Friday, August 26, 2022

Tell them to show and not tell ... (a look inside the be67 GM chapter)

One of the most difficults tasks when writing a set of rules is to not necessarily to make those rules understood but more so to write the book in a way that allows the reader to produce as close as possible to the same experience as you make happen when you play the game you are writing. You need to get them into the same headspace, if you will, to share the same vision you have. One of the first rules in that regard (I think for writing in general, actually) is to assume they know nothing you know.

We need to be told that we should show and not tell ...

Readers might even know more or just "differently", but if they don't go along with what you are proposing (for whatever reason), they won't get it. And the worst case scenario for that would be that they'll have a bad experience when playing your game. So I'm extra meticulous about making myself as clear as possible.

Part of that exercise is to put the reader in a position to compare their own frame of reference to mine and find the overlap. To be totally fair, the ideal mix for a text like this is in huge part "telling" and in some parts "showing" (examples and all that), but to some degree it needs to be an exchange of references in order to build common ground.

Therefore, today I'll show you how I tell them what can be seen as inspiration to show the players the Weird Sixties instead of telling them ... This is part of the beginning of the Chapter about GMing be67:

SOURCES & INSPIRATIONS

The first part of this chapter seems a bit excessive at first glance, but we strongly believe that (1) many of the inspirations collected here are already known but so popular that it’s easy to lose out of sight how deeply rooted they are in the Sixties, that (2) it needs at least all of that to show how versatile popular culture had been almost 60 years ago and (3) that it is necessary to visualize that psychosphere where grindhouse publications would borrow their ideas from.

There’s furthermore a long upheld tradition in role-playing games to have something akin to what was called “Appendix: N” in AD&D 1e. It’s not as much “required reading” as it is a guide towards what informed the designers to do what they did. Some of the same is true here, of course, so the following is neither complete nor canon, but recommendations what could give a Gamemaster in be67 an edge or two.

What’s more, many of the titles collected below would find sequels and reboots and additions for decades to come, some inspired or initiated whole new genres or cultural shifts. What happened in the Sixties build the foundations for the main cultural identity of the 20th and early 21st centuries. That’s a lot.

What are the Sixties?

What follows is a somewhat romanticized and decidedly US-centric description of the Sixties. Other cultures definitely contributed to our idea of the Sixties in this context (Japan and the UK, mainly), and we will give some examples of that, but for length alone we have to cut corners here and give some pointers instead.

In short, the Sixties could be characterized (for the purpose of this game) as “psychedelic optimism”. It was happy and colorful and feminine, with a good dose of “weird” intruding popular culture in form of the freedom movement and some strong and distinct subcultures all across cultural niches in the US to boot. There was movement and palpable friction between poor and wealthy as well as traditional and more non-conventional values.

There also was Vietnam, but it wasn’t (yet) the war that would traumatize the US for decades to come. Careful observers would see first signs of that early on and the soldiers that came back had went through hell, obviously, but without an audience. And yes, people demonstrated against the war, but it was an ongoing process with the hallmarks of disaster only.

A huge part of the positive spin (or feel) the Sixties had was due to the introduction of several psychoactive drugs to the populace. The first drugs that come to mind in that regard are, of course, marijuana and LSD (or Acid) popular with artists and the counterculture (as well as some scientists). However, an impact just as big had the invention of Valium and derivatives in 1963. Popular- and counterculture had all been on very mellow drugs, and that, arguably, took the edge of the Sixties while making them more fun all around (again, for the purpose of this book … things, naturally, had been a little bit more complex than that).

There was some technological optimism as well, with lots of innovation and people with enough money to buy it. The Sixties saw an economic surge in the US, mostly due to government finishing what Kennedy had started. And while that would fall flat in the 70s, it certainly helped spending in the Sixties. In general we can assume that the average citizen in the 1960s had access to most of the accommodations we have today, minus computers and cell phones. Things like ATMs or hand-held calculators had been invented, but weren’t in heavy circulation at 1967. Maybe something you’d see an article in the newspapers about. Computers did exist, but only to the degree that people in general had been aware of them and it gave authors some strange ideas about the future. When in doubt, accept that a more “primitive” version of the tool in question might have been available.

Those are the basic tones of the game.

But what did that look like?

TV in the Sixties definitely had some highly recognizable staples. Here’s a great sample how weird it could actually get in mainstream TV:

  • The Addams Family
  • The Avengers
  • Batman
  • The Beverly Hillbillies
  • Bewitched
  • Get Smart
  • Gilligan’s Island
  • Hogan’s Heroes
  • I Dream Of Jeannie
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
  • The Munsters
  • My Favorite Martian
  • Rawhide
  • Star Trek
  • The Twilight Zone

Before we go into the grindhouse experience, we also should take a look into mainstream cinema. It featured some genuine classics. Let’s see what had hit cinemas that decade until 1967 alone:

  • A Fistful of Dollars
  • A Shot in the Dark
  • The Birds
  • Blow-Up
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • Carnival of Souls
  • Cool Hand Luke
  • Dr. Strangelove
  • For A Few Dollars More
  • The Godson
  • The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
  • The Great Escape
  • House of Usher
  • The Innocents
  • James Bond (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice & Casino Royale)
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Lolita
  • Mary Poppins
  • The Pink Panther
  • Planet of the Apes
  • Psycho
  • The Time Machine
  • The Wild Bunch

That’s only a small selection of popular movies with comedic, violent, horror or surreal elements and only in the first seven years of the Sixties (and mostly US). Great movies have been done before and after that and all over the world. For instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Night of the Living Dead and Easy Rider didn’t make the list because they had been released in 1968 and 1969 (but had been in production in 1967).

Movies, documentaries and TV shows from later decades but playing in the Sixties also offer great sources of inspiration. Here are some definite highlights (as far as the game is concerned):

  • American Graffiti (1973)
  • Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
  • Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)
  • Catch Me If You Can (2002)
  • The Doors (1991)
  • Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
  • Green Book (2018)
  • Inherent Vice (2014 for the movie, the book was 2009)
  • JFK (1991)
  • Mad Men (series, 2007-2015)
  • Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
  • Perfect World (1993)
  • The Rum Diary (2011)
  • Taking Woodstock (2009)
  • When You’re Strange (documentary, 2009)
  • Woodstock (documentary, 1970)

This is, again, just the tip of the iceberg and very mainstream, but for that reason easily accessible just the same.

The seedy underbelly of 60s cinema?

The one thing lacking in the Sixties was proper special effects. They did good with what they had. In some cases, anyway. But most of the time the results will fall under “acquired taste” today. Every one of the Science Fiction and Horror movies of the Sixties will make fantastic pitches for be67 adventures, however, so we encourage looking all of them up for inspiration (or even viewing, for that matter). That said, we will name a couple of favorites just to show a glimpse what’s there to discover and explore:

  • Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy
  • Billie the Kid v. Dracula
  • Black Sabbath
  • Blood Feast
  • Brides of Dracula
  • Dr. Who & the Daleks
  • Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
  • The Gorgon
  • Hillbillies in a Haunted House
  • Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter
  • The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
  • Matango (a.k.a. Attack of the Mushroom People)
  • Mothra vs. Godzilla
  • Onibaba

That’s just a small selection, already bordering hard into grindhouse-territory,

Also authors and books and music, oh my!

Many, many authors of weird tales still highly popular today had already successfully published books in the 1960s. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, for instance, got published as a paperback only early in the Sixties and then became hugely popular in colleges (the famous “Gandalf for President” pins started then and there). It resonated very well with the Zeitgeist of the 60s. And of course the old and fantastic classics had also been around back then: H. G. Wells, H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker …

Mix in Eastern influences feeding new impulses into the Western collective unconscious and some drugs and you end up with the Beatnik movement and all the blues and rock and folk music opening up to new psychedelic realms, all of that eventually amalgamating into the Summer of Love in 1967 and Woodstock 1969.

We can’t possibly map all of this here, but we will name a couple of our personal favorites to give an impression what we might refer to when GMing be67 (in the tradition of the famous Appendix N):

  • Isaac Asimov
  • Peter S. Beagle
  • William S. Borroughs
  • Charles Bukowski
  • Anthony Burgess
  • Raymond Chandler
  • Arthur C. Clarke
  • Philip K. Dick
  • E. R. Eddison
  • Philip José Farmer
  • Dashiell Hammett
  • Robert A. Heinlein
  • Frank Herbert
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Mervyn Peake
  • Thomas Pynchon
  • Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • Roger Zelazny

All of the above contributed a lot to what was imaginable back then, which naturally also ended up one way or another on grindhouse movie theater screens (while being watered down immensely and somewhat more sleazy) .

As for music: using the soundtracks of all the collected entertainment above should give a GM more than enough material about what the Sixties sounded like. All the bands and artists performing at Woodstock are a good start, the Beatles should be in that mix, some country, some folk, but also classic music like Mozart or Bach and the like (see Apocalypse Now, 2001 or Clockwork Orange for ideas).

That said, even contemporary music can help a Gamemaster getting some inspiration … More on that in the next part.

Summoning the Weird Sixties!

We have used throughout this book quotes from movies that wouldn’t be considered original grindhouse features by any sane movie aficionado. Mostly, anyways. The material we quoted for inspiration is also pretty much mainstream popular throughout, although many of them wouldn’t exist without exploitation cinema. Why is that? The idea behind this was to give some pointers where one actually would find inspiration for grindhouse features and how common those tropes are now because of it. This is how it works:

Exploitation movies take what is popular and use it shamelessly, often towards the sensational and uncouth. It’s where the name came from, as a matter of fact. Aspiring GM of be67 should take this to heart and have some fun with doing the same.

Basically, every popular story idea, doesn’t matter what medium, can be made into a grindhouse feature just by mixing it relentlessly with other ideas and making it somewhat less reputable in the process but glorious because of it.

The gold standard that produces would nowadays be something akin to a Tarantino movie. A daunting proposition, one might say. As would be to assume that all D&D games are on par with Tolkien’s work. In both cases, however, players can have just as much fun as they’d have watching a Tarantino movie or reading Tolkien. The reason for this is that the rules will already get you half way there! So far we have provided:

  • Characters you would find in those movies,
  • with backstories that already sound like bad movie plots, and
  • an award system that motivates players to go all-in on the premises of their Characters (if they like xp), but furthermore
  • with a combat system as gory as it gets and
  • lots of other rules like Funk Rerolls and the Bubblegum Barometer to give the game that specific feel!

This chapter will add some more tools and insights to help Gamemasters of be67 with their games with The Rule of Cool, some basic structuring for adventures, what High Level Play will look like, how to work Skills as a GM, Environmental Effects, how to keep players happy with Special Loot, how to convert other gaming material, how to make Character Classes from scratch and how to handle Monsters. All of that and some more general advice should offer a Gamemaster more than enough material to prepare and run games set in the Weird Sixties for years. Future publications will add Adventure Modules, new Classes, different Settings and even more Tools to that.

-----------------------------------

And that's the introduction for gamemasters to the game, giving you an impression what this book will read like and what scope it'll offer on it's, roughly, 140 pages A5. We here at Disoriented Ranger Publishing take our funny games serious like that ...

I'd be happy to hear thoughts on the above, of course. What baffled me most when I researched this was how much of the Sixties is still mulled over to this day, one way or another. So, was this helpful at all? Did it convey a frame to work with?

Anyway, back to work. I still have high hopes that be67 will see the light of day this year, at least in pdf form. There's other things in the works, and I'm currently a bit scattered. But it'll sort itself out, I'm sure of it. Until then, have some artwork for the book (still in the process of collecting those and experimenting with this on Midjourney ...):

Funky Vampire Queen?

 
Ghosttrain, New York, 1967 ...


Summer of Love ... but it's Zombies!

Still undecided about those colors ...





Sunday, July 3, 2022

That's where my mind's at ... (what's new and what's to come!)

I've been busy ... and slow about it. Wanted to write and publish more in June, turns out it wasn't to be. It is what it is, but now I have great news to share, so at last you get a little update here on the blog and another minor publication with some announcements about progress on all the balls still in the air here at the Disoriented Ranger.

First: Another Part in the Anthology Series!

You can get that here!

I finally got around to putting Part 2: D&D and the OSR together. It might come to some as a surprise that this anthology will be mostly talking about the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, it's ins and outs, its potential and some house-rules, but that's just what a huge part of the OSR did when I wrote them posts.

I realized this only after committing to the title of Part 2, and it turned out to be an interesting conundrum: people tend to believe that the OSR is about playing games a special and distinct way, but I found that the OSR had been mainly (at least for some time) about analyzing, interpreting and documenting the origins of the hobby. That's not the sameAs a matter of fact, it means something entirely different in consequence, because when this movement (?) called OSR started, it was about showing that there was still merit to those old games. It was that anti-corporate "Look, this is still fun AND it is free and complete and rich with material!" kind of thinking. It was the old guard still playing the old games and talking about it. It wasn't about idolizing certain prolific figures in the movement for doing something new based on the original designs.

We can say now with hindsight that this process of idolizing (and monetizing) ended up being a huge shift away from the original premise described above. It lead to a romantic reinterpretation of the origins of the hobby and the personality cult aspects lead to very personal turf wars over opinion, politics and money. Now it is what it is.

That shift, however, happened somewhat undetected. Or rather, it ran its course, with some, not gonna lie, beautiful results. Eventually, it had to fracture and now "OSR" means something different and I was stuck with the older, maybe even obsolete spirit of the thing.

Still, the posts collected in this second anthology had been sincere contributions to the OSR instead of being merely looking at games long gone. It's that same spirit that still informy my designs. About that ...

Where's be67 at?

It's happening. The problems are the usual: other than writing it, the game needs artwork, layout, infographics and editing. And while it's written to, say, 90% and editing is already waiting (Tod Foley is doing the honors here, you should check the guy out, he does great work!), there are some other daunting construction sites on this project. It will be done, eventually, and most like Fall 2022 ...

What it does have now is a cover ... sort of. I still can't decide on the color, so:

 

Pray tell: which color should it be?

Other than that it'll come with 8 classes, a conversion guide to use other classes with D&D roots AND some tools for groups to create their own character classes. It'll also feature a completely novel expansion on the b/x combat system as well as a new way to calculate xp. It's a lot, I guess, but all of it based on the original designs and I take care to make that transparent ...

What else is happening?

That's the thing: too much is happening in the world as is, but I keep getting some new ideas every now and then as well. I'll follow up on anything worth sharing in future posts. There might be another game in the works. The pitch is:

Humanity has advanced to melt with machines, but had to flee underground fast as aliens terraformed earth into something very different. Thousands of bunkers got lost in the process. The leader AI has degreed to reconnect or salvage those bunkers and gave the contract to Bunker Busters Inc., because corporate ideology survived the great transition, naturally. And they are still up to no good: in order to save a buck, they'll print poor souls that didn't make the jump to a higher consciousness only to end up on some corporate hard drive instead and they send them into those bunkers to do the job. Players are corporate AI monitoring the process, forcing the prints to do their bidding, if necessary. A rules-lite D&D inspired game that plays in the tradition a roguelike ... randomly generated "prints" that'll often die horribly and bunkers full of deadly surprises and surreal metaplots to manifest through exploration. 
I have some general ideas about that game. It should be fast and random, very light on the combat and big on exploration. The players will be a bit blind as they try to navigate those bunkers through the experience of the so-called prints. And those prints might have different ideas about what they'd like to do. The beauty of it is, that the base character (an AI admin, if you will) can burn through lots of prints and still advance independantly. There will be "losing" conditions like atrophy or infiltration (or being "fired"?), but the "dying" happens mostly to someone else and, I hope, in an entertaining way. It has a cover, too:

You like?

I'll build on that here on the blog for the rest of the year, I think. Play-testing will also start as soon as the core engine is done.

Other than that, I will keep publishing the anthology series (Part 3 should be out end of this month, then work starts for the PoD of that) and Robo-Hitler is also still in the works, but turned out to be most difficult in the art department (it'll take time and I have no controll over that whatsoever). Other projects might be more doable in that regard and might therefor be published earlier. Blogging will continue as it does ... sporadically. I hope I'll be able to produce more content here as well. We'll see.

I'll close with teasing another little side project of mine. Lost Songs of the Nibelungs is not forgotten or laid to rest, it's very much alive, but needs some more work. That said, I've always been a friend of the idea to publish parts of the rules as their own thing and started doing so some years ago. One of those will receive a long overdue revision and expansion in 2022. Behold:

And that's that. A lot to do, but a lot of fun to be had as well. 

Oh, and also check out Part 1 of the anthology series. Totally forgot about that ...



Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Extraordinary Characters in Ordinary Situations VERSUS Ordinary Characters in Extraordinary Situations (right there is your RPG Schism!) Motivation Series Part 2

This is another piece in the prism that the Motivation Series turns out to be ... Not what I intended to write, but what came to me basically by accident: there seems to be a core divide between games that either make rpg challenges mundane by having powerful characters OR making everything challenging by having mundane characters in dangerous situations. Why is that? How does it work? And why aren't others talking about it? Let's see (and yes, this will eventually be about gaming, of course).

You want to start reading at the beginning? Here's Part 1

There's also an Intermission about how computer games shaped our expectations, and you can read that here.

What makes us laugh, divides us ...

So here  is what happened: Pratchett died (bear with me), and no one writes as funny as he did. At least no author I could get my hands on. Sir Peter Ustinov was just as funny, but didn't write as much and died even earlier (which doesn't help).

Now, people will tell you that humor is a matter of taste, and I will tell those people that taste is a matter of specific biological and psychological conditions which need to be understood to make any meaningful contribution to any art we attempt. Doesn't matter how abstract the grip is we get on the topic, we need to have SOME UNDERSTANDING about taste to interact with it. It's disingenious and lazy to try and stop a discussion with "that's just a matter of taste".

Another perspective on humor is that laughing is the spontanious (and possibly shocking) realization of a connection we haven't seen before. Why is it funny when somebody stumbles? Possibly because we didn't realize what movements a body is capable of to desperately keep balance? There is no such thing as "stumbling with grace", which leads to "people take themselves too serious to allow for stumbling". So you could say it's the spontanious insight that we are taking ourselves too serious that makes us laugh when we see others stumble.

... [source]
 Well, different stumblings might stipulate different laughter. A kid playing recklessly doesn't take itself too seriously, but if it stumbles recklessly, it might still make you laugh, maybe for the sheer honesty of it, maybe to signalize the kid that it's not problem to problem to stumble and fall. You just get up and move on.

Oh, and there's always the aspect that we laugh when nothing is really hurt but another person's dignity. If an old lady falls and is at risk to break a bone, you get there and help her and ask her if she's alright. That's not what I'm talking about.

There's also Jackass, so there is a spectrum on how much pain can still be funny ... But that's neither here nor there. What I wanted to show was that humor has reason and has a function in a culture. Or even in general among humans ... and we do know that animals can laugh, which is also very interesting. We instinctively know it is important. It is an easy connector in any conversation. If you can make people laugh earnestly, you know you will get along with them. Just like that.

However, to go full circle: while taste should never be the end of a discussion when talking about creating a specific kind of experience (as that's what we do: design talk), it's very much a marker of preferences that should be taken seriously in order to find out why they exist and how they are, lets say, activated. And Pratchett was a huge and popular marker in that regard. He was the GOAT, without a doubt. And no one seems to be able to crack his formula. His writing doesn't even translate well to other media (other than rpg, maybe, but definitely not for tv).

Always had great artwork, though ... [source]
Why is that, then?

I'd argue that ONE aspect of it is that he described very real people in very bizzare circumstances. Imagine being a photographer for a newspaper, but you are a vampire and using the flash will actually turn you to dust, so you have to take precautions ... Pratchett is full of ideas like that. Undead fighting for their rights in society, politicians dealing with trolls and dwarves and dragons, but those all behave like people you might encounter in daily life, too.

Fantasy and the (British?) 20th Century mindset juxtaposed like that is a huge part of where Pratchett's books draw humor from, often to slyly tell us something about the human condition we hadn't realized yet.

Some good reading [source]
It irked me a long time how he did it and it took me a long time to get there. Incidentally, it wasn't because I'd read one of his books and something clicked for me. No. I bought a book because the premise and the advertisement told me that it actually might be something "like" Pratchett. That book was The Stranger Times by C. K. McDonnell. It is no Pratchett, but it was an enjoyable enough read to actually recommend it. I couldn't put it away, and I had those laugh-out-loud moments I rarely get when reading. Some light Urban Fantasy and my kind of humor (can't say anything yet about the second book, however ...).

Still, didn't click for me right there. Made me think about the issue again, though.

What did the trick was reading another author after that who also was celebrated as very funny, although more in the manner of Monty Python. I dig me some Monty Python, the story sounded rad, so I took a chance (and probably made the mistake to read it directly after the Times). That book was Rober Rankin's Retromancer.

In all honesty, I didn't enjoy it as much as The Stranger Times, and I couldn't put my finger on why exactly that was. The premise is great. Guy wakes up in the Sixties, but it isn't the Sixties he knew. No. Here, it seems, the Nazis had won WW2 by bombing the US into nuclear winter. So that guy gets to rejoin his Master, a great wizard and guru, to set the timeline straight again. A bit of Monty Python, a bit of a Peter Sellers routine, full of great ideas and great little story vignettes.

Great writing, too. I'd have loved to see it as a movie. But as a book, it just didn't work for me. It was in direct comparison to that other book that it dawned on me: the characters in Retromancer are anything but mundane. They are, in many ways, larger than life. Not only "the guru's guru", but his sidekick, the narrator, as well. Not someone you relate to, but a character you know from movies. Superficial, in a sense, and with a "funny" perspective on things that colors the whole story.

A character like that (as in: extraordinary) going for breakfast (as in: doing something ordinary) will have the most extraordinary adventure doing so (goes for a good old english, gets a Bratwurst, or as his aunt puts it "the Führer of all sausages", which I actually found immensely funny). This character will buy some cigarettes, and you'll have the most beautiful little stories about smoking throughout the book. Ordinary things made extraordinary by the extraordinary character ... you get my drift.

There's a theme, even!

You could make the same distinction between the horror Stephen King is summoning versus the horror a Clive Barker will summon. King's characters are real or "mundane" in that we can empathize with them. Barker's are bizzare minds putting a bizzare lens on reality. Two very different qualities, but qualities with the same differentiating element: they either use the ordinary to explore the extraordinary or they use the extraordinary to explore the ordinary.

Same goes for computer games, I'm pretty sure. On the one side you have some open world games where characters start from zero and carve themselves a niche into the sandbox as they see fit and on the other side you have those ultra complex quick time event driven games that hold your hand for the story and most of the progression, but pushing the right buttons at the right time will have a character make some really crazy moves (Arkham Asylum, Metal Gear Rising).

Me, everytime ... damn qte! [source]
And within that spectrum you'll get everything from a S.T.A.L.K.E.R.-style fps with all the freedom to move you could imagine to some Gears of War-style tps on rails but with cinematic qualities. Many computer rpgs fall in between that spectrum as well. It's definitely not true for all computer games, though*.

Either way, it's a thing for sure, and once you are aware of it, you'll find it is a very strong theme in tabletop role-playing games as well. As a matter of fact, I'd go as far as saying that it is one of the distinguishing factors in role-playing games right now. And it is definitely leading to different design choices along the way. Not BETTER or MORE FUN, but DIFFERENT. As in: so different, people will most likely be into one OR the other (or at least more into one than the other).

And that's what this post is about: showing that there is a DISTINCT difference between those two modes of play and that they not necessarily (or easily) mix. It is not an evolution of gaming, it is manifesting a divide that always has been there.

Different styles altogether?

So far we have the outline of the distinguishing factors. On the one side you have rpgs that start with a couple of in some sense ordinary characters (usually a beginners of sorts) who face an extraordinary situation (classically, exploring some dangerous ruins with magic and monster abound). That's your basic early D&D, but most ttrpgs up until the nineties would follow that recipe more or less.

Prince Valiant: The Story-Telling Game was in 1989 an early precurser of that shift we are talking about here, but the big success in that regard was Vampire: The Masquerade. The tag line back then had been very apt, it was a game about playing THE MONSTER. All of a sudden you'd be way above humans in the foodchain, and in a contemporary setting, no less. Still small fries, all things considered, but powerful small fries.

Classic rpg fork [source]
 You could say it was the first time that the power curve in rpgs shifted from being on the system-side to being mostly on the side of the narrative. And that's significant in that once it is established that you can just narrate that you are the MOST POWERFUL CHARACTER OUT THERE (TM), although V:TM offered enough meat with its system that a somewhat prolonged campaign arc was possible.

Still, it turned out to be the starting point for a clear trajectory, with the PbtA games as one high watermark and the Black Hack games as another.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a trend to glorify the original beginner characters from early D&D towards the extraordinary. My guess would be that it has something to do with loading the characters with some meaning they didn't have before, like PUNK, for instance. It's pretty much the Robert Rankin approach described above, where the lense through which the player/character see the world colors everything mundane in some special light.

There's also a massive manga and anime trend to have ordinary people become extraordinary because they end up in extraordinary circumstances (like a fantasy setting, but are actually very capable in that setting compared to the real world (where they might be nothing!). In other words, ordinary characters turned extraordinary because their extraordinary surroundings are just ordinary for them is a classical trope by now, which might explain the appeal in role-playing (which follows the same meta-knowledge metric: players knowing the rules fare better).

Blades in the Dark is a more recent powerful contender for the "extraordinary characters" category as well and The Spire RPG seems to be the newnew hot in that regard (giving players lots of narrative power, for instance). 

D&D 5e tries very hard to be that kind of game but obviously brings a lot of baggage to the table, which will make it a great example for how different those games actually are and how it's more like a spectrum on the user end of things. Because D&D was the original blueprint of all things rpg, it will have always had room for the story-telling gamers.

You can't, on the other hand, play ordinary characters in games that are designed for extraordinary characters only (unless you go for the comedic break of the ordinary character doing ordinary things among extraordinary characters). We tried, actually, in one of our groups once. Was a new group, didn't last, btw. I had offered to DM the WitchCraft rpg and I told the players that it is about powerful characters in an urban horror/fantasy setting.

All agreed and knew what was what, but as soon as character creation started, half the group wanted to play ordinary characters in a horror setting. WitchCraft doesn't work that way and that led to many discussions why there is no tension for the ordinary characters. They just didn't get that they were talking a different kind of game. As I said, didn't work out in the end, and it was more symptomatic that the game played out as it did. But it illustrates my point: original D&D could have been played that way (and there actually are urban fantasy b/x variants out there), WitchCraft was designed to NOT do that.

There's also the little fact that playing the first editions of D&D will grow a character from wimp to god and one could always just start with a more powerful character along that trajectory (Goblin Slayer would make for a D&D campaign like that).**

But who likes to play what and why?  

Different players altogether?

I might have to start with a disclaimer here. First of all, people will change between the "roles" in their life. A loving mother can be a bloodthirsty barbarian on her weekly gaming night. People play to relax. To be someone else or to be among friends or because the gaming immerses them. This is, in a sense, where we connect a bit with Part 1 of the Motivation Series, but only to (maybe) add another facet to it.

Here's the part I'm talking about (5 positive motivations for players to join your game):

  • DOING something meaningful (mainly socialicing with others for a collective experience ... leveling up & campaign play as milestones, those things)
  • LEARNING something meaningful (collecting experiences & testing approaches to reality)
  • COMPETING meaningfully (negotiation, tactics & strategy)
  • BEING someone meaningful (exploring who you are or aren't & why)
  • CREATING something meaningful (a game, an experience, a story)

I'd say that players going for "extraordinary characters" would, going by the 5 types of motivation proposed in Part 1, be mostly among the people motivated by BEING someone special and those aiming to CREATE an experience. COMPETING and LEARNING motivations would gravitate more towards that are challenging and offer some more skill oriented growth (instead of, say, personal growth). Those in it for DOING it as a social activity could go either way, so we'll have an even split among motivation types. Nice!

The new aspect here would be, then, that finding out what actually motivates people in joining your game is actually quite easy. You just ask them if they'd rather play (A) an extraordinary character doing ordinary things or (B) the other way around. There are three possible answers: A, B or "I could go either way, I'm in it to socialize with friends" (or something along those lines ...).

An "I don't know" shouldn't cut it, to be honest. Sure, talk it out, but if one of the three possible answers doesn't appear naturally relatively fast, it would hint (imo) towards a motivation that hasn't anything to do with gaming. Just something to be aware of, I guess.

Just saying ... [source]
One more piece of the puzzle ...

Still not where I wanted to be with this, BUT another important piece, imo, as we will need to talk about what different kinds of role-playing games are out there and why that matters immensely in terms of player motivation. What we got to explore in this post helps shining a light on some of the distinctions.

That said, being aware of the axis described above should be useful in itself as it should help you in finding an understanding about why we play the games we play and why some will work for you and some won't just because of some design choices that aim to please a ecrtain type of player.

By accident or consciously doesn't matter, if you think about it. Sometimes it's just a designer's raw preference that resonates with likeminded people. What does matter, however, is that is not "all the same".

I hope I was able to make my case here and that you guys enjoyed reading this. What do you think the implications are? Did it change your perception about your preferences? Thoughts and opinions are, as always, very welcome.

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If you enjoyed the above, you might like the blog anthology series I started publishing on drivethru. You can get it here and it definitely supports the blog to drop by for the pdf here.

AND I'm still hustling this one: You can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3||, that rpg I wrote, right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). I'm (still, but only until end of June) doing a sale on the game proper ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here! I'd love to hear about that, too.

Just look at that beauty ...

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* I have to figure out how tactic, card and puzzle games figure into that, but I think they might just be something else entirely, leaning towards boardgames and such.

** Okay, here is yet another dimension to this: it is known that many D&D campaign fail when the characters becoem to powerful. Mostly that'd be because the DM didn't shift gears along the power curve and challenged the more powerful characters with something adequate. But in a sense it shows how players who like to play ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, actually don't like it when the game turns that around after a couple of levels. Anecdotal evidence, for sure, but nonetheless. It fits the pattern, doesn't it?

 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

The Disoriented Ranger talks: Gaming Culture (Blog Anthlogy 1)

Yes, this just happened. Something I had announced just got published over at OBS, just a little differently to what I'd thought would happen: we are still celebrating the 10 year blog anniversary. Somewhat. I'll give you the tour ...

It'd make one book, he said!

If you have been around in the last 10 years, you know I didn't write many posts. But when I did, it'd often end up being something lengthy. I like it that way and if you dare to look, there's a lot to look at (and not all of it looking back, ha!). So I scanned what I'd done in the last 10 years, collected all of it, sorted what I'd like to see collected, started compiling what I thought would be the first chapter ... and ended up with 130 pages for that alone, with five more to go.

So I stopped and thought: that'd make a nice pdf for a start of a small series.

Next I had to go deep, see if it holds as a standalone. It is the most general of the six collections, and talking "gaming culture" can be a bit tricky, so caution came natural. After going through this carefully, I think we are good here. I talk commercialisation, community work, social aspects of it all, some econimics, some talk about publishing. Always highlighting some aspect that interested me at the time, but altogether quite a lot to think about, I guess.

Next was layout and some light editing. Now this exists, with the rest well prepared and ready to bounce.

Find it here!
Why bother?

Well, if you ask yourself that question right now, I probably shouldn't try and convince you. So I won't. In my mind this was always something I did for me. I put ten years into this blog, and it's only a little extra work to make the transfer to another medium (pdf) and only a little bit more beyond that to get a PoD. And I really want that book. Or rather, those books (as there will be two now!).

Who knows what the internet will be in ten years from now? Or whenever my kids will be able to read it? We don't know. As a matter of fact, having something in print seems to be a good option right now.

It also always bothered me that old posts are only read by spam bots. So there is that. Having the texts compiled the way I did, allows a different approach to the topics I discussed and allows for different context. I didn't organize those posts chronologically, I went for something more cohesive, hoping the sum of the parts create surplus value. We'll see.

For now, I'm happy this first step is done. I hope you'll enjoy this first compilation. And if you are a long-time reader, there's no better way to show me appreciation for my work here by checking this title out and giving it some love. Goes for all, of course :)

What's to come

You might have wondered. I'm still very close to finishing writing on be67 ... that'll need some editing and layout after that (hopefully all happening this month). Art is in the works. We are good there. It'll be summer, but the pdf will be out asap. PoD would be great for July. I'm working it.

On the side I'll keep doing the anthologies. Here are the other parts:

  • Part 2: D&D and the OSR
  • Part 3: Musings about DMing
  • Part 4: Storytelling Advice
  • Part 5: DIY & Gamedesign
  • Part 6: Theories in Action

I guess I can manage a new one each month ... Then I have to start getting real about that module THE RISE OF ROBO-HITLER. Everything is in place for it and I should get started properly about it in August, aiming for a December publication. Some blogging as well, I guess (that second part about player motivation will be up next week, I hope!). And I've got a couple of other surprises down my sleeve.

We'll be busy here at Disoriented Ranger Publising!

I'll also offer some one shots on roll20. Probably via MeWe? But if here's interest, just drop me a comment and I will keep you informed.

Feels like a new chapter?

Well, it is, in a sense, a logical step to publish some more, especially when I get an opportunity to actually make all of this happen. It's been coming a long time, too. And I still need to write and publish Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (but that I want to be the best I can make, and there's still some way to go for that).

I'll give it all my best shot and I hope you all are along for the ride.

Check out that book, it's just a buck and good readin', too.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

How Computer Games ruined Leveling Up for RPGs (Intermission to the Player Motivation Series)

That part two about motivation is still in the works. It's going to be interesting, but also means some work, so it'll happen. It'll just take the time it needs. Easter, maybe. Anyway, now this occured to me while writing on be67 (and had been a lingering thought for a while, tbh), so I thought I should address it here in the blog as king of an intermission to the Motivation series, since it relates). The thesis is, of course, hyperbole. But there is some merit to it, so hear me out. Oh, and I'm all over the place with this one, so buckle up ...

Where does that come from, 'to level up'?

If anything, characters having levels they can reach through gaining experience points was innovative design at the time D&D originally came out. I'd even wager that it'd been an original design of D&D, at least in pushing the idea to it's limits. I'm guessing here, but it seems plausible that the war games D&D was based on bore the seed of this idea to some extent. Although the term isn't used in Chainmail, for instance, which is one obvious precurser of OD&D. 

OD&D itself has an illuminating passage:

"It is also recommended that no more experience points be awarded for any single adventure than will suffice to move the character upwards one level." (OD&D: Men & Magic, p. 18)
Close, but not quite it. In general, they'll be speaking about 'gaining levels' or 'advancing a level' in all the old D&D books I could get my hands on (OD&D, AD&D 1e, D&D RC ...). 

So the concept of 'gaining levels' is OD&D, for sure. How that was conceived is not public knowledge (nothing I could find by researching it online, that is). OD&D doesn't say 'level up' in any satisfying way shape or form. Same goes for B/X and AD&D 1e (1977). When D&D gaming culture seeped into the first computer games and consoles able to do anything with the concept, gaining levels became a successful trope and the SNES Super Mario RPG from 1996 already uses 'level up' casually, so it's already an idiom then.

It's interesting, isn't it? The term 'to level up' just appeared in the context of gaming* and made it's way into pop culture without anyone questioning it or even thinking about it twice. It's just ... there. Loaded with meaning. How come?

Your guess is a good as mine. My best idea is the popularity of Tolkien that lead to D&D to begin with (and why the game has hobbits!), because The Lord of the Rings, as we all know, has one of the most famous stories about character advancement out there: the change from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White!

The original Leveler? [source]

Aragorn levels up as well, actually, but not in the middle of the story, so it only counts a bit. The thing is, however, that character growth in LotR can be seen as a growth in power, which neatly applies to that famous shift from war gaming to playing individual characters in a skirmish context, which in the end lead to D&D. And that went viral (as much as things could go 'viral' in the 70s).

Furthermore, (fantasy) war games would already offer units with 'experience' as the differing characteristic (Warriors, Veterans, Heroes, stuff like that). So it's not a stretch to assume that all of that came together to form the idea that the limit of playing one character should allow for that character to advance over time ...

As I said, all guesswork. Fact is, the idea of leveling up originates in D&D to the degree that it was the source for all further innovations in that regard. And since D&D never, imo, explored the concept to its full potential, peak popularity of the term should be located with computer and console games as that's how most people today understand it. That comes with implications, of course.

Leveling Up in early D&D is BORING!

To gain a level in D&D wasn't understood as getting more powerful as soon as a certain XP limit is reached. On the contrary, from OD&D onwards all the way through to AD&D 2e there was an extra effort involved to actually gain that level when the xp for it are collected. It was all about playing the class properly or even getting teachers for certain skills (an idea we even can find in obscure places of the D&D RC).

As soon as one fulfilled all the criteria, the new level is gained. D&D also had a barely visible meta structure where gaining a number of levels should lead to a shift in gameplay (name level shifts to domain play which eventually leads to high level play ... but where that second shift is will stay a mystery, since it's never explained properly).

Barely visible, as it wasn't understood completely when the design was conceived (is my guess), which lead to people just playing the first phase and declaring that as the 'sweet spot' because the game starts to fall apart if the shift to the next phase isn't done properly (if you don't shift focus around levels 6 to 9, you still play the same game but it just isn't as satisfying a gaming loop anymore).

As I said, underdeveloped design. Level titles had been another great idea, but all of it was more about describing how the gaming world perceives a character and that has NOTHING to do with what a character experienced or gained. It is given to the character, but it carries no meaning that deepens the connection between character and player. Or only the meaning the GM is able to instill, which might very well end up being nothing.

If I have one main criteria when designing rules, it would be that a rule that isn't used doesn't work and needs changing. That's how I feel about leveling up in D&D. You gain HP, some powers, sometimes you hit better by +1, sometimes your Saving Throws improve, but most of it is marginal and, considering the range of levels the games offer, takes way too long to achieve.

Now consider computer games: you gain a new level instantly with a flashy animation of sorts, you get to chose some benefits for the character and (when done well) all of it seems "meaningful". You achieved something and get an award for it with a little celebration and then we move on with the game. Sometimes you'll even get new items (or item upgrades or pets) just because you leveled up and it's not even questioned where they come from (things just 'manifesting' is another one of those computer game tropes). The fact that you also get more powerful is almost secondary to the emphasis on offering some form of individual customization.

It's a very different approach altogether, but arguably the more succesful design. If a player knows the concept from playing computer games only, a Gamemaster will have a hard time explaining how and why D&D is different. And that leads, more often than not, to disappointment. I have seen this way too often. Character of a new player levels up in basic D&D and they look at me with eager anticipation what's going to happen next. They want bells and whistles and when I tell them they get 1d6 more HP (or whatever) they usually end up confused, asking "That's it? I played 4 sessions of this game to get ... 2 more Hit Points?". I agree. It doesn't meet modern expectations.

[source]

If nothing else, D&D (and other rpgs going by the same premise) using an underdeveloped system for leveling up basically forced designers into copying popular computer game design choices, which lead to neglecting the aforementioned meta structure and ultimately developed into a very bloated version of that first phase with lots of little powers characters can earn between levels. In 5e characters start with the classic D&D equivalent of 3rd level and never really advance beyond Name Level, even if they advance higher. The game doesn't shift gears anymore.

I'd say that's just as bad design as the original design is underdeveloped. But did it ruin leveling up for D&D?

Innovation should have split, maybe?

Computer games took the ball and ran with it, arguably shaping not only popular culture, but also changing what players like to see in a game. Not expect, but actually like. Leveling up is a fun experience in most succesful computer games I know. So much fun, in fact, that the concept ended up being a familiar trope in mangas and anime. It's even used in management circles to express progress ... The term is known and used, is what I'm saying.

The question is, does it translate to rpgs?

Well, in parts it does, in parts it doesn't. Depends on the stories you are telling. Or rather, on how you are telling your stories.

I can see three design approaches here:

  1. Using computer game concepts basically 1:1 (which we see all the time now with the big brands, especially in the advent of twitch streams and the necessity to design games with an audience in mind as well)
  2. Dismiss the concept entirely or at least down to an echo of the original system (levels mainly as flavor, basically, or hybrid systems where you gain xp but buy benefits and powers and it doesn't translate into 'levels')
  3. Innovate anywhere from the point of diversion (peak OSR was exploring that, imo, but didn't gain enough momentum to have a lasting impact other than ACKS)

Personally, I have nothing against making the D&D gaming experience as playful as computer games can be. be67 will feature concepts like that quite excessively, as a matter of fact (as you might have guessed, I started writing the chapter on character progression when the thoughts above occured to me).

What makes bad design, imo, is not the imitation of what's popular with computer games but doing so without understanding the original design to begin with. Add market incentives like popular twitch D&D games (or rather, theater play doing a theme park impression of D&D for an audience that has no idea what D&D is or don't care) and you'll end up with games full of design choices distorted by lazy corporate greed.

[source]
To be totally fair, why should big players like WotC care if you are able play their game for years? The game needs to carry the illusion of functioning for the first couple of levels and should be fun enough to summon the resemblance of its manifestations in popular culture. You can be like Sheldon playing D&D, even buy the t-shirt. Doesn't need to be deeper than that. If that. They are basically milking D&D tropes for money by morphing it into something akin to World of Warcraft.

On the other hand, dismissing the system altogether or going for a hybrid system works but means missing out on one big dimension role-playing games have to offer. Still, very much viable. It leads to shorter campaign cycles for those games (down to being nothing more than one-shots), but that can be a benefit as well. Actually, as far as scope goes, there's lots to explore going from the basic premisses D&D formulated back in 1973, not just campaign play.

And yes, I assume we are still exploring the implications of that first game.

As for the innovation part ... well, that is a loaded proposal, isn't it? Computer games are dominating to a degree that a direct comparison makes role-playing games look bad. Computer games you can play all the time, any time if you pay the moneys for it. You don't need others or can reach likeminded others easily. It's also a market so powerful that lots of money is spent on research and design (although with making money in mind, not necessarily with creating "good" games). Novelty is high with already decades of products worth exploring and more to come.

Actually, if things aren't taking a turn for the worse, we are about to see some genuinely mindblowing technological advances in the near future with ai in vr and ar ... That'll be that. For individuals, it is better gaming if it is considered to be the same.

So one could argue that the window of opportunity to have some meaningful innovation in all thing rpg is closed and done with, which leads to the question "Why even care?". Especially when the popular kids start defining what the game is and that would be something like "analogue computer gaming".

Which is where we end up with the original premise: computer games ruined leveling up for rpgs, because exploring where that would have led if computer games wouldn't have interferred, might not even be beneficial for the hobby at that point. It's gone too far, so it's ruined.

That said, this ain't my conclusion yet ...

Conclusion

For the big finish, I'd say we go and look at this from a First Principle perspective, asking: what can leveling up in a role-playing game do for you? The simple answer would be it supports the campaign arc of a game in a way that makes progress palpable by being part of an important overall structure:

  • Encounters that accumulate to
  • Sessions that accumulate to
  • Level Ups that accumulate to
  • Campaign Phases (name level & epic level gaming) that accumulate to
  • The Campaign

The original design offered campaign play for years on end. To make that work, every aspect of this needs to work flawlessly to elevate the gaming experience to the next higher part of the structure. You leave something out (or not working), the upper parts will fall short (the shortest form where you are still actually playing would be "Encounters that accumulate to A One-Shot).

But leveling up carries another important aspect of the game. This is the part where it connects to the Motivation Series: while all other parts of that hierarchy above are basically offered to the players by the game, leveling up is the only one that directly alters their characters in a way that allows them to manipulate the game on the system side of things. Characters get stronger and grow as a system response and not as something developing out of the narrative. It's where players can tinker with their character's system response, if that makes any sense.

Meaningful choices do matter ... [source]
What I'm saying is, if that's done well, it motivates players to invest the huge amount of time it takes to play an original campaign. And we can learn a lot from computer game design in that regard.

However, computer games work in cycles way smaller than what a proper D&D campaign would need, which has us end at an impasse, of sorts, as creating the demand for visually stimulating novelty-impulses in faster and faster cycles is another well working feature of computer games. So what's the take away?

For me it would be that if designers would not have bowed to popular demand and instead kept working on the original design, we might have now a proper representation of role-playing games in popular culture. Integral part of that would be a design for leveling characters up that helps carrying the social structure role-playing games need to have long campaigns.

Computer games had some neat ideas in that regard, but since playing computer games mostly seek way faster satisfaction cycles mostly for individual players (or with other players being abstracted to digital entities), it doesn't translate easily AND misses dimensions playing as a group in meatspace would add.

That means, for all we could learn from computer games (which is a lot), they also undermined role-playing games so profoundly that, paradoxically, the only thing that really could help role-playing games right now, would be to totally distance them from popular gaming culture. Make it a distinct experience, it's own thing. Put an emphasis on the social aspects of the game and give people some additional value they wouldn't gain from playing computer games (personal interaction and growth, for instance).

To go that way means designing and marketing role-playing games decidedly differently.

Because computer games ruined leveling up for rpgs ...

So what do you guys think? You see what I'm seeing? 

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Still hustling this one: You can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3||, that rpg I wrote, right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). I'm (still, but not for long) doing a sale on the game proper ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here! I'd love to hear about that, too.

Just look at that beauty ...

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* It was used earlier in social sciences to express a shift in social class towards a higher class, but meant that it leveled upwards in a hierarchy. Arguably, 'to level up' in a gaming context means upping ones level ... Or so the distinction is made.