Author Archive for Tavis Allison

27
Sep
13

Spells Recognize Their Own

I am always looking for good ways to give players information. As a Judge I like to talk – part of the fun of the role for me is showing off the wonky knowledge about weird goings-on in fantasyland that would otherwise stay behind the screen – and as a theorist I think it’s important for players to make well-informed decisions.

Players are much more likely to grasp information if they seek it out than if I simply blab on about things they may or may not care about. In the afterschool class, kids whose expectations have been set by modern skill systems will often ask for a Knowledge roll or an Intelligence check when what they mean is “tell me what my character knows about this situation.”

This is a tough moment for an OSR GM. I support the impulse to ask for a knowledge check because the dice add extra significance – if the kids roll a natural 20 they will treat the info I give them as much more valuable than if I just told it to them. However, calling for a knowledge check doesn’t add much to the experience of playing the game apart from the possibility that I will give them the info I want to disclose in a murkier or more expansive way than I’d planned. And skills are necessarily broad and vague; that a character is skilled in monster lore is less interesting to me than whether it was gained from studying bestiaries or having grown up in an aberration-haunted wilderness.

What I really want to know in a knowledge check type situation is why does your character know about the thing you’re asking about and how do you go about figuring out the answer. With this, the dose of information I want to get across can also fill in the group’s understanding of the PC who is asking and the backdrop to the situation they’re in. (Groups that are well-versed in skill systems may get some insight into the character by seeing which skills they have and how high their bonuses are, but I’d like something more concrete and flavorful.)

In last night’s Dwimmermount game I hit on an approach that I liked a lot, given a party in which every PC was an arcane spellcaster. I decided that the process of attuning themselves to the spells crammed into their brain made them an expert on the subject, so that having fireball on your spell list meant you had to have become highly knowledgeable about fire. This worked well because it gives the players the same kind of objectively defined toolkit that you get from a skill system. When an investigative situation comes up it is nice to be able to consult one’s character sheet for options, but “can I use my Knowledge: Arcana?” is to me much less exciting than “does levitate know anything about this?”

Part of what I liked here is that it tells us about the character’s capabilities; Vancian spellcasting worked for Vance because the audience is primed to see how the protagonist will use each of the spells prepared at the start of the story. Anything that increases the group’s awareness of which spells party members have memorized will make it more exciting when that foreshadowed gun is fired. I’m also drawn to the idea of spells being sentient and self-obsessed entities. Asking what fireball reveals about a situation, like casting speak with animals, gives the Judge a chance to roleplay a very different perspective on the world. I figure that conjuring up one’s fireball spell and looking through its eyes reveals a landscape defined by flammability and wind conditions and a perspective only mildly interested in human beings except as potential casters of fireball .

If I was expanding this to cover a more traditional party I might also focus on what languages characters know, as this also offers the chance to get across information into an unexpected light and tells us something about that PC’s capabilities and background.

17
May
13

Playing Domains at War and Papers & Paychecks

As a blogger and a signatory to the Joesky Accords I have a responsibility to talk about play. As a publisher I need to let you know that if you want to back the Domains at War Kickstarter but haven’t yet, you should do so soon because it closes tomorrow, May 18th at 3:32 pm.

These may boil down to the same thing. I’m helping create Domains at War because I enjoy playing it. If you’re also excited about what having a wargame integrated with a RPG system for mass combat and strategic campaigns will mean for your gaming, your Kickstarter pledge is part of that process of creation. Sharing excitement about D@W is good for Autarch as a publisher because it’s in our interests for people to get into the games we make, and it’s good for me as a gamer to learn from what other people are doing with the systems I’m interested in.

You might not share either of these interests, but as a reader of blogs I often find something of value even in reading posts about games that I feel no urge to play. In the case of posts about publishing with Kickstarter, that game is Papers and Paychecks. Here are some of the system-neutral insights it’s generated.

To be a publisher, one should first be a corporation. This is the difference between rolling up a player character to go adventuring and actually descending into a hole filled with deadly traps while wearing your own skin. One of the foundational mistakes in the Dwimmermount Kickstarter was that James didn’t incorporate Grognardia Games. Happily, the potentially dire consequences of doing business as an individual have been averted in this case. We’ve managed to warp the ship off the shoals, but even if it’s wrecked on some other obstacle having Autarch at the helm will mean that all the casualties among the crew will be purely fictional entities.

It is interesting to be running a player character in real life, although usually not in the ways you’d think. Playing a role that’s made distinct from your own by the rules of the game or the laws governing corporate entities gives you the chance to act as if it is you and is not you. I think it comes down to protection from risk. Doing business as a company means that you can always roll up a new character if the current one gets killed, which leads to the same kind of exploration-based, consequence-embracing play we celebrate in games that don’t implicitly require that your guy will survive until the final act.

Autarch is actually more like a chartered adventuring party, and I think that the robustness that comes from making this the fundamental unit of play is as useful in other games as it is in Papers & Paychecks. Original D&D is the story of the world rather than the story of the characters who explore it, but making the party the recurring lens through which this takes place focuses the cumulative actions of the players and makes it easy to bring new actors into the story.

One of the cool things about roleplaying games is that they’re not just an outlet for your DIY creativity, but a chance to participate in the creativity of folks who have talents you don’t. My Night of the Walking Wet game at this year’s Gary Con introduced me to Fred Liner, who had one of the original pieces of Jonathan Bingham’s art that the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter made possible. For Domains at War, Fred pledged for a backer reward that let him choose the subject of an illustration for the book. His description nods to the Walking Wet party in which Mark’s hobbit has a special ability that makes him always appear to be a member of a group of 14:

The foreground of the picture is a small command group with a banner the banner bearer is a dwarf, Snorri One-eye, one of his eyes is a glittering black orb in the hand not holding the banner he carries an axe, his helmet is made of lizard skin. The headpiece of the banner is similar to a roman standard with “The XIV”, the banner, if it can be made out, is a griffon on a white field. The other members of the command group are 2 mages and a cleric. One of the mages specializes in fire magic and the other is a dark, necromancer. To the left and in the background are a of couple siege engines. To the right the rest of the company is in the middle distance advancing on an earthworks. There are 8 figures in this group all soldier types with various weapons with one exception. One of figures in this group should be a scout type in leathers and a cloak that is swirling around him as the cloak transforms into smoke.

Here’s Ryan’s compositional sketches for this idea:

Here’s the final piece:

I find it fascinating to be part of this process in the same way I’m amazed by people in my gaming groups who can do more than one funny voice. Of course, Ryan has a more than professional level of talent, and some of the people I’ve gamed with actually get paid as actors. Still, the personal involvement – the fact that it’s my character’s foolhardiness they’re talking about in that funny voice – means I value it much more than any exercise of skill I would appreciate as an outsider.

The last thing to say about Papers & Paychecks and other kinds of non-real-life gaming is that they fundamentally cross over. You can play Metamorphosis Alpha and you can play AD&D, but how much cooler is it to be transported from one to the other by a wish spell and realize that your campaign encompasses both of these multitudes? Likewise you could be a publisher and not play your games, or (more happily) a gamer who doesn’t feel the urge to aspire to what Gygax perhaps self-servingly saw as the ultimate level of player achievement in Master of the Game, but the greatest enjoyment comes from combining the two.

Here’s a game I ran in which the players led armies across the original outdoor map, seeking to be the first to extract the riches of Dwimmermount:

You can read more about the session from Tenkar’s perspective here. The thing I learned from it as a gamer is that I tend to make my scenarios front-loaded with choice. As a player I love the stage where we spend a long time coming up with a plan after considering all options and making elaborate preparations, and there’s a legitimate argument for including some of this even in a one-off game. Given a finite amount of time for play, though, spending more on these choices means having less room in which they can become meaningful by creating consequences at the table.

Something I’ve been doing with the character generation templates in the ACKS Player’s Companion might suggest a workable intermediary. You roll 3d6 for starting wealth, and this gives you the package of thematically-related equipment and proficiencies that your village elders or whoever have invested in providing for you. The option I give players if they don’t love that template is to swap it for any of the lower ones on the table and pocket the difference in gp value. This is awesome not just because it creates choice but because it immediately creates a context in which it can become meaningful. Why did your forefathers want your Dwarven Fury to be a Foehammer? How did you become a Vermin Hunter instead? These are juicy questions to launch directly into from character creation.

Here’s a snapshot of the final turn in my spur-of-the-moment recreation of the Battle of Arsuf with Paul, which you can read more about here.

The thing I learned here is about limits of attention rather than time. When I ran a Domains at War battle at Gary Con, it was the switch between playing a commander of units and zooming in to focus on your leader’s actions as an individual hero that I found most exciting and immersive. At that game, we had multiple players per side so each of us could manage the decisions about when to make that switch. When Paul and I played we were each running a general and three commanders, and the tactical decisions they were making for the divisions of thousands of troops each one led occupied our complete mental bandwidth.

One mark of a good game is that it can expand or collapse to meet the circumstances around the table. For me, Domains at War does this really well. I enjoyed the ebb and flow of battle lines seen entirely from an eagle-eyed commander’s view as much as I did the more heroism-focused game at Gary Con in which characters sometimes duked it out man to man. If we didn’t have enough attention for either we could have used the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Campaigns, and the game was fun in the Dwimmermount session above even when no mass combat ensued at all!

This flexibility is one of the key features of Domains at War’s inspiration Chainmail – sometimes you use the man-to-man system, sometimes the fantasy combat table, sometimes it’s purely unit-based. In the afterschool class when we started out playing 4E, I saw the importance of collapsibility. I’ve had great times with 4E’s uber-tactical resource management, but it breaks down when you play it with a group of kids with the attention span of 8 to 12 year olds and in the confines of an 80 minute session. I’m eager to use D@W more in my life as a gamer because of the extra degrees of expansion and contraction it offers, letting the story of the world be told at a number of scales from player characters in nightmare mazes to rulers of mighty hordes.

17
Apr
13

Mass Combat as Sport, Mass Combat as War

D@WThe Kickstarter for Domains at War launched yesterday, and my fellow Autarch Greg Tito recommended it on Facebook by saying “Domains at War is probably the most versatile fantasy wargame I’ve played.”

Versatility is an important feature to have in something you’re going to use in a RPG campaign, because of what S. John Ross said

may be the most unique feature of RPGs: tactical infinity. In Chess, the White Queen can’t sweet-talk a Black Knight into leaving her be; in Squad Leader, a group of soldiers can’t sneak through an occupied village dressed as nuns. In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that’s a feature that thrives on anarchy.

Game systems cope better with this infinite possibility than stand-alone games. One of the first things the original D&D set tells you is that you should have several other games on hand before you start playing, which you’ll then glom together to make a Frankengame.

Dungeon! is a great game, deeply linked to D&D thematically and developmentally, but it’s not on the Recommended Equipment list. I think this is because it is the closest to what ordinary players would recognize as a game instead of a set of rules for making your own game: it’s immediately playable out of the box, no elaborate customization needed, which means that it can’t be easily incorporated into a RPG. It’s only useful for gaming out the outcome of dungeon-crawling this one dungeon represented on the board, with these specific heroes printed on these cards. As a result, Dungeon! manifests in OD&D not as itself but as an abstracted set of principles for dungeon-crawling activities like finding secret doors, gauging risk/reward by dungeon depth, and earning victory points by bringing treasure out of the dungeon.

Outdoor Survival fares little better. This one is more of a hobby game, and less of a mass-market ready-to-play boardgame: the rules provide for several different scenarios, each of which introduce variant rules. It makes the Recommended Equipment list mostly because its hex map is such a useful play aid for RPGs (which is why we’ve included a version of it an add-on reward for Domains at War). You’re not encouraged to actually play a game of Outdoor Survival to resolve your character’s wilderness travel, although doing so may help make sense of D&D procedures like getting lost that are abstracted from its rules.

Chainmail is the game that actually makes it whole into OD&D. With the exception of the “alternate combat system”, you are encouraged to set aside playing a RPG whenever your characters get into a fight, at which point you’ll translate the shared imaginative space from D&D into the setup conditions for a Chainmail battle. Not coincidentally, this is the one on the list that, to the uninitiated, looks least like a game and most like a self-help manual in some esoteric discipline.

Domains at War can be as versatile as Greg says because, like its inspiration Chainmail, it’s a game system rather than a game. This DIY element means you can use it to recreate ancient or medieval battles from real-world history as easily as you can use it to resolve mass combat situations from your favorite hit-point-and-armor-class RPG. Domains at War’s default scale is 1 unit = 120 foot soldiers, 60 cavalry, or 30 giants, but it’s simple to adjust this to play out engagements between a large adventuring party and its mercenaries vs. an orc lair, or titanic conflicts with thousands of troops on each side.

ACKS Afterschool

That said, the goal of Domains of War is to present a system that’s quick and easy to use to generate a game. It succeeds at this well enough that nine-year-olds all jumped up with having had to sit still all day can learn and play it in an afternoon, while still retaining enough complexity that their impulsive tactical decisions have consequences.

The kind of versatility that makes Domains at War most valuable when incorporated into a RPG is that you can use it for both combat as sport and combat as war. In the game at right, I set up the forces opposing the kids’ characters to give them a well-balanced challenge, because I wanted the process of playing out the battle to be enjoyable in its own right. It took a long time to get the system presented in Domains at War: Battles to the point where it can be used to set up a game that’s fun in itself rather than just an exercise in dice-based resolution. That’s what I wanted in that particular after-school class, and it made sense in the imaginary scenario of the campaign.

In this afternoon’s session, however, it’s entirely possible that the kids will choose to lead their surviving armies somewhere else on the hex map and run into a wilderness encounter that’s not at all balanced. In a game like D&D 4E that’s strongly designed for combat as sport, this would be a problem because every combat is a symphony of interlocking choices that takes a long time to play out even when the outcome is more or less pre-ordained. Using the detailed tactics in Domains at War: Battles to dice out the kids’ armies wiping out a tribe of goblins, or getting stomped by an entire ogre village, would be no fun for the same reason. Here’s where the abstract resolution system in Domains at War: Battles – or the Free Starter Edition which you can download at DTRPG right now – shines. It’s got just enough dice rolls to make squishing goblins feel satisfying without taking up the whole session, or to make having one’s troops exterminated by giants while the PCs run and hide feel like a misfortune instead of a lengthy ordeal. And the rules for armies attempting to avoid detection by enemy forces in Campaigns make even the attempt to run from enemies fun and gameable.

Even accepting that most players didn’t use both Chainmail (which itself encompasses three different resolution systems) and the “alternative” d20 system to handle OD&D combat, old-school games work well in sandbox play because they facilitate their own versions of this toggle between interesting, slow, and detailed and trivial, fast, and abstract. As a result, you can do sport and war with the same rules. When a major fight comes up in the White Sandbox, the pace of the game naturally goes into bullet time; I’m very careful with the initiative count, and each player’s turn takes a long time as they search their character sheet for the half-remembered magic item or special ability that might save the day. If it’s a random encounter with nothing more at stake than a few hit points here or there, everyone accepts that I drop the individual initiative count-down and ask everyone to roll to hit as one big volley; we all want to get back to the exploration or logistics or narrative-building which the combat is interrupting. To my mind, the way the overall Domains at War system can be used to mirror either of these modes is its single biggest asset to me in running a RPG campaign.

16
Apr
13

Dungeons & Dragons In a Theater Near You

Two D&D-related plays are running this April: SHE KILLS MONSTERS is at the Steppenwolf in Chicago until 4/21, and GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA: A HERO IS BORN is at the New Ohio Theater in New York until 4/27.

GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA

I haven’t seen this one yet, but I can say that:

  • it’s based on a true story of a gamer couple who become folk heroes following “a theft so large and brazen that even law enforcement officials admit some admiration for it”
  • the coverage in the NY Times that inspired the playwright is remarkable for presenting RPGs as the opposite of a predisposition to crime:”Mr. Dillon, who regularly led long sessions of the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, dreamed of doing something grand with his life… Friends of Ms. Boyd and Mr. Dillon say they never drank alcohol, took drugs or smoked, preferring books, movies, music and role-playing games for entertainment.”
  • the play’s production company, New Georges, is making a concerted effort to reach out to gamers, including a D&D page on their website and weekly pre-show games of D&D held in the theater every Friday at 7 pm
  • this Friday the 19th I’ll be running a scenario I developed for the Tower of Gygax, as this format’s audience participation, short playtime, and fast turnover are great virtues in running games in unconventional settings. (Unfortunately I’ll be arranging for another DM to fill my shoes on the 26th. Also unfortunately I didn’t post this in time to say “hey go play with DM Andy Action of 2 Skinnee J’s on the 12th!)
  • if you want to check it out on any of these Fridays, they’re offering complimentary tickets to the DMs to share with their gaming circles: I certainly plan to take them up on this offer at 8pm this Friday. See below for details!

New Georges presents
GOLDOR $ MYTHYKA: A HERO IS BORN
a new play by Lynn Rosen
developed with & directed by Shana Gold

APRIL 3 to 27

Wednesdays thru Saturdays @ 8pm     Sundays @ 5pm

Mondays @ 7pm      opens April 8

THE NEW OHIO THEATRE

154 Christopher Street

(between Greenwich & Washington in the far West Village)

tickets   $25 / $35 premium seats
Mondays: pay-what-you-will OR ROLL OF THE DIE (at the door only)
Fridays: enter the world of Dungeons & Dragons!  starts at 7pm in the lobby; curated by D&D consultant Rusty Thelin
Sundays: late brunch! FREE McClure’s Bloody Marys & crinkle-cut chips!
www.smarttix.com or call 212.868.4444

Fun and appropriate for kids, say, 12-ish and up!

WATCH, IF YOU DARETH, as love and hunger collide most fantastically with the elusive American dream. In hearty games of Dungeons & Dragons, young Bart and Holly escape the dreary reality of hauling money all day in armored transport vehicles. When jobs are lost and the boss starts looking at Holly funny, escape becomes reality, releasing Goldor & Mythyka upon the world. Thusly, lucre shall be heisted! Throngs shall cheer their criminal exploits!

And Have Nots will rule the day!  Until…

SHE KILLS MONSTERS

I blogged about the premiere of this play at the Flea Theater before seeing it, but never got around to reporting “hey this is really awesome!” The frame story follows a woman who comes back to her home town after her younger sister’s death in a car crash. Big sis finds little sis’s D&D campaign notebook and, seeking to understand her better, convinces that gaming group to reform and run her through the adventure it describes.

Overall SHE KILLS MONSTERS is fantastic – funny, action-packed, and well written. If you’re in Chicago at the right time, you wouldn’t do wrong to invite anyone you know to go see it. For gamers in particular, you can be reassured that this is an accurate and sympathetic portrayal of the role-playing experience. Following one of the performances in NYC, I organized a panel about how RPGs relate to theatrical performance. Here are some reasons SHE KILLS MONSTERS is especially worth checking out in this light:

The frame story allows the audience to be led through the process of learning what a RPG is about. Our viewpoint character is initially awkward about sitting down and playing let’s pretend with her sister’s friends. As she gets into it, the staging has her and the GM sitting and talking while in the background the events described are being acted out. Soon big sis is fully into the fantasy – the actor is dressed up like the character, grooving on killing monsters as promised – and then the play cuts back to the mundane reality of being in a room rolling dice.

A gaming group is first and foremost a social gathering. I’m aware of being in a room with other human beings with whom I’m looking to have a good time. Part of the enjoyment of the game is then appreciating the imaginative performance of these people; I’m not just cheering the hobbit Lucky as he delivers the killing shot to the Beast Lord, I’m also moved by his player Quendalon’s description of these events. To the extent that the game is immersive and compelling, I care about Lucky and want to learn about how he overcomes challenges. Still, this is just a shadow of how much I care about my friends and want to get to know them better through the lens of gaming. The narrative of SHE KILLS MONSTERS gets this right – little sis’s gaming notebooks and the stories told about her by her gaming group reveal an inner self otherwise hidden from the world – but it’s the way this story is told through the medium of the theater that sells me on the idea.

In a film like Heavenly Creatures which likewise plays with the link between reality and imagination, the fantasy sequences are neither more nor less real than the depictions of the people imagining them. Special effects aside, both are just images flickering at 60 frames a second. As a rule, I prefer watching movies to seeing a play because  the awareness that I’m seeing people acting dramatical tends to inhibit my immersion into the story. As a way to explore what a RPG is like, though, theater seems to me exactly the right tool for the job.

As the audience for a play, I’m normally judgemental: watching people act rarely convinces me I’m seeing another reality the way the illusions of film can. When playing a RPG, I’m not just a spectator evaluating others, I’m also a participant eagerly trying to get to another reality. The need to be forgiving of my own ham acting in the service of this goal means that I’m full of charity and good will towards my other players’ own turns on the imaginary stage.

In the frame story, I’m aware that I’m watching someone on a stage, acting out the hesitancy faced by someone who wants to be cool and adult as they try to get into the silliness of playing a RPG. When I see the character they’re playing starting to sink their teeth into the game, and then in the next scene the actor is dressed like the character in the role-playing game going wild with the stage fighting and whooping out over-the-top battle cries, it’s a great dramatization of why RPGs are awesome. Here is Zak’s famous observation about ironic distance in the form of a play; I’m simultaneously aware that I’m seeing a person, and seeing a person pretend to be something they’re not, and in my mind’s eye seeing the thing they’re pretending to be. Being a gamer trains me to cheer on this process and do everything I can to help with the make believe, and being a good play means that SHE KILLS MONSTERS keeps getting energy out of the frame shifts the same way that a RPG feeds on breaking the action to make out-of-character jokes or to admire the fact that it’s your friend who is coming up with these wild inventions and impromptu dialogue.

In the panel after the show, we talked a bunch about the idea that a key difference between RPGs and other theatrical forms is the way that RPGs combine spectator and audience. Nick Fortugno said that plays have to be good in an Apollonian sense, worthy of being held up for objective appraisal; trying to appeal to some imaginary audience of theater critics would immediately squelch a roleplaying game.  SHE KILLS MONSTERS appealed to me as a gamer because it showed the process of conjuring an imaginary space, but at the end of the night I realized that it also appealed to my desire as an audience member to sit back and be entertained by people more talented than me, at no effort to myself.

If one of the high moments of your play is going to be a puppetry gelatinous cube, it helps to have the audience in the mindframe of gamers eager to imagine that the GM’s amateurish sketch is whatever it’s supposed to be. But I wouldn’t pay for the experience of being a spectator for the exact same roleplaying session twice, and if I were going to be anywhere near Chicago this week I’d eagerly see SHE KILLS MONSTERS again.

04
Feb
13

OSR 2.0 and the ACKS Player’s Companion

The Player’s Companion for the Adventurer Conqueror King System is now available in PDF and as a hardcover + PDF bundle.  If this is a thing you’ve been waiting for, go order it now. When you get back I want to talk about what it means for the current phase of the OSR.

At Gen Con last year I gave a seminar on the Old-School Renaissance in which I said the OSR was dead. This wasn’t a point I expected to make, and it depends on the idea that the OSR is or was an entity like the Roman Empire, where being alive means it has borders that it defends against its enemies and can expel people from if they don’t meet the requirements for citizenship. By this analogy “the OSR is dead” looks a lot like “the OSR has won“. More people than ever use Roman numerals and live in representative democracies now that the emperor can’t send centurions to enforce the right way to do it. Likewise, it’s easier than ever to find a group of gamers who are eager to play in the old-school style now that it’s spread past the point where old-school cred is a requirement for entry.

Over at Greyhawk Grognard, Joe Bloch has a post about the OSR Phase II that uses less incendiary terms to make many of the same points I cited at that Gen Con seminar:

  • The level of philosophical analysis has decreased dramatically both on the blogs and message boards. If the job of the OSR was to analyze and rediscover the essentials of old-school play, I feel like this job has been done. (Playing at the World can fly the “mission accomplished” banner for the subset of historical analysis). The folks who started out pursuing these questions have, if not reached consensus, at least publicly worked out their own positions in enough detail that newcomers can dive as deep as they like to gain an understanding of OSR philosophy. If there are burning philosophical issues left that are specific to the OSR I can’t think of them, and I think it’s notable that our most consistently brilliant philosopher is now working on carrying his line of analysis outside our scene’s boundaries to games belonging to other movements and to the nature of roleplaying systems in general.
  • The scene now focuses an enormous wave of practical application, including many more reviews of new products, analysis of older non-D&D games, and organization of face-to-face and virtual events. One of the reasons we started The Mule Abides was to share a perspective from New York Red Box’s regular engagement in TSR-era D&D, mixed with other old- and new-school games, that seemed unique. That’s no longer true. Old-school play is very popular and diverse at nerdNYC’s quarterly convention Recess, and I bet you’re seeing the same thing happening through hangouts if you’re on G+.

I think it’s significant, although Joe doesn’t make a point of this specifically, that much of this practical application is also commercial. For example, here’s the “mission accomplished” banner that marked the Player’s Companion having shipped all of its rewards to backers of its Kickstarter last week:

Here’s why I think increased commercial activity in the OSR matters:

  1. Each time that someone starts a business in the OSR, they’re betting on its permanence and popularity. When I run along the Hudson after dark I often surprise rats on the pavement between the river and the park. It turns out that the speed at which they try to scamper away is close enough to my jogging pace that I can chase them for minutes at a time. I enjoy this activity quite a bit, and NYC being NYC no doubt I could find other weirdos who’d also find it fun. But before I launched a adventure tourism enterprise around river-rat chasing I’d have to be pretty sure that there was a regular enough supply of runners and rats to keep the business afloat. 
  2. Commercialism fosters professionalism. As a blogger if I say “I’m going to write a multi-part series of posts about moving into the dungeon” but never do, I feel sort of bad but don’t lose any sleep over it. I only realize why this is an idiom when I’ve taken people’s money for a thing, there are delays in delivering it, and more nights than not I wake up frantic with dream-logic solutions, still carrying on imaginary conversations with upset backers, etc. I aspire to honor all my commitments but there’s no denying that the commercial ones carry more weight and are more likely to get done.
  3. Businesses seek to expand their markets. One of the first OSR controversies I was involved in was TARGA’s plan to create an outreach program for old-school play. It foundered over a number of things that seem outdated, including questions about whether it was even desirable to bring in outsiders. Now that it’s clear that outsiders are extremely interested in our thing and eager to spend their gaming dollars to find out about it, outreach stops being a community question like “what kind of missionary should we send to the South Seas” and becomes an individual one like “should I go pan for gold in California” – or, to carry on the OSR is dead analogy, “go loot the treasures left behind by the fall of the Roman Empire’s boundaries”. Even when I’m not trying to sell anything I think expansion is a good thing. I recognize the value of having the OSR’s borders hotly defended back when a core group needed to be undiluted long enough to define and tackle the key philosophical issues, but I really like how easy it is nowadays to to find common ground rather than fight turf wars.

The remainder of Joe’s post talks about published material he sees as exemplifying a shift towards OSR phase II. He includes a number of games that I’ve talked about before as second-wave retroclones. This phrase balances looking backwards (the “retro” in retroclone) and forwards, with the presumption that there will be a progression of waves, each building on the last the way the second-wavers built on the original OSRIC, Basic Fantasy, Labyrinth Lord, and Swords & Wizardry. The Player’s Companion is the first supplement for ACKS, and it’s considerably more progressive and less retro.

ACKS features several things that I think go beyond looking backwards and make genuine additions to the canon. Its economy was one I focused on in the post about building blocks of the next wave of retroclones. By this I mean not just the integrated structure that makes the price of swords line up with the wages of a swordsmith and the cost to field an army of swordsmen, a thing I admire but was never a problem for a GM as loosey-goosey as myself. The contribution from ACKS’ economy that I only vaguely realized had been lacking in my OD&D-based White Sandbox campaign was the way it contextualizes the heroes in the game world. Some vagueness about what’s beyond the dungeon was ideal at the start of a play-and-find-out campaign, but at the stage where they started looking to make a mark on the town and wilderness with their newfound riches and power, I found that I had no basis to adjucate key questions like “how far do we have to go to find someone who will buy a scroll much too potent for us” and “if the local ruler wants to challenge me to a duel, how tough is he?” For a sandbox game where you don’t have details all worked out for every society the PCs might visit, nothing beats ACKS’ brilliant insight that, if most XP come from bringing gold back to civilization, you can use the size of any given civilized area to determine on the fly how many heroes it has and how much of its resources they’re likely to control.

Melee combat, and specifically the linear fighter/quadratic wizard thing, is another problem that my White Sandbox players were frustrated by & ACKS solved.  One reason the OSR is so devoted to B/X D&D is that Moldvay’s presentation of melee is so tight. Many of us may have sought out the old-school in conscious rejection of 4E’s mathy talk of the sweet spot for combat effectiveness, but there’s no denying that this kind of thinking is part of our zeitgeist, nor that a finely honed balance between heroism and lethality is a great asset for a fantasy RPG. ACKS takes this lineage of the “alternate combat system” already refined through multiple waves under TSR and passed on to us via Labyrinth Lord, bolts on equalizers for fighters in the form of a damage-by-level bonus and the ability to cleave, and preserves the narrow level cap it needs to not break down. (The mortal wounds/tampering with mortality charts have worked to solve another combat-related problem in the White Sandbox, the transition from the early stage where we wanted it to be easier to survive past zero hit points and the post-raise dead stage where we wanted death to be more consequential.)

Keon and Leo

These guys are my family’s second and third waves. Their parents are now old enough that any subsequent waves will have to actually be clones.

So let’s imagine you’re looking to make your own perfect system for fantasy roleplaying, which is to say that you are a gamer. Even if you accept that ACKS’ work on economic and combat balance is an improvement you want to incorporate, you’ll want to leave lots of the other choices we made in ACKS on the scrap heap and come up with your own best solutions. Here’s where the Player’s Companion comes in. While writing ACKS, Alex Macris was also figuring out the  design space for two key elements of the Moldvay miracle, character classes and spells, and this book is where he puts the guidelines in your hands. In my next post I’ll show how you to can use the Player’s Companion like a Rosetta stone to drive other kinds of classic gaming with the ACKS engine, or to pioneer an all-new approach in your own third wave retro-clone.

However, I’ve already gone blah blah blah for a long time and the baby strapped to my body will soon wake up. I hope you’ll accept that attaching these pictures of our newborn twins is a kind of negative-space Joesky tax, since otherwise I’d be tempted to put them in a post all their own which would have no gaming relevance at all.

24
Jan
13

Gygax Magazine Unboxing and Beyond

If you’ll be in Brooklyn this Saturday I look forward to seeing you at the Gygax Magazine unboxing! If so be sure to RSVP via their website, if not there will be streaming video of the event and some other online goings-on that’ll make checking the site that day worth your while.

Gygax unboxing

To the right is the flyer from the event, reusing an illustration by Ryan Browning – the PCs to the right killing orcs with ventriloquism belong to him and Zak, plus my elf Locfir from the original Dwimmermount PbP. Here’s the text on the back:

GYGAX MAGAZINE

PREMIERE ISSUE RELEASE

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

1:30 PM

* Magazines available for purchase at 2:00 PM

Join us for a full day of gaming: D&D, Savage Worlds, Marvel RPG, and more

Plus 1st edition AD&D with Dwarven Forge!

I’ve had the pleasure of helping the rebirth of TSR from the start – I think only founder Jayson Elliott and Games Content Editor James Carpio are senior to me. For a while my title was Guy Who Introduces Jayson To Former TSR Employees which was a lot of fun, but around the time that the magazine emerged as the most promising thing TSR could do as its launch Jayson got sucked up actually making that happen and I became busy with other stuff too.

Once the magazine was thrust into the spotlight the title I chose for myself was Events Coordinator, although something with outreach in the name would probably be better. The reason I’m excited to be part of an ambitious, old-fashioned print magazine is the opportunities it affords to draw gamers together the way the letters column in wargaming zines did for guys on the magazine’s masthead like Tim Kask and Ernie Gygax, and to be the mystique-laden physical artifact that draws outsiders in the way zines like Factsheet Five did for the generation Jayson and I come from.

To be an Events Coordinator is well and good, except that I have twins on the way next week (I didn’t commit to running anything at the event in case they were early) and a day job and a hobby job with Autarch so I do not lack for interesting times. Thus if you want to see Gygax Magazine become a force for making cool events happen you should not expect me to do it all for you. Specific ways you can help:

  1. If there is something happening that you think the kind of people who’d dig Gygax Magazine would enjoy, let me know and I’ll add it to the calendar. Eventually we’ll have a more formal way to do so but for now you can comment here or email/G+ me at barnar.hammerhand@gmail.com.
  2. If you are in the tri-state area – which is the low-hanging fruit we can use to demonstrate “here are the kinds of things Gygax Magazine thinks its audience might enjoy” – is Bushwick outside your comfortable travel range?
silent barn

This shot from the DIY Dungeons @ Silent Barn is fan service for the kids in my afterschool class who’ll excited to see the Minecraft creeper. Also pictured: Inna from Butter the Children, who headlined the show later that night.

This Monday DIY Dungeons put on a successful event at Silent Barn, a DIY space that’s just opened in a bigger location, 603 Bushwick Avenue, at the beginning of the year. They’re also doing a Babycastles game jam so are clearly our kind of peeps.

The thing Jayson and I were thinking is missing from our local gaming scene is a purely social gathering. We’ve got convention gaming with nerdNYC’s quarterly Recess, Organized Play and the self-organized kind with the world’s biggest D&D Meetup group, plus groups predominantly focused on actual play like New York Red Box. The thing we don’t usually have (and NYRB always seems eager for more of) is a chance to hang out with one another and other gamers and our friends who maybe aren’t gamers yet but are open to having a good time. This kind of get-together is easy to organize when it’s nice outside, but in the winter a place like Silent Barn is ideal. However, nerdNYC’s Terry, for whom I have mad respect, thinks that Bushwick is one subway transfer too many for most of the folks who come to Recess.

If you have an informed opinion on these matters I am eager to hear it. If not, I encourage you to think about where you might want to get together with folks in the place where you live, and then make it happen and tell me about it so I can put it on Gygax’s calendar.

16
Jan
13

On Dwimmermount, And Failure

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, maybe in the comments to this post about Gygax, Arneson, and a music video. My mom was a little girl when Hawaii became a state. She’s about the age of D&D’s original gangsters, and the vogue for Hawaiian shirts and hula hoops affected her the way Tractics did them. The world wasn’t changed by my mom’s lifelong devotion to hula dancing, but it did mean my childhood was surrounded by the paraphernalia of a hobby most people left behind decades ago.

In 2000, her halao, a hula group made up of dancers who commuted between Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio (for non-Texans, this is a whole lot of six-mile hexes) to practice together, was the first in the continental-US-other-than-California to be invited to the Merrie Monarch festival. This would be hula’s equivalent of Gen Con, if Indy had this big contest we all cared about so much that just being allowed to enter was a big deal.

A women’s group competing in the Merrie Monarch festival. We had all these kinds of cowrie shell necklaces and coconut shell bras around the house when I was a kid.

The day my mom was getting ready to go on stage – braiding all those grass skirts takes a long time – the rest of my family,  my fiancee, and I went swimming at a black sand beach on the big island. After a while the rest of us went in to build sand castles while my dad looked for coral with a snorkel. At one point we looked up and wondered if he was swimming a little far from shore; when we looked again a minute later he had drowned. My brother and I swam out to try to rescue him, but our attempts at CPR failed.

Kehena Beach can be seen in the background of this shot. Most of the folks who helped with the rescue weren’t wearing any clothes.

Like many gamers I grew up devoted to science fiction, especially everything Robert A. Heinlein ever wrote, and I was strongly influenced by its cult of competence. Years later, in a class on SF, Chip Delany identified this as one of the genre’s fixed ideas – the delusion that an exceptional person should be able to do everything exceptionally well, whether it’s to skin a squirrel with your boot or fix a gourmet meal or repel an alien invasion – but it was gospel to me as a kid. I never built a bomb shelter using rolls of toilet paper as radiation filters the way Heinlein told me to in Expanded Universe, but I did lots of other stuff, from taking karate lessons to getting certified as an emergency medical technician, for the time when my training might mean the difference between life or death. When the time came, I failed.

One failure followed another. The Ph.D towards which I’d invested five years of my time and a bunch of other people’s money stalled and eventually sputtered out, a long painful process of disappointment for my mentor, my friends, and others who’d counted on me to deliver my thesis. For a long time I felt like a loser, hiding myself away in shame to avoid evidence of how I’d let people down or fantasizing about grandiose ways I could re-establish myself as an exceptional person. Eventually I got over the idea that I deserved to have life suck forever; the decision to get myself into therapy was a key step, but that and its interesting relationship to what we do in roleplaying sessions is for another post.

This one is about Dwimmermount. If you supported its Kickstarter, or if you’re reasonably attuned to an online community that contains folks who did, you’ll have heard that the project is in some trouble. As the person at Autarch who’s been the public face for the Dwimmermount crowdfunding effort, I’m doing all I can to make sure that what it promised is delivered – although, since James has both the funding and the copyright that are required to release his work, I’m not in the best position to do so. Autarch is still looking for solutions, but everyone’s best efforts can never banish the possibility of failure.

I can’t talk about what’s going on with Dwimmermount author James Maliszewski and how it relates to the project’s problems – mostly because he’s not telling me, and the desire to respect his privacy covers what’s left – but here’s what I can say from my experience following my father’s death.

  • There are worse things in the world than a delayed Kickstarter or a pre-ordered gaming product that fails to ship. People have to take responsibility for their actions, sure, but the reality is that life contains some tragic fucking shit and the only thing that makes it bearable is our compassion for one another.
  • Sometimes failure is a way to realize you’re on the wrong path. I’d been going nowhere as a grad student long before my dad died, and although this isn’t the way I would have chosen to get there, I’m now happier than most of the people I know who continued down the track I got jolted out of.
  • You have to fail if you’re going to learn from your mistakes. The biggest thing I had to overcome was the feeling that I was a failure, and since that’s all I’d ever be there was no point in trying. The flip side of this is the science-fiction fantasy that I should be good at everything, meaning the best way to evade the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t so was to avoid doing anything at which I might fail. Either way, I was shutting myself off from the opportunity to see that you win some, you lose some, and meanwhile it’s fun to play the game.

Autarch is a new company, and we’re still making rookie mistakes. Going into the Dwimmermount project, I felt like Autarch’s success with the Adventurer Conqueror King Kickstarter, and the failure of mine for the Arneson Memorial Gameday, had given us considerable expertise. I see now that those those were relatively smooth hits or misses. We’ve learned a lot more from a project that’s been rocky and whose fate remains uncertain; we won’t again put ourselves in a position where we’re holding the bag and have left ourselves so little control over the outcome. Although I still think there’s a valuable role for crowdfunding to act as the testing ground and collaborative inspiration for projects early in their development cycle, the Kickstarter currently on Autarch’s drawing board, Domains at War, will have a basically finished draft ready to give to backers as soon as they pledge and will explicitly be seeking funds just to illustrate, print, and ship a thing that already exists.

Kickstarter is a new thing under the sun too. Without being privy to their process, the fact that they are growing successfully means they must be learning from their mistakes. I’d like to think that the requirements for project creators to discuss risks to backers, which have been put in place since we launched Dwimmermount, might have helped us avoid another serious mistake in not being transparent from the start about Autarch’s contract with James and the ways it could go wrong. But hindsight is misleading, and there are still many ways that Dwimmermount could come out right.

To bring this back to gaming and pay the Joesky tax, roleplaying lets you make mistakes and learn from the consequences in a safe space. I’ve written before about my frustration with party optimization in 4E, where I felt like no feasible amount of play time would give me enough observations to statistically distinguish successful group strategies from sub-par ones. Tim Harford’s fascinating Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure shows that it’s not just statistics that can be make it hard to recognize when you’ve made a mistake (this being an obvious prerequisite to learning from it). Some of the unconscious biases he points out are kind of a benefit for roleplaying: the tendency to retrospectively cast our bad decisions as good ones can make the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory seem a little less undeserved.

But the fear of failure is what drives these attempts to airbrush away one’s mistakes, and it makes for bad gaming. Fudging the dice robs us of the ability to learn. The wisely titled Play Unsafe presents techniques like holding ideas lightly (because they might be wrong) and not planning in advance (because no amount of worrying will never eliminate the possibility of rolling a natural 1) that I think are at the heart of the old-school approach. Best of all, they’re things you can try out and see if they work for you right away, no statistical analysis necessary.

21
Dec
12

DIY Dungeons

In my recent post about posers and players I talked about a comment requesting that my fellow Mules and I, being hipsters who have ruined everything else, would leave D&D alone for those who genuinely enjoy playing the game. I would claim not to be a hipster, except I don’t wantdiy dungeons to miss out on my share of what must be a sizable XP award for ruining everything in the modern world. Also it is undeniably true that I organize RPG events  in places like art galleries and DIY spaces where people wearing skinny jeans are known to congregate.

The latest such venture is DIY Dungeons, which benefits tremendously from the access to non-conventional gaming spaces conferred by my co-organizers Ray Weiss and Tim Hutchings’ local cred as a musician and an artist, respectively. My contribution is just to think about how to make RPGs function as a party game – meaning that they’re immediately accessible whether or not folks have played before, and structured in a way that people can sit down and get involved whenever they arrive (like we do at parties, unlike how we do at most RPG sessions) and easily move on to whatever else they like to do at parties after they get a taste of the gaming experience.

The next DIY Dungeons event is tomorrow night. 12/12, at a DIY space called Olive Garden. I don’t really understand what DIY spaces are, but a common element seems to be naming them for things they are not; one of the precursors to this series of events was the Everything is Dolphins release party held at Shea Stadium, which has no more relationship to baseball than tomorrow’s venue does to Italian food. (Playing in an actual Olive Garden would rock, though.) Here’s the description for the game I’ll be running:

CONQUERORS OF BRONX RIVER ROAD. The zombie apocalypse is here! Can you rebuild civilization using your wits, nerve, and the resources you can loot from the neighborhood around you? In this hack of the Adventurer Conqueror King roleplaying game, you’ll play yourself struggling to survive in a bleak future by fortifying a stronghold, recruiting other survivors, and decapitating zombies with chainsaws.

Over at the ACKS G+ community people hoping this presaged the release of Adventurer, Conqueror, Mutant Badger wanted more details about this hack, and a previous one that mashed up ACKS and XXXXtreme Street Luge. (The latter scenario took its cue from the intro to the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon, where Bobby, Shiela, et al. wind up in fantasyland after going on a roller-coaster ride. The ACKS characters had discovered this portal and taken the trip in the other direction – I found a great map of Knott’s Berry Farm circa 1983 as a prop to show the strange land they discovered. The XXXXtreme Street Luge characters, meanwhile, had broken into the amusement park, shut down after kids disappeared on the roller coaster, and were using it as a racing venue). Here’s the skinny:

They’re designed for a particular goal – being able to get new players going very quickly and also letting them get up from the table 15 minutes later if they want to move on – and aren’t meant for anyone but me to be able to run (so nothing is written down). That said:

- In XXXXtreme Street Luge you quickly randomize characters and then players take turns in the spotlight. Each other player asks the spotlight player “In this made-up circumstance, how did you deal with the situation using this particular stat?” The ACKS mashup uses the same GMless narrated-action-after-the-fact approach (so it’s functioning more like a storytelling game) but turns it on its head – players take turns in the role of party leader, in which they invent a problem and then ask the other players “How does your character help us get out of this jam?”

- The zombie hack relies on a) converting ACKS gp into a genre-appropriate unit of exchange (a day’s food); b) squinting at the ACKS price list until a chainsaw looks like a sword and a Corvette looks like a light riding horse; c) using pennies to represent gp and track encumbrance; d) building a map of the real-world location on the table as stacks of coins: if you capture the auto parts store, you’ll be able to loot this many resources, which you can then spend to fortify other map locations. The “you play your character” thing is mostly there to make it easy to get into the game – you just think about what you’d do in this situation – and mechanically means that everyone is a fighter with average stats, except that if a +1, 2, or 3 bonus would mean they’d succeed I’ll give the player a chance to tell me why their abilities would help in this situation and then convert that to a 3-18 score.

I’m interested in doing every kind of outreach for RPGs I can arrange, whether it’s to hipsters or kids 8-12. One of the things DIY Dungeons has been able to achieve that other approaches like the afterschool class (formerly D&D, now ACKS) has not is to achieve a better gender balance than I usually see at conventions and gamedays. Here are some pictures from the first event, at the Clocktower Gallery, where we had to talk loud to be heard over the sound of a robot gamelan installation:

50% of the women at this table had played D&D before (which is to say Anne, in red on my left) so maybe my observations about usual gender balance say more about me.

Ray running his new game Cyberpanky N.O.W., scenario “McDonald’s Mercs”; cyperpunk proved to be an immediately relatable genre even for non-gamers.

Brian, from the band The Nuclears, running a Call of Cthulu scenario set in the Sex Pistols’ London; this also proved immediately accessible.

My experience so far has been that convincing people to try role-playing games at these venues is an exercise in anti-hipsterdom. My job is to say Hi, I’m glad I’ve caught your attention with these colorful dice and maps! In addition to being aesthetic objects for your aloof, ironic appraisal, these are used in game I hope you will sit down and genuinely enjoy right now. You can choose whatever degree of distance from the events in the game works for you. Me, I’m going to fully commit to having a good time, goofy voices and all.

If you’re in or near the Bronx tomorrow, come out and join us at 5 pm (or whenever if you want to put my easy drop-in goal to the test). Gaming will go on until around 9, when the bands Cave Cricket, Old Table, and The Widest Smiling Faces will make it too loud to hear one another’s funny voices. If that’s too short notice, the next DIY Dungeons events will be on 1/4 at Big Snow and 1/20 at Silent Barn. Hope to see you there!

19
Dec
12

Playing and Posing

I’ve been a role-player since I was ten, but sad stretches of my life have been spent in denial. When I’ve wanted to be serious and important, or to get laid – especially when I thought getting laid was serious and had something to do with being important – I’ve let my dice gather dust and tried to be something else.

None of the other identities have been as satisfying. In the late ’80s I was a Hampshire College hippie, in the late ’90s I was a neuroscience grad student. For a while in between I wanted to be a science fiction writer, which is what this post is about.

For me, RPGs are more satisfying because they’re essentially social. At the gaming table, you are both the audience and the performer. You have rules that govern everyone’s childish need to get attention by putting on a heroic persona. You develop skills in sharing the spotlight so that your individual awesomeness becomes part of something larger. You get consistent rewards when you act like an adult and pay attention, and variable reinforcement when you make good decisions about risk and commitment.

I enjoyed the sociability that came with every other identity I’ve worn. I liked it so much that I spent more time showing off my persona than I did writing, or experimenting, or doing research for I Saw My God: The Neuropsychology of Religious Experience. Let’s get the obvious problem out of the way. If you want to be a serious science fiction person, it might be about reading the stuff, or writing about it, but most of all it’s about writing it. You can set up your typewriter in a bookstore window like Harlan Ellison, but you can’t escape that this is a solitary activity. Socializing is the opposite of doing the thing you’re defining yourself around.

In another life I might have been happy organizing a SF convention or reading series, but these are sideshows to the main event. What I like about gaming is that the situation is reversed. You can make lots of valuable contributions to roleplaying as a designer or blogger or artist, alone with your tools, just like you can enrich SF fandom by throwing room parties or judging masquerades. But if you’re not getting together with other people and playing games, you’re not really doing the thing.

Since the social aspect is so important to me, what I find most interesting is that the collaborative quality of the core activity also improves the socialization around it. When it was important to me to be seen as a serious SF person, bookstore conversations with strangers would go like this:

  • ME: Hey, that Vacuum Flowers you got there is a great book.
  • FELLOW FAN: Yeah, I need a new copy ’cause I read it to pieces. Swanwick hit this one out of the park.
  • ME: Have you read The Glass Hammer?
  • FF: Oh I loved that! Jeter is my favorite of Dick’s students.
  • ME: How about Uncle Ovid’s Metamorphosis Book?
  • FF: No, who’s that by?
  • ME (walking away): Good day, sir or madam, you are unworthy of further conversation.

Clearly, this is largely because my most consistent identity has been “dickwad”. But the nature of RPGs as a social experience drives you to leaven Pretentious with Retro and Stupid because any game group will be a mix of all three. Snobbishness is limited by the need to get a group together to play with:

  • ME: Hey, is that the original Rogue Trader?
  • FELLOW FAN: Yeah, I had some great times with this as a kid.
  • ME: I’ve been reading Small but Vicious Dog and like the look of it, but I really want to see how it plays.
  • FF: Well, my group plays mostly Warhammer 3E these days.
  • ME: Sweet, I’d love to see that in action! Here’s my card, let me know if you ever have an open spot at the table.

A while back a commenter at the Mule asked “You Hipsters have ruined everything else, can’t you leave D&D alone for those of us who genuinely enjoy playing the game?”

Being a hipster is seen here as the opposite of being genuine, so it’s tempting to get into a discussion of irony. There’s an interesting conversation to be had in the territory between Noisms at Monsters & Manuals sometimes thinking that

there is something cowardly about the arch way in which I and other role players sometimes operate: everything is approached from a slightly sideways, taking-the-piss angle, as if there is something difficult and terrifying about trying to take the endeavour seriously

and Zak’s classic post about how fun in a RPG can be driven by the distance you as a player have from the events in the game.

I want to short-circuit that discussion by talking about hipsters as a synonym for “posers” rather than “ironists”.  A poser is someone who wants to be seen as something they’re not. It’s beyond me to figure out whether a hipster who drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon with a sneer is genuinely drinking it – they do eventually have to pee as a result, right? But I do know that for lots of my life I wanted to claim an identity without doing the thing it was based on.

It’s only when I’m a player that I stop being a poser. At the table, I’m really engaged in the core of the activity, and that’s true whether I keep it at a distance with ornate Vancian language and meta talk or genuinely enjoy the feelings I imagine my character to be experiencing. I’ve personally never gotten up and danced out a moment of triumph in a roleplaying game, but when the kids in the D&D afterschool class do this I feel no piss-taking impulse whatsoever.

Online I often hear about people who like to talk about roleplaying games without actually playing them. I guess they would be the posers of the RPG world, but this post isn’t an attack on them. I’ve never known anyone to do this for long before getting drawn into actual play, and I think that’s because the core of gaming is social. Someone interesting to talk to about RPGs is likely to be fun to play with as well, whereas having interesting things to say about stories I was going to write didn’t get me any closer to being a writer. I’m glad to define myself around a hobby where seeking opportunities to play a role pushes me to be less of a pretentious dickwad, not more.

08
Nov
12

RPG Retirement

This is a post about how, back in the day, players would set a safe and comfy retirement as one of the driving goals for their player characters. The post about the RPG Retirement Home, the safe and comfy place (probably in the Midwest) which I am driven to create so that we can spend the last years of our lives pretending to be elves 24-7, will wait for another time.

Original gangster Tim Kask, founding editor of Dragon magazine and co-founder of Eldrich Entertainment, posted recently at the latter’s blog:

End-game goals? What a novel idea, at least for what seems to be a majority of contemporary players. Just what were those novel ideas? Same as you and me in real life: make a stack of cash, buy or build the home/castle of our dreams on our own substantial property where nobody is likely to mess with us and retire to enjoy the fruits of our labors. Yes, Virginia, we really did play like that. All of us had PC’s that were “retired” or “semi-retired”; we did not use them except for special circumstances.

Adventurer Conqueror King is as interested in setting out a system for players to pursue end-game goals as I am in exploring how these goals arose out of the original conditions of play. In playing and talking to some of the OG’s, I’ve seen secondary evidence for PC retirement as the ultimate end-game goal. During one of the side chats during the campaign Michael Mornard ran in NYC, he talked about how, because clerics got their stronghold so much sooner than other classes, everyone wanted to play the class that was the easy route to becoming landed gentry. It didn’t occur to me at the time that this castle would be a de facto retirement home, but because clerics in OD&D also hit their more-or-less maximum level earlier this makes sense. (Tim’s post is mainly talking about class level limits. It also gets into players having a big stable of different characters in the same campaign as a corollary of PCs retiring, which Mornard posts about here.)

Last night’s game was the first time I’ve seen a player in one of my campaigns (Ray Weiss, author of Everything is Dolphins) expressly say that the main goal for their character (whip-wielding, whiskey-drinking Randy Buffett) was to reach a safe place and retire. After having celebrated this sighting of an old-school trope arising spontaneously in the wild, I’m now ready to speculate on the reasons why PC retirement might be sought after in some games but not others.

Character sketch for Randy Buffett, retiree wannabe.

Lack of advancement. We used the original edition of Metamorphosis Alpha as the player-facing rules in last night’s session. (Behind the screen it’s Adventurer Conqueror King, or a mutation thereof.) Metamorphosis Alpha has almost no system for a player to improve their character’s abilities through play. I’ve cobbled together a Burning Wheel-style advancement mechanic using the closest thing there is in MA – when you make five successful tests against Mental Resistance you get to improve it one point – but the zero-to-hero payoff is muted. My houserules mean that MA characters start off at the point an OD&D character reaches at name level, where further adventuring might get you some extra hit points and more spells per level but you’ll never get another hit dice or new level of spells. When MA is played as written, a new character is more like a max-level D&D character of one of the classes referenced in Tim’s article that have a hard level cap: they’re basically as bad-ass as they’ll ever be. Note that the original group of D&D characters to visit Metamorphosis Alpha’s Starship Warden ranged from 18th to 20th level, plus an intelligent sword and some level-capped characters: “Tom and Tim went as druids (probably because they liked all types of herbs).”

Recent editions of D&D place a lot of importance on offering many benefits from advancement evenly spread all the way to level 20 or 30. Given this incentive to keep adventuring, it’s not surprising that retirement isn’t on the minds of players in these games; few will ever run out of zero-to-hero. Mornard and Kask described groups in which, having reached the point where rewards from further adventures diminished, retirement became “the ultimate and totally honorable goal of the game.” Such lofty levels remain a distant dream for any of the New York Red Box D&D campaigns, but last night suggests that retirement is a much more immediate goal in MA where advancement isn’t much of a hook right from the start.

A long road to the top. No goal that’s easily achieved is worth setting for your player character. Original D&D, and Adventurer Conqueror King even more so, very clearly lays out a lot of worthy obstacles between you and building your own gated retirement community, all of which – like amassing a lot of gold and clearing a hex of monster lairs – can be achieved through play. (Interestingly, you’re assumed to do this at the point where your character’s stats can still advance by adventuring, and one of the benefits of levelling up is getting free followers to staff your castle with, so the system uses the zero-to-hero carrot to reinforce the retirement incentive.)

Last night the group had a chance to return to their home village and lord it over everything they surveyed, but they passed up this chance at early retirement because they hadn’t yet achieved true security. Retiring onto a patch of land that isn’t hurtling out of control through interstellar space, rapidly breaking down, and in the power of the deranged intelligences Mother Brain and the Captain is almost as beyond Randy Buffett’s grasp right now as a level cap is to a newly-minted D&D character.

Love for your character. Some of the strong reactions to Kask’s blog post at RPG.net and theRPGsite come from the assumption that a rotating stable of characters means that the player has no more attachment to any of them than you would the counters provided to your side in a wargame. (Some also derive from the fact that Tim is either enough of an OG to have stopped caring who he offends, or enough of a showman to know the value of controversy.)

This is obviously wrong, even setting aside the ample evidence in Playing at the World that wargamers have been developing personalities for, and emotional ties to, individual units for centuries. If none of your characters means anything to you, why would you derive satisfaction from knowing that one of them has escaped from the fray to enjoy the good things in its imaginary life? The reward for advancing a pawn across the board is the exact opposite: it levels up and can fight more effectively, and because you don’t care about it like you do a player character you’re glad to pay the price that turning your pawn into a queen has also painted a target on its back.

As a point of OSR research and intellectual interest, I’m glad to see that this campaign has generated the conditions necessary to make an end-game goal emerge organically from play. (This bears out an observation of Chris Clark’s that the most important innovation of Metamorphosis Alpha was to make the end goals explicit and urgent: whether you’ll try to save the ship or escape from it becomes a pressing issue as soon as the players figure out what’s going on.) But as a player, what makes me proud is that in just two sessions of play Randy Buffett has gone from being 3d6 in order to a person who Ray cares enough about him to fervently hope he reaches a place where he’ll never again risk being sliced apart by animated bottles of Aunt Jemima syrup.

EDIT: I just remembered that one of the first OD&D characters ever created in my White Sandbox campaign, Lotur the Scurrilous Cur, was also explicitly retired from play. The omission was probably because Lotur’s goal seemed primarily to achieve domestic bliss with his beloved gynosphinx Ontussa, which seems different but is really just a specific flavor of retirement home. To the points of a large stable of characters and threat of death, though, Lotur’s player Greengoat was also explicitly interested in making room for a character whose stats wouldn’t suck so bad and perhaps would thus not be so constantly on the edge of mortal peril.




Past Adventures of the Mule

August 2014
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