Sunday, August 21, 2016

Talking to myself: Culture vs. the Sandbox (June 2014)

Still quite busy and the blog has to take a hit for it. But I'm not or out of ideas. Just busy. Anyway, I had an idea that might be a fun exercise, doesn't mean much work (I hope) and will result in something that requires a cup of coffee and a bit of muse: I'll re-examine a two year old post of mine and add what my thoughts are about it now. Maybe it even starts a discussion. We'll see. The basic premise:
"A lack of story in a game is always derived from a lack of culture represented in a sandbox/setting/gaming world ..."
I'll c/p the original content here and write my current thoughts about it in between, marked as [Today: ...]. This being a post from two years ago should mean that most of my current readers might not be aware of it or totally forgot about it. That's a plus, I think :) Well, here we go:

Yggdrasil 1: Classic interpretation [source]
I've tried, you know [Today: Still trying ...]

All those random shenanigans I've tried, the tables I used to create content with in the last few games, the random maps and names, all this left me feeling, well, unprepared at the table. A strange feeling for a DM indeed and most unwelcome, to say the least. Although I had everything I needed (as far as content goes), I struggled with an apparent defect of connection between what was generated randomly and the interpretation of that content during the game. In other words: as soon as I had rolled what the players were encountering next (a specific creature or event with a motivation and reaction to the characters, etc. ... you all know what is possible), I started to feel the urge to make a story out of it, the result being not random at all but, in the contrary, totally my design, so to say. Exactly what I had tried to avoid in the first place and not even with the luxury to have a developed story arc at hand, but with the need to pull it all out of my arse as I needed it.

Usually I have no problem with generating connections, interpretations and new content as I need it on the table, but this felt different. This Tyranny of Randomness forced me to think about the people present in a tavern and there motivations at any possible given moment the characters might be entering the locale. It asked for weather and day-to-day routines of peoples, current politics and their effect and all those little nooks and crannies that are really really needed (and in a huge amount, no less) to produce the necessary amount of information that could result in a satisfying variety of adventure hooks needed in a "true" sandbox to make it work.

Because, if you just use a shortcut and make a table with all the funny things you think possible in a specific sandbox, you might as well admit that all this is not random at all, but a random assortment of exactly all the things that could possibly happen. There is a difference.
[Today: Yeah, Tyranny of Randomness, here we go. Main reason for this being so intimidating at the time had been that the tools I used back then were not ideal for what I was doing. You see, the classic D&D game (I used a heavily modified D&D Rules Cyclopedia at the time) completely relied on the DM being somehow prepared or using an official product, so it never intended to produce a random chain of events and instead a random chain of turns ...]
Take for example rumors of a bear attacking wood cutters near a settlement. A good enough adventure hook, I think. But where is that bear coming from, why did he leave? A bigger predator claiming his territory, maybe? Why is he attacking people? Is it for a lack of other prey? What's with all that, then?

So you see, every event has a chain of relevant causalities (of connected events, if you will) leading to it. The results of these events (if you dare going as far as producing that much information, that is) might be random, but you have to start somewhere. And that place is so totally unimportant and insignificant for what happens at the table, with so much small and moving pieces in between, that it doesn't seem worth to even try to figure out where to start.

But if you were looking for where to start with those chains of events, cultures would be the way to go. It might seem counter-intuitive, especially with the example of the bear above, but stay with me. I'll get there.
[Today: Funny, right now I'd say you have to go with stories instead. That being said, I'd like to stress that the way we tell stories is indeed derived from culture. So the bonus content here would be that if you try to emulate a certain culture, you should learn how they told their stories and use that in your game ... But on with the text.]
Causality goes both ways ...

It's a good thing that causality can go both ways from an established point, if that point is well chosen. Constants and varieties are the base criteria for such an endeavor and that's exactly what the term culture enfolds. Following that link to Wikipedia will only help in realizing how big a topic culture can be, this is the variety. On the other hand it shows very well how all those cultural variety is labeled, so there are your constants. That all cultures are a product of their specific surroundings is where causality comes into play. If you have a social group of sentient apes living on a shore, you'll have some fishing and legends and rituals connected to the sea, stuff like that.

So this might be a point from where an interpretation of causality easily goes both ways. The characters encounter a settlement at a shore and a DM just knows there will be forms of cultural representation regarding that fact. Going the other way would mean, if the surroundings change for the settlement (say, they were forced to leave, for instance), they will take some of their cultural achievements with them (maybe some legends and stories and names remain in their songs, stuff like that) so that at a later point it can be recognized and traced back again, etc..

As far as creating content for a role playing game is concerned, this means basically:
Every point of entry in a campaign is legit. It's either created up to the point of entry, from that point onward or somewhere in between.
[Today: What I'm saying here is that you can start wherever you want to create random content, as long as you keep straight what's established as fact and what is just known by the characters. As long as the construct you are ending up with retains credibility, it'll hold in a campaign. That's causality derived from constants and variety ... ] 
Yggdrasil 2: Esoteric interpretation [source]
Perception of a world, the players view (an intermission).

This occurred to me some time ago and maybe it's worth a post of it's own, but for this argument I deem it important to have it at least mentioned as food for thought: the flow of information in a fantasy setting (or in every setting, if you think about it) prevents a complete and true understanding of the world surrounding a player character. All characters can know is interpretations and stories, distance being one main factor regarding the accuracy of the information gathered, culture being another one.

So even if you start a campaign with nothing but an idea for a starting area and tell the players tall stories about what the world around them is filled with, nothing of this needs to be true and might be challenged entirely in the next village. Even if a DM did do all the work to create a complete world, the only chance for the characters to know it with some kind of certainty should be by exploring it, because it's not about what's a world comprised of, but about how a culture interprets and communicates it.

So the "true" sandbox is not the world/map itself (the board, if you will) but the amount of interpretations (or stories!) of said world. And that is the amount of cultures in a setting.
[Today: This really should be a post of its own. And I really can't exaggerate this enough: Nothing we tell our players needs to be true. It just needs to be connected. As they explore their surroundings they'll update their knowledge with what they think is the truth and so on. It's the classic "No one goes into this forest, there are demons in there!" and then it's just some creative savages or a curse with a tragic story. Or both and the players just find one aspect. The relation between what is known and what the story says is happening just needs to be nourished constantly. Stuff like "You thought that it was dark magic, but it just had been ..." or "The elders had been wrong about that foreign land to the east and that sea they talked about had just been a giant lake after all ...". As long as you are able to establish meaning and connections, it'll keep credibility. We rely far to much on the maps we use as being true and base our games on them, but that's a very young idea in history and an illusion on its own.]
It's evolution, baby (Creating a Sandbox 101)!

Let's get back to that bear again. What we like to perceive as culture is more often than not a direct result of our natural heritage. Opposing thumbs, courtship display, all that stuff. This is, again, about capabilities resulting in behavior in accordance to its surroundings. To phrase it another way, it's easier to create a possible pattern of what a bear might do than it is to do the same for a human being, but ultimately it's the same basics. Evolution allowed for the development of cultures with the intelligent apes, for the bear not so much, which leaves him with what evolution is capable of.

This is where the relevant data is, this is where stories are developed. You'll need the lay of the land, that is true (and easy enough achieved with a degree of difficulty open to the top), but it'll mainly produce constants with almost no variety. So if that's done, you'll just have a board for all the parties involved to leave a mark on.

Layers and layers and layers of true randomness!

Next is where the DM decides how vanilla it gets. It is basically the decision how much culture a DM is willing to invent or how many memes and tropes he is willing to use.  It is a very broad spectrum, ranging from, say, the elves, dwarfs and hobbits how Tolkien described them to a complete new set of races, invented from scratch. Or a world having no moon, one moon or 5. But whatever is decided, I believe it is important for a DM to make the decision where to start consciously and up to a point where the number of former decisions, random or not, produce a pattern complex enough to carry a narrative.

This means layers and layers of decisions if he wants to have a sandbox-setting or a world-engine with a totally random, but traceable history. A huge task.
[Today: It actually makes me a bit happy to read this, as I really managed to build something like this two times since I wrote it. The first is a Random Territory Generator I use for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, the second is a Mission Generator for The Grind ... both produce very specific results for the stories they want to tell, just as described above.]
Culture, memes and the story ...

Alright, let's connect some dots and get back to the thesis at hand. I think it's conclusive that it's almost irrelevant were to start with the randomness or what kind of map is used, as long as there's enough to work with (a few encounter and reaction tables and a map worth exploring, maybe). The available cultures, on the other hand, might be what really matters when a DM creates/prepares a setting, because it is what the players get confronted with as soon as they start creating characters and in the game it's their tool to interact with the world. And it is how stories emanate.

Memes can come in handy in this in as far as if, for example, a player has a more or less clear picture of  what a dwarf is, he can easily enough play one. Some familiarity with a setting can go a long way in helping the players getting some immersion. Another argument for using memes is that to recognize variety you need to know the source. So it helps when describing a set of random cultures if the source is still recognizable.

In the end, if you want to know what the people do and why they react the way they react, you need a fair idea of the cultural context surrounding the encounter to make a story about it. If the players live in a matriarchy, for example, all the roles they know might be reversed and if those roles are inspired by a medieval society, you'll have women knights courting men in fancy dresses and so on. So everything a DM establishes for a culture helps him telling the stories the characters encounter. The more work he puts in that, the better will be the stories he's going to tell.
[Today: There are two things happening here. For one, it's important that the decisions a player has in a game are informed by what the setting needs and by that it will enter the story. It's an idea I incorporated (for instance) into the character generation for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs and I can say with some confidence right now that it does indeed work. The second part is how cultures manifest in a setting and how that informs NPC decisions. I still need to do this and it had been the main reason to read this old post to begin with.]
Yggrasil 3: Marvel interpretation [source]
What next?

Those are the basics so far. Maybe it's able to start a discussion, exploring those ideas a bit further or even challenge them. Maybe not. Anyway, in future posts I'll further examine how a DM could utilize the idea of culture as a tool to carry the narrative of the game and I should give some examples, maybe a system how to randomly generate a culture. Right now I think it might be useful to have an index for a culture how obscure their idea of the world surrounding them is. Something like, the lower the index, the closer are those interpretations to reality ...
[Today: Well, I thought I'd agree less with something I wrote 2 years ago. What changed from then to now, though, is that I believe I found (almost) all the tools I need to make this work for me. The last piece in this puzzle, at least for LSotN, would be the Random Story Seed Generator I wrote about a few months ago. I'm right now working at an updated version (which will be posted soon, I hope), but it already works great as it is. I'm still missing a culture generator that'll help me bringing the Dark Ages to life in the game. And that's it. I hope you guys enjoyed this little re-post and maybe we get to start a discussion here or you'd like to share some of your ideas about randomness with us. Comments are, as always, very welcome.]

Sunday, August 14, 2016

3 Movies you (probably) haven't seen (a Weird Movie Sunday?)

Couple of years ago I thought about writing little movie reviews on a regular basis. You know, as inspiration and stuff. Never really got to do that, though. There are more than enough people doing this already and this blog is mainly about gaming, so why bother? Well, I dreamed about writing this one review here, so that's as good a reason as any. And while I'm at it, I'll throw in two more for good measure.

1. The Family Fang (2015)

I am a big fan of all things Arrested Development and when one of the main cast starts directing his own stuff, I pay attention. So when Jason Bateman made his movie debut with Bad Words in 2013, I saw that sucker and fell in love (if dark comedy and Arrested Development are your thing, you should check that out asap). Wasn't a mainstream success and definitely not PC, but who cares. This was good, so checking out his next movie was a no-brainer, as they say.

Well, I only heard about The Family Fang by accident (it's based on a book going by the same name). There was literally no buzz I could catch. It was there and nobody talked about it. Well, nobody I knew anyway. And now that I saw it, I have to say that you should, too. I won't spoil it to you in any way, but I will give you the main premise and some general thoughts. Here is a bit from the blurb (from that last imdb-link above):
"Annie and Baxter, the adult children of the controversial husband and wife conceptual performance art couple famous for their quirky macabre public performances, have never got over the fact that their parents kept using them during their childhood in their often gory and disturbing satirical public performances."
Those parents are still at it and when they turn up missing, leaving a car and signs of a struggle behind, we are left with the siblings, wondering if they are really murdered or if it's an art piece. What follows is a dissection of what constitutes art and the price artists (are willing to?) pay to make it happen. It is at times hard to digest and controversial (as we constantly get flashback to some of those brilliant public performances), but never dull.

Part of the movie poster some outlandish critical acclaim [source]
There is some (very dark) humor at work in the movie and in a sense it's a classic tragicomedy. A bit like the stories Wes Anderson likes to tell. So if the question "What is art?" is something that gets your gears running, you should see this movie. It's not the answer, but it'll give you something to think and discus about. If you need more convincing, I should add that Christopher Walken plays old Mister Fang ... 

2. A Fantastic Fear of Everything (2013)

Oh, how I love that movie. The Trailer just doesn't do it justice. It's about a author of children's books (Simon Pegg) who decides he must write a serious book about serial killers. Being the sensitive kind, he gets very ... involved in his work, basically barricading himself in his apartment, seeing murderers in every shadow. Well, his publisher wants to get him out of the house for a business meeting and he has no clean clothes, so he has to leave the house and go to some dreaded Launderette eventually ...

Well, the paranoia combined with a very creative mind (and lots of bad luck, I might add) doesn't help and Simon Pegg is hilarious. Add a really inspired directing to that (I'd describe it as a mix between a Wes Anderson and a Tim Burton movie with a good dose of British humor) and you really end up with something very well worth your time.

Pretty much sums it up ... [source]
There is a weak part of about ten minutes near the end, but it really doesn't weaken the whole experience one bit. It's a quirky and wild ride. Pegg is carrying the whole movie on his own and does a very good job as the unreliable narrator and on screen. Add clever writing and some fantastic scenes (like the rap scene .. you'll know it when you see it). A Fantastic Fear of Everything is highly recommended by this blogger :)

3. Jupiter Ascending (2015)

It's a bit more difficult to find a beginning sentence about Jupiter Ascending as it really tanked and people have opinions about it. Well, this is my opinion and I really, really love this movie. The setting, character and world design should inspire every Science Fiction tabletop player and DM. There is a lot of money in this movie and it shows. The Blue-ray is a wonder to behold. Several times. Planets, ships, weapons, Cyborgs, cyberware, weird technology ... it's all in there in spades. For that alone it's worth seeing once (and then again in slow mo ...).

Same goes for the story. That's some crazy shit right there: a universe full of mega-corporations lead by immortals who harvest human DNA as their ambrosia, different factions, gene manipulation to optimize soldiers and a huge bureaucratic complex that should get Terry Gilliam pretty excited on a normal day, also lots of aliens and laws and special fighting units whatnot. A campaign setting if I have ever seen one. It all reminded me a bit of the Deathstalker novels by Simon R. Green. In a good way.

[Edit: Forgot about the soundtrack ... it's divine! I don't need to point out where a good soundtrack might get some mileage in a role playing game ...]

Many of you will be aware that this is a film by the Wachowski siblings (or sisters now?) and I have to say that I am a huge fan of their work. All of their work (and yes, that includes Speed Racer, V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin (!) and Cloud Atlas). I like their style and the way they mix action with (very light, sometimes flawed) philosophy. In this regard, they also deliver in Jupiter Ascending and I have to say a few words about the action here: it's brilliant work. Fast, vast and complex, just as I like it. I dare say that you won't see anything like it again any time soon. Visionary.

And again, food for any DM looking for some original sci-fi combat set up for a session or two. Gold mine.
If you need more convincing, here is a good essay about the movie [source]
Many people bashed the acting in this movie and I get why. I just don't care that much as I was in awe the whole movie, taking notes. I gotta say, though, that that Eddie Redmayne character creeps me out here. Big time. He really gets under the skin over time and I found it unsettling. That's a good thing, btw, since he is the villain and all. Tatum is pretty much himself with pointy ears (which works for me) and Kunis, well, if nothing else, she's nice to look at. Bean is good in anything he does and does a lot with the little he gets here ... Nothing to write home about, but not bad either.

So as far as Space Operas go, Jupiter Ascending has only one shortcoming, in my opinion: it's not based on an existing franchise. All of this is new and most people will find it all a bit overwhelming. Add to this that the movie doesn't follow the Campbell routine and you end up losing most viewers somewhere down the road. Which is the point where a movie starts to drag and the only thing left is to find ways to ridicule what you see ... But that doesn't mean it's a bad movie, it just means it's demanding attention from the viewer. I, for one, appreciate that in a movie.

It is save to say that, if you liked the Science Fiction parts of Cloud Atlas, you'll like this movie, too (if you've avoided this one and needed a push). It's an inspiring firework of creativity in all but the acting (with some highlights there, too, like Redmayne). You really can't do much wrong if you are into Space Opera and see it with an open mind.

Honestly, don't believe the haters :)

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Preview: Monkey Business (a procedural junglecrawl)

I had exams and was quite busy the last few days. But it wasn't all business, as I've managed to complete the draft for one (of the many) things I'm writing for the blog: Monkey Business. I should get ready to publish this in the next couple of weeks and thought it's time to make this a little bit more public. It's definitely not the first thing I started writing here (and all the other things are still happening, too), but it'll be the first thing out there with my name on it. And here's a sneak peek ... 

The tone will be very pulpy and all the test readers agree that the whole thing is wacky as hell. So if the following passage does it for you even a little bit, you might have fun reading, if not DMing Monkey Business:
Tarzang – King (Slacker) of the Jungle 
Not one of the circus people, but totally zoned out by the
drug anyways. His real name is Viscount Lonny
Graustock and he led an expedition into the jungle to rob
some poor natives just a few months ago. Now he swings
naked (and muscular) from tree to tree (mostly hitting
them and screaming in pain because of it or in fear to hit
another one ...) and thinks he is able to talk to animals. 
He seems harmless (and well built), but he will bring a group
into trouble if they believe he really is some sort of king of the
jungle (as he will claim, of course). His primary motivation is
to get the next score and he’ll try to use a group as distraction
against an orangutan pusher on drug delivery, grabs what he
can carry and makes a run for it. If there are females in the
group, he’ll pick the prettiest one and schemes to kidnap her.
He’ll also call her Jane all the time. No one knows why.
This thing has around 160 different encounters, a random jungle location and treasure generator, mushroom pygmies, cannibals and exploding goblins! There is a nice poem by Rudyard Kipling in The Second Jungle Book that pretty much sums up what kind of chaos this module will conjure as the drug conquers its surroundings:
I will let loose against you the fleet-footed vines—
I will call in the Jungle to stamp out your lines!
The roofs shall fade before it,
The house-beams shall fall,
And the Karela, the bitter Karela,
Shall cover it all! 
In the gates of these your councils my people shall sing,
In the doors of these your garners the Bat-folk shall cling;
And the snake shall be your watchman,
By a hearthstone unswept;
For the Karela, the bitter Karela,
Shall fruit where ye slept! 
Ye shall not see my strikers; ye shall hear them and guess;
By night, before the moon-rise, I will send for my cess,
And the wolf shall be your herdsman
By a landmark removed,
For the Karela, the bitter Karela,
Shall seed where ye loved! 
I will reap your fields before you at the hands of a host;
Ye shall glean behind my reapers for the bread that is lost;
And the deer shall be your oxen
By a headland untilled,
For the Karela, the bitter Karela,
Shall leaf where ye build! 
I have untied against you the club-footed vines,
I have sent in the Jungle to swamp out your lines
The trees—the trees are on you!
The house-beams shall fall,
And the Karela, the bitter Karela,
Shall cover you all!
Neat, isn't it? Other inspirations are Super Mario, Ufomammut, Planet of the Apes, Breaking Bad, Futurama and many, many others. It'll also feature some fantastic illustrations by +Mark Van Vlack and his fabulous Monkey Generator (which kind of kicked the whole thing loose).

It'll be out there in the wild as soon as I'm done with the layout and some lose ends. I'm aiming for end of September, but you guys know how it is ... Definitely before November, though, I can promise that much :)