Saturday, December 9, 2017

A very different take on Monster Stats - Part 2 (about complexity, emergence & encounters in LSotN)

I know it's somewhat silent on the blog right now, but it's quite busy behind the scenes, actually. I started writing another module (more on that later this year), made some progress on that other game I started writing (The Grind, maybe some of you remember) and I even got some progress in developing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (magic is finally working! - also worth another post). One part of Lost Songs I'm eager to write is the new concept for how encounters work. So while I started writing this post about how to improvise puzzles in role playing games, I stumbled across something closely related, yet totally different: the underlying assumptions behind the system I'm in the process of writing (you can read Part 1 here, if you like, but it's not necessary to read the post below ... unless you want to know how I intent to apply the ideas formulated below). Maybe there'll be a part 3 soon. We'll see.

Willing to wing it ...

Most games will carry a DM places he didn't (couldn't!) anticipate. Some try their hardest to stay with the script, some go with the flow and see where it's all headed. Now, this is no debate about which one of those styles is "better" because I honestly believe that the two don't really compare that way. They are part of a development, a learning curve we all go through when learning the trade to be a DM.

That said, I also believe that the ability to "wing it" is at the higher end of that spectrum. It's where we embrace and brave the wild nature of the game. There is much to be talked about in this area, of course, as a lot of this is about playing the game beyond what rules tend to offer. However, for today I'll just tackle one of the hurdles we have to master to get away from "scripted" or prepared role playing and that is to improvise continuity to a degree that it feels as genuinely complex as a prepared game would.

"Complexity" is the key word here. Really, do yourself a favor and google that word or follow the link I put in the previous sentence. It's for instance interesting in that you can trust chaos to produce discernible patterns eventually. This may seem like I'm far off topic here, but hear me out on this. Because clever monkeys that we are, we are very able to not only recognize patterns, we are even more capable of giving meaning to those patterns. Not necessarily truth, mind you, but meaning. And while this ability decides about a lot of crucial things in day to day life, it is also a great tool to utilize in gaming.
Title of the pic is complexity_small_version ... [source]
Take any written language as example: you got a couple of easy symbols that connect to somewhat more complex words that connect to sentences which can connect to all kinds of texts, contexts, subtexts and all kind of complex shenanigans. Just imagine someone unable to read the page you are looking at right now and compare it to how meaning emerges with deciphering it bit by bit. Take that and change it to graffiti or all kinds of artsy endeavors using language as a jumping point ... you get my drift. Complexity is all around us and we learn to recognize it.

Another crucial aspect of complex systems is that everything is somehow connected, although often beyond our scope of perception. Or maybe that's just seeing it from another perspective, because context describes the very ability about recognizing the patterns I described above. We just need to see part of a pattern to recognize its origin, sometimes we are even able to pinpoint the general or precise position of an element in the context of the bigger system. You might recognize a language by looking at a sentence or part of a mathematical formula, music, a taste ... stuff like that.

The right amount of complexity?

All of the above is true in a general sense, but it'd be wrong to assume that everyone is a specialist in everything. So when we design puzzles traps or riddles, we should avoid all but the most basic common denominator and go from there. Like, while we cannot all be meteorologists, most of us will be able to come to some right conclusions if the necessary knowledge is part of the emerging pattern.

Emergence, then, deals with the idea that the sum of parts can lead to something else. And while you'll usually find this discussed by going from the results backwards, as this is how we learn to repeat patterns, it most certainly has merit to release chaos and see what pattern emerges from it. Both are extremely useful in gaming.

Says it all ... [source, by Leo Cullu]
Actually, both are two sides of the same coin in that they (generally) describe what the DM knows in context with how that knowledge emerges for the players and how their interactions with that in turn impacts and informs what the DM had established and so on. It's a information based feedback loop between players and DM in which the DM had a pattern prepared and the players explore pieces of it, make sense of it where they can while changing more than they are aware of as the DM puts the new information into context.

Basically, the DM knows the big bad of an area is a lich and what impact that has on all the aspects the setting. That lich is the sum of the parts, so to say, and as the characters explore the setting, a pattern emerges (all the parts separately) for the players to piece it together. A map would be another good example for this: the DM knows and describes it, the players try to recreate it. When they try to draw conclusions about the whole map we have exactly what I'm describing here.

Let's say the players manage to kill the lich. Following the above, it'd end in chaos (the power vacuum) with a new pattern forming (the vacuum is filled somehow). Again, player actions inform the greater pattern for the DM, which then is looped back to the players (civil war breaks out because the reign of the lich ended and the characters are in the middle of it, for instance). And so on ...

The question now is if the lich had to be there to begin with to have the impact in the game that it should have. Where do we measure the right amount of complexity? On the player side or on the DM side? Fact is that players (because: pattern recognizing monkeys, see above) will sooner or later recognize if it's all just made up on the spot, which will have them believe that their insights have no meaning at all. And that sucks. Experience furthermore tells me that it is way more satisfying to have something prepared to riff off of ...

That's the conundrum I was talking about in the beginning while adding another dimension to it: It's not only about how much you have to prepare, it's also about how you communicate that knowledge. Encoding, decoding, if you will. In that regard you can prepare too much or too little or it doesn't matter because you can't let the pattern emerge properly. However, at it's core it's about how the pattern emerges for the players and how much meaning the complex system carries.

Mosaic pictures are a good example for emergence, I guess.
Check the source for details on the pic [source
So ... it's not about how big your campaign binder is?

It can be, but the important thing is it doesn't have to be. I would say that a DM is on the same side as long as he is far enough ahead of the players that their decisions and guesses can impact it. That's what ultimately resonates with them. And don't forget how the rules of the game form another, more immediate pattern that helps carrying a game with yet another system. Or is it?

I made the argument in an earlier post (or was it a comment? not sure ...) that a campaign setting is nothing else but another set of rules (Tékumel was the example I raised for a very strong setting that works like that, if I remember correctly). If true, it would most certainly challenge our perception of what a complete set of rules should or could do.

There's also some room to explore between the rules that have an immediate impact on the game and the rules implications a setting might bring. It's exactly in this room where we can find out how much complexity the game needs to emerge with plausible coherence.

In other words, let's see this from the player side for a moment. The first time they are made aware about the lich's power is by encountering some of the suffering his minions cause or some stories in that regard. It's like the outer rim of influence the creature has. At this point they might not be aware of the lich at all, not even that the encounter connects to it. The DM knows, though, but the only thing important at in this moment is to know that there is a connection to something bigger and how big that something is.

It's important here to see that all information the players can glean at this point goes beyond finding out that there is more to the encounter than thought at first. A simple set of possible decisions at this point would be to follow up on it or ignore it. Nothing is gained from the DM knowing that the lich is behind it.

In other words: there needs to be no lich at this point.

As long as the DM knows how deep this goes and keeps track of the emergence, it should all be good to go. A system supporting this should be aware of how those things emerge. I imagine it to be something like an onion where randomly, layer by layer, is determined how it fits to the pattern, making it more an more concrete with every relevant encounter.

And again, you don't need to know how an encounter is connected before it happens, just as it happens is totally enough. Like, if you roll up the encounter and the evil entity comes up, everything else will fall into place right then and there (because all you have to work with is what is already established in connection with what is about to be revealed).

See as the story unfolds ... [source]
Well, what's an encounter, then?

First of all, since this is about a game with a lot of talking, encounters are merely information or hints how to interact with a changing narrated world. It's where what is happening at the table changes direction. Going from there, encounters can be measured by the scale they have or how they resonate with the setting. It's all random at this point, but is it just something happening momentarily or maybe locally? Are there wider implications to consider?

Remember, it makes (or should make) no difference to the players, as the emergence is still ensured. The only thing that changes is how far the DM has to plan ahead. The way I see it, he has to trust the chaos to form patterns as he feeds it while interacting with the players.

Go one further: if it's all about a never ending feed of information, why, then, do we need monster stats? What are we keeping track of? The figment of the idea of a creature? In the end it's a matter of consequence. Of scale. You don't need the stats of monsters, you just need to know what happens if a creature is interacted with and that's just more information waiting to happen. Or maps, for that matter? Why have them if the players are going to draw their own as they explore a setting?

I know, I know, the numbers game is one of the tropes of our hobby. Every monster needs its stats and maps are pretty, right? It's also something deeply rooted in the war games history of the hobby where different units and accurate maps are necessary. Is the same true for role playing games? I'd at least like to challenge that assumption for my own game. 

But where do you go from there? Well, I go into part of that in Part 1. Basically you'll need depth, kind and scale of a character. Something like: "12 (scale) epic level (depth) Roman soldiers (kind)" and some other elements that elevate an encounter from circumstantial to immediate (attacks, damage capability, saves, stuff like that - Lost Songs will use runes here ... easy to draw and loaded with meaning). The thing is that encounters are entities within a certain, measurable sphere and not (necessarily) single entities.

It's a top-down thing in that you get one value for, say the influence the lich has on its surroundings (say 10.000 points) and every time the characters interact with this sphere, they leave marks on it. Reducing the point value results in xp, but it can not only be done by weapons, it could also be done by spreading rumors or whatever else the characters can come up with to reduce this sphere ...

But that's something I have to go into in Part 3, when the actual thing is written and ready for testing.

What's to take from this?

The reason for all this is that I'm really lazy with the bookkeeping in my games and if I can come up with a way to make all this happen with just a couple of numbers and signs, than I'll do just that. Funny thing about it is that I don't mind the work up front to get there.

Complexity always starts small and builds from there, either as you explore it or as it emerges from somewhere. And that's how you build everything in the game. That's really something to keep in mind when DMing: regardless of the amount of preparation you put into something, you can only transmit it one word of information after another and more often than not it's indistinguishable on the receiving end if it's something just invented or planned long ahead as long as its emergence is coherent and allows meaningful interaction.

Also remember: there's always a pattern to be found in chaos. Trust the chaos :)

More on the whole deal when I finish my first draft of the system I'm working on to actually use all this in Lost Songs.

This is originally about management skills, but dammit, it's all there ... [source]

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Plot immunity - what is it good for?!

... absolutely nothing, as the song goes. Just saw the second season of Stranger Things and for all the good elements it had, the one thing that really threw me off had been the plot immunity the characters got. I thought that bullshit died a horrible death in the nineties. Or at least after the first seasons of Game of Thrones. Not so much, it seems. Well, it is a problem with role playing games, too, so I thought I'd talk about it a bit here on the blog.

Definition Time!

Google it and the best possible definition of Plot Immunity will be at TV Tropes. It is scarcely discussed in rpg circles and more often than not people seem to associate it with games that have a strong emphasis on narratives or storyteller games in general (or whatever you tell that one group of games people are hating about ... it's all bullshit, of course, but more on that later). So understanding is most of the time sketchy at best and you'd think this is a simple topic where you can just as easily decide which side you are on. You'd be wrong. It challenges how we perceive games in a profound way.

First of all, when talking Plot Immunity (or Plot Armor, if you will) in the context of role playing games, you need to know what you are playing. Plot Immunity is only a thing if another mode of play is intended with the set of rules you are using. That means, for Plot Immunity being a problem, it needs to contradict the rules as written (and that's NOT including DM advice how to play a game ... but more on that further below).

So there might be rpgs out there that have a specific arc (like 44: A Game of Automatic Fear, where characters are very likely to get turned into the enemy over time) or where they try to emulate a specific genre (like Castle Falkenstein, where characters don't necessarily die, but will more likely end up as the enemies hostages ... it's a pulp genre thing).

The short of it is, there are instances where the problem does not occur or where not utilizing it one way or another would have a negative impact on the game (if you neglect people in 44 to switch sides, the game is effectively killed and if you start killing off characters in Castle Falkenstein, you'll get a very serious shift in tone).

What we are talking here, is EXPECTATIONS. A good part of that would be proposed in a set of rules, the rest is among the DMs duties when setting up a game. If everyone at the table is clear about, for instance, the grade of mortality in the game, people shouldn't be too surprised if things happen as announced.

In that sense, Plot Immunity is the conflict between the expectations everyone in a specific game is having versus what you can get away with as a DM (suspension of disbelief, again). When those two collide, you'll end up with a disjointed game. To say the least.

That whole battle of the bastards had been a disappointment, btw. [source]

But it's not only that. There's something to be said about how "difficult" a game is perceived to be ...

Detour: What's a challenge, exactly?

There's another misconception. In rpg circles it's widely assumed that games need to be "balanced" to offer a "fair" challenge to players. Actually, there's a long ongoing feud between those who believe it's the way to go and those who say it is bogus. I'm not going to solve this problem here (if you are reading this and know my blog, you probably have a good grasp where I stand on those matters and somewhat agree, since you came back).

What I'm going to say, though, is that among the serious game designers, that is, those writing computer games (forgive the polemics, but that's the impression I get every time I check what designers of computer games say about those things ... they actually do studies and shit), well, those people actually came to the conclusion that the right amout of challenge is not buffing the enemy or scaling him to the skill the characters/players presumably have, but instead offering room for the player to grow in skill while he's facing the challenges a game offers (here is an interesting article about the subject).

In general, what makes a challenge is the thin line between avoiding tedious exercises and giving too difficult/hard tasks, while constantly keeping the player engaged. This includes having fall back mechanisms available for when a character fails. Hit points work like that to an extent, but another rule I like to use in my games, is giving the players the xp they've earned in the session their character died to invest in a new character.

However, although those concepts are all necessary, they are also offered on the system-side of things and don't really address the problem you'll get at the table. Because even if it where possible to include balancing factors into game mechanics that actually work (which I still doubt, tbh), it can't and will never take the player skill into account. Or that players can get better at what they are doing. Or that the rules are not the game but rather one aspect of what transpires at a table.

To make a game challenging means offering players a learning curve and enough tools to measure their own skill level. For that it needs constants, like Monster abilities, the damage ranges you can expect from certain weapons, reward-oriented behavior structures (a fighter gets xp for ..., a thief for ...) or tell-signs in the narrative (one of the more difficult tasks of a DM is offering hints about a potential danger in a way that forces thread-assessment by giving just the right amount of information without giving anything away).

That's what it's all about: encouraging players
to do something ... ill advised [source]
There is a more where that came from. But honestly, there's even more unsaid and unexplored about this subject. How is player skill measured? With computer games it's comparatively easy, you just check your score and your achievements. Online you could even go as far as comparing your skill with others. In rpgs, though? Nobody seems to care enough. For one, you'd need to have comparable base lines to even start an evaluation, which would actually force the industry to come up with standards (DM-badges, maybe ... anyway, it's a hot topic I'm brushing here, so I'm leaving that as an open question).

As a matter of fact, why is the question never asked how we accept so easily that in computer games the score is self evident as a measure of our skill in a game, while it in analogue role playing games is merely reduced to being a metric of how well a character does? Ponder on that for a while.

So ... Plot Immunity

Plot Immunity is when a (non-)player character cannot die because he's/she's important for the/a story, although dying is very much possible (the expectation/suspension thing mentioned above). We have all seen this, I'm sure. In Stranger Things [SLIGHT SPOILER], which is a mystery/horror setting, not one of the main character gets even harmed, while one of the newly introduced characters has to die in the most stupid way one could imagine [SLIGHT SPOILER ENDS HERE]. It's very bad writing and just as bad DMing if it happens at the table. Here is why as a result of the above established argument.

If we can agree on the concept of what a challenge is (that is, a process by which a player gets the opportunity to grow and get better at playing a specific game), then it is obvious that for that to actually happen, a player needs to be able to experiment with a game and assess his chances. This happens by observing success and failure and for that it needs constants. Plot Immunity, obviously, threatens those constants (if you get too much damage, you die ...) and creates false expectations/assertions about how a game works (if you don't die although you should have, you'll keep doing the same mistakes until suspension of disbelief kicks in and the fun of it goes away ... it becomes a tedious exercise).

Not only that, to play it that way will almost always have you ending up bullshit plot devices like deus ex machina events or all kinds of implausible coincident to make it all work. Nothing good will come from this (and here's a list).

It says it all on the card [source]
Furthermore, to expand on this, I'd like to address the argument that this is about telling a story. The thing is, in role playing games we mostly don't know what story we will end up with. The fun is to find that out. And if the story is "promising young hero with prospects of marrying the princess and spoiling the bad wizards ploy dies from a random encounter with goblins in the woods" than that is that particular story.

It needn't end there, too. Other characters may decide to bring his corpse to the princess and avenge the death by purging the goblin pest from the kingdom or looking for a new suitor for that lonely princess. Or the characters brother is trying to fill that dead brothers way too big shoes and there's still that wizard at large. It's about the story all those involved in the game experience, not necessary about one specific character. Or at least not to a point where Plot Immunity is deserved.

Same goes for non-player characters. You telling me the main villain botched and broke his neck falling down some stairs? So what? Embrace it! There is a power vacuum to be filled by someone else now and whatever that villain had planned, might still come to pass, maybe it gets worse, maybe it had been for the better (... not). However, the narrative goes on. No character in a story actually deserves that kind of protection.

A little nuance, please!

Such a thing as a "pointless death" does not exist in role playing games. Actually, if you try to make that argument for anything that transpires at your table, you either failed as a DM or as a player. End of story. There are, however, gray areas in between to explore. Just because it's possible to die in a game, doesn't mean one has to all the time. It's just not for the DM to decide when something like that is to happen or not, it's (and there's your nuance) that the system is used in a way that the possible outcome doesn't have to be death, although it very well might be.

Saving Throws work that way, so do hit points (with rules for dying or dismemberment or what have you), resurrection spells are a possibility (but for that you'd have to die) and the enemy could also always have a motive to keep you alive for some reason or another ... In other words, what player skill can't address should be covered by the system, by the DM and, to some degree (!), by the narrative. As long as you are just exploring where the journey is going instead of trying to get it somewhere specific, you should be okay.

I guess a word to simply cheating with the dice behind the screen to avoid character death. For one, players will catch up sooner or later (especially if they aren't hit often enough although they should have been ...) and when that happens, it hurts the game. However, done in moderation it can help adjusting previous mistakes or judgments a DM did.

I've seen this discussed occasionally and people tend to have strong opinions about the subject (never cheat! it hurts the players/the game/your mother!). As with all things, there is no one answer. There is one thing, though, and it's universally acknowledged to be true: the DM is the last arbiter of the rules. He is the buffer between the game and the players. So if a DM decides that 10d6 damage is too much in a certain case, he's well within his rights to change those results (within reason and considering the caveats above). My 2 cents.

Basically: just don't use it!

Or else ... Just kidding :) [source]
In summary you could say: find ways to avoid plot immunity at all costs. There are many, many legit solutions to protect characters, among them allowing players to learn the game and to get better at it. Just letting something happen, because someone wanted it to happen has nothing to do with stories or role playing, it's just low level impulse satisfaction. In the long run no one gains from behavior like that.

On the contrary, it will most likely hurt the precious pseudo-reasoning leading to decisions like that by diminishing the results once they come to pass. In other words, it doesn't feel like an achievement if getting there didn't really demand anything.

Anyway, I'll stop here. It's enough to chew on, I guess. That whole complex about computer game designers and publishers being way ahead of what happens in our hobby is something I'll never get tired of and will definitely come back to again. For now I hope I was able to show how little things (or the perception of them) can have a huge impact on our game.

I'm also not kidding when I'm saying that all those "balancing" tools that became so popular since 3e (and have existed before, see the Rules Cyclopedia, for instance) are barking at the wrong tree or summon the impression that this (1) is all you need and (2) that games aren't inherently balanced to begin with (which they should be to begin with, if you think about it). It begs the question what those games are lacking that they need those kind of tools to conceal it ... Again, for another post. In some form or another.

As always, comments and impressions are very welcome. How do you guys handle this in your games? What are you doing if you encounter this as players? Do you speak with the DM?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

D&D history in context: some like it demanding (a polemic against the commercialization of our hobby, if you need to know)

Every time I see the argument made that we don't need more than light rules because "the story is the thing" and how all the Great Old Ones rolled that way, I get the feeling that it can't be true. Never really was able to put my finger on the why, though. Now, I just saw this floating past in my stream again and felt that same concern rising. However, this time I remembered a good friend of mine telling me he translated the Nibelungenlied again, in his free time, just for leisure and to experience the original in all its glory. I am now prepared to address this topic among other things. This one is for all the nerds out there.

But Gary did it!

It starts harmless enough. Yes, if you dig deep, you'll find the first big names in our hobby saying something to the effect that they use simplified versions of the games they sell. You just need a die and the yes/no resolution is enough to keep the game going, is what they seem to say. Because, the story is the ... you know the gospel. Fun fact is, though, that none of them stopped writing games (Gygax certainly didn't and his games didn't get less complex, too) or just relied on the established to play their games (Barker, for instance, never stopped expanding on his setting and had a HUGE corpus to loot from for his stories ... actually to an extent that you could say that the setting superseded the rules).

So, there is no "easy" answer to the question how many rules are "just right" for a game. One thing should be clear, though, games with "light" rules certainly aren't the solution to everything. Especially not because of some obscure quotes used out of context. There is an argument to be made that light rules are, in fact, not the "better" tools to tell stories, because that would be like saying that using fewer words would make for better stories as well.

That said, I'd like to add that everything has its place and function and a game being light in rules does not necessarily mean it's bad. There is just no universal truth attached to it other than that it is one way to game.

Furthermore, to claim it is "old school" to use rules light systems is just as much bullshit. If you need proof of this assertion, look how the hobby developed in it's early years, commercially and on the DIY front (check out Arduin, for instance). You will find that it is very much about diversity and individual solutions before anything else. The tenor has not been "less rules" but "make it your own!".

Hence, what all those new light rule systems flooding the market seem to forget (conveniently so, I might add) is that the bare bones version that is the first edition of D&D not only specifically states that it is just to show how it's done and that a DM is to make his own game following those examples (something many, many groups did, btw), it also wasn't considered as "finished".  Here is the quote from the tome itself (OD&D, Vol. 3, p.36, 1974):
There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing.
Gygax is saying this after having completed roughly 100 pages, spread over 3 booklets. Printing in the 70s most certainly also had an impact on that (limitations we tend to forget nowadays since it is fairly easy to print and/or spread books). Sometimes I wonder how thick those first books would have turned out to be if they could have printed what they wanted. I think how the game developed after that first edition gives us an idea.

Let's take the deep dive here.

A short and partial history of D&D

Of course they added more supplements with the success of the game and a revision of the rules shortly after that (B/X) until the game had matured enough to evolve to AD&D 1e as early as 1977. That's 3 years after the original release! Here is another fun fact: while the last revision of the AD&D 2. edition had been published in 1995, development of that iteration of the game had been going strong until as late as 2009 when Kenzer & Co.'s HackMaster 4e, the true successor of the original D&D, got discontinued. HackMaster had been published as a pure revision of the AD&D rules in 2001 and should be considered AD&D 3e. In other words, it took 27 years of development to get what started as OD&D in 1974 to the level of maturity that is the HackMaster series.

I'd like to stress at this point that this is only talking this specific strain of D&D, not including a plethora of magazines and hobby efforts that also added to it during that time. It also disregards the commercial successors of the D&D brand (3e onwards) and completely ignores every other role playing games written in that specific quarter of a century (for now). Still it's a whole lot of material to go with the original premise of those early books and not just 2 pages of rules with supposedly everything said that needs saying ...

It is only after the corporate attempt to get rid of the original (A)D&D (no new publications and no reprints or pdfs of the early versions of D&D) that the so called old school movement got enough traction to become popular (namely with OSRIC and Basic Fantasy in 2006 and Labyrinth Lord in 2007, all being not that popular in the beginning and falling right into the decline of HackMaster while referencing older/different editions/versions of the game). OSRIC runs 400 pages, btw.

After that Swords & Wizardry (in 2008) and Lamentations of the Flame Princess* (in 2010) made their debut and at some point after that it started earning enough money that the Wizards of that Coast took notice and not only started to make stuff available again as reprints and pdfs, but also incorporated as much as they could into D&D 5e (in 2014). It's also somewhere in that last phase that publication cycles started shrinking dramatically, a development we see now reaching its peak (or already being in full decline, not sure what it is ... the market has reached saturation long ago).

A history to learn from?

The point is, when someone tells you the game needs just one die and one rule to be played and that's how they did it in the early days or that that's "old school", well, then that person is feeding you a line. The history of our hobby is, if anything, one of development and exploration of the possibilities. And while those first games openly embraced and accommodated that fact, while the DIY-corners of the hobby still celebrate it to this day, there is a concerning amount of people openly not only ignoring it, but also trying to re-write that history for their own marketing endeavors (a trend arguably starting with D&D 3e, as far as the corporate version goes).

The things people do to earn a buck, right? However, there is an alarming tendency to not only flood the market with product, the feedback loop is vanishing as well: it's just not possible to find enough meaningful reviews to do all that material justice (considering that people might actually have to have played a module or game to get a proper impression of it's potential makes this even more difficult!). In consequence, published material is reduced to short-sighted and (unfunded) opinionated marketing schemes, innovation gets mostly short-handed or ignored and earlier developed insights/achievements get hand-waved or re-written.

It's crazy. The Taxidermic Owlbear lists over 210 entries of games as D&D "retro-clones" and from what I have seen, it's not complete (the whole Black Hack movement is missing, for instance). It's not far-fetched to say that in the last ten years there have roughly been 2 new and complete D&D clones published per month (on average, of course). Add other games to that, add modules, adventures, supplements. Nowadays no month goes by where you couldn't buy at least 10 new OSR related products. Plus those you can get for free. All mostly unchecked and (or consequently) unplayed. For all we know there might be some brilliant unknown games among them (there are some great known games for sure). It's just all rather unprocessed, I think.

This is neither "old school" nor in the spirit of the hobby. Not to that degree. Right now it's nothing better than milking the masses and adding to the pile. I admit that I partly came to that conclusion due to the latest climate in the gaming community at large where it's no more about the quality as much as it is about the person who wrote/published/talked about it that decides whether something has merit or not (mostly using so called ad hominem argumentation as business model).

The only thing "old school" about the whole affair right now seems to be that it shows the same patterns of inconsiderate and greed-guided commercial harvesting our western culture is known for, if need be by going as low as using politics, elitism and gate-keeping. It's not about the art or the game as medium, it's not (as much) about exploring what's possible or about diversity or being welcoming. It's all become cyclic in a way that people don't do the research for their stuff anymore. It's not important how many times people already have written about a topics or the insights they had, it's about being the first to voice an original thought about descending AC (or whatever), as if that is possible.

It's about ignoring history to keep the train running.

That's not to say we shouldn't write or publish ...

Sounds a bit counter-intuitive at first and I've heard friends already say that they don't dare publishing something because of the thresholds they see in the community. As I said above, the market is saturated and it is mostly not about content or the effort, but about how well something looks or who is associated with it. It's also tough competition, especially if you are not being all political, polemic or loud about it in general.

However, if you are willing to put in the time to write a game or an adventure, you should of course give it your best effort and put it out there. Not because it's published and there are prestige and fame to gain, but because it is all about the journey. Nothing will make you understand a thing better than making it yourself with the attitude to do it as good as possible. As much as this is true for, say, building a boat, it is true for writing a role playing game or an adventure or a monster ... You will gain every time and if you have patience, people will take the time and discuss it with you. Honestly, even if one person reads what I wrote and takes something away, that's a win in my book.

Well, and that's why history is so important. If we take this DIY-ethos seriously, we rely on what is established so that we can move from there. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that jazz. We need communities that are open for that kind of exploration, but communities start with a couple of like-minded people. We help each other getting better at what we love and, in consequence, maybe get to be better people than we where before. That's why you write, that's why you publish.

If that also gains a little profit and makes you somewhat famous in your corner of the Internet, it's just as well. But if the recent developments have shown anything, than that there comes responsibility with being a public figure and many aren't ready to take that responsibility, it seems (again emphasizing the importance of learning from history, btw).

Anyway, don't do it for a buck, don't do it for the fame, just do it for the thing itself. You'll find nothing more rewarding than that (which goes for everything or whatever you chose).

Now going full circle!

So what has all of this to do with my friend translating the Nibelungenlied just for the fun of it? The short of it is that he was able to do it and he liked the exercise. Even so, there is a whole mindset behind it and it is the opposite of going the easy road. Some people like a task to be demanding, even for leisure. It can't be surprising that the same is true for our hobby. Looking at crunchy but popular games like GURPS or RoleMaster is easy proof of that and they are almost as old as the hobby itself.

However, there is a deeper meaning to it. Something that relates more to the second part of this post, the part about doing it yourself or what that really means. First of all, there had been no pressure but the one he gave himself for doing this. There is a lesson in that, as time is now our highest commodity. He could have gone for a translation instead if he wanted to revisit the story, translating it takes so much more time. It's about dedication.

If you "just" cater the market needs you will have the pressure of deadlines and all kinds of restrictions for form and content. Add competition and market saturation and you'll get an ill climate to be productive. It's so easy to forget that we are not only able to create without pressure, but that pressure actually diminishes and restricts innovation (also and as an aside, giving a market what it wants works to earn money but produces something exceptional only in the rarest of cases, see your standard Hollywood movie).

The market is like a greedy raccoon, just not as cute ... [source]
Or to put it another way: how much time does it take to write a complete role playing game? Done properly, maybe an average of 3 to 5 years? That is including testing and assuming it's done on the side but on a regular basis. You'll also have writing and publishing to consider ... According to the market, you won't get the attention span from the crowd you need to make this worth anybodies while (although kickstarters brought the illusion that it is very much possible ... although for a price and without guaranties). How long does it take to write a proper setting? Or a module like Stonehell? A book? It takes time and dedication.

What I'm saying is, the audience cannot be taken into account for this. No one will listen to you babbling about something for that long unless you are able to keep it interesting all the time (which is unlikely if you are actually working on it, right?). Which is another way of saying, if you do it, do it for yourself before anything else. Forget the market. Let them make the noise and do your thing. If your thing is writing the crunchiest game ever written and takes 25 years to finish, I'd say, hell yeah, please do.

Explore, experiment and create. Question what is already done. Embrace obscurity instead of the mainstream, it's what true nerds always excelled at. And don't listen to people that try to tell you that their marketing scheme to produce as much content as fast as possible by producing light weight copies of already existing games is the "true way" or old school. It isn't. It's more often than not just people looking at your wallet. 

I hope this resonates with some of the people getting this far. I'd appreciate it. Our hobby can do so much more that just sell empty books with funny pictures and we are barely at the beginning to find out what exactly that means (or can mean). As long as people interested in finding out where this journey is headed manage to gather and exchange, it's all good.

For me, well, I guess I will halt and start to look at what was accomplished in the last couple of years. I couldn't keep up with all the noise if I wanted to. There's so much unread stuff on my hard drive, it's uncanny. Enough to read and talk about, I'd say. And then I have to keep writing my own fantasy heart breaker no one is going to read ...

*Which has, interestingly enough, no English Wikipedia entry, but a Finnish one instead ...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Look! There's a challenge! (rules vs. story ... again)

Hey folks. Long time no post. I have been around but busy. Anyway, just saw this while having my tea and thought "Finally! Someone is starting to take this whole "story vs. rules"-problem serious!". And I somewhat agree with the result. However, this being a challenge, I'll fight it with the scheme I had posted some time ago and connect it with some of the ideas and concepts I came up with. Let's rumble!

First of all, I do not disagree with the +Jack Shear's proposal. I think it illustrates a crucial part of the dynamic between rules and story quite well and I applaud that. That said, I think it is lacking one very important aspect: "story" as a result of playing role playing games is always focused on what the players make of the encounters their characters had. In other words, the elements presented in the post linked above are incomplete as they lack (or merely imply as given?) the sender-receiver relationship necessary for every communication and how that correlates to gaming.

I'm using "encounters" here in a very broad sense, as in, "a story they hear from a peasant in the street is an encounter"-kind of way ... everything in the game is filtered through that lens. There might be other stories (like, what the DM had in mind, for instance), but that is yet another layer in that everyone brings his own story to the table ("Goals" in the scheme below), each feeding into how the story in the game shapes up or what story for the characters is agreed upon.

Here is the version I came up with. It actually applies to all stories, but it sets the rules into perspective and involves how stories are structured or experienced (depending on where the story emerges):

Open in new tab to see it in all it's glory ...

[From the post linked below]: "The CHARACTERS are the center piece and everything resolves around them as ENCOUNTERS in the established WORLD (could be the DM in the moment of play, the world described in a novel or tv series or the world as you see it, to name a couple of examples, narrative would be another good word for it). A WORLD could be defined now by (at least) 4 corner stones:
  • STRUCTURE: or patterns. Structure lets you recognize and work with established patterns in a world. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Is it magic or technology? English or French? All those patterns will shape everything around them and, in the end, the story.
  • THEMES: or labels. It's the selection you chose to describe your surroundings. Easy example would be the description of a game by the winning side compared to that by the losing side ("best referee ever!" vs. "cheating bastard of a referee!"). Fake news is another good example of labeling to influence a story.
  • RULES: or consistency. It's the rules we play by. Could be laws, could be D&D or a social contract, could be grammar ... They are always there to one degree or another and shape how we behave or judge behavior, for instance.
  • GOALS: or motivation. This is what propels the action. You want world domination? That's what you work towards. You are lonely? There you go, you'd want to meet someone. You want xp? Do what you have to do to get them and advance in levels ...
ALL THAT cumulates to STORY, every time, again and again. Depending on the story you tell, the parameters might shift and change in prominence, but they are always in effect. So if you are in the story about a couple of friends meeting to play a game of D&D it will have different parameters than the story the characters of those friends will encounter in the campaign they are playing. While the motivation in the first story might be, for instance, to have FUN, the story in the campaign and what the characters experience might just as well be a tragedy. Those things can happen simultaneously, even without conflicting with each other."

There is more and here's my attempt to collect some of it (including the explanation of the scheme above). I hope this helps giving the whole discussion a bit more fodder as I strongly believe that we are way behind in exploring this. Compare this to how they put some serious research into this for computer games, to give just one example. We need to get out of our comfort zones to see what's possible ...

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Now, there's a bad idea ... (a prelude, maybe)

It's been rough lately. Didn't not feel the urge to write, but who'd read with interest and then some? So I've been thinking, what could I write about. Well. I got that one idea I've been chewing on for way too long now. Might be that bridge is burned for reasons I might not want to touch right now. Thought I'll pitch it first, see what's what ...

Damn, I miss writing here :)

Let's play "find the fail"

All right, all right, I'll get to it. You might be aware of my everlasting love for HackMaster (4e, yo). If not, you know now. I frickin' love that game. Wrote a post about it, too. HackMaster 4e was the AD&D 3rd edition we never got (sort of) and it's how I started playing D&D somewhat serious. They had a shitload of interesting modules out there, 98% of them revisioned versions  of old classics. The campaign we had running back then was The Temple of Existential Evil. Yes, you read that right.

It'd been great fun and I always wondered how the original held up against the HackMaster variant. That's what I wanted to do, going at it chapter by chapter, comparing them, what was changed, what choices made, what's better (imo, of course). Nothing detailed, maybe, but going from the first survey I made, I'll bet you I'll find enough odd, stray observations to keep me entertained for a bit.

And there's just the thing. I started with the first chapter of the Existential variant and got stoked. Believe me, it's good shit. Naturally I wanted to know how chapter 1 of The Temple of Elemental Evil holds up. The cover was what stopped me in my tracks:

Please, find the fail, would you?
Might need to open it in a new window, too ... [source]
See the problem? Bless your heart if you don't. But most likely you'll see it right away. It's the authors of this beauty. Both implicated in acts of harassment. Not charged, mind you (as far as I know there are no criminal charges yet). One's just whispered about, even (a twitter guy saying a dead D&D celebrity was "problematic" that way for TSR back then). Anyway, it's enough to make this a hot topic. No side looks good in this latest flame war and I honestly don't want to share my opinion on this online (as I said in my previous post, I have no dog in this fight). Other than saying that it's all very sad, of course.

However, this is a perfect example why ...

The Temple of Elemental Evil is an undeniable cultural phenomenon. There's a part 2, a revision, a novel, a computer game and a board game. That's almost all media short of having a movie about the damn thing (or TV show? I'd see that, probably) and I might have forgotten some (is there a version for 4th edition? they definitely made ma NWN mod for it, right?). The amount of players having first hand experience with this module one way or another is mind boggling. My bet would be 6 figures, being in the millions would be very likely. Think about it! It got published in 1985, 32 years ago, it's "the grandfather of all dungeon crawls" and ranks high among the best D&D modules of all time. This got some mileage, for sure.

In short, it's legendary for several reasons and if you never care about the authors, their world views or their failings, you can still (and should!) enjoy this. Everyone else? Fuck if I know. But I know for sure, if I would judge everything based on its source, I'd be pretty depressed pretty fast. In a way, it's all flawed for some reason or another.

Here is the thing, though: every now and then an artist might produce something of value despite the short-comings of being human. There's beauty in that, I suppose. There's a lesson, too.

So, how about it?

I really enjoyed DMing this bad boy with HackMaster back then, I enjoyed the book (a bit short on the crawl part, though, if I remember correctly) and I definitely loved the computer game. Reading the original and comparing it with the HackMaster version ... yeah, I'd have fun doing that. But should I do it here on the blog? This begs another interesting question, doesn't it? A classic by itself, if you will: is art a thing in its own right or can it not exist without the author in mind?

I don't even think there is a right answer. Or an universal one, for that matter. It depends, as they say in law school. So I wonder, has it merit in this case? I like to think so, yes.

But what do you guys think? Is this piece of art tainted by the actions of those who made it?

As I said, this may be a bad idea.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Losing interest in 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... (a rant, you have been warned)

I just had to use that title ... Now I need a post for it, too. Turns out it was  just a question of time. This is not about me quitting the blog or anything like this. I'm just tired right now. Thus the neglecting. I'm also tired about that OSR shit show on g+ right now. What a cluster fuck of ill-advised politics and commercialism. This will be my long-winded way of saying "Get the fuck off my lawn!". Enjoy. Or not.

Never got invited to the mob, so ...

At this point the OSR has something like 4 or 5 distinct elitist clubs that milk the masses for money and entertain the Internet with their trench warfare. The latest kerfuffle (for those not in the know) was about one of those groups mobbing a well known blogger from the digital grounds. I think what happened is somewhat represented here (even if you subtract the Pundit's usual hyperbole and his call to arms, you'll still have enough bad taste left for a mouth full of vomit).

I do not care about politics. Really, I don't. I'm not here to take sides. I came for the creative and vibrant scene. When I'm looking around now, I see a couple of friendly faces in what turned into a very poisonous environment. To some degree I'm able to take the bad with the good, but at this point I just don't care enough.

So here is the short of it: if you participate in witch hunts or think it's a good idea to parade your political views, I do not care for you. If all you do is talking about the next thing I should buy while hiding content behind a pay-wall and ignoring all the DIY efforts all around us, I do not care for you. If you think everyone around you should care about your sexuality or kink or whatever else edgy you have going and how everyone should have that in his game, I'm sorry to say it, but I do not care for you.

And there's that, too ... [source]
Behave like decent human beings, be kind and tolerant, show some fucking empathy and respect each others borders and we will get along just fine. Actions show who you are, not big talk or justifications or rewriting history. You are what you do and if that's despicable in any way, you will have no business with me. I also just might not get along with somebody. End of story. It's not everything about gaining power or earning a buck. Shouldn't be, anyway. If we, as a hobby, want to have a positive impact, we shouldn't behave like 3 year olds in kindergarten.

Shit, did you know that people in our corner of the Internet are actually afraid to take a stand nowadays? Afraid to say they don't like something because they'll get hunted down for it? Let that sink in ... 

Consequences no one cares about

I know this means little, as this is just a small blog not many care about. But in the end this is about my freedom of mind as well and for that I will trim the shit out of my blog-roll and my g+ circles. There's always the off-switch, as my girlfriend put it just this morning. In the end my actions here are without consequence for any of that. Never got considered "OSR" to begin with, never ran with the "in-crowd", so why even try to belong just to be exposed to so many poisonous people? Right, there are no good reasons.

All things considered, it won't change much of the topics here. I'll still blog about D&D and my own projects and about ways to make it all a better experience. I'll throw in the occasional review and whatever else comes to mind. If talking elf games is what you came online for, I'm all for talking about it. I just don't consider myself as a part of the OSR movement or rather, what it became.

I don't need this shit and I won't have it on my blog ...


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Rules are the compromise you agree upon ... (discussing "Rules vs. Reality" again, are we?)

Time to write a post, I think. Work has been killing me, but that shouldn't be an excuse, right? Main problem is, that I'm really fresh burned out of ideas after most work days and the weekends are needed for recreation. Sad but true. Anyways, post time! I just saw that old argument flame up again, if games should be played raw and how to take "reality" into account ... I have, of course, an opinion on that. Thought I'd share.

I've talked about this to some degree three years ago in this post about why it's fun to take the rules serious. It brushes some of the concepts discussed here, so you might want to check it out. (I also think it's one of my better posts, for what it's worth).

There is two more posts down this road published just this weekend: +JD McDonnell has written on his blog about the question why we play by the rules


+Howard Beleiff aka The Goblin Stomper has written about how The Game is played "right" and the learning curve of becoming a good DM/player (which is, of course, also related) on his blog.

Both good reads, check them out, if you haven't already. My thoughts are loosely related to theirs, but I will go different directions with this. In that sense this post is not understood as an answer or critique, but as its own thing. An addition, maybe?

"Rules vs. Reality", my ass

There is something fundamentally flawed with an argument of "rules vs. reality" and that is assuming that rules don't take reality into account. People who have been around on this blog (bless you and your children) know that talking about languages is one of my pet peeves here. That's mostly because they are so damn relevant for role playing games. Everything you could possibly read about languages is somehow relevant to our games. Same here.

First of all, languages follow rules and try to describe reality. Easy as that. A table is a table because you say this construct is called "table", fulfills the following criteria: [...] and everyone agrees on that (within limits, because other languages and dialects are a different matter). Or that a "?" signals a question and there are rules to signify a question when talking ... etc., etc., you get my drift. It's so common sense, most people don't spend a second thought on that. They just grew up learning the rules and use them almost naturally. Some more successfully than others, of course (which is also somewhat important, in the grand scheme of things).

That being said, we have with role playing games a second layer that needs to be taken into account, as it is about using language in connection with other systems (the rules of the games we chose) to sustain a fiction (and this is definitely another stab at "reality" here). It's more akin to a book or a tv series in that sense. To finish reality off, the proper term would actually be "suspension of disbelief". That's what you want to have and it's highly subjective.

A bunch of 10 year olds will have a totally different suspension threshold as an old fart like me has. Which is not only totally fine, but also very, very relevant. It's about compromise. You don't (you never!) just play a game. I don't know why people don't seem to get that on a regular basis, actually. There's also the language you use, the people you play with and the experience and synergy they all bring to the table. Only that makes a game and every game is different.

Just like with language, the rules will "color" your game. They are one aspect. Think about that famous scene in Pulp Fiction, where Vincent Vega describes how different the golden M is in France just because of being French:

Rules are (again, just like languages) the terms you agree upon to sustain the fiction you aim to produce at the table. And just with learning a new language, there is a learning curve to that. So, yeah, people will encounter situations where the rules aren't clear enough, then people will talk about it and compromise to a degree that the game doesn't fall apart (suspension of disbelief often enough doing the trick here, even to a point where the table beliefs it's how the rules themselves are and go on because of it). Sometimes they find the appropriate rule, sometimes they have to find their own solutions, but it's all part of the learning curve.

Therefor it's not only about which set of rules you are willing to use, it's also about how well you not only use them, but need to use them. Which is a matter of taste. Somewhat. But also offers a deeper understanding you can achieve if you put in the time and the effort to go there (think "system mastery"). To give the language comparison one more run for its money: it's the difference between barely being able to communicate and being able to write a book. Both have their place, with lots of places in between to get comfortable in. Compromise.

I'll keep it short

We tend to look at those games as if they are entities of their own. Holy texts, maybe. Scripture. But when it comes down to it, they are just analogue apps to use language in a fictional context. They can be, within that analogy, underdeveloped or have bugs, but the beauty of it is, you don't need to be a programmer to fix them to get the game you have in mind, just like you don't need to be a linguist to play with language.

You still have to take all of it serious and explore what it means, though, even if it's just to explain what it means to you. That's the least you'll have to do, the minimum of effort you have to put into anything, really. Beyond that, the sky is the limit and I don't think it's a good thing to discourage people going there. They should push the boundaries, experiment, talk about it and go as deep as they dare.

The essence of it is, we are mistaken if we assume that the rules make the game. It's a common mistake, deeply rooted maybe in consumerism, maybe in corporate lies, maybe just in the common misconception that an object, a thing itself can have meaning without context (a bit like Dungeon World tells you it is what D&D can be ...). In my opinion, nothing we as humans are able to comprehend is ever without context. It's all connected.

That's not to say rules aren't a crucial ingredient to the game. They are, but so are the players (are they friends? are there some group politics or negative vibes? did the DM have a shitty day at work?), the season (summer games are different than winter games, aren't they? why is that? is it important?), the language (see Pulp Fiction), time of the day (you are supposed to play Vampire in the dark ...) and everything else that adds to a single rpg session. Context.

No man is an island ...

In the end rules are nothing more than accessories. That's nothing to look down at, of course, it's just as important as the clothes you like or the people you decide to hang out with ... But those decisions will always have a deeper meaning, a motivation that stems from somewhere. Especially with role playing games it's more often than not an idea we like and maybe (just maybe) we fight so hard about those rules because those ideas are dear to us, but to see them realized, it needs others. And others are complicated. Always.

So the discussion maybe shouldn't be about how "realistic" a game needs to be or how that is in conflict with the "real world", they shouldn't be about right or wrong. Instead they should be about the "why" way more often than not. Why might it be important to someone to feel his understanding of reality reflected in the rules? Or why is a rule perceived as broken? Why does a game not work for a certain group? Why did the campaign fall apart ...?

Because when all is said and done, it's all about making it happen at the table. What's your opinion on the best rules EVER worth if no one plays with you or if you need to force people?

Alright, I'll close: the tension between rules and the suspension of disbelief is somewhat system-inherent. It's the equivalent of describing a color you haven't seen before or explaining an emotion. In a way, it's not even about the rules you use but more about how good you are at using them in context with what you bring to the table (aka: everything else). In that sense, a couple of Navy Seals will have an easier time to use a simple system in a military context than anybody without that training might have. They will interpret the game with their experience and actually compensate any shortcomings a game might bring. But let them play ballerinas and they'll have a hard time getting anything out of that without some help. Needn't be the rules, could be a capable DM or seeing Black Swan and so on and so forth.

And that's just that.

Punchline ... [source]