Saturday, July 22, 2017

[398] The DM as Oracle vs. The DM as Author

There is a bit of talk in the blog-o-sphere about the stories we want to tell in our games. Should there be a literary quality to it? A message? Just entertainment, if such a thing exists (considering that someone has to put some work into it in that scenario to work for the others)? Or dare I say spirituality? And if so, how do we facilitate this in our games? Certainly not only with the stories we tell, because the story is the result of a collaborative process in rpgs and something is really off if someone at the table already knows what's happening ... Here are some thoughts about the whole affair.

This is sort of, kind of also part of what I see as an ongoing dialogue with +Vb Wyrde who posted his thoughts about topics closely related to this here post just the other day (Part 1 & Part 2).

Reality is what you make of it, really

So, everyone has basically his own idea what reality looks like and there are cultural basics we agree upon with language being the overlapping tool to facilitate common ground. Right? I mean, you can go pictures or hand signs, but those are very basic forms of language, too, actually. In a way language helps forming an agreed upon reality when interacting with others. It's no different in gaming. But let's look a bit close at the phenomenon before we apply this to our little hobby.

This goes back to the meaning that the art of storytelling had up until a couple of hundred years ago. It wasn't the only kind of medium, but it had been the most common. Illiteracy in the 18th century is measured at around 94 percent. It's easy to imagine how important talking had been and just as easy to realize the advantage a trained talker had in times like that. It was a necessary skill. Maybe even more necessary than fighting skills.

How powerful it still can be is illustrated easily by just turning on the tv and checking out some ads, or the fake news phenomenon or anything a politician would make you believe. Or a scientist, for that matter (sacrilege, I know, but I'm barely the first to compare science to some sort of religion ... anyway, I digress). The leading National Socialists like Hitler or Goebbels had all been highly skilled speakers and look how much harm they'd been able to do (although the most damning factor might have been the radio, which they made sure anyone owned and listened to).

It's far too easy to lose sight of this, but the art of rhetoric, being able to express yourself, is still a very powerful (and pretty underestimated) skill, even today. Examples are all around you, as a matter of fact. In a way (and this is where I'm getting to the point), if language and communication help forming a common ground, an anchor in reality, if you will, than being able to convince people is nothing less but the ability to shape how we perceive reality.

We know the power of advertisement,
but chose to ignore it way to often [source]
Pattern recognition (or how truth is relative)

One of the reasons why Shakespeare is still as relevant (and popular) as he is can be reduced to his ability to make our emotions palpable, it speaks to us on a very intimate and individual level, although his plays had to be public spectacles (well, maybe that connection is yet another reason for the success ... it provokes the display of raw emotion in the audience which might very well have an amplifying effect).

The immortal bard, posing ... [source]
This still works today although the language has become more of a barrier over 400 years later. That being said, I'm not sure you guys are aware of the fact that those plays had been so wildly popular that they actually influenced the way we describe the world in a very profound way: because Shakespeare had been brilliant in describing (forming?) reality, many, many phrases used in his plays are used to this day. Not as quotes (which also happens, of course), but as part of our every day language.

In Germany you can observe the same effect with plays written by Goethe, Schiller and the like (both huge fans of Shakespeare, btw). Now, seeing it work begs the question how they had been able to achieve this and, maybe, how we can use this for our games. The somewhat simplified answer, in my opinion, is trained pattern recognition in conjunction with the ability to communicate those patterns in a witty way as they occur while embedding them in a more artful, say, literary context.

It's the power of the cliché fueling artistic expression, if you will.

It's no surprise, either. The most effective lies, for instance, are those hiding in a good bit of what is accepted as truth. I hope we can agree at this point that truth, just like reality, is a matter of opinion. Sure, you can achieve a great understanding of the overlap of what is commonly accepted as reality or truth, but since it changes all the time and all over the place, it's all quite subjective.

And that's just it, if you want to convince people of something, you start with the common ground and go from there. That's basic salesman-talk. Another technique would be mirroring, all of it aiming not at the truth but at your agreement, weaseling in from the common ground getting more and more specific as they peel you like an onion, all of it to twist your perception of reality towards the ends of whoever is doing the manipulation.

Suspension of Disbelief (a little gaming intermission)

This, right here, is already relevant for our games. Playing our little elf games works as long as everyone participating is on the same page. Sounds simple enough, but it just isn't something we agree upon before the game. Well, we do that too, of course, but to keep it that way is traditionally one of the duties a DM has. And if my experience is any indication (as player and as DM), it's damn hard work, pretty much for the reasons stated above.

The simple assumption about finding common ground and going from there gets easily screwed the more invested people get about the same thing without actually agreeing. Say, two Star Wars fans arguing canon. Both hold their idea of truth very dear and will fight for/about it, add a third one being the DM in a game of Star Wars and conflict is imminent. Same goes for rules, as a matter of fact (which kind of gets important further down below).

What's more, though, is that the techniques to achieve this are pretty much what is described above: "the power of the cliché fueling artistic expression". The DM is the one stitching it all together, giving it meaning as he goes along while balancing it with the input AND expectations of the players. As an interim result we can say that what works for a play will work to some degree for our games.

But before we can get to an conclusion, we have to go a bit further down the rabbit hole ...

The DM as Author (the book writing variety)

Lots of insights applying to plays and rhetorics also apply to books, naturally. The big difference, though, is the level of self being addressed. An author writes for the number of individuals willing to read it (not necessarily as a reason but as a matter of distribution and reception). As I already said, the same rules apply, but it is a way more intimate affair, a dialogue between author and reader, solely limited to it until the reader goes and talks to someone about it.

Of course, talking about it is a completely different animal compared to reading it. So different, in fact, that it needn't necessarily address the same aspects, as you shift media and although you'll talk about the same story, you do so in a totally different context. It's like the difference between reading The Lord of the Rings and watching the movies or (to make it a bit more strange) to be part of an reenactment of the book. All variants touch different aspects of self, of truth, of perception, you name it.
Reenactment is a thing, of course (and that Aragorn looks dope  ...). [source]
However, that's kind of the point. A point that can be made, to a degree, with almost every kind of authorship (play, tv script, books ... adventures?): they all exclude, out of necessity, the recipient as active part in the creation. The recipient creates after the fact and individually. Now, if we crank this up a step or two and talk about literature, we could say that authors offer meaning as an additional possibility and the artistic form helps encoding meaning in artificial patterns that, well, see above ... The recipient can glean it out of the text, decipher it, if you will.

I think this is the main problem when discussing if it is possible to give our games a literary quality, role playing games are a very different process to the whole writing/reading complex and what is generally believed to be "literary", is in huge parts associated with our ideal of the writer as artist and the elitist educated recipient as the one "getting it", not as a collaborative effort.

The question is (remains?), if it is possible to achieve this within the specific form of story telling that make our games tick. Which leads to (you guessed it) ...

The DM as Oracle (not the goat gutting variety)

In it's simplest, most common understanding, rolling dice and interpreting the results is for a DM like reading an oracle (which comes from the Latin word for "speak", btw). It follows the very same principles, as it offers meaning of random results to the context that is the (gaming) environment. The DM rolls the dice, reads them and tells you the weather or the mood the merchant is in or how big a treasure hoard is.

And finally, the DM can offer the potential or inspiration to elevate that randomness (including the random input the players give, of course) to some sort of literary quality. Not predetermined, but out of the flow of the game.

This is where, in my opinion, the tools of our games get so important. Actually, that's the main beef I have with many of the so-called "light-rules" rpgs out there as they very, very often just leave the DM tools out to keep it short. I mean, let's go a bit full circle here: what we use at the table (the type of oracle, if you will), shapes how the narrative emerges. Use only French terminology to give a game a certain vibe, or sports terminology or whatever makes your goat float (is that how you say it).

The point is, that those things are usually already in depth developed and tools like random tables and terminology and, yes, patterns we might need for our games (structures of armies, advancement, power levels, attributes, to name just a couple of examples, they all offer patterns like that), they all feed the communication in a meaningful way and help a DM weaving a pattern on his own that (in a best case scenario) emulates a certain kind of story.

Old school oracle in action ... [source]
What you get without those tools is just a guy telling stories, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but rob the game of an important aspect and makes it very hard for beginners to get a sense for the relevance of those patterns, how they work and how they are copied. The machinations, so to say. It's the main problem with rpgs that only span a couple of pages and claim to be "complete". For the experienced DM it might just be a matter of taste.

Anyway, what that little detour should illustrate is that good rules offer patterns, that, when they emerge, shape and fill the narrative certain ways. This is why you end up with a different playing experience every time you play a different game, it's different oracles and different input.

Finally, as far as the "literary quality" of role playing games are concerned, we get back to that original, historical meaning of oracles or druids or shaman or bards, even. We read the patterns and give them meaning. The suspension of disbelief helps a lot, the system should give enough input to give us something to read and when the time is right we set the impulses to make the narrative count, to give the sum of all the parts a deeper sense because an campaign arc gets closed or a plot twist revealed or a character has a defining moment ...

Think fast! [source]
That's, for me, when role playing games really click at the table, that moment when everyone gets involved and invested at what is happening and the implications thereof. Very much like with a good book or movie or play, just coming from a different direction.

So much more to say ...

Damn, it's a long one again and I still feel like I did say maybe a quarter of what I feel needs saying about about cooperative story telling and patterns or how to recognize them, where to get ideas, how to practice, how to be a convincing DM ... so many topics. It'll have to wait.

For now just say that:
DMs are like oracles that offer the potential for literary quality by interpreting the patterns that emerge from the cooperative effort that is the game in a meaningful way within the overlap of the established rules of the game and the artistic patterns we know from other media.
In other words, we know the answer to the question what Hamlet would have needed to roll to end up where he ended up in the end and we would come to somewhat similar conclusions if we saw those patterns emerge in our game (I know there should be lots of missed saves in that specific game, for sure).

One final thought, though. The DM has in that sense (or following that logic) not really a story prepared, but a stage with all the tools the groups needs to get going (rules, setting, characters, the works). Story is the result of this endeavor.

And that's my 2 cents of the dollar it should be. I'm sure I'll be exploring this further in the future. Comments, thoughts and experiences are, as always, very welcome.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Of Wormpriests and Epic Challenges - Hard Lessons in Play-Testing (LSotN Design Post and Campaign Recap)

Last time I did one of those it had been about a TPK and how it came to pass. That had been July 2016, pretty much exactly 1 year ago ... time flies, friends and neighbors. Well, the game never took up again after that tpk, mainly (I think) because testing the low levels didn't need any more testing. The game worked at this stage and playing didn't generate new insights. So we paused and I went back to tinkering on Lost Songs of the Nibelungs behind the scenes again. Mid-level play is the next challenge. Here's what the campaign looks like right now and how the game holds up. 

Procedures (campaign prep)

I'm still doing the "everything is random"-schtick. I started with the campaign area, using the Random Terrain Generator, bastardizing the hex-map cheat sheet for it I did for Monkey Business (Apendix 1, for those interested):

Example, not part of the actual map
Basically I roll 3d10 with the first digit indicating what the area looks like (results 1-6) and if a hex has layers (results 7-10). The second digit for an area result gives the altitude, the third gives the complexity of a terrain. If a layer is indicated, second and third result indicate how that exactly shapes up. I went with a maximum of three layers per hex and moved to the next letter if more came up (ignoring the first digit, using the second and third as altitude and complexity in the next hex).

That's how I generated the lay of the land and some of the secrets hidden in the layers (red digits on the example above, the one after the # are altitude and complexity). Going from there I can establish the flow of the land (red arrows show changes in altitude from hex to hex, "=" indicates same altitude) and borders where other tribes came up (red lines, of course). The size of the tribe territories where established as common sense dictated, going by the lay of the land and what the layers add to it, never going more than one hex beyond the one indicating another tribe.

Now you know where rivers flow, where weather is clinging, where the growth is dense and where the populations are, even a good bit of the history of the land. We assume somewhere in Europe, in an area that had been occupied by Romans at some time in the past.

The tribe the characters are with is always in the center of the map (A). That's where they settled for whatever reason (which can already tell an interesting story, see below).

There you go, instant sandbox. Takes about an hour and has all the gaming material you might need to start a game (that is: describing the land and it's inhabitants to degree that it inspires the players to go in some direction, with enough hidden in the shadows to set up some nice little campaign arcs). It'll get more and more specific as the characters explore it.

The Sandbox (Player Version)

(A) is a high plain just south of the highest Mountain in the area. The land falls into rich forests and valleys in all directions but north. The tribe settled here, coming from the north-east, as their holy man saw the god in the mountain and told them tat this was the place. A rather political decision, as this had been the only unclaimed territory on the map, the rest being under the rule of several different and mostly hostile tribes.

A Holy Mountain [source]
If you have some land to go with, it's quite easy to establish a sense of the culture of the people living there. "high plains, south of a mountain" tells me that the area is pretty barren and that this might very well be a folk of riders and (aspiring) miners. Their buildings will mainly be stone, their art will be in stone and horses are important animals for them (also roaming the plain). As a matter of fact, the rite of passage of this tribe is for each young one to catch a horse.

The cultures surrounding the center hex are a hostile people in the east who follow a strange faith (they smear ashes on their faces and wear raven bones and feathers), a tribe of warriors following the old pagan ways, but seem to have adapted the Roman art of weaponry in the south-east (they are hostile to the point of threatening to go to open war), another tribe of fugitives just south (they stay out of everyones hair and are mainly cautious and neutral), some Roman culture to the west (having an alliance with the warrior tribe in the south-east, since they produce Roman weaponry) and a strange tribe of people worshiping a goddess in a fjord just west of the mountain (rather elusive and neutral, for now). There's also a tribe of goblins in the north-east.

The players decide that the tribe is mainly mining salt, but they don't sell much of it, as the surrounding tribes remain to be hostile towards the intruders. The main reason for the warrior tribe to be so hostile is the mining operation, as they themselves are miners and weapon smiths who see their economic advantage threatened.

There are some forests just south of the plains that are mainly no man's land, with all surrounding tribes either traveling through it on a regular basis or even trying to expand into the area. It's the main resource for wood and game for the character's tribe. Naturally there'd already been some minor clashes with other tribes. The situation is tense.

And that's that. Lots of opportunities to go around and explore stuff. The rest is developed in game, in the early stages even to a degree where they can set some cultural quirks of their tribe.

The Campaign (so far)

The characters are level 5 and well established heroes in their tribe. They are the spear tip of the exploration. The two players of the first session create a hunter (Widukind) and a warrior (Swasut the Gentle). Both have a touch of fairy in their blood and Widukind ends up with the magical ability to sense the aura of beings and seeing in the dark, while Swasut has the ability to copy every voice he has heard once.

On a campaign level things are random, too, and the Random Narrative Generator is still my tool of choice to achieve this, so I start by putting some story seeds around the characters. Turns out that the warrior tribe in the south east is preparing an invasion, but held back right now, as their allies in the west (the Romans) struggle with some political unrest.

The players can decide what they deem most interesting in the sandbox and what their characters want to explore. Widukind wants to explore the holy mountain in the north, Swasut states that he had a dream about some evil that somehow prevents souls from reaching the afterlife. Both go to Bui, the holy man of the village, to seek advice and guidance.

Bui questions the oracle about exploring the mountain, a journey that already killed some young adventurers of the tribe, and the oracle came up with all kinds of bad omens, so they decided against that (for now). But Swasut's dream spoke true and the shaman tells them that he feels the tribe surrounded by evil and some of that gets stronger and stronger to the west. The decision is made to travel west. A diplomatic mission, no less, as they'll try to use the political unrest to their tribes advantage.

There is a short intermission where the characters expose and thwart the evil ploy of a goblin shaman to get a mountain ghost harmed, so the goblins seem to be up to no good, too. Anyway, to give them the proper sending off, the chief of the tribe decides that a ritual bout is in order and they have a huge ritual that night during a thunder storm at the foot of the mountain. The omens are good for the quest. As they prepare to leave their village they are joined by Lucius, Swasut's cousin of noble birth and a diplomat of high repute (player 3).

On the road they meet an opportunistic Roman merchant. The guy (and his mother) are in the area using the political unrest in the west to initiate some trading contacts with the tribe. He's more than willing to share his (ten days old) knowledge about the whole affair: the ruling elite of the remaining Roman culture that has itself established due west is situated in a city named Divocortorum and led by Aristophontes Melunus. A guy, if the merchant is to be believed, who controls all the other senators by intimidation, black mail, the occasional violence and even dark magic. A dirty politician if there ever was one and the main reason for the hostility towards the tribe, too.

Divocortorum could look something like this [source]

But something went down. A fight in Melunuses palace. Some say it had been a military coup, others say that the political opposition (namely Soteris Cervidus, the one senator who couldn't get intimidated) finally made its move against the corrupt Senator. But no one knows, as the palace was still under lock down when the merchant left the city. All who dared enter, never came back. And there are unnatural screams every night coming from the estate while Cervidus struggles for control over the streets. A huge part of the military force has in addition to that left the city with three senators who had been firm former allies of Aristophontes. A real shit storm.

So the omens are indeed good to make some powerful new friends in the west and the group makes haste to get there. However, they avoid the main roads and being in an area they don't know, they get lost as they try to avoid enemy contact. They wander around until they come to a crossing over a wild river with a Roman signpost indicating the direction the city is barely visible on the other side. They are back on track, but the crossing is guarded and passage denied.

Turns out the whole area is in tumult, as the whole military seems to be drawn back to the city and the patrols usually providing a sense of security, law and order, are all gone. The result is chaos and anarchy, as war bands form all over the place, either using the opportunity to revive old feuds, to get rich fast or to bring their own sense of law and order. Some of the latter are guarding the crossing and they are not happy to see strangers.

Good thing the group has a diplomat amongst them and it is agreed on a challenge. The characters are to retrieve a sparrowhawk's eggs from a plum tree. The catch is: that plum tree is upstream on a cliff side over a raging part of the river they try to cross. All gather there and witness Swasut getting those eggs and gaining lots of respect for the deed, too.

They spend the night with the tribesmen and learn a bit more about the state of affairs. Apparently the old faith has a huge comeback right now and druids are actively facing some sort of evil infestation that seemed to get stronger after the mysterious events in the palace (or whatever happened in the city that night). Lucius works the crowd and makes new friends with a member of the druid council. They make a deal and Lucius receives a brooch as a sign of their allegiance while Swasut drinks himself to sleep with his new friends and Widukind asks lots of questions about the threats ahead.

Turns out that the warband guarding the river-crossing just recently fought a couple of undead which where blocking the main road to Divocortorum with the help of some druids and that a mysterious figure called the "wormpriest" started making the rounds with his acolytes. They gain more and more support the closer one gets to the city. That night Widukind dreams of a stream of black tentacles that triumphantly engulfs a golden mask of Roman origin.

The next morning group is joined by the guide Gullrönd (npc), the druid Vadelma (player 4) with her bear Otzo and the wanderer Burgh with his dog Hund. They leave camp the next morning with a storm brewing above them. The storm forces them to find shelter early that day. Swasut has the third night watch. The weather outside has calmed down a bit and he's sitting by the entrance of the cave they made camp in. The wind goes through the trees and he thinks he can hear voices in the wind mocking him, daring him to come outside. He uses their voices to mock them back and they vanish into the forest. He goes to bed hours later, not telling Widukind a word about the incident.

As Widukind goes to take his place at the cave entrance, he sees four figures coming out of the forest as dawn start brightening up the sky. The are short, stocky and glad in black. He recognizes them as dark dwarves (which is totally a thing in Germanic folklore!). The creature they have with them is big as an ogre but has two heads and is carrying a huge club in each claw. Chains are dangling from its wrists and the dark dwarves seem to have some sort of control over the monster.

It taunts the characters in the cave and dies after a couple of very effective attacks and a control-shattering command by Lucius (who used the cave's acoustics to his advantage to intimidate the creature. The dwarves didn't join the fight and as the creature dies, they bow in respect. It had been a test and the characters had past it beyond expectation.

Poor thing, just died ... [source]
They start to talk and the dwarves tell how their ancestors had lived in these hills a long time ago and all that is left of them is bones. However, those bones had been desecrated by a power from a realm beyond the nine worlds, just out of reach of the last branches of Yggdrasil. A force of pure evil that tries to gain power here in Midgard. That's why they came here. They are weak in Midgard these days, so they are looking for worthy allies to exact their revenge. The characters agree to help and gather yet another branding: a bone whistle that can be used once to summon the forces of the dark dwarves as aid against the Darkness from Beyond.

Soon after they are on the road again. They are heading for the pass where the undead had been blocking the passage. Widukind is getting more and more paranoid the closer they get to the city and decides to scout the natural choke point before they travel through. And what do you know, it actually is an ambush: 30 to 40 warriors are hiding here and waiting for travelers.

The group discusses their options. Widukind thinks it possible to lead them through the pass under the cover of night, but it'll be difficult. Lucius decides to work his diplomatic skills in the situation, Swasut accompanies him. Lucius addresses the hiding warriors and demands to speak to their leader. It takes a couple of heart beats, but eventually a huge warrior comes out of the woods, riding a magnificent red horse. They talk and agree on a duel to the death. If the group's champion wins, they gain free passage. The huge warrior, who calls himself Hönir, is answering the challenge himself . Swasut is facing him.

It's a short but intense fight, however, Hönir has no luck at all. He's humiliated to a degree that even the gods turn away as Swasut beheads him with a cut so clean that the head stayed in place long enough for a mighty second blow that split it in half. And thus gain the heroes their third branding: that beautiful horse, a mare called Tausendschweif (thousand tails).

They also see black worms crawling out of what was left from Hönir's brain.

The passage is free and the group could move on, but as the remaining warriors ditch Hönir's dishonored remains on the side of the road,  Vadelma rallies eleven of them to follow her in their holy fight against the enemies of the old faith and Lucius convinces 5 more to follow them towards the city.

As they moved on, now a war band of 22 plus bear, spring makes itself known again and a huge storm blows into their backs, from the holy mountain towards Divocortorum. Another good omen, but a storm so strong that they have to seek shelter again. One of the druid's new followers, Regin, offers to lead them to his cousin's steading close by and this is where they go.

A homestead ... [source]
The characters learn, that the ambush had been for them, as their reputation already precedes them and the wormpriest wanted to make sure they don't make it. His minions are all over the place, gaining influence with promises of power.

The weather got really bad as they reach the homestead. Regin's cousin welcomes them, they took care of the horses and went to the main hall. Widukind gets a short glimpse of a figure in a black cowl spying on them and tells the others that one of the wormpriest's acolytes might be with them here. Vadelma made a speech about the evil that threatens the forests and how those of the old faith have to resist it's temptations. There was a tense moment, then some servants went into the rooms of the patresfamilias and came back with the priest, throwing him on the floor in front of the characters.

The End (for now)

Play-Testing Insights/Outsights

THE GOOD - Setting and story come together quite nicely. The Narrative Generator constantly forces me to develop the story in totally different directions. Directions I wouldn't have chosen if on my own. It gives the game exactly the kind of epic vibe you can see in the old stories the game tries to emulate. I'm not sure if I was able to give a glimpse of that feel in the summary above. They are challenged and tested, gain followers and renown and mixed in are beliefs and encounters with fairies and that old cosmology of the Dark Ages.

It's not all the Narrative or the Territory Generator, but they deliver the frame and working that frame does wonders in facilitating a certain kind of narrative. One of my players also started using those tools in his games and comes to some of the same conclusions (which made me quite a bit happy, I have to admit).

THE BAD - The combat system needs some working on. Mid-level game revealed that characters turn out to be very strong. Stronger than anticipated. It also ends up being quite fiddly, with lots of dice. I don't mind it that much, but I admit it is a problem. This needs a couple of new impulses. It's not broken, but I think it needs to change quite a bit to allow for a satisfying mid-level experience. They players don't mind either, but since it became quite hard to even harm them, I'm not very surprised.

THE LACKING - Still no magic. Just didn't have that one great idea that clicks and makes it work. I hope I'll get there eventually. For now, it's just not there. There are some more tools that need to come into existence, mainly a culture generator that helps me giving all those tribes some depth and some random tool to throw some more toys into the sandbox, like ruins and what-not (I did something like that for Monkey Business, but I think I might have to think a bit more about this ...).

It also needs rules for mass combat (way earlier than I thought) and I need to tackle monster stats (which might be a bigger issue than I thought). 

THE NEW - The core system keeps maturing. One of the last problems I got solved was giving hurt areas of attributes some effect for failed saves. Characters get weaker all over the place if their characters get hurt. It works to great effect, I believe. Will be worth a post in the near future. All the little rules I've presented here over the last couple of months also work fine. Confidence/Overconfidence fit, skills really get some use now.

The mass migration ... [source]

That whole business about writing a game, I love it. We start the mid-level campaign and it's all kinds of challenges, all over the place. Never gets boring. I wish I had more time. Or more brain. But I wouldn't miss a minute of it.

Here's also a shout-out to all the play-testers I had the honor of DMing for, the current ones and all the others in the past. Something like this isn't done alone, it needs to be tested and exposed and challenged. So far I had been damn lucky with my players. Thanks!

Well, I hope you guys enjoyed this extensive look at Lost Songs of the Nibelungs and how the campaign shapes up. I'll keep posting this stuff here as the game grows and changes. I think I had been a bit too enthusiastic when I announced that the rules would be done by the end of this year. Very unlikely.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Weather Dice for RPGs (LSotN Design Post)

I'm way behind in keeping you guys posted about how Lost Songs of the Nibelungs grows and changes. Let's work on that a bit. Here's a little system I use now to give the players a sense of weather. Extreme results are random and possible and in my experience that's an easy way to allow weather having the impact in the game it should have. Here we go ...

Weather, what is it good for?

Weather and the seasons change and guide our behavior to this day, but even more so in, say, the Dark Ages (any time before the 20th century, actually). Extreme examples for this would be storms, winter, but even subtle changes in weather will have an impact on the environment. Guessing the weather is a sport as old as humanity and doing it right made you a VIP in your community. Those "oracles" would be consulted before every travel, actually before every major undertaking a community could come up with.

But what is it actually good for? Well, it depends on the game you play and the atmosphere you want in it. The heroes in our game travel in spring right now and the weather changes a lot: it rains often and there are some really bad weather and travel conditions all the time. Mud, thunderstorms ... the works. Weather makes it's presence felt.*

That can't be real ... [source]
We had a wounded character die because they couldn't find shelter fast enough in a thunderstorm, characters caught a cold once and another time they wouldn't travel to a certain location because the omens weren't right. When we come together to game and the re-cap is done I always jump-start the game with the question what the weather is like and those rolls are dreaded. You might think that it's only because it's spring, but no. Summer will bring it's very own hard weather conditions, like heat and no wind, droughts, you name it.

It brings a certain flavor, if you will, and that changes how the game is experienced. You don't always need this and there are styles of play out there that outright oppose implementing it, but for something like Lost Songs, where life is hard and nature is a threat, I find it a necessity. If wilderness travel is a big part of your game and you don't expect many encounters but want to make it count, weather is the way to go.

How to do it ... basics

There are several solutions to this problem and I've seen some great ones out there. When I started doing this I just rolled a d20 and went from there. High is bad, low is good. Worked well enough, but results ended up being a bit too extreme in the long run (5% for a brutal thunderstorm ... well, it's a bit too much).

So the system was lacking subtlety, but what it really had going for itself was that it worked fast and didn't rely on tables or charts or whatever. Just interpreting a roll of a die and you are good to go. Like an oracle, actually. The numbers stay abstract until you apply them to the current situation. Sense is what you generate in the game ... and I like that a lot. Still had to change some of it, though.

First of all, aiming for the bell curve is always a good idea if you want rare extreme results, so we'll go with 3d6 for now. I always found d6 a nice range for all kinds of shenanigans, so the numbers themselves show you how dry or wet it's going to be, doubles, triples and so on give you wind and wind direction. Weather changes, builds and ebbs, so we need some mechanics for that, too. I'll be going with what Lost Songs' combat already does: 1 are discarded, 6 generate new dice.

You basically roll every now and then and see how the weather builds and changes. Keep winds (doubles, triples and so on) and sixes into the next roll, and roll another 3d6 as soon you think the weather should change. Roll more often if you have lots of wind. Keep the matches only if they are growing, otherwise reduce them to a double and to nothing after that (could be done round by round or every second round, if the area is pretty flat, for instance). Sixes only stay one round longer and are discarded after that. Their value counts for the sum of the follow-up roll.

Clouds should start at a sum of 6 and build up from there. 10 would be pretty overhung, 12 would be light rain, 18 would be hard rain. A double is a light breeze, a triple will get you a nice little wind, a quadruple is a strong wind and so on. If new doubles, triples etc. are rolled, keep them and change the direction of the wind. Go clockwise for higher matches and counter-clockwise for lower ones. If you get three different triplets like that, you'll have a hurricane at your hands. A fourth double will dissipate all winds.

If you end up with more than six active dice this way (don't count wind from former rounds), you have an catastrophic event of sorts on your hand.

Keeping track of weather

Start with the surroundings. What kind of climate are the characters in? How is the area structured? Hills and valleys?** You already know where that wind is coming from or where the weather will "hang" or where it'll just fly over just by looking at the map. The first wind is always coming from the most obvious direction. You have a shore close by? That's where it's coming from, bringing all kinds of salty air and what-not. It's the simple things that work great magic like that.

Add seasons to that. Is it summer? Maybe dice should be discarded with 1 and 2 instead of just 1, to get those really stale summer days with just no breeze (no dice left ...). How high are the characters above sea level, in which climate? All good questions, all answers will shape how weather will behave in your game.

As soon as you have a picture what's possible, you can go and see how it is right now in the game: you just roll 3d6, go with the flow and believe the dice. You have your parameters, all you need now is keeping track of a couple of numbers and see how they change.

By the way, my first roll using this system had been 665, adding another 4 (and a 1, which go discarded). Heavy rain. The players hated it :D

Usage beyond the above (see below)

And that's it, my little weather oracle. It can be all kinds of modded and I imagine it to be quite useful for, say, adventures on the high sea. Experiment with it until you have what you need for your campaign. All kinds of weather phenomena should be within those results, but it gets a bit tricky with things like fogs or mists, which usually occur with the changing season, but can appear unseasonal when cold air meets warm (check the links). At this point you might want to check your map again and compare it with how the wind changes. If it comes from higher ground (say, passing snow covered mountains) you might have some fog happening ...

Just have fun with it and make it count for the players, either by adding some atmosphere or by weather having a real impact on, well, everything. I hope you guys find this as useful as I do. Thoughts, comments and different solutions are, as always, very welcome.

I'd like to see that roll ... [source]
*That's also why the druid spells to summon thunderstorms in D&D is a great, great spell, not appreciated enough. It might not have an immediate effect, but it certainly will ruin your travel plans, in fact it might actually weaken an adventuring group or army or what have you on a very basic level, as everything gets so much harder ...

**Here's what I use: The Random Territory Generator. It'll basically give you altitude and complexity of an area, which is all you really need to know what an area looks like ... if you want an idea how this works for a jungle area, you might want to check out Appendix 1 in this PWYW module I wrote *cough* *cough*

Saturday, July 1, 2017

"Desire The Science Of Youth" (a post about gaming - eventually, and a bit of a rant)

Damn, just one post last month ... even the spam-bots have lost interest at this point (which is curious, but something I observed every time I'm not doing anything with the blog for a period of time ... wonder what that's about). It's not that I don't feel the urge to write, but right now (as so often) life keeps me busy. Anyway, here we are, you reading, me writing. Let's talk about how technology separates us and how that can turn out to be a problem with f2f gaming. It might turn out to be a heady one, but please read it as a love letter to our little hobby.

InspiroBot did this ...

I felt that spell, it's almost intoxicating: an infinite array of random inspirational quotes. It doesn't get more lonely than this. Think about it, this is solely for the one individual using it. You might share it, as so many did, but in the end it's a very personal experience and even what others share with you is disassociated through technology and avatars. Just concepts of real persons.

That's what the machine is telling us ... [source]
It's all shits and giggles as long as the "machines" aren't able to allow full immersion. But the whole development of AI right now gives us a hint what will be in store. It's like those kids in Japan that never leave their room or apartment, because all they need is a Internet connection: real life social contacts already aren't a necessity anymore (a phenomenon called Hikkimori). I mean, we are in a dialogue (of sorts) right now because of this technology, although I'm already feeling "old school" for using the written word. But if you even leave the technology-filtered and enhanced social interaction behind, it'll be trouble. Not at first, but most definitely if happening en masse.

Life among people is about compromise more often than not, because you can't always get what you want when interacting with others. That's ultimately why we get along with people or not: the less we have to compromise, the more we like others. And the other way around. Hate, in a way, is when compromise isn't an option for some reason or another. You'll find this true in most, if not all human interactions.

The strive for association and acceptance had always been (strangely) above that for harmony. I always thought this somewhat disconcerting, but we are tribal monkeys after all, so as long as it's all an option we are good to go (I think). At least there is a potential. The InspiroBot shows a different future, though, one of total customization. AIs will write customized books and movies (movies? shows! never-ending tv shows that can run until you die ...), create customized social contacts, customized sexual partners ... all those things already exist to some extent or another and will get first more available and then more common.

Just the other day I saw an article asking if we should grant AIs copyright for the art they produce. Give it another 5 years and you can meet a customized AI online, fall in love and have her printed a body. Or is that hard to believe? They can already print organs and houses, ffs. Welcome to the 21st Century.

And you know what? It's very tempting to think that there is no harm in actually always getting what you want. Until it generates intolerant mind sets, that is.

It might already be worse ...

"Studies show ..." is something of a joke at this point. Mostly because although science actually comes to conclusions and new discoveries all the time, it never transits well into mainstream. In a sea of fake news, the truth ends up being one option among others. That's just how it is, I'm afraid. Anyway, +Tag Schatten pointed the way to one of those studies and you may take from this what you want, but that one study shows that smart phones (The Irony!) actually make you dumb just by being in the same room with you.

So take the machine with the addicting quality of making an unlimited supply of quotes, take the addiction that is associated with mobile phones and now think about your last face to face game with your friends and how our little tools distracted The Game. Do the math, extrapolate.

Enough said? Maybe not. Add computer games to the fold. Right now it's still something like a shared experience. With lots and lots of echo chambers abound and tribal as hell, but shared nonetheless. Now imagine customized games like discussed above, with every simulated social interaction being better than "the real thing". Everyone is playing his own game in a rich world of smart content .. you wouldn't need anything else, really.

This is pretty much my reason to write this post ... [source]
The near fiction aside, we already feel the implications of all of that in our daily life. Maybe it connects to some of the bigger issues out there (well, most definitely), but just take a look around in your immediate meatspace, subtract all the connections that depend on some sort of technology and I bet that most of you will find what is left pretty much stretched as far as we are willing to travel in a day. Because we are already living in highly customized environments and it's getting harder and harder to meet the demand that is generated by that without technical support (shit, scratch cars or public transportation, just think about what your life would be like without it).

To some degree we are formed by our surroundings, that's just a fact, and it must have implications if we are able to form our surroundings to our will. That kind of thinking is one of observing a transition, though. The transition of an individual from being surrounded by people to one surrounded by technology. We still know the first and can compare it. The tricky part is after that transition isn't an option anymore, when you are born into this. "Digital natives", if you will. Want a glimpse of that, look at our youngest.

The end result might have the individual so disconnected from everything: absolute isolation and no personal growth because it isn't needed anymore (you don't interact, so you can be everything you want to be, right?). It's like in Aldous Huxleys Brave New World, everyone is happy, so why should we care?

Role playing games and spirituality

All right, stop laughing. Hear me out. I'm not saying playing elf games is a transforming activity all the time, but it sure can be. Like reading books it'll give you an understanding of what life is about through experiencing stories. Other than with books, it happens in the company of people. There is something powerful in all of this, the creativity, the level of involvement, the idea to explore as a group things you normally wouldn't. It's that x-factor you can't have in computer games ... yet.

Our hobby really is an odd ball, if you think about it. It's getting more and more diverse and popular every year, but it's in its pure form completely analogue and you can get all of it for free if you are willing to do it yourself. See, that's the beauty right there, it's not about consuming or solely about entertainment. Sure, we have that. I collect rpg books, buy more than I could ever use. But than I sit down and write a module or prepare the next session or write a post ... okay, for that I use technology, but I'm doing so actively.

And it's not about the producing, as anyone here will tell you, but about the sharing and about the way to get there, where ever that is. It can very well be a spiritual journey, just as playing the game has aspects of meditation ... Or at least I think so. Well, plus it's already used in therapy and teaching and all that jazz.

It's really a anything goes kind of affair and it offers potential for personal growth. Doesn't have to be that way and I know there are people out there who think that this is taking silly games with dice way to serious. Each their own, I say.

Well, that's just it. Our hobby is among the last bastions against consumerism, because it offers growth that emerges from social interaction and doesn't rely on technology beyond dice, pen, paper and the old wetware. 

I actually like this one ... [source]
Or it's all not true?

Maybe it'll all end well and we will be better for it. You never know, I certainly don't. But all this change manifests in a culture of consumerism and this is where I see trouble. Many, many people already welcome a way out. Offer them a virtual cockaigne (love that word, btw) and they will indulge to the death.

I just can't see how we could still grow in a totally customized consume-oriented environment. Ask yourself, how many players would still be available, if the job can be done better by an AI and with augmented realities and what not? None? Not without some work, is my guess.

Telling stories is more and more reduced from something that brings people together to something individuals consume and I think we should ask ourselves if that's a good thing. To stop on a more positive note, I'll leave you with a question: how can we step up our game as a hobby? Because we are at the heart of it, opposing the problem if we want to or not and I believe we have reason to care ... And that's my little rant about how consumerism destroys gaming culture. :)

Not a machine ... [source]