Month: April 2016

Beyond the Waves: Playbooks

So the newborn has disrupted blogging for a bit. Anyway, here’s a playbook guide for Beyond the Waves, including:

  • new playbooks
  • tweaks for existing playbooks
  • miscellaneous notes

The whole document is here although it’s quite long at around 36 pages.

New playbooks

I’ve split out the new playbooks in a zip file here (Word docx format). They are:

  • The Pirate’s Protege: A swashbuckling warrior-rogue
  • The Wild Mage: A mage who walked into the heart of the island and learned the wild magic
  • The Pearl Diver: A rogue who knows all the island’s secrets
  • The Revenant: A dead soul that failed to cross the Ocean and washed up on the beach in a new body
  • The Triton Mercenary: A warrior from an ancient undersea race, who chose to walk on land and explore the human lands
  • The Itinerant Cartographer: An Elder character and a rogue, travelling across the Archipelago with the intention of mapping as much as they can — and training a pupil to carry on their work

At some point I’ll combine this content with the other blog posts… when I get 5 minutes. Yeah, right


Yesterday our first child was born. I celebrated by going home and sleeping.

Tonight is the last night of our house being a house for just two people, if all goes to plan. I feel I should be using the quiet to say something heartfelt and poignant, make sentimental promises to our newborn, or talk about how for the mainstream childbirth is easy, a certainty, and universally desirable at a certain age while utterly unacceptable at others.

These will have to wait because I am too tired. I will just say this:

come on then

He came out fighting.

Martial Truths: It’s Not A Sport

Yesterday I was talking about the HEMA scene to a layperson and they referred to what we did as “your sport”. This is wrong for these reasons:

  1. There’s no sport. Yes, there are competitions when groups meet up, and certainly some people view these as competitive events where the goal is dominance; but most gatherings are foremost about a technical exchange, so the competition places that technique in practice.
  2. More importantly, there’s no you. Unlike the vairous governing bodies like the Kung Fu council and FIE there isn’t a single governing body for HEMA. That hasn’t stopped some people from trying to impose one, but in the end groups like HEMAC and BFHS are groups of affiliated but diverse interest groups.

To explain the problem with calling it “sport” I need to reference J. Christoph Amberger’s Secret History of the Sword, where the author talks about two kinds of conflict. Of those two Antagonistic conflict is further divided between:

  • Combat for Dominion or Survival (“war”)
  • Comment combat (“duel”)

Amberger breaks these down by scenario (battlefield, affairs of honour, etc.), Motivation, and crucially by

  • Projected Intent (i.e. what threat does the opposition appear to present)
  • Awareness of risk (high for both cases)
  • Fear level, and Stress level.

Similarly agonistic combat is sub-divided between

  • Competitive combat (“sport”)
  • Theatrical combat (“stage”)

Unsurprisingly the perception of risk, stress and fear levels are lower in agonistic conflict, where the intent is not to cause lasting harm because you want everyone to come back to the next class. And it would seem that our end-of-class sparring or assaulting fits the model of competitive combat. So, why not call that “sport”?

The problem with that term is it fixates on the wrong goal. Modern three-weapon fencing, whilst being great for fitness and form is a country mile away from defensive arts practiced in the long 18th century. It is a sport because it’s goal oriented; and the fact is, two fencers may contre-temps with one another and exchange what would be fatal thrusts, and one side will still be awarded a point on quite arbitrary grounds (because they straightened their arm first and had priority).

Fixation on winning points leads to thuggery, especially in the inexperienced. And artless thuggery benefits greatly from physical advantage (through brawling, intimidating behaviour, etc.). And while you can train someone in art well enough to overcome the thugs, a new student with promise may well be put off and quit long before they achieve those lessons, because all they see are artless thugs intent on dominating and winning, with no intent on improving their actual skill.

It should be clear why this problem can exist in the first place: there is no threat, no perception of risk, and this modifies behaviour. Hope was well aware of the difference between salle-play (agonistic) and a lethal attack at sharps (antagonistic) and how it modified behaviour, and he prepared his students thus — fancy tricks for the salle, but keep it simple and stick to what you know in a fight for your life, and think to your own defence first.

The modern fencing salle should be a safe place to train in, so factors of fear (and to an extent, stress) are massively diminished. Instead we have other ways to modify behaviour in combat. Free-play is collaborative rather than competitive, so more like Theatrical exchange; and for assaulting, changing the conditions of victory massively changes behaviour away from thuggery towards art (for example, only allowing scoring off the riposte).

I despise the word sport in conjunction with martial arts, because it legitimises winning as a be-all and end-all; and this leads to a callous, sink-or-swim culture, normalised in a particular demographic. Ours isn’t a sport, it’s a science.

Economics of Hacking

Dear Smiorgan,
I really like playing a Warrior Mage and I want to play Beyond the Wall, but none of the playbooks grab me. I want to be able to cast all the spells and still have better armour, attacks and HP than a regular mage. What can I do?
Richard “The Hamster” Hammond

From a recent conversation on social media, names have been changed, etc. Basically the player wasn’t satisfied by the way BtW made compromises between abilities for multiclass characters — they didn’t want to give up cantrips or rituals to be able to swing a sword.

So the conversation turned to what they would be prepared to give up or compromise to get the build they wanted. Some ideas:

  • Lose Sense Magic ability
  • Slower spell progression (like a B/X cleric)
  • Higher XP requirements (like a B/X elf)
  • Behaviour restrictions (you only get your extra stuff if you behave in a certain way, e.g. like a paladin)
  • Lose your ability with cantrips, spells and/or rituals (like the other multiclass options in BtW)
  • Fictional constraints (e.g. can only cast spells at night)
  • Mechanical cost for magic (e.g. it does your PC hp damage to cast the spell)
  • Some other cost (e.g. you have to deal with a demon who casts magic for you)
  • Unreliable magic (e.g. roll for all magic like a cantrip)
  • Metagame costs (as a player, you always have to bring the snacks)
  • Nothing — your GM just lets you have extra stuff for free

All of these are meant seriously — yes, if your GM agrees to you having stuff for free with no drawbacks, why not?

But players and designers worry about these things — they want things to appear fair and balanced. Two points:

  1. Balance is a lie; what matters is equity
  2. While equity can be achieved outside the system (see examples above about snacks), but when “game balance” is sought it comes from three places:
    • statements of Nature
    • statements of Competency
    • Procedures

Statements of Nature are the starting points for the character (fictional, background, and in OSR terms the Attributes before you’ve chosen a class). Statements of Competency are about the character class, i.e. the character in the setting context. Actual Procedures are the game game, the bits concerned with doing the core activity (combat, social interaction, etc.) where there’s a risk, decision making, game currency and chance.

You can trade all of these, but crucially when people talk about “builds” they’re thinking about changing the statement of Competency (character class, etc.), not Nature, and crucially not actual Procedures. Sure, changing the Competency might have an effect on the Procedures in play, and that’s where a lot of the angst comes from when hacking characters — whether that’s an unreasonable exploit waiting to happen in one, three or ten sessions’ time.

And if that’s difficult to negotiate between your players, it’s doubly hard to discuss on the internet. Because what are the real game consequences of Richard Hammond trading away their ability to Sense Magic for permission to wear chainmail? That entirely depends on what Sense Magic means for their group and GM — in their setting and campaign the ability to Sense Magic could be a gatekeeping mechanism for certain parts of the plot (say, your ability to Sense Magic allows you and only you to communicate with certain NPCs). Or, it could be worthless, in which case that character gets to wear chainmail “for free”. Who knows? Who cares? Who wins and who loses?

Barter Economics vs. Centralisation

Thinking about Richard Hammond’s example, one problem is the discussion gets framed as an appeal to a central authority, something that doesn’t exist in OSR land. These trades are more like a barter economy: transactions are between individuals, and you can ask the community “is X worth Y in trade?” the actual transaction is between two individuals.

Compare this with monolithic 80s and 90s generic system designs like GURPS (or pseudo-generic, like White Wolf’s systems) where there’s a central authority on how much everything costs. But the problem remains the same — this balancing is done as a compentency statement, but the impact on the overall procedures is still uncertain. You can spend 500 points on your character and have something extremely effective, or spread way too thinly. Plus, your game comes out smelling of GURPS.

Thinking more broadly, consensus of how to play and what is valuable is shaded by heuristics and biases in game design which come from two places:

  • the designer (i.e. top down)
  • the community (i.e. bottom up)

Designer and community will place different values on the moving parts of the game. Most importantly the design dictates how loose those negotiations are and how much latitude the community has for making transactions. Games like Apoclaypse World seem a world apart from GURPS in content but they are still authoritarian designs; as a consequence they change the tone of community discussions away from what is the value of X against Y in trade, and towards how do I correctly implement and interpret X.

That’s not a criticism by the way. But what it does mean is that the negotiations over trading move X for move Y happen in a different place. When hacking your PbtA game the trades happen in the region of Procedure rather than perceived Competency; the value of the changes can only be evaluated by playing.

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