Thursday, 28 February 2013

Playlist: Arcadia

Away, with the faeries.

  1. Ash, Arcadia
  2. The Bangles, Hero Takes A Fall
  3. David Bowie, Oh! You Pretty Things
  4. Nik Kershaw, Wouldn’t It Be Good (acoustic version)
  5. Dead Can Dance, Garden of Arcane Delights/Carnival of Light
  6. Wolfmother, White Unicorn
  7. Love Is Colder Than Death, Horns and Horses
  8. Air, Cherry Blossom Girl
  9. Ladytron, Playgirl
  10. Suede, My Insatiable One (piano version)
  11. Emiliana Torrini, Weird Friendless Kid
  12. Babybird, There’s Something Going On
  13. Tim Buckley, Song To The Siren
  14. Beatles, Good Day Sunshine
  15. Peter Gabriel, No Self Control
  16. Arcadia, Keep Me In The Dark
  17. Divine Comedy, Gin Soaked Boy
  18. Jesus Jones, Blissed

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Podcasty Goodness

Quick one–Episode 26 of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff is particularly fine, including comparisons between gaming kludges and real-world lawmaking kludges, the myth and legacy of Stonehenge, and the transition between old and new World of Darkness. Recommended.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Playlist: Utopia

I just watched the last episode of Utopia, so here’s some songs that… have almost nothing to do with that show. Anyway.

The Thrill Kill Kult video doesn’t support embedding, so it’s been linked.

  1. My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult, A Daisy Chain 4 Satan
  2. Radiohead, Bodysnachers
  3. Oscillation, On The Run
  4. Seal, Killer
  5. Photek, The Hidden Camera
  6. Royksopp, Tricky Two
  7. UNKLE, Heavy Drug
  8. Coil, Baby Food
  9. Cranes, September
  10. Frank Black, The Vanishing Spies
  11. Jefferson Airplane, White Rabbit
  12. Cure, Pictures of You
  13. Goldfrapp, Utopia

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Remember Me How I Was

WD82

This is the cover of WD82. It contains a Traveller adventure, a great article on running an AD&D Discworld game, a Judge Dredd article, a Warhammer article, an article about cartography, and all the usual columns–Open Box reviews Jorune of all things, Dave Langford’s Critical Mass considers Donaldson’s The Mirror Of Her Dreams, and there’s Gobbledigook, Thrud, ‘Eavy Metal, all the other good bits. There’s also a very nice pull-out for the original 1e WFRP.

WD141This is the cover of WD141, the last one I have. It reads like a sales catalogue. There’s a piece on epic scale WH40k, a piece on wood elf armies, a piece on the forthcoming Golden Demon awards, a “battle report” of someone else’s war-game (ooh, exciting) that lasts 14 pages, a big section on GW’s Space Fleet line, and seven pages of unpainted minatures with serial numbers in the back. There are some nice glossy photos of painted minis, and a couple of full page illustrations and… lots of adverts for GW.

I don’t begrudge GW making money out of a glorified product brochure, or choosing to refocus their business firstly in-house and later by dropping RPGs entirely.

Oh no, wait a minute, I do. I begrudge the hell out of GW for turning a punky, irreverent, quintessentially British RPG magazine into a shill for their cynical, youth-focused product line. And that goes double for their RPG product lines. This may be unreasonable of me, but what the hell: towards the end of the era of GW as a RPG brand, they produced British imprints of BRP titles as well as WFRP which was a decent British competitor to the US staples of D&D and Runequest. Black Industries‘ resurrection of WFRP was a noble effort (and short lived) but by then the punk spirit was gone. The latest incarnation (and its siblings) are pretty things but they don’t have the heart of the WFRP1e/WH40k Rogue Trader mashups we cobbled together in the 80s.

British gaming is like British Hi Fi. It does its thing and it doesn’t compromise; it has texture and flavour; it’s great value for money. GW is no longer any of these things. We need an OSR for the British Old School. I guess Zweihander may have to do, for now.

Now that GW has taken the step of trademark bullying over “Space Marine”, my last mote of sympathy for the brand is exhausted. I hate to sound like an old git, but that logo used to mean something to folks around here, once upon a time.

Interestingly there’s a letter from a certain Davis Morris of Wandsworth in issue 85, which concludes:

No. It’s you people at WD that I’m griping about. You are the cause of the rot. You shove in a whole mess of junk to help you sell more copies and more game, never mind if it’s giving all those newcomers a useful start.

What we’re seeing in WD now is a sellout–like a photography mag shoving ‘glamour’ pics into its pages to boost circulation. Any blaming or sneering I have to do is directed at the commercialism that motivates this, not at the readers and gamers who are forced to suffer the consequences.

<

p>Dave called it.

RPG Spotlight: Rifts

This is sort of a request from an online acquaintance.

Rifts RPG 1st Ed 1990

(Cover by Keith Parkinson

I owned the original Rifts, the first couple of sourcebooks (including the original Vampire Kingdoms) and even the Conversion Book–at the time we had other Palladium games like TMNT and Robotech.

I hadn’t touched Rifts for years. My dim recollection was of a system so unplayable and unfocused that it was impossible to make it through a second session. But I was young then–surely with nearly 30 years experience I could squeeze some value from the game?

Just holding the book in my hand took me back 20 years. Strange to feel yourself holding an artefact of your youth–and this book, for me, was particularly resonant.

I didn’t have long. The pentagram was a bit rough and ready, and the book howled as I nailed it down. The binding took me about four hours; I went through a gallon of coffee and lost two pints of blood. 

Once the thing was bound, I gathered up the whole library, took it into the back garden and burned it. The flames were a lambent green, and accompanied by jets of white stars and lightning shrieking into the earth. God knows what the neighbours thought. Once they were completely burned I gathered the ashes up in a dustbin. Then I ran the dustbin over a few times in the car. Then I drove the car to Beachy Head and pitched the dustbin over the cliff. Then I set fire to the ocean just to be sure.

You nearly had me, you bastard. But I’m on to you now. The next time it won’t be so easy.

If you really want a retrospective on Rifts, you could go here. I recommend some sort of eye protection.

I have to admit the Glitter Boy was pretty cool, though.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

RPG First and Second Look: The Annotated Sorcerer (part 1)

A friend complained that Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer is so badly written that he had to produce an annotated version just to make it playable. I’m not sure if they were joking.

I backed the kickstarter after trying and failing to get a hard copy. As a good faith gesture the backers got draft versions without cover art–which, when it arrives from Thomas Denmark will look something like this:

Sorcerer Concept Art

I assume Denmark will do some polishing for the final image, but I like the rough quality–Sorcerer is proud of its indie roots and this cover makes it feel like a homegrown game. It’s not sanitized, it’s full of flavour. Man, I can’t wait to see the finished version.

I wanted to get to the bottom of the aforementioned complaint, so this will be a 2-pass process. First I’ll try to just read the original text (copyright 2001) and then I’ll re-read with the annotations (copyright 2012).

Sorcerer is the first of Edwards’ games, and arguably the most conventional. Its reason for existence is White Wolf and their failure to deliver a story-telling game. I don’t quite share Edwards’ moral outrage although I do feel the WW lines collapsed under their own weight around the time of Sorcerer’s first draft (1996). Mage, the game I have most affinity with1 is a mess of weak magic rules that we mostly ignored in favour of freeform play. Also, I have no patience for metaplot.

I realised a while ago that I should have been running Over The Edge, not Mage in those years. It would have served exactly the same purpose–a few skeleton abilities and maybe fringe powers, and voila–instant Magick User. Given OTE’s influence on Sorcerer, this is going to be an interesting comparison.

First Pass: Sorcerer, circa 2001

The book’s seven chapters are Introduction, Creating Sorcerers, Demons, Playing Sorcerer, Rules for Sorcery, Rules for Everything Else, and Theme and Meaning.

There is no setting to speak of. This game is a framework for playing characters who have some kind of power that most people don’t have. The only reference to the setting Edwards makes is in the video above–to point out that demons and magic aren’t part of the setting where the PCs are, and yet the PCs have all managed to summon demons.

More than anything this recalls Clive Barker’s Great and Secret Show, with the character Jaffe divining the Art from cryptic code found in a dead letter office in Omaha. The concept of awakening in this way–through self-motivated discovery of a magical world–is how Mage: The Ascension should be, but in Mage the process of awakening is an automatic2 membership into a particular magic-hat-wearing club (whether you want it or not). Sorcerers are private; they have chosen to work magic and summon demons; they don’t answer to anyone and they certainly don’t get to whine about how a talent they didn’t want was thrust upon them.

A lot of this is my inference, because the starting text is “sorcerers–demons–how to roll dice–go!” Edwards explicitly says that sorcerers aren’t spell slingers, and they are arrogant. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

The dice system isn’t much to speak of–it’s a dice pool where the highest single roll wins. I am completely fine with that. I’m also fine with tossing coins. Later in the book Edwards mentions the currency of the game with one die equalling one success equalling one point of damage and so on; I like this concept a lot, and I don’t understand why it isn’t in the introduction.

Building Sorcerers

The second chapter doesn’t waste time: the steps to creating a sorcerer are itemised into nine steps including picking your stats, your demon, your Cover and Price. The system is text light and buzzword heavy, though I never found it ambiguous.

The character generation does a few interesting things. For a start it counts the “body” stat as Stamina and the “mind” stat as Will. There’s an explanation why Edwards doesn’t use the (horribly loaded) staple terms like INT and DEX. I found the approach very refreshing.

There are no skills, with the exception of Lore (the magical stat that all sorcerers have). The Cover is your “day job” and encompasses a range of implied skills as well as attitudes, knowledge and resources. I found this approach very satisfying.

Price and Humanity round out the sorcerer. Price is a penalty for doing magic, and Humanity changes as a consequence of actions. These are all Effectiveness measures (in GNS parlance), though Humanity doubles up as Resource. I think I’m correct in saying none of them are Metagame measures, that is modifiers on behaviour or outcomes based on relationships (if handled differently both Price and Humanity could be metagame, but they’re not).

The most remarkable part of the whole thing is “The Diagram”. Since I’m a sucker for visual organisation aids, I just ate this concept up. Unfortunately it’s presented very badly in the book, to the extent that it’s almost impossible to use without (I guess) seeking clarification from the sorcerer-playing community online.

Screen Shot 2013 02 16 at 16 02 32

Kickers and Bangs

Characters also have Kickers, and later on the GM introduces Bangs. I’m still not exactly sure whether Bangs are the province of the GM alone, or if players can introduce Bangs as well. Kickers are disruptive events that start the player off on their adventure, and they’re very well expressed in the character section. Really, they’re a great idea for any roleplaying game.

Bangs are a great idea too. But honestly, I don’t think they were invented in Sorcerer other than in name. A bang is a provocative event, pre-planned and then dropped into the game for PCs to react to. Great, that’s pretty much how I and everyone I know runs their games today.

The funny thing about Bangs is, for a game that considers emergent story it certainly sounds like scene planning to me. Edwards is right to say the Act/Scene structure in WoD can give rise to “monstrous railroading“, but for the most part we run Scenes in an emergent fashion, with plenty of Bangs to get the PCs moving. Even stranger is the insistence of the text to “get to the bangs!” with advice on how to move a dense party onto a pre-planned bang event. Sounds a bit like railroading to me.

It’s the demons, stupid

I fell in love with the Stormbringer way of doing magic with demons as capricious reservoirs of power–it means spell casters really are meddling with forces that could destroy them. Sorcerer’s magic has exactly the same appeal, though stripped of Stormbringer’s complexity. Demons get their own character sheet (which the GM holds: the players get to look at their first demon sheet before it’s whisked away). They’re otherwise defined by Needs, Desires, their various Abilities and so forth.

Although “demon” is a loaded term, the text (in the Roleplaying Demons section) calls it an “open concept” and cites many different kinds of things that work as demons–from the souls of the damned dredged up from hell, to advanced technology that’s intrinsically tied to the PC.

Naturally demons must be bound. Some demons must be hosted. Here’s where it gets interesting. Most games with summoning have a binary condition–either the demon is bound to the caster’s will, or it isn’t. In this game, the demon will be bound, no matter what. The twist is that the winner of the binding role has the advantage in future negotiations. So your sorcerer can have their demon, but if it was bound badly then good luck keeping it under control.

The system for defining demons is (as you would expect) the most granular part of the book. There are abilities and different kinds of demon, from parasites and posessors to objects and passing demons. Most interestingly the different types of demons determine who has the power to switch the demon’s Abilities on and off–sometimes the demon chooses, sometimes the sorcerer.

The assumption in this game, as stated previously, is that demons and magic aren’t a part of the world–nevertheless they’re a part of the PC’s world. The PCs therefore have something in common, belonging to a subculture of sorcerers who number dozens worldwide. The Lore stat determines pecking order as well as overall effectiveness, but every sorcerer can perform the basic tasks such as contacting, summoning and binding demons. We know they’re all part of the same magician’s club, so there’s really no need for more detail than where it’s already been placed–the types, the abilities, the needs, and the overall currency.

Themes, etc

I’ve skipped the section on system, because the system is so light I hardly think it’s worth noting. The Themes section rounds out the book (aside from the System Does Matter essay in the appendix).

Themes and Meaning really speaks to me. It’s strongly integrated with the concept of demons and of sorcerers being self-reliant, arrogant characters, very small in number and both privileged and cursed. A lot of the sense of exclusivity I got from Vampire 1st edition (before the cartoon violence) is here. The GM is encouraged to think about why sorcery exists and what it represents. I can think of a few ways to translate Vampire into Sorcerer (e.g. with parasite demons). Overall Sorcerer is a credible alternative to the World of Darkness, stripped of metaplot and gothy pretensions and with actually nasty supernaturals instead of fluffy balls of angst.

Closing Remarks

<

p>This post is already too long to dive into the annotations. My first look at Sorcerer has revealed a game at least I find pretty compelling–but not without numerous flaws.

Is it as incoherent as my friend’s comment suggests? Well, I’ve read commercially produced games that are longer and more rambling (Wild Talents, I’m looking at you). Sorcerer is unencumbered by difficult system or setting terminology, so it’s obtuse areas are easy to discover and not too hard to guess at or work around.

The game does bring a new set of labels and in some cases fails to capitalise on those labels as new concepts. Bangs are a good concept, but not new in the way they’re presented3 (I don’t think they were ever new). The Diagram is both a good concept and new–would it have killed Edwards to provide an example?

In both cases I want more. I think he got that message–I know that Bangs, the Diagram and a host of other features are heavily annotated. It is a shame they weren’t covered first time around, but Sorcerer is still a playable and very compelling game without them.

My only disappointment is it’s probably not suitable for one-shot play, given the approach to character generation. That’s OK, though; one-shot play is usually about overcoming obstacles, not emergent play.


  1. Not WW’s best game, though–that honour goes to Wraith: The Oblivion. I’ll talk about that some other time. 

  2. Automatic and also traumatic–it is a WW game, naturally.

  3. I get the feeling that Bangs are supposed to be instant-on drama beats

Friday, 15 February 2013

Chrome

Whitehall Paraindustries is an uncompromising blog about “RPG Theory and Design”. The author Brian Gleichman provides a series of foundation articles on different RPG Theories, why all this theory has a bad reputation, and the flaws of GNS. The latter is (I believe) an expansion and clarification of Gleichman’s earlier Comments on the GNS model. It’s all rather long but might be a useful counterpoint to my GNS footnotes and the original Forge articles, if you can even be bothered.

What I want to discuss is Chrome, as presented in the most recent article  Game Design By Exception. It’s a well-thought out piece that draws attention to the idiocy of a certain kind of game design where the core is coherent but boring and all the interesting bits are rarely-used ephemera around the outside.

I intuitively know that game. Any game reliant on exclusive character class (D&D, Rifts, Cyberpunk 2020Vampire if you include clans etc.) fits the definition, as does AD&D and any other games with subsystems for very specific activities. You can argue that spelunking rules are part of AD&D because it’s a core activity–in which case, the seventh D&D stat should be “spelunking”.

The proliferation of special powers, extra rules and so on is a symptom of the 90s where players needed to differentiate themselves from each other. However, the overwhelming feature of the games I played was not divergence into sub-systems, it was divergence into secrecy. This was (is) particularly troublesome in Live Action games where it would be impossible to make people divulge their secrets, because it was the only piece of power those players had over their peers.

The system ephemera should be Chrome–no more than motifs that sharpen the focus on what makes the character different without making them mechanistically different. Vampire could have been like this, if the choice of clan didn’t unlock a particular mechanical subsystem (although I guess it would unlock a social subsystem, which is even more prone to the whims of GM fiat and secrecy).

Two conclusions come from this:

1/ for all the authors opposition to GNS and (it appears) the culture of indie rpgs, the anti-Design by Exception manifesto is almost identical to GNS notions of coherent design. Which goes to show that as left and right move towards extremes, they tend towards being more similar than different.

2/ secrets are another form of exception. The good news is they can be engineered into the core game with mechanics for forcing their revelation. This is the approach I’ve seen in more than one commercial freeform game.

Towards the end of the essay, the author notes two attempts to avoid design by exception. The OSR (meaning D&D clones) is one approach:

Attempts to avoid this include the OSR method of burying one’s head in the sand, i.e. go back to an old edition (with less Chrome) and spend as little time as possible in combat because it’s now boring. I suppose a victory dance of some type helps one deal with this self-defeating option.

The other example is Dark Heresey, which is not a game I’ve played–but appears to behave exactly as every other percentile system I’ve encountered:

Limited to a closed ended d100 system, things are only vaguely interesting when effective chances for success hover around the middle of the random number span- say 30-70 percent chances.

This results in a game that represents the mighty genetically enhanced superhuman Space Marines with stats only 10 points higher than normal men… so maybe a base 58% to hit instead of 48%. The mind is underwhelmed by such power. Instead it’s ‘Talents” (i.e. special abilities, i.e. Chrome) that’s suppose to make up the difference.

<

p>The conclusion that “core mechanics need to be interesting of and by themselves” is worth challenging, however. This statement assumes a single motivation for playing, where it is axiomatic that no single motivation exists. GNS theory may have its flaws but it does recognise preference.

The System-Matters dogma is correct in one regard, that system shapes play. But it’s more general than that: gaming process affects play. And the thing about gaming process is the reliance on Tacit Knowledge. In other words there are aspects of what makes a game an enjoyable experience that are near impossible to communicate.

This makes a nonsense of any designer who insists that a game can be made objectively better by engineering alone, and that you will have more fun by following one ruleset to the letter over another (or disregarding both). The tacit experience of humour, of social interplay, of when to take the rules seriously and when to lampoon them is learned by interaction with real people.

The procedural aspects are easy to engineer, and if designed well into the core then easy to enforce with the players. But procedural beats alone don’t make for an exciting game. Drama (and gratification) is the soul of a good game; and while drama can and should come from random, unexpected dice results, it takes skill for GM and players to spot those opportunities and make use of them.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Playlist: Happy St V’s!

 Happy Valentine’s Day!

  1. Divine Comedy, In Pursuit of Happiness
  2. Magnetic Fields, Your Girlfriend’s Face
  3. Eurythmics, Love Is A Stranger
  4. Simple Minds, Love Song
  5. Cult, Love
  6. Bauhaus, The Passion Of Lovers
  7. Sisters of Mercy, Valentine
  8. Cure, Lovesong
  9. Pet Shop Boys, Rent
  10. Florence & The Machine, Kiss With A Fist
  11. U2, Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me
  12. Muse, Supermassive Black Hole
  13. Sugar, If I Can’t Change Your Mind
  14. Psychadelic Furs, Pretty In Pink
  15. Nine Inch Nails, Ringfinger

<

p>One More…

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Gaming in the Gibson Continuum

The Tears of Envy blog has a project on called Cyberpunk 1984 (not Orwell, but the year Neuromancer was published) capturing Cyberpunk as an artistic movement.

Cyberpunk has been and gone. The successor to cyberpunk is–what? Transhumanism, I suppose, given the promise of GURPS Transhuman Space and Eclipse Phase.

GURPS Cyberpunk

GURPS is all about the cross-genre toolkit, of course; so it’s not surprising that the Cross-Genre Cyberpunk sidebar in GURPS Cyberpunk (1990) mentions GURPS Space, with this rather prescient statement:

“The big thing to remember about far-future cyberpunk is that it will be truly ultra-tech.  The mind and body changes available to a 23rd-century Solid Citizen would probably amaze, disgust and frighten that 2050 netrunner!”

Cyberpunk Gaming

The first edition of the Cyberpunk rpg is set in 2013. The future is here, with chrome, shoulderpads and big hair.

Interface Zero is purported to be an updated Cyberpunk for our wireless, overlayed augmented reality HUD world. From what I know of IZ it appears to embrace transhumanism as well as updating technology to include wireless communication, etc.

But what if that’s not what I want? What if I want to run a truly anachronistic CP2013 (or 2020) game? Something that harkens back to the unbelievably dated 80s premise, big hair and corporate greed and all? That would require quite a suspension of disbelief. Off the top of my head a few features of a “Gibson Continuum” are:

Cyberpunk2013

1. Always plugged in. There is no wireless in the Gibson Continuum. Manual emergency disconnects from a cyberdeck before black ICE hits may result in physical damage to the cranial sockets. It’s going to be a PITA for Solos with smartlinks to their weapons, too–they’re likely to snag that flying lead on every doorknob and coat hook. Unless it’s 2013 and there are no more coat racks, punk.

2. Tiny screens and massive storage. That’s right, the highest tech computer uses a 14in green-on-black CRT. At the same time, information storage is on good old reliable standard: VHS. Or maybe Laserdisc, if you’re lucky.

3. Stuff is heavy; that Cyberdeck weighs at least 8lbs, and your VHS video camera is huge. Cybernetic eyes may require hardware exernal to the eye socket. Overall the Gibson Continuum’s encumbrance rules eclipse the cyberware humanity rules.

Cyberdeck

4. Kibble.

5. High profile body-mod labs with brand-name flash (Sendai dermatrodes, etc.)

6. Exotic locations with portmanteau identifiers, e.g. San Angeles.

7. Neon and chrome.

8. Literal mapping in Cyberspace where nodes correspond to virtual 3D space–so if you want to shop online, you need to enter the virtual store and go to the correct shelf for your goods.

Kromosome

9. Relative ease of living “off the grid”; satellite imaging is behind our current tech, personal GPS doesn’t exist.

10. Orbital communities.

11. Vector graphics.

12. Rockerboys, Fixers, and Solos, oh my.

That’s all for now. The list will grow and be refined–especially after mining the visual media list for inspiration.

Visual Media List

A brief list of media for visual style cues. Most of these come from the GURPS:CP list, though a couple (Until the End of the World, Wild Palms) post-date the book.

Until The End Of The World

Wild Palms

Max Headroom

Total Recall

The Running Man

Runaway

Brazil

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

Robocop

Blade Runner

TRON 

Strange Days

Johnny Mnemonic

Afterword: Essay List  

<

p>A Cyberpunk Manifesto

Notes Towards a Post-Cyberpunk Manifesto (Slashdot; linked from the Tears of Envy blog post)

Eutopia (sic) is Scary (uses the same quotation I used above from GURPS Cyberpunk) and the (maybe a bit more relevant) follow up essay, Why is the future so absurd?

Two mentions of The Gibson Continuum: this blog post and this Science Fiction Studies essay by Thomas A. Bredehoft

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Uno Dos Tres Cribbins

A couple of vinyl finds in the charity shop this morning:

SExpress Original Soundtrack

And coincidentally–and even more exciting:

Bernard cribs

That’s right, the Bernard Cribbins OBE, luminary of the UK pop and dance scene for five decades and the inspiration for contemporary bands such as Soundgarden, R.E.M. and B*witched. The S’Express connection is of course Hey Music Lover where Cribbins stepped out from behind the mixing desk to play euphonium when the original session musician called in sick after a bizarre gardening accident. 

He’s also widely credited with the creation of the Acid Skiffle genre:

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p>Cribbins’ repertoire embraces such a vast range that his later contributions to the field of musical expression are almost indistinguishable from his humble beginnings–yet listen closely and you’ll hear overtones of Hole In Ground in Slipknot’s My Plague.

He’s best known these days for his role as Wilf Mott in Doctor Who, but to true music fans he remains the original Super Fly Guy. Mr Cribbins, we salute you.