The Tarot and Lovecraftesque

Are you really excited about writing a new Lovecraftesque scenario for Black Armada’s competition, but need to get your thoughts in order? Here’s how the Tarot might help.

(examples are taken from my scenario around an ageing rock star and their legacy)

Rundown of the Parts

These are the elements of a Lovecraftesque scenario (see the various examples provided by Black Armada)

  • The Witness
  • The Era
  • Locations (guide is 4, I aim for 5)
  • Other Characters (guide is 4, aim for 5)
  • Clues (guide is 12, aim for 15)
  • Special Cards (up to 5)

For my brainstorming I’m aiming for more than the guide and then pare down later and remove anything that is a bit boring.

Initial Draw

I worked with fifteen cards. I used the Thoth tarot which works for me, YMMV etc.

I did a fifteen card draw like this:

spread

Clues

I now have fifteen cards. For the clues I just work with one card per clue. The suits work as follows:

  • Swords are logical paradoxes, things that don’t make sense, or other forms of information
  • Wands are about identity
  • Cups are emotions and sensations
  • Disks are physical objects
  • Major Arcana are special cases, whatever inspiration strikes.

For the Thoth tarot the neighbours of the cards may shade the interpretation, but I mostly think about them in isolation.

Examples:

5 of Wands (“Strife”) represents an unknown former band member just before the band broke up.

Ace of Disks represents a basement full of reel-to-reel tapes.

10 of Cups (“Satiety”) is a bottle of absinthe with a hand-drawn label and accompanying CD-R marked “instructions”.

Locations

Now, look at the 3 rows of 5 cards, and read each column.

The middle row is what you can immediately see in the location. The top row is the history concerning the location. The bottom is potential corruption.

Example:

The late artist’s mansion is represented by the 4 of Swords (“Truce”). It’s in a calm and empty state, waiting to be sold on. It represents the artist’s later life where they were prone to drug abuse, passive, yet sensual (Knight of Cups). The undercurrent is the 4 of Cups (“Luxury”) representing weakness, success and pleasure approaching their end, and decay.

location

People

Finally rearrange the spread into groups of 3, sequentially like this:

people

Use each sequence of 3 to divine the character. The central card is their base, and the flanking cards are two sides of their character.

Example:

Dominic Baxter is a wealthy and prosperous dentist (Ace of Disks) who commutes into London. He chairs the village residents’ association but his interest is one-sided in favour of the other commuters in the village (4 of Disks, “Power”) at the expense of the rural community with whom he frequently clashes (8 of Swords, “Interference”).

character

Remarks

I started with a concept for the Witness and Era I liked, and then used the tarot to give me ideas to fill in the gaps. So, all of this requires an initial idea. But there’s no reason you can’t brainstorm even that with a tarot spread of your choice.

Black Armada’s competition is on until the 7th November.

RPG Revisited: Continuum and Narcissist

Narcissist is the companion game to the compelling but unplayable Continuum, slated for a 2008 release but so far yet to see anything beyond the 0.7 testing release.

In this post I’ll do a couple of things. First, I’ll look at Narcissist as the counterpoint to Continuum (which I’ll revisit, natch). Second, I’ll discuss the playability of both games. The second point is important because I’ve always considered Continuum unplayable due to the arcane Time Combat and punitive book-keeping. Is that true?

I have a thing for dead games. On the other hand Continuum and Narcissist are only dead in leveller terms. Their death is in both games Yet, but maybe they can still do great things.

Continuum Revisited

continuum

The Wikipedia page has an extensive write-up of Continuum, although it misses a couple of key points. These are the highlights.

Spanners are time travellers. Their ability to travel is measured in Span, which is counted in fractions up to one and then whole numbers after that. The Spanner rank determines how far you can go in both time and space between resting (ranging from seconds and inches to many thousands of years and miles). Spanner rank is taught, based on merit; and the ability to span is technological (nanotech to be exact), not magical. Spanners actually make use of the “sky road” aka the Van Allen belt.

There are three imporant eras in the setting, from 18000 BC up to 2400 AD. At the start there’s the Antedesertium, the origin of the narcissists, the self-serving enemy time travellers who oppose the Continuum. At the end there’s the spacefaring Inheritors, an inevitable future society of time travellers who no longer have to use the Sky Road. In between there’s the human Societies stretching for 20,000 years or so.

inherit

The Continuum is all about preserving the timeline. Alternate timelines are fallacious and heretical, as are parallel universes. The Continuum has a set of maxims which must be obeyed, including trusting your elders (they know more than you) and the limits of how much you can help a paradoxical situation.

cont

Speaking of paradox, frag is a measure of paradox and is applied personally to spanners, and it’s their job to deal with it.

Information is everything. What you actually know is really important, partly because of your personal Yet. Everything is technically fated to happen, but you can’t know what will happen if you haven’t observed the outcome. There are little rules here and there about what happens when you meet yourself (a gemini incident) and what happens if you skirt around your own death and then get killed a second time. But most importantly the rulebook is laid out according to Span, as though the player characters were progressing up the hierarchy. Crucially behaviours change as your span goes up. You age differently; you join Fraternities (Traditions, Bloodlines, etc.); you participate in the Greatest Game. Most importantly your spin on what the Maxims actually mean and tell you to do changes as you go up the ladder and learn more about spanning, becoming responsible for lower ranks beneath you.

The book is rounded off with accounts of the war between the Antedesertium and the Continuum over the zodiacal ages. But make no mistake, the outcome of the war is a foregone conclusion. The Continuum dogma does not allow for any future except the ones where the Inheritors succeed the Societies. The Inheritors at the end of time are thoroughly invested in that outcome, and they exceed the Span of any in the Continuum; therefore they will always ensure paradox is corrected and the timeline stays on track.

Narcissist

narcissist

Narcissist makes sense — and is a lot of fun to read — as a direct counterpoint to Continuum.

Being the same “Dreamcatcher” system it has a lot in common with Continuum — some parts of that book have been re-used (skills, leveller combat) and others have been tweaked ever so slightly to work from the “crasher” POV. So, here are the highlights:

  • “narcissist” is an epithet applied by the Continuum to the self-identified crashers
  • The Continuum is called “the Swarm” by crashers
  • Whereas Continuum spanners are invited, Crashers are recruited by “artisans”. The process of alteration is physical — as the book says, crashers are “retooled machines. You were not born; you were built.”
  • The Continuum have ranks based on Span; the Antedesertium have castes starting at zero (levellers) then going through low-level Pressed, mid-level Merchants and up to Princes, Kings and Gods
  • The crasher credo is fundamentally at odds with the Swarm/Continuum, which it views as a constrained vision of the future (where it insists that mankind “does not reach the stars”). Crasher philosophy is based on a number of paraverses, and creating crash points that can be used to generated gates to those paraverses. There’s still the concern about generating Frag but it’s also waved away in places with “but the Continuum will deal with Frag anyway”.
  • Most interestingly, there is a counterpoint to the Continuum’s inevitable timeline involving the Inheritors. The Kings and Gods of the Antedesertium are convinced that “in the final analysis, we will overpower them. It is only a matter of when, and if as immortal gods we should even bother”. This assumption relies on the existence of many universes overwhelming the one Singularity the Continuum is allied with and approaching.

So, basically, you have the same game, but perfectly inverted. One side relies on a philosophy of convergence to a singularity far in the future; the other side relies on the root of many branching paraverses deep in the past. But even though the philosophy of how time travel is achieved differs, the underlying mechanism — that of spanning, and Time Combat — is the same.

There is something beautiful about how Narcissist handles time travel, however. First of all low-level crashers are built by infecting them with stolen nanotech from the other side (specifically the Fraternity of Physicians). Second, they travel in time via the Royal Road by hopping to different paraverses.

In this game different paraverses are rated for Proximity (to where you are now), Thrust (scale, energy, mass, size) and Drift. It’s Drift that determines how fast time runs relative to your current paraverse; so to travel in time all you need to do is hop onto a faster drifting paraverse, then hop back and hey presto, you’re in the future. The Royal Road includes cascades of paraverses with graduated drift that can be used to make precise jumps.

(It reminded me a lot of Nine Princes in Amber).

narc

Another cute twist that Narcissist makes is the treatment of doubles or Gemini. The Continuum’s maxim of “trust your elders, they know more than you” applies to versions of oneself (elder Gemini). This is inverted by crashers, for whom elders you cannot remember are inherently untrustworthy, since they could be echoes or other Continuum tricks, or a corrupted older self. Disbelief protects against this. Not only that, crashers have a mercenary approach to their own doubles from other paraverses, being prepared to murder them to fake their own death in another paraverse, steal their lives and resources, and so on. Of course the Continuum’s dogma means this philosophical point isn’t really a concern.

Playability

At first sight the problem with Continuum is the sheer amount of book-keeping needed. Each player maintains a span card detailing their spanner’s every jump backwards and forwards.

Actually I think that’s fixable. Find a way to simplify recording the jumps, accumulating tokens, tracking locations and the number of visits each PC has made to them. Consider how complicated the combat is in Burning Wheel but then how easily it can be simplified by just laying down the moves on cards — which I believe is just what Mouse Guard does. You could do exactly the same with Time Combat moves and make it much easier to see what’s happening.

Narcissist seems much more playable than Continuum simply because it’s more interesting to be the underdog and the outcast fighting the system; but structurally it’s identical. Whereas Continuum’s Span 1 spanners start out in a Corner working for a Span 3 or whatever fixing things, Narcissist’s low-level Crashers will be working for their Artisan and later other higher ups from the Merchant and Warrior castes making crash points and new gates. I don’t see much of a difference.

The question is, why should they bother if their philosophy says their version of the timeline is inevitable? What are they actually doing? For both sides it sounds like pointless busywork to me.

Continuum notably has an “Appendix A” which is a list of all the things the game is not. It’s not about policing the timeline. It’s not about the mortals left behind. It’s not about the loneliness of being a time-traveller. It’s also not about a self-repairing universe or “chronos ex machina”. I’m struggling to work out what the game authors actually think the core activity is, aside from engaging in Time Combat all the time.

What would be playable, and interesting to play, would be a game where the characters live on the fringes of one side doing its dirty work, and are forced to make compromises and accept the philosophy of the other side to get things done.

I drafted a game called Transuranic World a while ago (and playtested it a couple of times). This was basically Sapphire and Steel as a PbtA game. It never went anywhere; but re-reading Continuum and Narcissist has made me realise what was missing — the philosophy, the high concept and the overarching vision of the timeline. It was fine when the time agents Sapphire and Steel only hinted at their true philosophy and motivation, but roleplaying games need more, I feel. This may just be it.

Last Words

Continuum and Narcissist are masterpieces of worldbuilding, but as games they’re no good. But out of two difficult games there’s one game with a great deal of potential. This is what I would change:

  1. The premise for what the actual characters do should be as time-repairers or time-crashers; but to achieve their ends they will come into contact with, and have to engage with their opponent’s philosophy, and risk accusations of treason from their own side.
  2. Thus they need to keep track of not only Frag but also Standing with their own organisation — something that is tainted by their contact with the opposition.
  3. For the actual mechanics, Time Combat needs better representation at the table. I would set the arena for Time Combat beforehand. Much like a Sapphire and Steel mystery this should be a closed field where time has been looped or otherwise perverted. Gates to other universes of infinite possibilities are not very interesting. Pockets with the potential to create Gates are much more interesting because they defy local physics and temporal philosophy, at cost to whomever is inside.

That’s what I would do, and what I may do if I ever come back to Transuranic World. I’m currently suppressing the ideas and trying to finish old projects rather than start new ones.

If these books ever see print again they should be as tête-bêche bindings with the final chapters in each comprising the timelines, converging on their mutually-exclusive zeniths.

Fugue: Player-Facing Documents

This is part of a series of documents about the development of the game Deep Season, a game based on the Fugue mechanics developed by James Wallis for the forthcoming game Alas Vegas.

Chapter: Player-Facing Documents

These are techniques that aren’t covered in the core Fugue rules, but nevertheless I think they’re necessary in order to get a “proper” Fugue game with rotating Dealers to work. There are three documents here, and they’re all “player facing” in that they exist on the table in front of the players, and may be expanded by the players during the sessions. They are:

  1. The Setting Brief
  2. Facts and Observations
  3. The Cork Board

The Setting Brief

Alas Vegas has a whole setting chapter including some elements that won’t be immediately known to the characters (since they’ve just emerged from shallow graves in the desert, with amnesia). Nevertheless this chapter is important for all players to read before the game. Why? Mainly it’s because thanks to the shared nature of the game the players need to be on the same page regarding tone, how the environment looks and feels, and the common knowledge shared by the game characters (tourists and locals).

The setting brief is a metafictional document; it relates to the various setting elements that the personas will experience, but it’s written as a direct contrast to player knowledge about the real Las Vegas. If you think about it, you wouldn’t expect the game characters to draw those comparisons — they have amnesia after all, to the extent that they’re unable to perform some tasks we take for granted and we’d expect a typical resident of Vegas to know (e.g. driving a car).

Of course through use of flashbacks some personas might claim real-world knowledge. That’s OK. The players should still absorb the setting brief so they hit the ground running as personas in the world (there are only four sessions, after all).

Facts and Observations

This sheet of paper is a living list of things the personas have witnessed or otherwise agree upon. It’s inspired by the Facts and Reassurances sheet from that other “Hollywood amnesia” game, A Penny For My Thoughts.

At the start of the game the first Dealer will present the partially filled Facts and Observations sheet, and place it in the middle of the table. From then on anyone can add to the sheet, although it’s mainly the Dealer’s responsibility because subsequent Dealers will uncover further facts about the world based on the briefing in their Act, which they will then convey to the players.

Facts and Observations will generally be high level, for example

  • This place looks like Vegas from the 70s
  • There’s something wrong about the street signs, and no-one will sell us a map
  • There are five casinos here called the Star, Swords, Wands, Coins and Cups

Each Act should be written to make it clear to the current Dealer when they must add lines to the Facts and Observations sheet. At any other time they or another player may add a line to the sheet. The end of each written Act should include a run-down of the things that should be on the sheet.

Why go to this trouble? Well, there are two reasons:

  1. Humans have limited working memory — the typical figure is 7 give or take 2 things that they can keep in mind at one time. Asking all the players to have perfect recall over all the facts is a lot, and can lead to inconsistency, some things being forgotten, the wrong assumptions, etc.
  2. Writing the Facts and Observations down is a contract that the Dealer has to abide by. Of course the Dealer may introduce elements that look contradictory, or even cross out Facts and Observations that prove false — but they can’t just do that on a whim. If they write something down, or cross something off, they do it in full view of the other players. This is a method of keeping things fairly consistent between Dealers.

About that second point — yes, Dealers can contradict earlier established Facts, or at least appear to. This appears to violate the “accept, include, don’t contradict” maxim of improv. However, David Lynch’s scripts are full of apparent contradictions, coincidences and unexplained happenings; so I’d take any contradiction as an opportunity to question, rather than shutting the previous Dealer down. If two facts appear to be mutually exclusive, are they? Or is there a set of circumstances which permit both facts to be true?

The Cork Board

The third tool for getting the players on the same page is the Cork Board. It works like this:

  1. When you introduce a new character write their name down on an index card.
  2. Also write down important information — mostly this will be who they are affiliated to and/or who is reporting to them. Since Fugue revolves around the Tarot, this may often be one of the four Suits (as in-game factions) although that bit is optional.
  3. Pin the index card to the cork board.
  4. When the character comes up and new information is learned about them, add it to their index card.

Now, here’s the optional but interesting technique. If you’re the current Dealer, you’re managing the behind-the-scenes game stuff. You know what the NPCs are planning, what actions they intend to take next. You need a way to communicate this to the next Dealer, without giving it away to the other players, right?

So, write it on the back of the index card.

When you hand the Cork Board over to the next Dealer, they should look at all of the characters as written down, and check the back of the cards for instructions. That Dealer is not at all obliged to make anything of those plans; but in the interest of “accept, incorporate” it’s encouraged. It’s nice if the outgoing Dealer can set something up, and the incoming Dealer can feed off those cues.

Of course, the outgoing Dealer is limited by how much space there is on the index card. No problem; just attach a second card to the first with a paperclip and use that space.

It does mean that your handwriting has to be legible, of course.

You can do this for locations, too. I’d encourage writing down major locations on index cards, with distinguishing features and connections to characters (X was seen here in Act Two, etc.). And you can write secret advice on the back of those cards.

If you’re going to use Locations as well, I recommend either a second Cork Board or some way of marking the two different kinds of cards (different colour card stock, etc.).

It might be easier to gather the index cards up at the end into a single stack, with a big bulldog clip or rubber band to hold them together. That may make handover easier. But I recommend cork boards and pins during play as they can lay out the cards so the players can see them easily.

(I bought my cork boards from a well-known national chain of bric-a-brac stores for just a couple of pounds)

Creative Update: Fictoplasm, Black Mantle, Deep Season

This is a bit of self affirmation to say yes, I really am making things and making progress. Here is what I am doing right now:

Fictoplasm

fictoplasm itunes 2

We just released our eighth episode of Fictoplasm, our podcast about pieces of fiction and the games they inspire us to run (if we ever get time). Episode 08 featured Becky Annison and Elizabeth Lovegrove talking about Kelly Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld, and Becky’s game-in-development Bite Me! which she will be running at Revelation next February. Good stuff!

The plan with Fictoplasm is to do around 12 full episodes and then take a break. In addition to Liz and Becky, I’ve had contributions from Mo Holkar and Josh Fox.

But, setting a full episode up is a scheduling challenge because it requires at least two people who have both read the book and have game ideas to be available at the same time. So we’re going to be doing something a bit different in the near future and see how that works out. Fictoplasm “The Pitch” will basically just be short pitches of books one of us has read and thinks that (a) it’s worth recommending to others and (b) it has legs, gaming-wise. We’ll string them together or maybe even just release very short episodes. We’ll see.

I’m thinking of opening The Pitch out to other contributors — and the great thing is, you don’t need to fix a time for the recording, just record what you have any time and send it over at your convenience. If you think you might be interested, drop me a line.

Black Mantle

bastard

The game is steadily taking shape. I’ve sketched out twelve Citizen playbooks, the outline for the playtest document and had some ideas for the mecha side.

This is the pitch for Black Mantle, by the way. It’s a hybrid OSR and Drama-type game — in the explorations outside the City it’s all OSR style (which doesn’t really mean anything except it’s like a traditional adventure RPG), but when you get back to the City it’s all about reaffirming your relationships and making new ones, as well as recovering physically and psychologically.

I ran the first game at Concrete Cow this year — it seemed to be well received, even though I know it was very rough around the edges. It gave me a lot of ideas about what the players were expecting from this kind of game. So, progress.

Deep Season

alas-vegas

I have mad love for James Wallis’ Fugue system even though I don’t think the CC document tells all the story — which is why I wrote some hacking notes.

Deep Season is a Fugue content set that should obey all of the system constraints of the original — amnesia, a rotating Dealer role with isolated knowledge of each Act, etc.

Alas Vegas is described as

Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch. Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas by way of Dante’sInferno. The Hangover meets The Prisoner.

Deep Season’s influences are a little more… British. Mainly it’s children’s 6-part serials from the late 70s to early 90s like Children of the Stones, The Moondial or Century Falls, plus the Doctor Who of the 3rd Doctor (and anything else set in an isolated rural setting). Other influences are Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, The Prisoner, The Wicker Man, Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and the landscape around Dungeness in Kent including the Denge sound mirrors.

denge-sound-mirrors

The setting is a small coastal farming town, a little like Avebury but with a shoreline to the west and sound mirrors in the place of standing stones.

For inspiration I used the Thoth tarot to brainstorm the plot of each act. I designed a custom 12-card spread:

img_4710

On the left there’s a three card hierarchy of key personalities — a subordinate at the bottom, a deity or higher consciousness at the top, and a political mover in the middle. Next, the four cards at compass points are the significators of the four factions during that Act; and finally on the right there are five cards that indicate the arc of the Act.

It’s worked surprisingly well — and the Thoth tarot has been a lot more effective than others (e.g. the tarot of Marseilles). Maybe Thoth is fine for me imagining other people’s futures, just not suitable for my own. I wonder what that means.

Anyway, I want to run Deep Season this year before Christmas, but I can’t guarantee the first draft will be done by then — we’ll see.

Martial Truths: Two Weapon Fighting

I don’t have a lot of experience of two-weapon fighting, in fact I have just enough experience that fighting with a weapon in your off-hand is actually a distraction rather than useful.

What Silver Said

George Silver wrote in Paradoxes of Defence about a hierarchy of weapons. George Silver was also biased, and in almost every case the English Short Sword (“short” by comparison with the Long Sword, not actually that short) would be better than its continental counterpoint, the Rapier.

This is the hierarchy Silver talks about (Paradoxes, p30 of Mathey’s text):

the single sword hath the vantage against the single rapier the sword and dagger hath the vantage against the rapier and poniard the sword and target hath the vantage against the sword and dagger or rapier and poniard the sword and buckler hath the vantage against the sword and target, sword and dagger or rapier and poniard the two-hand sword hath the vantage against the sword and buckler, sword and target, sword and dagger or rapier and poniard

And so on, into polearms.

This makes a lot of assumptions — for example the assumption that the pike, short staff or similar polearm is universally better than a sword single is true in an open fight where there’s enough room to use them. The other assumption is that the rapier will always be worse than the English single handed cut-and-thrust sword for reasons of length, balance, cutting ability and so forth. I happen to think this is true (with exercises to demonstrate it) but (a) it’s arrogant and daft to think that just because the weapon is “better” the fencer is too and (b) Joseph Swetnam takes a contrary view, and while I think his technical argument can be challenged no doubt he had experience of dispatching the English sword with his rapier.

Setting aside the rapier, Silver states that the buckler is superior to target, which is superior to dagger as an off-hand weapon. Note that he does not state that a sword and dagger is superior to a sword single. Is it implied? Maybe.

What Daggers Are Good For

Daggers are foremost good for getting in close and stabbing people.

This means that if you engage in a lot of close fighting — that is transitioning from the “first distance” at sword length to something much closer — it’s probably better to have a much shorter weapon in your off-hand than not. I say probably, because if your hand’s occupied there’s some stuff you can’t do when inside the point of your opponent’s sword — you can’t grip, immobilize or throw as effectively. But if you’re that close with a dagger you can stab.

Of the dagger, Silver says it has no wards, with this argument (Paradoxes, p36):

Now is the hand in his owne course more swifter than the foot or eye, therefore within distance the eye is deceived, & judgement is lost; and that is another cause that the warder with the dagger, although he has perfect eyes, is still within distance deceived.

By “no wards” we mean that there is no way you can carry your dagger that will reliably shut down an avenue of an opponent’s attack — which is the whole point of a ward or guard. Once in very close distance, the time of the hand is the fastest of all and the dagger can strike in “many diverse places”. A dagger is also not good in the first distance, simply because it’s not big enough to be a ward in itself. In all such cases the opponent’s blow would be parried by the sword; after that, the dagger might be employed to trap or put aside the blade, but taking the full force of the blow with a dagger alone will be tough.

(this is not so the case with your rapier and main gauche against the like weapon, because the attacks are primarily thrusts and much easier put aside. This is why rapier and poniard against the like weapon works fine)

Dagger vs. Buckler

The argument above is part of a discussion on how the buckler is way better than the dagger as an off-hand weapon; and a fair proportion is against an anecdotal “bloke down the pub” who holds a contrary view to Silver. Silver reckons the buckler is better than the dagger because it’s much more effective at warding. To understand how a buckler works in some systems we can go back to I.33, the oldest known sword manual:

I.33 / 01-00033 Manuscript illustration of two men fencing  with sword and buckler. From the 'Tower Fechtbuch'. German, late 13th century Copyright: The Board of Trustees of the Armouries Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds LS10 1LT Digital Photograph Di 2005-296 Hasselblad 555ELD / Imacon digital back
I.33 / 01-00033
Manuscript illustration of two men fencing with sword and buckler. From the ‘Tower Fechtbuch’. German, late 13th century
Copyright: The Board of Trustees of the Armouries
Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds LS10 1LT
Digital Photograph Di 2005-296
Hasselblad 555ELD / Imacon digital back

(source also see Wikipedia page Royal Armouries Ms. I.33)

I.33 predates the Longsword as a common weapon; in place there is the arming sword and a buckler held very close to the hand at all times, such that the buckler is an extension of the sword that protects hand and forearm. As I understand I.33 play, one of the objectives is to force your opponent’s hands apart (by cunning binds, etc.) thus weakening their defence.

I’m not sure how close this is to Silver’s use of the buckler. Achille Marozzo’s side-sword and buckler illustrations, from the 1536 Opera Nova place the hand with buckler well apart from the sword-hand; the sword and buckler depicted in Paulus Hector Mair is much more I.33 like (see here, translated by Keith P. Myers on the Luegisland Scholars site). These are centuries after I.33 and maybe 60 years before Silver (and of course Italian and German respectively). The only other useful comment is that you can either regard Silver as a very early Renaissance martial scholar, or a very late Medieval one (and opinions tend to go to the latter).

Bucker vs. Targe

Silver’s argument of the Buckler being better than the Targe is pretty simple — the buckler lets you use the “four fights” (again see here)) but the targe, being much bigger restricts the number of positions you can hold your arm, so fighting guardant or close is difficult.

This illustrates the most important point — Silver’s context is (a) human scale fighting and (b) specifically the warfare around 1600. While Silver’s roots are medieval and the principles behind his treatise are timeless, the context of which weapon is better is at least biased by both fashion and technology of the time.

Which is the best shield?

So, for human vs. human fights a buckler is very useful, if you’re using a sword. But since human cultures have used shields of all sizes this can’t be the whole story. Intuitively the bigger the shield the better — except the bigger the shield the harder it is to strike around it, and the more it slows you down.

Big shields are really good for defending the person next to you in a formation. They still get in the way of cutting weapons by limiting how you can swing your sword, but if you’ve got a spear — or a friend with a spear — jolly good.

Once you get split up and it’s more of a skirmish, it’s touch and go as to which is the better arrangement. Say you have one person with a buckler and arming sword, and another with a scutum and a gladius (a historical mismatch, but possible if you’re playing RuneQuest, right?). My guess is all things being equal the big shield becomes an obstacle for both sides — although the person with the scutum may be slower, they only need to move a little bit to keep the shield between them and their opponent, who has to move a lot to try to get around the shield. Then it’s down to tactics and other factors (like fatigue). If I were the one with the big shield and I were strong enough I’d try to bash them with it in a charge, then sit on them and stab under the shield with my short sword. If I had the buckler I’d try to kick the shield so my opponent fell down, then cut at wrists and ankles while they were down.

I quite like this blog post for talking about a range of shields (as an alternative to full plate). I would expand by adding some conditional modifiers, e.g.

  • the bigger the shield, the more it hinders an attack
  • smaller shields are penalised less confined spaces than big shields
  • smaller shields may be better for fighting humanoid opponents; larger ones for fighting big opponents
  • when fighting in formation, someone next to you benefits slightly from your shield.

Do I get an extra attack?

The main benefit of carrying an off-hand weapon in, say, D&D is an extra attack (at penalty). This is fine with me, because there’s no real discussion of changing distance — everything is subsumed into the attack vs. AC roll.

But if you want to discuss it technically, you need to consider these things:

  1. Swordfights happen at particular distances; and the “first distance” is close enough to strike with the first 3rd of a sword blade, but anything shorter cannot be employed thus. So you don’t get an extra attack.
  2. Where a dagger is useful is in enclosing. You could, for example, adopt a Guardant ward, cross your opponent’s weapon and step within distance. At this point you can stab them with your dagger, and they are at a big disadvantage to ward against it (q.v.). But, because you’re now too close to employ your sword, you also don’t get an extra attack.
  3. If you’re using two swords of equal length against a sword single, you might think you can strike twice as often. But biomechanically speaking, when you throw your right shoulder towards your opponent to strike with your right hand, you draw your left away. So you don’t get an extra attack, because the weapon is too far away. Then, when you try to follow up with your left, it’s a motion in at least the time of the hand and body, and probably hand, body and foot (see here). So it’s not two simultaneous attacks, it’s one attack followed by a second, and the time between is enough for the opponent to respond defensively.

So in summary, you do not get an extra attack in any real-world sense. But that’s by the by. The way D&D and RuneQuest do it is just fine for a game.

LARP

If two-weapon fighting isn’t all that for steel blades, why does it work so well in LARP? A couple of reasons:

  1. In general, people stand too close. If you stand too close with your single sword, someone can easily envelop your sword with one of their swords, and hit you with the other one.
  2. People get to stand too close because they’re not afraid of being hit in certain places (like the head), so those two-weapon techniques work.
  3. LARP weapons are light, springly and the latex makes them sticky. It’s easier to envelop an opponent’s sword, it’s faster to attack with two swords, etc.

Because of this distortion of distance, latex bucklers don’t work so well, latex daggers in the off-hand are no good and the bigger your shield, the better. If I were LARPing again I would totally choose a pair of swords and get stuck in.

PDFs (Three Different Ones)

Here are three different examples of a RPG digital product:

1. The Legacy PDF

weather_the_cuckoo_likes

The Legacy PDF here is Weather the Cuckoo Likes for Over the Edge. Hard copies can be had for 20 quid or less if you’re lucky, but if you’re not the digital revoloution is a godsend for the RPG collector.

As you’d expect Weather the Cuckoo Likes is a compromise in PDF form. It was designed for the standard magazine print size (US legal? Foolscap?) so it’s not great for reading on a modern 16:9 screen smaller than 24 inches, let alone a modern tablet. There’s no hyperlinked table of contents. But it’s a black-on-white interior and should be fairly cheap to print (under 2 dollars) on a monochrome laser printer. It’s also not a crazy file size and it’s not a fuzzy scan of a physical book like some products (for example Engel) so the text is searchable.

The value proposition of an otherwise OOP book like Weather The Cuckoo Likes is the physical alternative will be hard or expensive to find so realistically it’s this or nothing; and with digital distribution I can get it right now. Unlike a modern PDF I don’t expect it to be supported with new errata since it’s 20 years old, so you take a chance.

2. The Freebie PDF

trail_of_cthulhu

Trail of Cthulhu isn’t free, of course — but it’s a typical example of bundling the PDF with a physical product. You can buy the PDF only at half the price of the print+PDF bundle, but it’s obvious that the PDF is a free incentive for the full-price print copy.

This is possible when the cost to Pelgrane of bundling the PDF is probably low. Aside from a hyperlinked ToC the PDF doesn’t have any advantages of a modern digital file but it has all the disadvantages of the Legacy PDF (i.e. too big for comfortable screen reading). But on top of that it’s actually worse than the legacy file for printing out, because it’s not just B&W — like a lot of modern games it’s a full bleed, full colour document with a sort of grubby sepia background behind black text. Looks nice but it will muller your toner cartridge.

The annoying thing is of all my Trail of Cthulhu files, only Bookhounds of London has a printer friendly version with a white background. Was that easy to do? I have no idea, but if it was just a matter of turning off the background layer in the source file, then creating a printer friendly copy should add value for low effort.

I honestly wonder if this is a blind spot for publishers. Feng Shui 2 is a gorgeous PDF and at the same time completely useless (to me), because it’s edge to edge colour, white text on black backgrounds, etc. Try to print that out and your printer might not survive. Would a monochrome, white background version for printing have been hard? Maybe. But it’s clear FS2 was always intended to be a physical product, and it’s more likely Atlas just didn’t consider how a print-friendly version could be a value proposition.

This is the problem, I think: mainstream publishers are still focused on physical books, and digital products will always be second string offerings. They’re a value proposition as a free extra, which doesn’t incentivise any effort making the digital products any “better”. The result is a crippled product that ensures the print version from the supplier, dead trees shipped around the world, remains the most practical way to read the game.

3. The epub

My go-to example of a good RPG on epub/mobi is Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions, but there’s a more obvious and mainstream example:

fate_core

Evil Hat have form for producing digest-sized, e-reader friendly RPGs going back to Spirit of the Century and Don’t Rest Your Head.

I wish I liked FATE Core more. As a digital product it’s really good, portable and device-aware.

Let’s clarify the value of e-readers. What they are not good for is use at the table — too slow and small to flip between bookmarks, and they render tables badly.

What they excel at — not least because with adjustable font size and e-ink they’re easy on they eye — is in the first read-through. I have a terrible habit of not reading my RPG books cover to cover on the first pass, and a Kindle version helps a lot.

Are they better than the physical book for the first read? Supposedly physical books make it easier for the reader to recall the sequence of plot events, and this may be something to do with the “haptic and tactile feedback” of books vs e-readers, where the point at which you absorbed certain content is connected to how the book feels at that time.

On the other hand a Kindle is without peer for reading one-handed while wrangling an infant, and I wouldn’t be without mine.

(here’s an interesting, not at all black-and-white article about comprehension and learning from electronic devices vs. physical books)

Value for Money

You can probably tell that I don’t think the mainstream PDF offerings are good value for money. But that’s OK, because I didn’t pay anything near “full price” for them — they all came free with print, or in Bundles of Holding.

Interestingly the RPG pdf market seems to allow for a lot of consumer price setting, with PDF prices anything from “full whack” (say 15 to 25 dollars) to “free” (free with hardcopy, PWYW). Customers who want it now will pay up the cover price, and those on the fence will wait for the next sale or Bundle of Holding.

Talking about value is difficult. I can say “Feng Shui 2’s PDF is terrible” and it’s a meaningless statement (and could start a fight). It’s subjective. On the other hand “Feng Shui 2 is a poor reading experience compared to FATE Core” can be objectively reasoned; at that point the consumer can decide whether the fact that they want to play Feng Shui 2 more than FATE Core outweighs the inconvenience. These are some value markers I could use:

  1. Is this thing free or low cost, or is it full price?
  2. Can I read it on my tablet, kindle or phone, or do I need the biggest screen possible?
  3. How flexible are my printing options?
  4. How much do I want to own and play the system?
  5. Are there other benefits, like supporting the kickstarter or donating to charity?

Honourable and Dishonourable Mentions

Here’s a short list of other games I like for their approach to digital distribution:

  • Nova Praxis for its “enhanced” (tablet friendly) PDF
  • Urban Shadows for being on epub and mobi
  • Nobilis 3rd Edition has Kindle-ready versions
  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess uses a digest format, which is probably a happy coincidence but I find it way better for tablet reading
  • Blades in the Dark’s landscape format for laptop reading, and printer-friendly releases
  • Apocalypse World’s approach to materials at the table, a great approach to play aids, no need to have the complete rulebook printed out (and digest format, so more-or-less tablet-friendly)
  • Durance includes an epub version (that you can probably play to in a pinch)

As far as I can see, most of the innovation in the digital domain is coming from the independants. That should surprise no-one given that it’s driven by a credo of self-publishing and digital distribution.

And for the record, here’s a number of mainstream PDF products I own that are stuck in the 90s, format-wise:

  • Wild Talents (and Monsters and Other Childish Things)
  • Runequest 6 (a.k.a. Mythras)
  • Shadows of Esteren
  • Lords of Gossamer and Shadow
  • Trail of Cthulhu
  • Hillfolk
  • Feng Shui 2

Don’t get me wrong, these are all great games full of quality writing; and in many cases the PDF looks great right up to the point where you start reading. If you can get over the compromised reading experience, go for it.

(well, maybe not Wild Talents)

October

October has become a strange time of year.

Two years ago we — that is the Oxford RPGSoc alumni — lost a dear friend Kate to a horrible illness. Kate was there when I formed a lot of the lasting friendships I have today. Kate played in my Vampire game in the 3rd year. Kate would be my age, were she still alive.

I found out in a horrible way. Early morning on the 2nd of October I was looking forward to a weekend of pre-birthday fun; while I was on a conference call to Singapore that morning I got an Outlook notification that popped up briefly to tell me that Kate had died, before fading slowly and ominously. I turned off Outlook notifiactions after that.

It fucked my day royally; and it coincided with a couple of business meetings that, at any other time I would have put down to differences in personal style, but which ended up shaping my impressions of two people forever (one I concluded is basically nice but a complete fuckwit, the other has a punchable face and today I would not piss on them were they on fire).

The previous night I’d been to see Wayne Hussey at the O2 Academy, so I was riding a post-Goth gig buzz. Weirdly this year I very nearly went to see Peter Murphy in concert (but didn’t thanks to a knackered achilles’ tendon). This reminded me what I was doing two years ago, and who I should be mourning.

One year ago at this time we announced that our first child was on the way; another emotional time because we’d tried for years, and pretty much everyone had assumed that we’d actively decided not to have children, when really we were being passively worn down by the assumptions and the friends and relatives having children and cooing over other people’s babies and generally seizing every opportunity to talk about kids. Kids, we were constantly reminded, are important.

This year has been a weird and horrible year, and a wonderful year too. For most people it’s the year all the celebs died — Bowie, Rickman, Prince, Nicholas Fisk, etc. For a couple of people we know and love it’s been more personal; and just to remind us that 2016 is not to be fucked with, someone else near to us has just been snatched away.

On the other hand thanks to the April 2015 legislation I took 6 months of parental leave this year — 3 months at the same time as my partner, and another three right now as she’s returned to work. The switch has felt jarring and completely natural at the same time. Instead of me getting home and being greeted with “Daddy’s home!” I get him all day and my partner gets the big smiles when she gets in. But this week has been the first week I’ve been alone with our son all day. I’ve not been alone all day probably since I was a student. Of course back then I just talked to myself, now I have a sub-lingual infant to converse with, and he’s the best thing ever.

(a thing about parental bonding — when our kid arrived I did not immediately feel love and affection, I felt a mixture of horror and crushing responsibility. Feeling actual love took a couple of days)

Anyway. I’d felt less and less able to celebrate my birthday as time wore on, but mostly it was apathy. Then, 2014 meant that I would never again really be celebrating this week. All the birthday wishes I got for joining Facebook (which I needed to do to connect with all the people around Kate) and telling it my DOB felt hollow, even though I know they were well-meant.

Things will settle down next year, so maybe I’ll feel different in 2017. But I’m having a hard time thinking October isn’t just a bit broken. This year I think I’ll just give thanks for all the friends I still have, and send my emotional energy their way.

Primary Sources

At about 0:40 into Episode 70 of the Gauntlet there’s this quote concerning The Black Hack:

it seems to have taken a few things from other games… I saw a little bit of D&D 5e in there, I thought there was a touch of Torchbearer and Dungeon World in there as well…

It’s a throwaway remark and as such not really fair to second-guess the thought process behind it. At face value it suggests that TBH is maybe derivative of Dungeon World and Torchbearer; it makes more sense that all three are derivative of the same perceived root (namely the cartoon image of zero-to-hero dungeon exploration that continues to dog the OSR). Besides, what kind of masochist would write a game that’s derivative of Torchbearer?

These assumptions are made because

  1. Oral tradition and playing the game is and always will be the primary way the game is communicated
  2. The idea of only oral tradition isn’t really challenged, thanks to cultural inertia and confirmation bias.

Some hobbies are actively hostile to anyone who deviates from oral tradition. Western Martial Arts had this problem in the early years where to prove yourself you needed a credible line of succession — anyone who claimed to learn their art from a treatise alone was at best a poor cousin to those who’d paid their dues doing 3-weapon sport fencing (or if they were lucky, some living tradition like singlestick or classical foil). And no, it wasn’t enough that you’d spent two decades doing Wing Chun and used that to inform your style of 19th century boxing — if the living line from master to student was broken, you had to start over.

Anyway, here is a review of Elizabeth Lovegrove’s Rise and Fall:

This is a game that taps into the zeitgeist by exploring dystopias and fallen societies.  It’s clear that the author did their research, and have built on the excellent work of past designers including Ben Robbins (Microscope, Kingdom), and Caroline Hobbs (Downfall). The game uses rather elegant tools of world-building to present a clear story with minimal systems.

Of course I have my own bias here, but I was still a bit surprised by this bit… because I’d been aware of Liz’s design process not only for Rise and Fall but the traditional (i.e. GM-led) games that preceded it, and also her primary sources (e.g. Children of Men, The Handmaid’s Tale). All of which are literary, none are games.

In fact, when we were at the Nine Worlds con I picked up a copy of Ben Robbins’ Kingdom and waved it under her nose saying “I think this is a lot like that idea you had for your dystopian game! We should play it for research!” We still haven’t played it.

(also I believe the PDF release of Downfall was 30th November 2015 to Kickstarter backers, while Seven Wonders was launched at Dragonmeet in December 2015)

Does this matter?

It’s definitely useful to have someone enthusiastically say “like X? Try Y!”. The benefits of comparing The Black Hack to Dungeon World are both games acting as gateway experiences for two overlapping cultures.

But only focusing inward is a pernicious habit, meaning your genre expectations are set by secondary rather than primary sources. Say you only assume D&D is only about violent dungeon exploration and then you create derivative works that reinforce that stereotype. This further influences the third generation, and so on.

Not that you should be blindly worshipping at the altar of Appendix N, either. Appendix N has become shorthand for a similarly reductive kind of “D&D experience” (which I have opinions about here) and pigeonholes the whole gamut of OSR titles — when titles such as Beyond the Wall are open about their literary roots, roots which lie outside Appendix N (though interestingly lie within the broader reading list recommended by Moldvay D&D).

The assumptions of derivation rather than common literary root will continue to be a hazard of those games on the fringe. Take Silent Legions — a game which I feel represents the peak of Sine Nomine’s offerings, and is a masterful deconstruction of different kinds of horror. Even though it offers much more than Call of Cthulhu, it will always stand in CoC’s shadow — mainly for the assumption that it’s nothing more than “the OSR does Cthulhu”.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

James Spahn moans about being respected as a GM here. It boils down to

  • People didn’t turn up on time
  • People didn’t bother to learn the rules, after I put effort into making it easier for them to do so
  • People came with their preconceived notions about the game that weren’t aligned with everyone else’s
  • People didn’t say thanks

We don’t know whether “people” is more than one person, a repeat offender, or just a generic “that bloke” indicating a type of ingrate who turns up from time to time at your table. And I think we can all sympathise with (a) how awful these people are and (b) the need to vent. The question is, what comes after the venting?

If it’s nothing, if you just want to let off steam but otherwise have no desire to effect change well, that’s your prerogative — but this shit will happen again, guaranteed. Whatever the social circumstances that led up to this point it boils down to one fact: the person you’re cross with does not value the thing you value as much as you do. Above all it’s a failure to empathise, which may be benign or malicious. It’s 100% repeatable, because most people you meet will fail to share your values in some way or another.

You may want to do something about it. What you do can be either passive or active. Passive actions might include writing a blog post and hoping your offender reads it and has enough (a) intelligence to realise you mean them and (b) enough empathy to care. Active steps are confrontational, and could be empathetic appeals (“when you do this, I feel…”) or transactional (“if you don’t stop/start your behaviour, I will…”). The active steps are an ultimatum, setting down the stakes for change vs no change. For empathetic appeals these are around bad feelings and loss of integrity of relationships (with the DM, or with the other group) and for transactional ones, it’s about loss of service (i.e. get the fuck out of my game).

All of these actions, passive or active, have a cost. And the cost of taking action vs. no action is what being a leader is all about (and I don’t know exactly what James means by “a DM worth their dice bag” but I’d say leadership comes into it).

Every hobby will have unpaid or underpaid leaders — from organising charity cake sales to book groups to RPGs to martial arts. And leaders will generally do their unpaid work for two reasons:

  1. They desperately want something to exist (an event, a game session, a project), and are prepared to pay their own time to make it happen, or
  2. They want fame or recognition for being a leader and/or expert.

These two are complementary and most folk will sit on a binary axis between two extremes. And all leaders have to decide whether some combination of 1 plus 2 are equal to the effort they put in. If it’s not, they should stop what they’re doing (bitching and moaning to sympathetic ears isn’t payment, it just offsets the cost in the short term).

Back in 2002 when I became a HEMA instructor, what did I want? If I’m honest, it was the second one. I wanted recognition from a sub-culture I was invested in. 14 years later, has that changed? Yes, sort of. I haven’t been to a gathering of groups for a few years, nor participated in online forums — and those are the places I need to go to if I want peer recognition. Instead I’m happy just to train weekly, and while recognition still strokes my ego I get more from just being part of our school — so when I’m called upon to stand in for our head instructor the benefit to me is the continuation of the school and having students walk in.

I have been thinking about respect in HEMA, though. We have our share of problem students. There are some who just turn up to a few classes and then leave for whatever reason — and while some masters will complain, the fact is these students have done a cost-benefit analysis of their continued attendance vs. whatever personal development they get out of it. And just as leaders should be honest about whether or not they want recognition, students should be honest about whether learning is worth their time and money.

An honest decision to stay or leave is respectful. The real problem students are the ones who come with their own pre-conceived notions about what the school does or behaviours it tolerates, and proceed to amuse themselves at the expense of others. Talented students who deviate from the lesson plan because they want to “win” all the time are the biggest problem — they tend to be self-serving and not interested in training cooperatively with their partner, only defeating them. There’s a lot you can train out of someone but being an arsehole is one of the hardest things to correct. Usually these students will respect the master as authoritarian, but not their peers, and honestly I’d prefer it the other way around — not least because not respecting your training partner by deviating from the lesson plan is a recipe for accidents. As the leader in that situation I’m not invested in winning that individual’s respect, I’m far more concerned with the damage (physical or emotional) they may cause to the rest of the student body. But at least it’s fairly clear when they’ve crossed a line and I can just dump them outside on their arse.