairytales that are out there, along with references to mutilation, rape, cannibalism, and more.  Which seems to be all the rage these days when referring to fairytales anymore.  We'll see how I like it.  If I do, there's three more where it came from so far.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Black Maria

Porto Liure is infamous as a haven for pirates and privateers, but in truth, its infamy is even deeper still.  Known as particularly—and even peculiarly—picturesque, it has drawn artists, poets, the idle rich and other "sensitive" types for generations, who wander—hopefully carefully, given the towns' somewhat exaggerated (but not entirely) lawless reputation—its cramped narrow streets, and its sultry seaside views.

Black Maria in life
While the Mezzovian is warm, particularly the smaller Chistau Sea which makes up the shores of the port city, cool sighing winds blowing off the hills west of the sea, and when the cool air from the heights meets the warmer air of the harbor, it coalesces into a drizzling rain or persistent fog.  Strange voices are often heard in this fog.  Skeptics say that that's just what happens in a busy city when you can't see and sound is either muffled or curiously amplified and carried in turns, but the locals who live in the poorer parts of town are not skeptics.  People disappear, or are found dead and curiously bloated, mummified, slashed or drained of blood or otherwise mutilated and desecrated.  Again; skeptics point to the lawless nature of the town and find explanations for these bizarre murders in gang warfare or other more mundane solutions.  And soon enough, the murders are officially closed and forgotten; there is enough mundane murder done in Porto Liure as it is, and few miss folks from the poor neighborhoods anyway.  But the locals know that Porto Liure's infamy as a nest of pirates is secondary to its less well-known but eternal nature as a haunted place, ruled in secret by ghosts, spectres and other supernatural entities.  This had led to the nickname many locals give to Porto Liure; Port of Ghosts, or Ghostport.  Anyone who uses this nickname is almost certainly a local from one of the poorer neighborhoods in the city, but as a picaresque nickname in literature, folklore and stories told abroad, it is also gaining popularity.

One of the most famous of these in old tavern tales, beside that of Dog, is Black Maria.  Although her original identity is unclear and there are many claims, most see her as the today unrecognized first daughter-in-law of Jacobo Bernat himself, the architect of Porto Liure's free city-state status.  Maria, the fifth daughter of an ancient Terrasan house, was as decadent as they came, and the story goes that she kidnapped, tortured and killed up to 500 young girls, drinking (or even bathing in) their blood.  When the hue and outcry came to be more than old Bernat could ignore, she was put on trial, hanged, drawn and quartered, and her spiked head was put on the city gates—her "quarters" thrown to sharks in the harbor.  Nonetheless, the story of Black Maria doesn't end there.

Claims of sightings of Black Maria's ghost were intermittent throughout the next few hundred years, and a few deaths were even ascribed to her—especially young, female victims who died without apparent cause or motive, especially if they complained before their deaths about being unnaturally frightened or disturbed in some way—usually by advance sightings of the ghost, it is presumed.  But twenty years ago, when the face of the moon became a skull, things changed.  Now, whenever the moon is full and passes directly through the triangular configuration of the legs of the constellation Herne, Black Maria is said to make a much more substantial revival.  In whispered voices, the locals will say that once the legs of Herne were another constellation known as the Black Pharoah's Crown, and when the moon is thus "crowned" the brides of the Black Pharoah—the ghosts of witches and worse the world over—walk the earth to kill again.

It is unclear if this superstition has any basis in reality or not.  True, nights when the full moon is in the crown (which happens on average three times every two years) a number of girls go missing.  But since they are usually unreported, only those who have eyes to see and pay attention to the signs believe there to be any pattern.  Associate lecturer Enrico Sançez at Porto Liure's small Academy is the foremost expert on local folklore.  He's a taciturn, bookish fellow—suspicious and uncommunicative, and prone to easy frights.  But when drunk, he occasionally talks in private of his suspicions, theories and speculations about many of the supernatural goings-on in Porto Liure.  His pet theory about Black Maria is that the torture and murder of all those girls wasn't just to satisfy her sadistic urges, but was a ritual designed to grant her eternal life.  It wasn't ever completed before she was put to death, but it had been sufficiently advanced that the grave had only a tenuous hold on her, and when the moon died, as the expression goes, she was able to transcend her death at certain times.  Her goal now is to finish the ritual as quickly as possible and return in full to horrible unlife as an eternal predator on the lives of mankind.

An interesting take on gaming

I've long been a fan of the notion that roleplaying games are not "team building" games.  Or, rather--they are, but not in the way that most folks pursue that notion.  The players should work together to create a great experience, but that does not mean that the characters have to get along nicely.  Some of my best and favorite games featured a lot of inter-character drama and conflict, and as long as that doesn't spill over into inter-player drama and conflict, well why not?  It's good drama and that's entertaining.

However, I recently discovered quite by accident a series of two blog posts from a guy who took that concept to an even further level.  I actually find this notion quite intriguing, and may see about adapting it, if possible, sometime down the line.

Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter

Saw John Carter this weekend.  In fact, I saw it twice.  Given that A Princess of Mars is among my favorite books of all time (topped only by Lord of the Rings--which I "cheat" and count as a single book), it's hardly surprising that I dragged my wife in on Friday afternoon.  After we "vetted" it, we went back again with my younger boys (the older kids saw it separately with friends.)  Everyone loved it.  A few points:

• The soundtrack, which I already mentioned earlier last week, is beautiful.  It's got a touch of exoticness, great excitement, a stirring main theme, and a romantic theme with sweeping strings that are reminiscent of some classic John Barry soundtracks--in fact, I was particularly reminded of the soundtrack from High Road to China at more than one point.

• The production design and the scenery of the movie are phenomenal.  The only very minor complaint I have is that I was a bit distracted when I actually recognized a scenic element and kept thinking to myself, "hey, that's the Fisher Towers in the background!" instead of paying attention ot the action in the foreground.  Whoops.  Curiously, the "Arizona" part of the movie and the Barsoom part of the movies looked very similar, and were filmed in locations at the same place--southeastern Utah.  The credits reference the field office for the Bureau of Land Management in Moab, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park and Blanding, UT.  There was obviously some digital grading and digital removal of a few plants and whatnot for the Mars scenes--but probably not all that much was needed, really.  Southeast Utah already looks an awful lot like Mars to begin with.

• Lynn Carter did a good job, but after being raised on Frazetta, Krenkel, Manchess and even Whelan versions of Dejah Thoris, there's really no way she could possibly have competed.  The same is largely true of Taylor Kitsch.  He was better than I thought in the role, but how could he possibly have been as good as the Frazetta painted version of the warlord in my head?  And although my kids joked about, "put some clothes on, geez!" costumes in the movie, to my mind, they were a bit more heavily clothed than I expected.  Heh.  Barsoom in my mind's eye is I guess as skimpily clad as the Frazetta versions of the characters too.  I never really expected that Frazetta type costumes would be at all practical, though.

• Yes, my wife did say that Dejah Thoris sounds like the name of a dinosaur.  So.  Wrong.  On the other hand, her favorite part of the movie was when Powell tried to give that speech to Carter and he kept fighting to escape every few seconds, so at least she appreciates the comedy inherent in senseless violence.  She's still a keeper, even if she makes fun of "the most beautiful woman in two worlds."

• The story changes--mostly the blending in of a number of elements from Gods of Mars along with two or three innovations that the script writers brought, actually worked fairly well, and I didn't find that they were as bothersome as I feared they would be.  Making Dejah Thoris a scientist/warrior instead of just a damsel in distress was expected and predicted (by me, anyway) so at least it wasn't too discordant.  Making the therns a parasitic eternal race that fed on the entropy of planets in destruction, and wandered from world to world was a bit odd, but it did actually serve to offer a somewhat plausible (or at least acceptable) explanation for how John Carter traveled to and from Mars in the first place--something that probably would not at all have flown as written in a movie made today.  And the notion of John Carter being "damaged goods" with a tragic backstory that he had to get over before he could care about Dejah Thoris or Barsoom or anyone else was a rather tired cliche, in my opinion, and suggests that nobody in Hollywood understands what a man is anymore.  But again; that's a bigger problem than this movie; given the constraints Hollywood writers seem to be operating under, they did a relatively decent job, I suppose.

• The marketing was abysmal.  Not only that, the title changes to the movie couldn't have helped.  And settling on John Carter without even any reference to Mars at all?  Huh?  As one reviewer joked--audiences who don't think it's about Noah Wiley's character from ER will probably think its about the president before Reagan.  Although I have to admit, I'd totally go see a movie called Jimmy Carter of Mars.

• Despite a disappointing opening weekend, it was actually better than predicted.  It looks like Disney already decided to write this movie off and didn't properly promote it.  Given the huge production budget (rumored to be $250 mil), a $100 mil opening weekend take--with only $30 mil of that domestic--it seems unlikely that the obvious set-up for a sequel will actually happen.  The movie also got mixed reviews, but appears to have gotten good word of mouth, which picked up the take in the later days of the weekend from what early estimates were predicting.  I know I personally know several people who saw it this weekend and not a one of them didn't love it.  The critics mostly didn't know what they were talking about (literally, in some cases.  One of them talked about the red men vs. white men metaphor of Zodanga vs. Helium--even though the freakin' dialogue in the movie itself refers to their war as red men vs. red men.  I rather thought the red uniforms of the Zodangans vs. the blue of the Heliumites was the more likely metaphor--although it's spoiled somewhat by the fact that the therns also dressed in blue.  Good thing, actually.)

• Some critics thought the barrage of foreign sounding names was a detriment.  Others were glad the movie wasn't "dumbed down" for them by removing them.  In general, the critics reactions--and I read quite a few reviews on Friday before going--were shockingly ignorant and insipid.  Maybe not terribly shocking--I've read critics for a long time now, after all--but because I know Barsoom quite well, I suppose I was a little shocked that the critics couldn't be bothered to spend ten minutes with Google or Wikipedia to do a bit of research before writing their articles which were going to be nationally syndicated and immortalize their ignorance for all time.  How does the proverb go?  "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

Anyway, unless you're an ERB purist who will see any deviation from the Holy Text of his original novels as a heresy, I can recommend this movie and encourage you to see it.  For that matter, I think it's important that genre fans come out in force, as much as possible, and spread the word through grassroots.  I'd love to see this movie become a sleeper hit.  As far as I'm concerned, it was better acted, had better dialogue and plot, and offered better spectacle than Avatar or Star Wars either one--yet unfortunately, it'll most likely be consigned to the bin of "vaguely similar expensive flops."  Hardly seems fair for a movie adaptation of the book that basically "started" science fiction as we know it.

Friday, March 09, 2012

New blog added to blogroll

For the curious or unobservant, I added a new blog to the list on the side there of blogs that I "recommend" if you will, Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque.  The blog description says that it is a repository for "game ready Weird Gothic fantasy bits."  That's an interesting mash-up, since normally Weird Tales and Gothic are two separate (yet obviously bearing marked similarities) genres, and adding either of them to fantasy comes close to approximating SWORD & SANITY; the label coined by Shane Magnus and adopted by me, as a combination of horror and fantasy--Call of Cthulhu + D&D.

In particular, I found this blog at an opportune time; right as he's adding a ruleset for stripped down and simplified fear effects.  I've got lots of options for his, and in many ways, the options I have are more similar rather than different, so I don't know that I necessarily need another one.  But at the same time, I find the notion of these fascinating, so I'm always drawn to see how someone else does it.  What makes Jack's (the author's blogger username) approach different is that he goes back to Gothic literature theory and makes a distinction between terror, horror and madness.  While the mechanics are similar for all three, a canny GM must decide which of the three is most applicable, and therefore which table to roll on.

Personally, I think that having three tables that are all basically "fear effects" is probably a bit much, but as I'm fond of saying, I'd rather have more tools that I don't necessarily need than need tools that I don't have.

Terror rules
Horror rules
Madness rules

Go check out the blog; it's actually chock full of all kinds of other fascinating ideas about combining fantasy and horror.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The OSR and Me, part 3

While it may be controversial enough to say that Matt Finch's old school primer document "speaks" for the movement, it may be even more controversial to say that James Maliszewski's blog Grognardia does.  That said, he's got a lot of followers, and many of this attitudes are reflective of other conversations I have with other OSRians in other venues.

In reality, the only thing that the OSR really has in common is a liking for systems that are reflective of older edition D&D--a kind of do-over if you will of the direction the game went after the mid-80s or so.  But also in reality, many attitudes, while not necessarily univeral are nonetheless very common and prevalent among OSR discussions that I've seen.  Grognardia does a good job of distilling many of these ideas.

Now, the idea of rebutting an entire blog is, of course, ridiculous, so I'm going to just cherry-pick some things that I see frequently over there, and offer my take on it.  Why?  I dunno.  Like I said, I find the OSR a fascinating piece of social history within gaming, even if I don't really identify with it on every level.  In many ways, I think the OSR is a great thing; a return to some of the ideas that I miss in the hobby.  In many other ways, I think it's a disturbing thing--a return to some of the ideas that I thought were long gone and was happy to see them dead and buried.  The fact that the 5th edition (or D&D Next or whatever they're calling it nowadays) discussion from the designers seem to really cater to the OSR market and that they are clearly trying to woo them back to the fold will have the likely effect of pushing me out.  That said--well, I'm already not a customer of 4e anyway, so I doubt it's any big loss to them.  But anyway, my "relationship" with the OSR is kinda funny.  I like a lot of guys who are OSRian.  I read their blogs, I interact with them online, and I think that they sound like really stand-up guys.  I also get into very odd, bitter ambush-style arguments with others who are rather sanctimonious and self-righteous about the way they play, and the way one should play D&D.  Of course, every population group will have people that I like and dislike, but it seems like lately, if I "clash" with someone on the internet in a D&D related discussion, there's a better than normal chance that it's an OSRian.  This has cause me to--if nothing else--give a bit more serious thought to the OSR, what it really is, what it represents, and what I think of it.  And the end result of that is that my own tastes have come into sharper focus, and things that I never really thought much about, I have now managed to crystalize and put into words about what I like about gaming personally.  So, the OSR has helped me home in on what my gaming style really is, and how best to maximize my own fun in the hobby.

Anyway, a few OSRian points from Grognardia.

Megadungeons are IN.
"I've become ever more convinced that a 'tent pole' megadungeon is pretty much a sine qua non for an old school campaign."

I can't tell you how much I hate megadungons.  How much I think they are boring.  How much I think they resemble nothing at all from the source literature.  How much I never want to see one again.  How much I think that the wave of gamers who came in with the mainstreamization of gaming didn't enjoy this paradigm all that much either and forever changed the face of D&D because of that.  I don't even want microdungeons.  I don't want dungeons at all.

Why do old-schoolers like them so much?  In Grognardia's case, it's often because 'that's the way Gary Gygax did it' and frankly, that's good enough for him (more on that later.)  But in many cases, it's because site-based exploration  is in with the OSR crowd and more narrative structures are out.  So out, in fact, that they even developed their own pejorative vocabulary to describe them.  A railroad, of course, has always been a pejorative term leveled at really bad linear gaming--the kind where the players feel that the GM is removing viable options by fiat--just because there's only one way that he can see this all playing out.  But the ability of many in the OSR (and elsewhere, to be fair) to call anything a railroad that's not a pure "sandbox", site-based hexcrawl game is absurd, and the coining of terms like storygames, and the attempt to exclude games that use any narrative function at all, no matter how non-railroadish, as not even an RPG is disappointingly frequent, yet self-indulgently quixotic at the same time.

"I think it's fair to say that two of the lasting effects of the old school renaissance are the popularization of the term 'sandbox' to refer to an open-ended campaign setting and the holding up of Judges Guild's The Wilderlands of High Fantasy as the premier example of a sandbox setting.  The term 'sandbox' is one I'd never heard, let alone used, in a tabletop RPG context until a few years ago, being, ironically, bonrrowed from the world of video games.  And, while I knew of The Wilderlands of High Fantasy and even used it (briefly) back in the day, I never held it up as a model I wanted other campaign settings to emulate.  How things change!"

Personally, I'm a fan of structuring a D&D (or other RPG) campaign not unlike a season of a television show.  Chris Perkins, in his ongoing column at Wizards is probably the best place I can think of right now to get more info on how that's done, but even before I read that column, I'd consciously been paying attention to narrative issues, like pacing, drama, characters, etc.  In my experience, actually very few players like the feeling of total freedom that the sandbox offers, and wander around aimlessly 'wondering where the game is' if presented with that paradigm.  Plus, unlike the OSRians that I occasionally argue with at ENWorld and elsewhere, the fact is that every game that isn't a pure sandbox is not a railroad.  It's not binary, it's a spectrum.  I also, actually, happen to be very strongly opposed to too strong a hand as a GM, and want my players to drive the game.  But I don't do that through hexcrawling.

Idolization/fetishization of Gygaxian play.
"OD&D I have played only a handful of times, but I rever it as an important historical artifact and quasi-philosophical text."

As mentioned above, I note a very frequently expressed desire to play the game the way Gary played it.  This is a fine enough goal, and I don't doubt that Mr. Maliszewski enjoys his games--but curiously, he rarely expresses descriptions his gaming style in such a way that he's doing things because he likes them.  Rather, it's because he believes that's how 'Gary did it.'
Now, granted, within the OSR there is quite a variety of playstyles and even rulesets that deviate from the core D&D rules quite a bit.  But a significant portion of the movement sees such things almost as heresies, and approach their play more like a worshipful religious rite than something that's being done for fun for its own sake.  I'm sure they do find it fun, but it's curious how that's rarely given as a reason for doing something.  I can't find or remember seeing any reference to Maliszewski deviating on purpose from a Gygaxian paradigm on even the slightest angle because he liked something better that way.
This also leads to a rejection of anything new, even if the old is laughably bad.  They still defend the indefensible.
Of course, there's no accounting for taste, so it's hard to say that it's "wrong" to like something older and dislike its newer counterparts all the time, even when the old stuff is cartoonish and silly.  But it does lead me to certainly be a bit skeptical of frequent claims among OSRians that nostalgia and romanticization of the so-called "Golden Age" of D&D don't really play a role in their taste now.  Riiiight.
"I often feel quite alientated from younger gamers, because, other than a vague commitment to 'roleplaying' (however defined), we simply don't have a common frame of reference anymore."

Rejection of high fantasy in favor of sword & sorcery.
"Ironically, though, it was the Tolkien elements that many players of D&D latched on to and emphasized, which inexorably dragged the game away from its roots and toward what came to be known as 'high fantasy'."

In this respect, curiously, I have a little more sympathy towards the common OSRian perspective.  Not because I think high fantasy is terrible, but just because I think its become a bit tired and overdone.  And absent high fantasy, sword & sorcery is the obvious alternative.  However, to be perfectly honest with you, I'm not that big a fan of sword & sorcery either.  It has a lot of great ideas.  A lot of great concepts.  Most of the implementation of it that I've seen is honestly not very good, though, and makes high fantasy start sounding much better.

The episodic "short story" nature of the genre, the over-the-topness of the protagonists, the shallowness and poorness of many of the texts--every time I find myself diving into one of the classic S&S authors, I find myself getting bored and tired quickly.  Howard can wander into overblown territory and his barbarians vs civilization philosophy is silly.  I've read almost a dozen Moorcock books, and haven't liked a single one yet--plus, they're annoyingly repetitive.  Leiber has some good work, but loses steam; really only the first few Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collections are worth reading, lest the later books taint the earlier ones.  I tend to dislike Jack Vance, although I'm willing to give more of his work a try.  Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp (particularly the latter) seem to have been important to Gygax's own conception of fantasy, but I dislike de Camp immensely.  Carter I appreciate more as a less talented but earnest fan writing pastiches, but that hardly makes him good.

Rather, my tastes in fantasy lean more towards the darker, more modern--yet still deep and lengthy--anti-heroic fantasy epics.  Douglas Hulick's book is a great example of what I like, and is definitely on my "one to watch" list.  Although not secondary world fantasy, Jim Butcher's fantasy noir Dresden Files is one of my favorite series ongoing currently.  Glen Cook's Black Company books are hugely influential.

Although there's some superficial similarities to sword & sorcery, those similarities really arose out of a completely different environment, and it's easy to trace where they came from; it's not simply what's old coming around as new again, it's what's new resembling what's old in a few ways for completely independent reasons--while also still being quite different from what was old at the same time.

Anyway, like I said, Grognardia doesn't really speak for the entire OSR, and it's debatable how much my snippets and whatnot really represent Grognardia.  But what I've posted are elements that seem to me to be very common amongst the OSR, yet which I'm really kinda sceptical about; if not outright disagreeing.

I hope this small little series of articles doesn't feel like I'm "picking" on the movement, because that's not at all my intention.  Rather, in an era where the OSR seems to be informing the design direction of 5e to an inordinate extent, I felt like it was important to get my tastes in print, so that at least I come to an understanding of them sufficiently well that I can articulate them.  And that's easiest done through a compare/contrast exercise.

Oh, and to give an alternate example--a description of the OSR that encapsulates the great side of it, check out this post instead.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

John Carter of Mars

The cover on my older copy, by Michael Whelan
I actually missed the announcement that I meant to make in February, but maybe that's OK.  One hundred years ago, in the February issue of All-Story, the first part of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Under the Moons of Mars, attributed to pen-name Norman Bean, was published.  This is the first part of what was five years later republished in novel format as A Princess of Mars and is the start, many say, of the modern science fiction genre.  Not coincidentally, it's the primary basis (I presume; I guess I don't know for sure until I see it, although clearly it's been blended with The Gods of Mars and possibly Warlord of Mars too) for the upcoming John Carter movie which comes out this Friday.

I was going to hold off on my tribute until Friday, but since I "liked" the movie page on Facebook a while ago, I happened to get the message that the soundtrack was released today, and the mp3 download of it was one of the Amazon "Daily Deals" or whatever they call it.  Since I'm a fan of both John Carter and movie soundtracks in general, $3.99 was so cheap it was a no-brainer.  And that made me decide that it was time to do my tribute after all.

John Carter was rather obviously a huge influence on Flash Gordon.  Flash Gordon, in fact, aped most of the conventions, tropes, and settings of Barsoom--the Mars of John Carter stories--and made them even more mainstream.  George Lucas, of course, aped Flash Gordon, but he was self-aware and genre-aware enough to have also read ERB, and he knew about it.

ERB was also widely aped both during his own career highlights (Otis Adelbert Kline, Ralph Milne Farley, even Robert E. Howard, etc.) and later during a reprinting rennaisance in the 60s (Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, Mike Resnick, Alan Burt Akers, John Norman, many others).

Barsoom cover of the first copy I read from the library, by Frank Frazetta
Barsoom was also, to bring this back to the world of gaming, a major influence on the Dark Sun setting, by the creators' admission.  It was also hugely influential on my friend Corey Reid's setting (which borrowed the name and many generic particulars) and was hugely influential on the development of DARK•HERITAGE frankly, although moreso in earlier versions of the setting than as it stands now.  And a number of Barsoom-like elements made it into D&D from the very earliest days--critters like the gorillon, for example, are clearly Barsoomian white apes (sadly, I don't think the banth ever got directly added to D&D--at least not officially.)

A Princess of Mars has always been one of my favorite books, and I've read it many times.  The plot and characterizations are relatively simple, yet likeable, and they all move at break-neck speed.  Some of the dialogue and situations are simply amazing.  That's not to say that Burroughs' weaknesses as a writer aren't also very and immediately obvious, but... well, they don't really detract much from his charm in this case.

His character Tarzan went on to be better known, and to sell many more books (or at least to have many more books published featuring him) as well as giving his name to a town in California, Tarzana.  That said, John Carter was always my favorite, and his influence, although perhaps not as well known and perhaps a bit more subtle, is still extremely pervasive in the fields of swashbuckling fantasy and science fiction alike.  I can't help but to give a hearty "Cheers!" to John Carter to celebrate (slightly belatedly) the 100th anniversary of his first publishing, as well as the also belatedly release of a movie based on the book--after many tries and many years--decades even--of attempts.  I'm always just a bit hesitant to see some of my favorite literary works converted to film, and clearly the plot has evolved considerably under the influence of the screenwriters from the starting point of the novels.  And, I'm not sure that the visuals of the characters are really what I was hoping for either.  But all in all, I'm excited nonetheless, and I can certainly forgive the movie for not being exactly what I want it to be as long as it's good in its own right.  And I remain cautiously optimistic that it will be.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The OSR and Me, part 2

I know it's debateable to what extent Matt Finch's A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming really represents the OSR, but for the sake of argument, I'm going to assume that it does, and deconstruct it a bit--going point by point through the primer and noting where I agree and where I disagree with what it says.  For a bit of context, I don't consider myself old school, but I do consider myself old fashioned.  I started gaming back quite a while ago, and most of my tastes and preferences were set fairly early on in that journey.

I fact, my first game of D&D was a game using the LBBs back in the late 70s sometime.  It wasn't until Moldvay boxed sets and AD&D books starting showing up at school in the hands of some of my friends a few years later in the very early 80s that I really "got it" though, and to me the Moldvay covered BD&D sets are really where "old school" starts and ends.  Of course, I probably played more AD&D because of the unfortunate naming convention that made it sound like it was meant to be a better game.  In fact, the BD&D line was really more my style.

That said, even those games aren't games I'd want to play today, and I find that the rules are not to my taste.  Many of the implicit playstyle elements, however, are hard-coded if you will into my gaming DNA.

So, let's have a look at the Primer, shall we?  The way it's structured, it has basically eight points: four "zen moments" and four "Taos of the DM."  Let's take them one at a time.

First Zen Moment: Rulings, not rules.  When I first started reading the primer, I thought it was off to a good start.  I've always played in such a way that the rules are somewhat handwavey and the GM's call is more important than anything in any book.  When 3e launched, it had the motto, "Tools, not rules." which I thought was at once both kinda clever and also kinda obvious, and was mildly surprised that it needed to be said.

That said, as soon as we get into Finch's examples, I find that despite my hearty agreement with the sentiment in the title, this isn't about what I want at all, really.  His idea of a "modern style" gaming is "pixel-bitching" with checks vs. a Find Traps or Disarm Traps skill, while his example of a preferred "rulings not rules" scenario is "pixel-bitching" with a 10-foot pole.  In other words, his "bad" modern example is merely boring--his "good" old school example is not only boring, it's also tedious, frustrating and time-consuming.  Having a tool to "zoom" through the lame elements of a campaign isn't a flaw, it's a feature.  Of course, a better GM would have eliminated such tedious stuff from his campaign already.

I know, I know.  Some people really like that.  But if that's what "old school" means, then it's not me.  And please don't conflate that with the "rulings, not rules" discussion, because they really aren't related.

His second example, with the "ninja jump" in combat is more sensible, although his caricature of a "modern example" so too laughably bad to be anything other than a strawman.  It's also obvious that the Primer was written in a D&D vaccuum, where "modern" means either 3e or 4e and makes no reference to anything else going on in the RPG industry at all.

Second Zen Moment: Player Skill, not Character Abilities.  I was quite skeptical of this one just based on the title, and sure enough, I don't have any use for it at all.  The entire notion of "skilled play" is one that I've always found tedious and boring.  Probably because I'm relatively unskilled, but there's a reason for that too--I don't think "skilled play" is any fun, and I've never made any attempt to develop player "skill."  Like many of my "generation" of newbies to the hobby, I was initially interested in the promise and potential of D&D because I was a fan of fantasy fiction.  "Skilled" play distracted significantly from that paradigm.  "Skilled" play probably has its roots in the wargaming culture from which D&D was formed, or the tournament style games from the early years, but it had no relation whatsoever to what I (and many fans like me) found appealing about the notion of the game.

I found that not only did I completely disagree with the premise of this section of the primer, I also found it insufferably smug and self-congratulatory.

Third Zen Moment: Heroic, not Superheroic.  This really didn't need to be said, in my opinion.  Not only does even "modern" D&D rarely get played at high level (according to numerous survey data released by WotC and compiled independently --although often not scientifically) but outside of D&D itself, it's not really a concern.  Unless you're playing a superheroes game overtly, of course.  Or Exalted or something.  In fact, saying this made Finch's manifesto seem somewhat ill-informed and "ax-grindy" rather than useful. 

That said, I certainly agree with the sentiment.  As a fan of darker, horror-themed fantasy, in fact, I thought even Finch was leaning way towards too much overt heroics, with his "zero to hero" paradigm firmly in place.  It's one thing to say that D&D characters shouldn't become Superman, but even Finch admits that he wants them to become Batman.

Maybe he's not as familiar with superheroes as he thinks he is.  Batman? Really?  How is he not a completely over-the-top superhero?

This also somewhat contradicts the OSR's fetishization of sword & sorcery paradigms, particularly the characters of guys like Howard and Moorcock, who were clearly superheroic, fantasy "Batmans" and "Wolverines" and whatnot.

Fourth Zen Moment: Forget Game Balance.  I've never completely understood the violent reaction many in the OSR have against game balance.  I certainly don't worship game balance, or even think that it's necessarily very important, but it makes sense to me that I'd want a game that was at least designed to be balanced from the get-go.  Game balance isn't a Holy Grail, it's also not a bad thing.

Finch ends this section with nine "tips for players."  I find that of the nine, I only agree with one of them--don't assume you can win every encounter.  The rest of it describes a game I'd find tediously boring and non-fun.

The next section; the "Taos" are colorfully and somewhat nonsensically named, in an attempt to be cute, I presume.  It makes talking about this section a bit more difficult, so I'll assume that you've actually read the Primer for me to comment on.

The Way of the Ming Vase.  This uses an example--that of a combat taking place around a Ming vase on a pedestal, and making the erroneous assumption that in "modern" games, if there's no rule to cover what happens to the vase as combat rages all around it, then naturally nothing does.  Which he says is nonsensical.

I also think that it's nonsensical to say that--there aren't any rules in his preferred ruleset either, and good GMing is good GMing, regardless of system.  In fact, in many discussions with OSRians, I get that kind of confusion--good GMing does not equal "old school GMing" and bad GMing does not equal "modern GMing."  I know that there's a lot of folks who are frustrated and perhaps even resentful of some of the developments that have overtaken their Favorite Roleplaying Game™ over time, but if you try to associate everything good about running the game with old school, then you've made the term old school a victim of circular logic and a useless label.

That fact of the matter is; nothing about old school gaming addresses the Ming vase question any moreso than does "modern" gaming.  If something is to happen to the standing Ming vase, it has nothing to do with old school vs. modern and everything to do with other playstyle and GM style considerations that can be equally valid and commonplace in both the old school community and the "modern" D&D community.

The Way of the Moose Head.  This refers to non-combat shortcuts.  The specific example is a hanging moose head that conceals a secret door.  Do you just make a Search check, or do you actually make the players verbally "search" the room for the secret door, and if they don't "look" in the right place, they don't find it?

First off, I'm not a huge fan of the notion of searching rooms for secret doors.  I think that's a silly paradigm.  My games rarely feature the search of empty rooms for secret doors.  Boring.  Given that, I think having a mechanic that "shortcuts" actually doing so makes perfect sense.  This becomes a bit of a slippery slope.  If I don't like "manually" searching the rooms and want to shortcut them, what else can I shortcut?  Combat?

This goes back again to the "tools, not rules" paradigm.  The Search check is a brilliant tool for players who find the searching of rooms to be a tedious part of the game (although again--then why are room searches appearing in their games?  There's a few reasons this could be, which I won't get into now, but if so, we're sure extremely grateful to be able to fast-forward through it."  But if "pixel-bitching" the room is fun for you, then you should also be able to leave that particular tool in the toolbox and not use it.  In general, I'm much more a fan of having tools that I don't need very often (if at all) than I am of needing tools that I don't have.  I like the fact that shortcuts are in the game.  If I don't want 'em, I can ignore them or specifically exclude them.

Your Abstract Combat-fu must be strong.  This I agree with heartily.  I've never much liked the tactical miniatures game of D&D 3e (and presumably 4e.)  Abstract "narrative" combat is the way to go.  But casting this as a dichotomy of old school and modern again highlights how blinkered Finch seems to be to the D&D world.  If you want to develop your abstract combat-fu, play some Feng Shui or something.  There's a lot of games that already make use of narrative combat much moreso than any version of D&D tends to.  In fact, if anything, I find this to be a more modern development than D&D uses.  The tactical miniatures of 3e (and 4e) was a natural progression of the miniatures assumptions already inherent in 1e, after all, and earlier D&D.  Fantasy miniatures started because of old-school D&D.  This is already a more modern development that started outside D&D--although modern is a relative term; it's been around for a long time now.

Granted, Finch is using old school to refer to "0e" or LBB style play.  LBB style play grew out of Chainmail, however--while the rules didn't really have much in the way of tactical gameplay, the assumption back then was that your background was.  I doubt that a truly modern "narrative combat" paradigm was a part of very many actual "0e" games during the later 70s, it certainly wasn't necessarily true during the mainstreamization of the game during 1e's years.  True, there's nothing there that prohibits it, but that's at best the tail wagging the dog to clim that old school was always about narrative combat.  Or abstract combat, as Finch calls it, since the word narrative is anathema to OSRians, for the most part.

While it's certainly a feature of the rules of the game, I think it's difficult to say that this is a case of an old school paradigm vs. a new school paradigm.  It makes much more sense to call this a D&D paradigm vs. a paradigm rooted in other systems, and OSRians claiming this for old school D&D is a bit revisionist.

In my opinion, this is another clear case of the OSR rewriting history to make it seem as if their preferred playstyle was always the case "back in the day" when those of us who actually remember "back in the day" know that clearly that's not true. While Finch says that the "I hit for 6 damage," "The monster hits you back for 4," etc. back and forth is to be avoided, in point of fact, most of the old school games I played in were exactly that. This is clearly another case of giving advice to "be a good GM" and mistakenly conflating that with old school. This is completely unrelated to old school. It's good advice--no matter what game you're playing--but it isn't any more important or any more associated with an old school paradigm than it is with any other paradigm on playing RPGs.

Way of the Donner Party.  This is all about the resource management "game within a game" of D&D.  I agree that many old school games featured this feature, and giving it prominence feels "old school" to me.

But I dislike resource management.  If I want a resource management games, there are much better games out there to play (most of them for my PC).  D&D is fundamentally a game where resource management makes it feel like accounting.  I hated accounting in college, and I certainly don't want to spend my leisure time with it.  While the designers of 3e and 4e may not have always gotten it right, the notion of packing more fun into your games--as Ryan Dancey once infamously remarked, of filling your four hour gaming session with something much closer to four hours of fun--is certainly the "right" idea.  Removing elements that aren't fun is a good thing.

I don't find resource management fun.  Therefore, I fundamentally disagree with this notion of the OSR primer.

The primer then ends with a plug for Finch's own retro-clone game, Swords & Wizardry.