Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Violence in (RPG) Communities (not another post about killing orc babies)

This is decidedly not a political post. It is a post about why I despise violence in all its forms, why we (maybe) need tolerated and ritualized forms of violence nonetheless and why the oxymoron "fictional violence" can tell you right there how stupid it is to think that describing or visualizing violence somehow actually is violence. It is a lot for one post. It is probably a difficult one as well, but it is heart-felt and I think we all could benefit from talking about what is acceptable in a community and what is not. The short of it is:

If you use violence against others, you are the problem. If you promote violence against others, you are part of the problem. Do good instead.

The quotes I'll use in this post (in italics) are from the Tao Te Ching to illustrate that those thoughts aren't new. We can know this. Actually, we have to go as far as ignoring it if our own selfish needs dictate otherwise. This also is very relevant to our hobby, as it happens far too often lately that I see people promoting violence or using verbal violence to achieve their goals, even justifying it more or less eloquently. I believe this to be toxic behavior. People using violence should be ashamed and change their ways. Here is why.

What is violence?
Those who advice the ruler on the Way,
do not want the world subdued with weapons.
Definition time! We need to know what we're talking about here. I'd like to go with the definition provided by the WHO (the link leads to a page with some research on violence, for those inclined to look deeper into this):
The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.

The definition used by the World Health Organization associates intentionality with the committing of the act itself, irrespective of the outcome it produces. Excluded from the definition are unintentional incidents – such as most road traffic injuries and burns.

The inclusion of the word ‘‘power’’, in addition to the phrase ‘‘use of physical force’’, broadens the nature of a violent act and expands the conventional understanding of violence to include those acts that result from a power relationship, including threats and intimidation. The ‘‘use of power’’ also serves to include neglect or acts of omission, in addition to the more obvious violent acts of commission. Thus, ‘‘the use of physical force or power’’ should be understood to include neglect and all types of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as suicide and other self-abusive acts.
This is a lot to chew on already. Actually, I believe it covers all the bases. In the report this is quoted from, they go 380 pages into that topic. Here we'll just scratch the surface and only talk about those elements I deem interesting for what I think relevant (encouraging everyone to research as they desire and come to their own conclusions).

What that definition doesn't do is evaluating what violence does, what the consequences are and why, indeed, violence is something we need to get a grip on (the study does that, of course).

It also lacks the search for the origins of violence. But fear not, psychology has some answers there.

Agreeableness is a human trait ... and so is disagreeableness!
Those who praise victory relish manslaughter.
Those who relish manslaughter cannot reach their goals in the world.
"The science is clear on this one," as they say. It's the result of some really interesting statistic research that started in the 1920s and is still going on and is called The Big Five. It is a statistical taxonomy of personality traits using common language descriptors. Very well researched and very well worth the time you can sink into it, if you want to learn something about yourself (or others, actually), imo.

For this post we only need to talk about two aspects of this, though (and short, at that, but it is important for the whole picture):

(1) Having our nature defined like this, doesn't mean we will be able to actually live them. The traits might be in conflict with their (social) surroundings. Following the definition above, those conflicts are always some form of violence or another.

(2) In a sense, violence creates violence that way. Either you are very disagreeable and violence is the only tool you know and appreciate or violence is done to you because of one of your traits or you react to that abuse with more violence. It is a vicious circle like that.

Knowing this and realizing its full potential is the first step in understanding why people do what they do or who wants to do harm to others and why. As far as our communities are concerned, I'd like to point out that it is important to see that people are different and have different temperaments (believes, even) and go from there. A community should embrace the whole spectrum of it under the condition of moderated and fair discourse.

It is important to mention ritualized forms of violence in this context, I think. Although only tangentially (it's discussed further below). Since violence is very much a trait humans inherit, it is important for societies to implement ways to channel it. Martial Arts are the prime example here, as they embrace a philosophy in which discipline masters violence to a degree where it is no longer needed or even overcome. All forms of competition work that way. Laws work that way, come to think of it.

The point is, being potentially more aggressive than others, does not excuse acting violently towards others. Never. There are ways to learn restraint or let off steam in every civilization that is worth anything. People ignoring this because they get a kick out of it or because the end justifies the means or some such bullshit, just decided to be bad people.

It is also important to note that to the degree this can (will) exist unchecked in any society, it also tends to guise itself as taking the morale high ground. So this is another aspect how it relates to gaming communities (or as much as it relates to anything else, really).

People wanting to act violent will find ways to do so. The degree of excusing they need to do with it could be seen as an indicator how wrong their behavior actually is (or how healthy a community actually is). And yes, there still are societies out there where you don't need excuses at all. They are, however, in the minority. We should thank the gods for that.

Exchange without violence, that's what makes a community healthy and productive. To get there it needs acceptance, reflection and the option to change for the better.

Are there accepted forms of violence?
Those who defeat others are strong,
those who defeat themselves are mighty.
Here's what civilization and culture have come up with over the course of the last couple of thousand years: the state has the monopole on violence. It is basically the essence of what has been discussed here so far.  Let me point out the first, most obvious critique to this idea: what if the state is abusive and violent?

There is no easy answer to this, but there is a bail-out: it is an ideal and as such something a people should strife to reach. It doesn't give you any answers, though. Would violence be a means to overcome a violent state? Did any attempt in history ever result in anything but more violence in the long run? I'd say, no. I'd say, if everyone would just start with themselves, all would be for the better.

But I digress. Violent states it is right now. What can I say. A close look at history reveals that things really got better over time. Extreme poverty is declining, people become more and more aware of how important the environment is for our own survival ... The list goes on. If not for it's individuals, humanity as a collective might be on a good way.

However, as always, you have the mean or average to look at, and the extremes. And there definitely are harsh extremes in the margins, making their presence felt. Rape, torture, murder, all kinds of violence and abuse make headlines all the time. It's a challenge to address and face those in every community. The best way so far seems to be to have laws and authorities to enforce those laws.

Naturally, those authorities underly the same rules of having means and extremes. It is, as they say, the nature of the beast. Overall, however, you will find more evidence that authorities do an average to outstanding job than doing harm and although those systems will have drawbacks every now and then, they evolve over time, aiming for a better version.

So overall, it's definitely a good thing to have laws and authorities to enforce them. It's also a good thing to monitor, discuss and change the modalities under which they operate. There is always reason to optimize. Just imagine a world without any kind of "law and order". Better yet, research it. Happened a lot and it's always ugly. Really ugly.

For the rest? Well, society provides ways to compensate violet urges (both healthy and unhealthy, and to a changing degree from society to society). Some of it is ritualized, some of it institutionalized, some of it inherited or, say, a natural consequence of who we are.

The mix changes from region to region, from community to community, of course. However, as a constant you could say that western civilization as a whole made access to all kinds of collected knowledge in that regard very easy. All you need is access to the internet or a library and you can start researching to help yourself (or helping others). Most will even offer therapy if you recognize the problem and want to change it.

What is NOT violence?

What differentiates us naked monkeys from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to learn from abstract experiences. We can read a text or see a picture or a movie and we can emphasize. We can understand second hand feelings and ideally, it prepares us for the challenges we have to face in our own lives.

That is why stories and art have value. It's why they matter. They carry meaning and if we take the time to confront some unwelcome truths about life like that, there is no better way than the abstract and safe way fictional realms of all sorts offer. You will always be better for it.

Zen is one answer [source]
 Furthermore, having fun exploring those ideas (like you'd have when playing some FPS, for instance) is not the same as actually doing it. It's not even the same ballpark. Believe it, they try for decades now to pin that label on computer games and it just doesn't stick. There is no harm in playing games with fictional violence or reading or seeing fictional violence.

I've written at length about this just two months ago, so if you want to read more about my take on this aspect of the discussion, you can do so here.

As an aside (probably a whole point in its own right), the same goes for humor and comedy. I've heard just the other day a comedian say (I think it was Theo Von) that comedians are the "canaries in the coal mine" as far as the political climate of a society is concerned. If what they say (or draw or whatever form of expression they chose) is considered violence, a society is in deep shit. I believe this to be true.

Oppose violence, always
The forceful and violent will not die from natural causes.
Beware the people that find elaborate means to excuse violence. There are other, more civilized ways to solve problems and seeing a simple truth like that ignored should warn people that something is afoul.

It is difficult to distinguish the good from the bad "players" in a community and it is easy to fall for passionate ideological claims if they resonate with your fears well enough. It is tempting to use the shortcut and act aggressively to reach you goals as it is tempting to look away when others act that way. I know it. It's a fucking struggle.

But seriously, not trying to understand, not trying to be a better human being, is just as bad as using violence (in fact, neglect is a form of violence). All of it, the looking away, the calls to arms, the verbal abuse, all of it is doing harm to everyone and in the end, everyone loses. That's not what we should want in a community (or a society, for that matter).

Struggle. Be better. Educate yourselves. Help and understand each other. Seek dialogue before confrontation. And if you can stomach it, oppose violent behavior. However, the best way to oppose violent behavior is by acting good yourself and showing others how they can do the same.

You might think you don't have an impact like that, but you'd be wrong. Every little thing helps. A nice comment, a like or just resisting temptation and not engaging in a fight (digitally or otherwise). Do not applaud or condone violence ... Little things like that, done every day, will have a positive impact in your surroundings. It'll resonate and encourage others to do the same. If that's not worth struggling for, I don't know what is.

One last thing: if you find yourself to be a victim of abuse, you should always reach out for help, regardless if it is in the rpg community or elsewhere. That said, I'd like to encourage the idea that there is always a way to heal and overcome shit like that. You'll get stronger than you think if you get strong enough to have it never happening again.

 
 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

D&D RC Campaign Summerbreak Summary Part 2: The Art of Boredom

Hello, everyone! I'm still alive and I got lots of writing to do, just not for the blog. Have a great little home campaign cooking and people seem to enjoy it enough to put some more energy into it, I started writing some more fiction, which will get published through other outlets (if you want a taste, check out my little cyberpunk story here) and I still aim to publish a couple of projects I started the last couple of months ... it's been busy. Anyway, so much for the update. I this post I'll talk a bit more about our D&D campaign and share some of the world building we've been doing. Enjoy!

Here's Part 1, for those interested in the whole bit.

Where we left

I need to write this down or I'll forget it ... Alright, the characters arrived in Deverrin, a nice town in a nice valley with a nice apple festival going. They got involved in a heist of some very expensive apple cider, or at least everyone thinks they are involved and the party of adventurers becomes a party of interest for at least 3 factions involved.

In best noir-tradition, they go with the flow and see where they can benefit form the situation. First in line was a priestess of the Goddess of Boredom and after some unfortunate business about unpaid bills in a tavern, the characters are on their way to the temple for room and board (or should I say "bored" ...).

This is where we get back into the story.

The Temple of Boredom

The challenge here was to present the players with something that obviously bored their characters, but still was entertaining to behold. Not an easy task, beyond the obvious jokes that come to mind immediately: highly bureaucratic, boring architecture, boring people ... and yet, you'd have burned your way through that pretty fast and they came to stay, so it'll need a little bit more than that.

I started out lucky, as the Narrative Generator suggested that the characters encounter some rivals. Having the group encounter another adventuring group is something I do very rarely in my D&D games and this gave me a great little opportunity to change that. So as they enter the temple, looking forward to some free food and a bed, and they see a group of eccentric strangers that could only be adventurers: a pixie, a veteran, some shady looking guy and a halfling.

Obviously the Forum Romanum, but it'll serve as temple district ... [source]
 
The group's very own shady looking character sneaked in and heard that their jig was threatened (is that how you say it?): those guys offered their services for finding the missing bottle of Goldspritz and their offer was good. The players wouldn't have it. However, instead of confronting their competition, they "sleep-spelled" them (which totally should be a word ...).

It was a gamble, of course, as they had no idea how tough those NPCs were and plan B seemed to be of the bloody variant, with the thief hoping he got a surprise attack if the wizard failed ... Well knowing that if he failed, they wouldn't get out of this alive (at least it would get bloody).

Anyway, the spell dropped 3 of the four, leaving the Pixie awake and they managed to handle that one. Took a little bit of intimidation and pointing out that cutting some throats would be the easiest solution right now, and the competition was no more. They sure made an enemy that day, though.

Having their place secured, they claimed the offer they got. The next problem seemed to be that they couldn't agree how to pair for the rooms they got, so they had to share a room with some (very boring) strangers.

Here's the thing: there is beauty in boredom. If you are bored, nothing dangerous is happening, and that's a good thing. That's why the Goddess of Boredom has a strong following and people come from all over the place to experience true boredom at the temple. Mostly office types, probably. But there is nothing wrong with embracing a boring life. Or so they told the characters.

Of course they tested the limits of that by trying to disturb the divine boredom of the place. It's just that the reaction was never as spectacular as they thought it'd be. Hence, that first night in the temple was quite unspectacular.

Breakfast was when the characters realized that this place might not be healthy. They'd been led to a room without windows, with two rows of tables where the seating always faced a blank wall. The food was gray porridge. Nourishing, for sure, but not very appealing. To make things worse, they had a little machine in there that made a constant ticking sound, like you'd know from a loud clock.

It was too much for the characters and they'd have to make a save versus death rays to avoid the boredom affecting them (which two characters failed, of course). Still, a free meal it has been. They gathered some more information in the temple, then they went back into town to gather some more ...

Deverrin with details (or rather, that's what I use) [source]

Rumors and the Redcape Militia

Another rainy day in the city. But still, the festival was in full swing and apple-themed gimmicks and pastries where all over the place. The (fat) wizard and the (fat) cat woman where happy to explore a variety of apple extravaganzas, while the rest of the group headed to the next guard post.

The city guard is a militia called the "redcapes", obviously for their choice in clothing. From what the characters know, they are mainly financed by powerful political entities in the area and thus, let's say, a bit biased towards certain cash cows. The baron keeps out of town, mostly, so the city guard is who's having the say. And who controls them, controls what's happening.

Chief among those powerful is the Godmother of apple cider in town, Gertrude Oldinges. Now, guess who was target of that heist ... Right. So the city guard had a vested interest in solving that particular case.

In come the characters. It's a busy little guard station, right in the center of town. No obvious leaders, but the characters wanted to mingle first anyway. The barbarian offered an arm wrestling competition and those redcapes just hanging around happily accepted the challenge. Anything to get some entertainment, right?

So the barbarian fails, which is good for morale, then the pretty boy of the group (our very own Prince Charming) joins the fray and devastates the strongest guy the guard could offer. Now people started paying attention. The thief made some good winnings on the side (which he had to share, because people with axes persisted).

Our prince charming wished he looked like that, but it's close enough ... [source]
Having played the crowd like that, the group starts asking questions, especially asking who's in charge. Turns out, the guy in charge is called Irmin and he's quite the hero material, all muscles and charm.

He's open to exchange information, but wants the group to do him a favor first (again the narrative generator throwing a curve ball): his young cousin has fallen in with a bad crowd. A band of misfits that hang out in the slums that grew outside the walls of Deverrin. Irmin wants the group to go in there and get the boy back to his family. If they manage to do that, they get the information they want.

Meanwhile the cat and the wizard eat and drink their way through the festival and gather some more rumors while they are at it: something about an explosion in the north-east of town that seemed somehow drug related and there is some underground fighting somewhere in the sewers.

The group unites and head towards the residence where Irmin's aunt lives to gain some more knowledge on the boy.

A tragic story?

Irmin's extended family lives in the artisan quarter of town. Houses with several stories, where the business is on the ground level and the living quarters are above. Usually several generations lived in those houses, as well as the apprentices and the helps. The characters are met with suspicion first, but as soon as they explained that Irmin sent them and what their quest is, the family warms up to them and they are allowed inside.

The family seems to prepare for supper as the characters arrive. Women and children in the kitchen, the mother of the boy in trouble among them. She sends the rest of the family outside and tells the characters the story as far as she knows it. Her son, Tlaus, had a childhood sweetheart called Yvi. They'd do everything together, but it was a strange and silent girl most of the time and they'd soon find out why.

She was the daughter of a famous artisan living close by. Seemed to be a perfectly happy family, too, but something went on there that wasn't supposed to be public. A secret, until the day the family residence burned down and revealed some ugly truths. Or at least some rumors about went on when no one was looking.

Not many of the family survived that fire, but among the dead had been Yvi's father and the surviving family members where unanimous that Yvi had set that fire in a fit of rage about something her father did to her. Most of it was left to the imagination, but Yvi definitely went into hiding after the fire and was searched for as the culprit behind the fire.

Tlaus had secretly kept in touch with her, very much aware that it wouldn't find approval with his family to help the firestarter (the reasons didn't matter that much). It was a situation that had to escalate at some point, and it did. When his family found out that he'd helped Yvi, they tried to intervene and (of course) he ran away because of it.

Last thing they heard was that they started a gang and mugged unwary johns in the outskirts of town. Their main residence seemed to be (as far as the family knew) an establishment called "The Burning Kobold" They'd love to welcome Tlaus back to the family.

Meanwhile the cat made some friends aḿong the children living there and in the end the group got offered some stew in the kitchen. However, the had to be gone before supper started.

The weather had cleared up a bit when they headed towards the wooden shacks that grew like a tumor between Deverrin and the river Wolter. It was an impressive sight, mostly because of its height, and it looked like a proper labyrinth. However, there'd be enough freelancers at the entrances offering their services as guides into the filthy underbelly of town.

That's pretty close to what I described ... [source]
They threw a little boy some copper to get them there and then headed towards the Burning Kobold. What happened there, will be told in Part 3.

Still no fights ...

The group was very careful to avoid conflicts so far. That might be because they realized that all kinds of NPCs with varying power levels populate the area (as should obviously be the case in a D&D sandbox game, right?) or they wanted to avoid forcing their hand with the very brutal and unforgiving combat system we where testing for the game.

Hard to say, but they seemed to have fun nonetheless and that's all I need to know (I really wanted to test that combat system, though).

Still super happy with the Narrative Generator (the only part of Lost Songs that sees some testing right now, I'm afraid). It forces me to develop the narrative in directions I wouldn't have thought about. That's a good thing.

It also helps to imagine this to be an anime story. D&D is great for this kind of game (as I keep saying). All the tropes are either in there or easily implemented. Not really serious gaming, but lots of fun to play.

All the other house rules we agreed upon work as they should, although no character had been challenged really hard at that point. They still get xp for good roleplaying and ideas (as you'd get when playing the D&D RC), so people will level up eventually.

I know many people will tell you that you need to have some sort of mini-dungeon or similar challenge for a low level group to get them some treasure and monster xp, but I found it is very much worthwhile to take the time and built a strong narrative instead. I mean, who's to know, it's a sandbox game and anything goes. I sure enough gave them the hints for some proper dungeon crawling.

However, this is where the game went and it worked just as well, if not better.

Next time we'll learn how things went down with Tlaus and Yvi and what the guard had to tell about that heist. Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Dangerous Ideas in Roleplaying Games

This is not about murdering orc children, but it could be. Instead I want to take a look at the dangerous ideas that are out there and see what worth there is in having them in a game. Not sure I'll get too specific, not sure this is going to be complete, but I'm very sure that role playing games are the one medium in which we are safe to experiment with ideas we wouldn't want to encounter unprepared in the wild ... and those definitely exist.

To Know Is To Know

The first foray in this argument could go several directions, but we'll go with the one formulated in the intro: to give people the opportunity to reflect ideas properly in a "simulation" is the best way to give them a head start when confronted with it or to give them an understanding what they had already experienced (even "just" through close friends or family).

To some extent this is what stories already do: they allow us to experience difficult situations (drama) quasi second hand, offering us to not only understand, but to emphasize. Fear, laughter, hate, sorrow, lust ... you name it, you can experience it. Get a glimpse, if you will.
Emotions and how they connect ... sometimes I love the internet :) [source]
 
You might say now 'But that's just entertainment!' (which I've seen happening in an argument once) and I'd hold against you, that the main reason for stories being "entertaining" is the fact that we are wired to engage with patterns and make stories about them. It's the reason why I can sit down in my apartment in front of a strange contraption, typing strange symbols you can decipher into something (hopefully) carrying meaning. It's the core engine that makes us hairless monkeys as inventive as we are.

So, stories are important. They give us an understanding of the world surrounding us. The appeal is that "knowing" will always give you an advantage. This isn't even about something like "scientific truth" necessarily, as a metaphorical truth will serve you just fine as long as its base assumption leads the the right behavior when needed. Which means (not exclusively, but mainly) that abstract and strange ideas or concepts have a place in this realm.

That's what "monsters" are, for example: manifestations of truths in an abstract and strange way, that can function as a warning (which is true in mythology, not necessarily in D&D). Fairy tales will work that way and are a good example how abstract concepts can get and still work. To a degree, even, where the reader isn't even fully aware of the effect or the consequences of a story (a lessons well learned and abused in advertisement, btw).

To know is to know, that's the big lesson here. You have an opinion? Challenge it with a counter-argument by any means. Explore the possibilities of ideas by talking with others (if opportune), by reading or writing (works for me a great deal), by watching movies or tv series or, well, by playing games (of the digital or analogue variety).

Always a catch ...

As I said, we do this naturally, unconsciously even. However, we are also creatures of habit (which is nothing else but using behavioral patterns we learned and got accustomed to) and, connected but far more influential, we like to keep it simple. Simplification is just as important as the abstract and the strange, even go hand in hand. And as long as it works, there is no problem with that what so ever.

When it's not working, though, is where it gets problematic. Simplifications will always leave room for interpretation. Done wrong, different interpretations will lead to conflict and misunderstanding. It's something we can see in politics (or the understanding thereof) almost every day. In other words, every low resolution story needs to include at least pointers to what the high resolution might look like.
Good old Boromir Memes ... [source]
 "Do good" is , maybe, a good example for something like this (most idioms and proverbs work that way, I guess) because what it means is not obvious by any stretch of the imagination. However you interpret it, though, will at least be beneficial to someone and it is only the degree how many people would consider something someone did as "good" that'll determine how effective this simplification is implemented. It's also something you can find out. It comes with "pointers".

Look at the paladin, if you need a role playing example.

In a way, simplifications only work beneficial if they are a short hand for some sort of reasonable and accessible truth. You can always find out by challenging them, but there is always the danger of just trusting that they'll lead to some sort of truth.

In a best case scenario, someone using those simplifications (either with ulterior motive or, far more often, unreflected) will be challenged to look closer (going to a higher resolution, so to say). But that might go either way and the higher the stakes, the higher the potential for conflict.

Add to that the fact that we are all individuals, not only with very different approaches and ideas about life, but also with very different potential outcomes. It's not only that you can't convince everyone of your opinion (for lack of skill and opportunity), you just won't. People are different, and that means in consequence that different variants of "truths" will apply.

Easy example: what's true for someone loving nuts in everything, is very much different for someone highly allergic to nuts.

Dangerous Ideas in Roleplaying Games?

The name should give it away, one would think, but it bears repeating every now and then: those games are designed to play roles. Shocking, isn't it? The invention of character classes (simplifications, if you will) might actually sidetrack what that can mean.

At least that's what I realized just now. If you ask someone during character generation what he wants to play, it's always some sort of simplification we look for. What can I play, what's worth doing in this game? Even games featuring point-buy-systems will have discussions in that direction to some extent (being able to do EVERYTHING isn't a good idea either, as every game designer worth anything will tell you).

The answer to this question is actually the gateway to exploring dangerous ideas. It's not about a character a player is going for, it's about what potential for conflict and drama that choice has in the setting that is going to be played.

Here is the thing: ideas will always lie dormant (like a virus!) or, say, conserved in the surroundings they are created in. To activate them, you have to bring them into a context where the implications of an idea can be explored. This resonates well with everything described above, but the merit I see in doing this activation in a setting, is that the exploration not only happens in a fictional realm (which is true for all mediums, of course) but is also collaborative.

Each participant in a role playing game experiences stories through fiction that way and there is an opportunity to explore challenging ideas as well.

Here is a saying Carl Jung is famous for (not only for that, of course):
 "People don't have ideas, ideas have people."
Not Carl Jung ... you get it [source]
It really brings home lots of points I try to make above. It also might help highlighting the idea (sic!) why roleplaying is a "safe" way to explore ideas and concepts when doing said exploration through the lens of a fictional character (players) interacting with a fictional setting (gamemaster). There is an abstract distance between yourself and a your character (or setting), allowing you to become an observer and interpreter of the part you play.

If that ends up manifesting some sort of insight you didn't have before, it's a sign that you discovered a truth you weren't aware of. And if that's not worth playing for, I don't know what is.

How far people are willing to go with this, is entirely up to them. I'm just talking about the potential here. However, as far as I'm concerned, as long as all involved keep that abstract distance between themselves and their character (or setting), there is NO LIMIT to what you can do.

It brings some responsibility and maybe even requires some maturity to make it work, but that isn't even a problem, as you can scale this quite easily and "potential" also means potential for growth ... steady wins the race, and all that.

I might need to stress at this point that we (of course) play for the fun of it, and when you think playing it as vanilla and safe as you can get is the best way to go, more power to you. However, my definition of fun varies from that quite a bit and while I'm definitely not telling other people how they have to play their games ("can" is better in that context), I'd definitely see it as a sign of competency if a group is able to pull something like that of (even if they don't do it).

In other words: if you want a metric what a good DM or player makes, you could do worse than starting with how insightful their gaming is.

Dangerous Ideas need to offer insights

This is where it gets difficult, as there is a wide range of possibilities what that could entail. Playing a SS-Officer in occupied France might be an idea like that, or playing a serial killer (Vampire: the Masquerade, basically, right?). As a rule of thumb I'd say, the closer to home an idea hits, the more dangerous it can be.

Inglorious Basterds, of course [source]
If you are anything like me, you'll sit there now, thinking that there are, indeed, limits to this. You shouldn't role play whatever is considered taboo, for instance. However, given the right context and communicating it properly goes a long way. Playing a historical game can do this, for instance.

The Romans had slaves. Actually, they build a society on their shoulders. They also owned boys for sexual pleasure and married children as young as 10 ... Playing in a setting like that allows you to tackle some dangerous ideas where the abstract distance is somewhat greater because you add history as a layer.

It'll also need tact. Sure, you can play Spartacus and project your contemporary set of values to fictionally avenge whatever you take offense in. However, as far as insights go, it's better to experience something like the Roman society in day to day life, imo ... and that's where tact comes in. You have to keep the distance and to a degree rationalize the experience to allow reflection.

Have a Merchant become a good friend of the players. Someone they would protect, maybe. Then have him abuse a slave in public or marry a 12 year old and show how society reacted positive to it to a degree that the characters acting up against it would get them into trouble, actually. Let them explore the ramifications. Stuff like that.

The value of realizing how different cultures and people can be and why, is very much worth the attempt. However, it implies the requirement to do so without ill intent or malevolence. I really think that the main problem people have with bringing dangerous ideas to the table, is how it could be abused. So if you are sitting there right now, thinking how all that could go wrong, all of the examples you can come up with will be cases that go against this very basic requirement.

There are no orc babies ...

I think I understand now why the ideas of "killing orc babies" gets dismissed by some and is offensive to others. It illustrates how the abstract distance can vary from individual to individual. I don't say this to invalidate either claim. Actually, if anything, it validates both sides.

In that sense it also shows another quite obvious aspect of all of this: different people have different levels of maturity and experience. Stories that are engaging for some (within the limitations discussed above), might have others somewhere between bored or even offended!

So maybe the first thing we can learn by playing role playing games like this, is to not only accept that others are in different places about different topics (which already is very important), but also that that is totally alright. The important thing is that we find ways to talk about those things and find a consensus about them. Role playing is one of those ways.

There is no better message to end this post, I think, so I'll leave it be. What I'm interested to hear is if people did something like this already and how it worked out. Share your experiences, if you are so inclined. I'd love to read them!

Zen Baboon! [source]

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Magic in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (Design Post - this is Part 3, sort of))

You have been warned. This is right now the part of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs that took the longest time to get to the stage I'll start describing below (yes, there'll be more). Some familiarity with what I've done here for the game isn't necessarily needed, however appreciated. I'll give pointers along the way, of course. This post is about the design first, and then the game. It's also a bit complex and long, so it'd be a good idea to be in the mood for something like that. Let's get rollin'!

What I'd like to have

I took a first stab at this in 2016, and while the mechanics grew and changed quite a bit since then, the basic concepts and nomenclature still apply. Here's some quotes for us all to catch up on the topic:
"So what I want in my game are mysterious and powerful wielders of magic with a very weird connection to the world surrounding them, getting worse the deeper they go into the rabbit hole. I want them half crazy, with strange tattoos and fetishes and rites, seeing more than others but are always in danger of getting lost.

I also want the dark witches and wizards from the fairy tales, sitting in their dark towers, the land surrounding them drained of all life. Or the white warlocks and witches, living in harmony with the world or working on that harmony. I want demon pacts and craziness from outer space, but seen through the eyes of someone living 1500 years before today. And old magic from the time of the Roman Empire or before. It's all there in the mix.

The greatest wizard of them all: Odin [source]
But magic in Lost Songs is subtle. A curse, a chicken bone with strange scribbles on it or a fire that moves unnaturally, stuff like that. And it's very commonplace, in a way, as those "barbarians" really had a thing for individual trinkets and symbols like that, differing from tribe to tribe. Or that one guy living as a scholar in a Roman city but really dabbles in summoning demons ..." (from Part 2 of my original take)
That's how it works. It should also tie in with mystical creatures and how they do magic (dragons and what-not). Another thing from those posts tat is still valid, is this little concept:

The dice used for magic and the meaning associated with them
This would be the energy a caster summons. How he forms it is a totally different matter (and took the longest to figure out), but how he gets there is as straight forward as it gets:
"And that's basically it: players rolls 1d20 + Wits vs. a difficulty. If the result is below the difficulty, Aether Points are reduced [note: Aether Points are somewhat like Endurance, a resource to burn that grows as characters advance their magic]. If there are not enough Aether Points, Wits is reduced. And if you loose too much Wits, you'll damage that ability permanently, which reflects the ever growing madness in you ..." (also from Part 2 of my original take)
Difficulties vary depending on what a character attempts to cast. A predefined spell, for instance, would be easier, as some of the necessary patterns are known. Rituals would also be quite easy, although not as specific as spells. A third instance would be using trinkets and totems and such, little artifacts that help focusing the energy. Casting magic "raw" would be the most difficult task, as it should be.

I'd encourage players to come up with their own spells and rituals and totems, matching their character's cultural background and all that. It also should encourage players to cooperate with others to cast magic. At least in the beginning.

Actually, seeing someone casting a spell including all the oracle dice should inspire awe and fear among those witnessing it. One last quote:
"This is where synchronicity comes into play. According to Wikipedia Carl Jung coined the word "synchronicity" to describe "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." In other words, when events that coincide and seem meaningful but are without any causal connection.
This is still gameable! [source]
Or at least seem* unconnected and that's where it all comes together: the "magical connection" normal people don't see and those dabbling in the arcane arts are somehow tuned into, is the very same thing that causes synchronicity. Learning to understand (or abuse) it makes a powerful sorcerer. What we have here is a narrative device for the DM to puzzle the players and give his world some depth.

To compare it with D&D (since most of you reading this should be familiar with it): instead of giving the player a list of spells, it's the DM that gets parts of those spells and describes them to the players as they manifest in their surroundings. And that's what the players are going to use (if they are clever)." (you guessed it: from Part 2 of my original take)
It's about creativity and subtlety and the unforeseen consequences of using forces not totally understood or controlled. Ideally, the procedure produces an instant riddle for the caster to unravel as he works his way through the forces he summoned. Turns out, easier said than done ...

Where it got problematic

There are different design schools about this sort of thing. Some would just use what is already established (1d20+something vs. difficulty), ditch the oracle dice, reducing it to spells and leave the rest to the narrative. This works, of course, and a DM running Lost Songs would be able to fall back on this easily enough (not that I recommend it, huh).

Then there are those who just come up with a nifty little magic system and leave the output minimal in a way that allows an easy connect to the core system. Basically they'll add some flavor to the d20 thingie described before.

The problem with that approach is (1) output needs to be kept at a minimum to avoid conflict with the core system (AD&D might be an example for that approach, actually, and you can see how splat books killed the bunny there) and (2) it's hard to find a system that way that would be able to accommodate all the different types of magic a setting like Lost Songs might have (old Roman, Asian, African, Germanic ... you name it, really, it's all over the place!).

Fringe, but possible ... whatever that is [source]
Going that route would mean (as a worst case scenario) building little magic systems for all possible variants ... which can work, but will most likely be lacking or incomplete or too baroque for people to care (well, or put a publisher in a position to sell a shit-load of splat-books ... just saying).

A third way is to build a system that seamlessly merges with the core system. No easy task with Lost Songs, as it is pretty fine tuned, with lots of moving pieces under the hood (as I imagine every system has, sooner or later). Especially challenging is the idea that the output of such a system not only produces a little riddle for the player to solve, but has lots of output that carries into a completely randomized setting in a meaningful way.

As I said, lots of moving pieces. And I really don't like bookkeeping, so the solutions discussed in those posts from 2016 went the right direction, but the results weren't ... well, they weren't in the right place, if that makes any sense.

A number a DM has to keep track of over several sessions is a number most likely lost. At least in my book. Ideally I'll have complex results that take the narrative of what happens into account and produce signifiers that resonate back from sessions yet to come, but without the need of bookkeeping.

It's complicated and it took me quite a while to get it all together in a way that did all the above in accordance with the core system, while producing a little riddle for the player to solve and taking all kinds of possible cultural variants into account. Really ... let me show you.

This is it, folks!

PART 1: THE RIDDLE

Okay, so a character attempts to cast a spell. He'll roll 1d20, adding his Wits (ability sore) to match a difficulty based on how he goes about it. Is he casting a spell? A Ritual? Is he using trinkets or totems, any kind of foci? Is he casting it raw?. He can use Aether to bridge a gap between his result and the difficulty and it'll hurt if Aether is gone and there's still points left to meet the difficulty. Accumulating damage like that might drive him crazy, if unchecked.

If a player decides to advance his character in magic, he'll have more Aether to work with as one option to chose from, but it'd also be possible to reduce difficulties when using Wits or being able to write scrolls or create magic items (among other things).

Okay, so he matches the difficulties and summons raw energy from around him. That's the oracle dice: 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d12 and 1d20. The Platonic Solids and I talk about that part here (just  little twist to root it in actual historical concepts). The result forms The Riddle and is put on the corresponding squares at the bottom of this little piece of paper:
Open in new tab to see it all ...
The idea here is that characters have all that raw energy at their disposal and have to decide how their spell manifests from that raw energy. That's the riddle, the little game in the game and, yes, I know, it's not trivial.

One of the big problems had been to identify the base elements that go into all spells (raw or pre-defined) and finding a pattern that allows them to manifest at every possible level with every possible result. You see that pattern above.

The results on your oracle dice will range between 1 and 20, with obvious limits imposed to the different dice. The grid above is divided into 5 parts, four of them (labeled 2-5, 5-8, 9-12 and 12-20) going clockwise around the fifth in the center. Also notice the numbers leading from 1 on the top left corner around the center with 2, 3 and 4 to the 5 in the center. This is where the 1s go.

All the other circles are possible elements of the manifesting spell. The number of dice a caster is allowed to use is 1 per level of advancement in Magic. There are, however, a couple of ways to improve on that. Obvious ways are rituals and foci (dice are locked on the squares in the lower right corner and raise the levels on the defaults they were created for - "defaults" are the given base criteria for a spell, independent of the result, more in the next part and on the magic sheet above).

The second way is the rule that doubles connect to chains. It means that a good roll of the oracle dice allows access to more dice than a caster might have at his disposal initially. So a level 1 mage (initially being able to manifest 1 die on the grid) that comes up with a double with his oracle dice, will be able to use both dice, if he decides to manifest one of them (but both have to be active on the grid). Same goes for triples, and so on (1s always go to the corners, though).

Add rituals, foci and cooperation (more on that aspect later) and even a level 1 magic user would be able to cast quite effective and somewhat safe (raw) spells. 

Ritual, done right [source]
So there is a high complexity about how many of the dice manifest on the grid. Linked to that is what those dice can do and what'll happen to the remaining elements (the dice that DON'T manifest) and the elements undefined (the categories a spell needs, but can't be fulfilled with the dice as they are available). In other words: what kind of spell is cast, if a caster has only one die he can actively use?

That's a lot of choices. And necessarily so, because there are several factors that need consideration to get anything cast, like range, effect area, purpose or even just as simple as damage.

Some of those decisions will be taken away from you with the roll of the oracle dice: 1s go to the corners (they are negative effects that will happen when the spell is released), doubles build chains and the results themselves show you where on the grid the dies can go (with the fiat that 1 die needs to be in the center). Another set of restrictions is the reason for drawing the energy to begin with (a declared goal derived from a necessity occurring in the narrative, of course).

With those decisions made for the player, he now has to chose an optimal way to distribute the remaining dice. The things he has to consider for that may not only be how the dice will manifest on the grid, but also what the remaining dice will do. The energy is summoned and all dice that aren't bound, will have a residual effect on the area. It might have visual effects, it might be a beacon for creatures best left undisturbed, either way, it will bring an imbalance not necessarily impacting the caster (as that's what the 1s are doing), but definitely the surroundings (details will follow).

To find the right way (or one of the many possible right ways) is to solve the riddle. To describe how the caster goes about it, is (like with Lost Songs combat) always enriching the narrative.

Not done yet, but ...

I guess that's a good point to stop. I'm all out of juice for today. There is obviously more to that system, but if you take a close look at the pattern above and at the descriptions it offers, you'll see how it's supposed to work. I need to talk about the specifics, though, as there are a couple of ideas connected to it that need more explanation.

There's also some systems attached to it all and it needs a little conversion for the possible energy output in relation to the core system (what saves are needed, how much damage is done, etc.), as that's not quite obvious from the results. Maybe an example would be nice :)

Now, some of you might ask yourselves, why go through all the trouble? And the easy answer is: because it is satisfying for players to have those little systems to master within the game. It gives players control over the narrative within well defined spaces of the narrative. It's challenging, yes, but that is the game I'm writing. You want easy, there's plenty of that around already.

Also, it's really fun to design high concept like that (I admit, I'm strange that way).

On the other hand, I feel that the complex part is only on the design side, and not necessarily something players will get to feel that hard when playing. Sure, it's a little system on it's own, but is also follows the same principles as combat (to some degree), so it's not that much of a leap.

And since all the elements are descriptive to a point where they explain their need themselves, it cooks down to taking the time to reflect what's there and make a decision, with the margin of failure being part of the whole experience. It's something you can get better at over time.

There is also enough meat on this to make it worthwhile for solo-play, is what I've been told. So there is that.

Anyway, I hope this didn't just raise eyebrows, but also gave a glimpse what kind of game Lost Songs is and how that's a bit different from what is out there. Maybe even that it has merit that way. If you have questions, please ask away! And if you are interested in giving this a go, just drop me a note and I'll see what I can do.

The next part will definitely go more into detail about the ramifications and if I have the room, I'll throw in an example as well. Soon.

[source]

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

This Blog is soon to be revived ...

I have been way too busy and neglected this poor little blog for way too long. Time to change that and get some writing done here. Soon!

[source]


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

D&D RC Campaign Summerbreak Summary Part 1: It's a Heist, Baby!

Hey there, friends! It's been a while. I have been so busy, it's not even funny anymore (somewhat gaming related, just not yet blog related). Didn't have much time to do anything with Lost Songs in the last couple of months either (it's been months! damn). What I kept doing, though, was playing. So when I decided to take a break from Lost Songs, we got back to playing more D&D! Here's the first part in an attempt to summarize those sessions ...

Prelude: This is how we roll

A couple of words about our game. We play a heavily house-ruled D&D Rules Cyclopedia, with a huge dose of HackMaster 4e, some Arduin and all kinds of little things I came up with in the last 7 years or so. Check out the last 3 posts to get an idea about the combat and parts of the character generation. Players are usually pointed towards Labyrinth Lord for reference.

By now the game features roughly 23 classes and it is all over the place. There are barbarians, strangers from different worlds, pixies, charming princes, dwarven snipers and many others added to the core classes (every player can build characters, I write about our process here).

It's also a rather vanilla affair, with huge doses of anime and (happy) gore: a peaceful valley under feudal reign some 100 years after the fall of "The Empire". Riddled with dungeons and mysteries, of course. You can read a bit about the setting Schwarzaarlen and its main city Deverron here.

As vanilla as it gets ... [source]
Books I use at the table are the Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (the book of books, I say) and the Expanded Petty Gods (because: fun). I also heavily use the Random Narrative Generator.

We play it as a sandbox, which means the players and I take turns in not knowing what's going to happen next as the story emerges from random encounters (with random encounter reactions!), the setting and random narrative twists. I didn't know what kind of story we were going to tell. Which is a good thing. Keeps me on my toes.

Trouble follows you ...

The group consists after the first two sessions of a fat wizard, a moping princess, a melancholic barbarian, a prince charming, a fat cat humanoid and a rogue. They just arrived in town for the annual cider festival. Most arrived with a caravan that just hit town, the prince charming came from the elven woods in the north.

It's perfectly shitty autumn weather when the characters start exploring the city: a little cold, a little wet, a little gray (a d12 for the month, a d20 for the weather). Not very inviting, but the mood is good and Deverron does its best to be festive and busy. Things take a dark turn as the group makes room to let a heavily armored wagon pass, only to witness its robbery (random narrative generator, RNG from now on).

Well, they don't see that much, since the street just disappears under the wagon. The rest is screams and damage spells. The only thing they see when approaching the gap where the road used to be, is a giant spider vanishing in the canalization, the wreck that'd been the armored wagon and the corpses of those who protected it.

The city guard shows up and takes the characters into custody for questioning. They don't seem to believe that the characters had been that close without being somehow involved (RNG and Encounter Reaction Table, ERT from now on).

The characters are no happy campers at that point, feeling a bit helpless, being new in town and all that. But they'd been good friends with the chief of the caravan and as their way leads past the market place where the caravan is being off-loaded, their friend sees they are in trouble, calls a couple of his handymen and intervenes on the groups behalf (a random roll where they are headed and the RNG doing its thing).

A bribe later they are free to go. One thing they'd learned while talking to the guards: that armored wagon was a cider delivery from the Oldinges family, a local political entity.

Busy medieval streets and a castle in the distance [source]
A Feast is a Feast

Tired of walking around aimlessly, the characters ask around where the eating is good and where they also might crash for the night. The caravan leader has connections and gives them directions to a tavern that always keeps some room for people arriving with the caravan. Off they go.

That tavern is huge and business is humming. The characters are lucky to find a table to sit and the fat wizard casts a cantrip to highlight their position for the waitresses to see (a giant red arrow floating in the air, pointing at them). Turns out that's about as much magic as is allowed in here. They have magic blockers here to hinder fat wizards from skipping out on the tap.

Anyway, a waitress turns up and takes orders. As they wait for that, they are approached by a bland young priestess of the Goddess of Boredom (Expanded Petty Gods, from now on EPG). She tells the group that she knows about their involvement with the heist and asks them for help. The delivery that got stolen was a bottle of the legendary cider called "Goldspritz", worth a five digit sum in gold.

The offer is, if the characters help the temple to find the missing bottle, they get room and board and, far more important, protection from other groups that are also involved in this affair and don't believe that the characters had just "been there by accident". It's an offer they won't refuse and they agree to come by the temple later today. As she leaves, the characters notice she passes a sinister figure that looks angrily at the priestess and the group ... (all RNG).

Their order arrives. Prince charming has the brilliant idea to tell the waitress that they are with royalty, pointing at the princess. The princess smiles and waves her hand. The waitress is impressed enough to inform the owners and it turns out that they actually know that old noble bloodline from songs and stories. They have some really romanticized ideas about the old empire and make lots of fuzz about the whole affair.

It might have helped that the princess's last name literally translated to "from the money", but the owners acted fast and gave the group a private room and all kinds of courtesies, including a meal with several courses and all kinds of luxuries.

As the innkeeper seems to believe that prince charming is the princess's spokesperson, he takes him to the side and asks him how they intent to pay for all that. His reasoning is, they can't do something like that for free, but since she's a princess, money shouldn't be an issue. Right?

Prince charming is the first to sneak out of the tavern, with the rogue close on his heels. The wizard tries to negotiate terms and almost succeeds to talk the keep into reducing the price to half. However, half of 1400 is still too much (D&D RC, 3d6x10 gp for level 1 characters).

The innkeep gets wind that something is up and posts a polite henchman at the entrance. Among the last of the group to realize that they are in trouble is the barbarian. She really doesn't take kindly to the idea that they are not invited and have to pay, so she cranks up the foreigner and escalates towards the guarded door with enough gusto that she takes out both door and guard.

They make a run for it through the inn's busy main room. The innkeep didn't have enough time to get all his ducks in a row, so there's actually an opening for them to use. The fat cat is the slowest of the bunch and one of the innkeep's goons actually manages to catch her tail as she jumps through the window to make her escape.

A busy tavern! [source]
The rest already made it out, only the cat woman is in dire straits. But the rogue comes to the rescue, dagger in hand. The henchman backs of immediately as he sees that weapons are in play, mumbling something like "They don't pay me for shit like that."

It's almost dark outside and Devorra doesn't have any street lamps, just th light people carry and the lampions they put up for the festival, so the group has it easy to disappear in the busy and dark streets, heading towards the temple district ...

Next: The Temple of Boredom

And that's roughly the first two sessions. It's been a bit awkward to start the game with the RNG, as things kept happening to the characters without them being able to do a lot about it, but it actually made for a vibrant and complex setting. No fights at all in the first two sessions. The RNG throwing curve balls all the time seems to be the cause of this, another interesting side effect.

Took me totally by surprise that it turned out to be a fantasy noir story a la Garrett P.I.. D&D is good for that kind of story, it turns out.

Next time the group will meet some rivals and I walk a thin line trying to make bored characters interesting for the players. And the guard gets involved ... Stay tuned!