Friday, 28 October 2016

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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).

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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.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Revised Elric of R’lyeh

5 years ago I made my first post here on Department V.

To celebrate 5 years of blogging I’ve revised, edited and expanded my Elric of R’lyeh setting. You can grab the pdf here.

Moving forward, I’m going to update the site over the next few weeks to simplify the pages and consolidate downloads. None of the content is going away.

And after that, something new. Watch this space!

EoR Inspiration

Saturday, 11 June 2016

No, YOU get off MY lawn

This post is so familiar and alien at the same time. Familiar because it describes the make-do of roleplaying in the 80s, but not the scene I remember since as a Brit I hardly played D&D. And thanks to that I can wax lyrical about old-school Stormbringer or WFRP or Fighting Fantasy and there’s just not enough interest to create any kind of argument. No-one’s invested in being right about that particular “Old School”.

It’s the comments to Rick Stump’s rant that are illuminating. “This kid who wasn’t even born in the 80s had the temerity to tell me about the Old School”. Etc. Which is fair enough, but let’s unpack that a bit.

First, this veneration of the Old School… it’s not cool. The Old School is frequently reactionary, outdated, and harmful — how about “old school” industrial health and safety? Or gender roles or family units? Or methods of disciplining children? Or attitudes to women in engineering roles? Or punitive teaching by rote? There are a lot of instances of Old School that can just piss off, as far as I’m concerned.

Second, since roleplaying was so localised and cobbled-together, there really never was any “school” or single coherent body of thought and practice back in the 80s.

Third, it’s ironic that the normally reactionary older generation is admonishing millennials for being so prescriptive and inflexible in defining “the Old School”.

But fourth, it’s not really Old School, it’s the OSR. And all the OSR really is, is an evolving collective of modern ideas which uses the one component of “the original roleplaying game”, the system, as a basis — because that’s the one part of the Old School that actually doesn’t need updating, because it’s still functional 40 years on.

What the OSR is doing is more like what we do in HEMA — we take historical treatises, some of which are incomplete, and turn them into functional modern systems that can be taught and used. As such, the age and experience of people in the OSR is irrelevant, it’s their output and participation that matters; but just like the MA world, there’s an expectation that the most senior members will be able to wear their 20, 30 or 40 years long-service badge and hold court over their juniors forever.

Of course I’m lucky because no-one is going to come back from the 18th century and tell me I’m doing it wrong. But then if they did I could just stab them because they’d be undead.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Maps of the Young Kingdoms

This post from 2011 showcases a number of different maps of Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms. Some of these appear in the novels (the Collier and Collier/Romanski versions). One is the “classic” William Church version from the Stormbringer RPG. Two are in French; I’m wondering if at least one comes from Oriflame’s French language editions of their Eternal Champion jeux des roles.

For completeness, here are mine (photos rather than scans, sorry).

J. Cawthorn, 1992

Based on the Collier/Romanski map this one appears in my Eternal Champion omnibus editions, published by Millennium in the early 90s. I can’t see a scale anywhere.

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Stormbringer 4e, William Church

This is the one most role-players of a certain age will know. The smaller map in the back of the book puts one inch at 300 miles.

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Elric! map by Gustaf of Uhaio

This one appears in Elric! (which was later Stormbringer 5e, though I don’t know if it kept the same map). The scale (which you need a magnifying glass to see) is approx 500 miles to an inch.

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Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone

Not the prettiest map, suffering from both Mongoose’s horrible grey-on-grey printing and the Papyrus font, but it is the most complete — joining the “unknown East” with the better known area around the Oldest Ocean. Around 500 miles to an inch, which is the same as the others; but while this map covers a lot more area, there isn’t nearly as much margin padding so curiously the distances aren’t wildly different.

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Mournblade

French-only, full colour, with 500 km to just over half and inch (around 580 miles to the inch). Definitely the prettiest (which is consistent with the rest of that book).

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Orientation and Distances

Stormbringer’s original map by William Church is “Authorised by Michael Moorcock”. I assume the Collier/Romanski map is similarly authorised and pre-dates the RPG. I would also assume that Church wouldn’t deliberately contradict previous maps. In general the relative distances are roughly the same between different versions, as are the directions. Hawmgarl is north of Imyrr, Menii is to the east, Vilmiro is north-east.

For more fun, when you measure the actual distances Church’s Stormbringer map puts the distance between Imyrr and Hawmgarl at 630 miles; Mongoose’s map puts it at 700 miles; Elric! at 870 miles; and Mournblade at 1280 miles.

There are a few references to distance in the books, but I can’t remember them. But J. Cawthorn (and possibly Collier/Romanski before them) saw fit to just not bother with a map scale; and Moorcock almost certainly pulled the original distances out of thin air.

It hardly matters, being fiction and all. I guess you might be concerned with distance if the Young Kingdoms world was a sphere and Imyrr was a certain distance from the equator and the weather varied. 700 miles is the distance between London and Marseille, where it’s warm enough to grow palm trees. Another 700 will get you to the North African coast.

Cartographers lie anyway. It’s 925 miles from Chicago to Houston but it’s 4500 miles from Caracas to Buenos Aires; 1800 miles from London to Morocco but 7500 miles from Morocco to Cape Town. Not that you could tell from a Mercator projection. Are the Young Kingdoms cartographers telling the truth?

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Sunday, 27 March 2016

He Left This Message For Us

This article by Zach Sokol talks about tapes and it gives me warm and fuzzy feelings.

An individual under the name Bluesmojo wrote about running a cassette label: I run a cassette label. It’s not a “hipster” thing (if you have a problem with how other people consume music, you’re the “hipster”). It’s not about being analog snobs; most labels have Bandcamps and you can just download the releases if you don’t want to buy the tapes. I think the medium is an artifact of the origins of this scene, which grew organically out of other movements that never abandoned cassettes (noise, punk and metal). At the end of the day, I think it’s about community.

Yesterday in Truck I saw a tape release by Laura Marling for 9 quid, which raised some questions

  • does it come with a download?
  • who pays 9 quid for a tape these days?
  • and what are they playing it on?

Looking for more sensibly priced tapes I found A Giant Fern in Leeds which does cassette releases with accompanying streaming, FLAC and mp3 downloads. I found them via links in United Cassettes. Having bought vinyl for 20 quid and then only listening to the free download, a fiver for a download plus a nice physical artifact seems like a much better deal.

For hardware, unlike turntables not may people are making new tape decks — this TEAC is the only one I can see, and it will cost you 300 quid, and it has all the things that tapeheads supposedly don’t want like auto reverse. Unfortunately getting a s/h deck is a lottery — I bought a mid-range Yamaha Natural Sound deck a few years ago and its motor was knackered. The Sony I have now is low end (TC-WE435) but it’s OK and only cost me 30 quid. Anyone with 300 quid to burn on a tape deck should be looking at a secondhand Nak and a service anyway.

Anyway, the best thing about tapes are mixes from friends

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The second best thing is the way tape, like vinyl, forces you to listen from start to finish (when I got a sony CDP with a skip wheel it was the beginning of the end).

The third best thing are the RYKO Bowie releases which are still good.

I also discovered my taste wasn’t completely awful:

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It’s all about the physical artifact — just like vinyl, or a handwritten letter, or a RPG zine. But also while I appreciate vinyl as a thing, I don’t feel a nostalgic tug the way I do with tapes which are tiny and portable and can be made very personal.

Last, anyone who tells you that “cassette will wipe the floor with an mp3” is probably not making a fair comparison because they’re a tapehead playing their tapes through a Nakamichi Dragon and their mp3s from their laptop. Tapes have something magic, like vinyl. But playing tapes again made me appreciate my modern DAC and Amp.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Unstoppable Sex Machines

In the summer of ’93 I discovered two new favourite things: Bowie and Moorcock.

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Previously I hadn’t really gone for glossy, commercial ToTP 80s Bowie, although Bowie the actor was interesting in Labyrinth (and perversely Absolute Beginners).

But Suffragette City was sampled in Carter’s Surfin’ USM, which was interesting. That year Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity and especially Hunky Dory were on pretty constant rotation in the walkman. Also, Suede. Speaking of which, here’s a nice picture of David Bowie and Brett Anderson:

David and Brett

Anyway, I was listening to Quicksand and The Supermen and Wide Eyed Boy From Freecloud and at the same time getting into Hawkmoon (in the big Millennium omnibus imprint) and reading about Granbretan’s masked armies and giant flamingo riders with flame lances over the Kamarg. Also, drinking short-dated beer from the Classic Deli and watching Orlando and Naked Lunch at the PPP. Speaking of which:

David and Bill

There was also Vampire, which became next year’s big campaign, through my finals year, where I laid the foundations for future gaming and friendships to this date. Some of those friends are no longer here. They are who I am thinking about right now, as well as all the friends I have made who are still here.

Anyway, David Bowie was there. I’m hanging onto the tapes.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

RPG First Look: Fugue

James Wallis’ Alas Vegas kickstarter was fantastically successful with a backing of 8 times its initial goal. It was also fantastically optimistic with delivery dates with an estimate of June 2013 for hard copies and December 2013 for the Alas Vegas novel. Some people are reasonably irked about the delays, and some have found creative ways to express frustration.

We are receiving some content, slowly. September 2014 got us a partial preview, and as of November 2015 the Fugue rules are “locked” and have been released under the Creative Commons license, so I’m going to look at those.

Alas Vegas

alas-vegas

Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch. Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas by way of Dante’s Inferno. The Hangover meets The Prisoner. A new style of RPG by James Wallis, named by Robin D. Laws as ‘the godfather of indie-game design’, with art from this year’s winner of the World Fantasy Award, John Coulthart.

In the backer’s preview (Septemer 2014) James Wallis reasonably asks bloggers, reviewers and the like to hold fire for a couple of years on any of Alas Vegas’ secrets, and as I can’t stand spoilers I’ll do my best not to spoil anything.

Here’s the problem. I’d like to talk about the Fugue system, but the examples I’d reach for are off-limits — both for the reader, and for me, the backer. I’m allowed to read the setting and the first act (the owner of the book gets to be the first Dealer), but not much more than that.

So, this is a review and commentary on the Fugue system in general, but a lot of it will be around what my expectations of the system are, which is something I won’t be able to realise until the release. Alas Vegas and Fugue in general assumes a relationship between GM and game author that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. I’ll talk about that in a bit.

Content Sets

There are three operating constraints on Fugue games:

  1. Your characters have no memory of who they are, how they got where they are, or any skills beyond the most basic (speak language, eat, breathe) at time in.
  2. Play happens over a short, defined span of sessions (“like a HBO miniseries”), typically four.
  3. The GM (“Dealer”) role rotates around the group.

There are some implied thematic constraints too, such as the use of the Tarot in setting elements — since there’s an Alas Vegas set of Major Arcana by John Coulthart, this isn’t much of a spoiler.

There are three “Content Sets” in addition to Alas Vegas (all stretch goal offerings from the Kickstarter). I’m going to assume these sets all obey the same constraints for now.

Now, here’s the problem. The Fugue rules tell us how to negotiate some of the operating constraints, but not all. I assume those gaps have been deferred to the Content Sets, but since (a) we only have half of a draft of Alas Vegas and none of the others and (b) I wouldn’t be able to read them anyway without spoiling it for myself, I can’t say for certain. Anyway…

The Fugue Rules

I went through the Fugue document and made this cognitive map:

Fugue

(pdf version here) Here is what you’ll find in the Fugue rules:

  1. What you need to play (pens, paper, a tarot deck, etc.)
  2. How and when to do flashbacks (lead by the Dealer, the player of the Persona, and other players; or triggered by the game content). The mechanism for exploring the first operational constraint is almost all there, with one key exception which I’ll discuss later.
  3. The principles of play, such as not contradicting players with flashbacks and One More Thing; and how much of the Content Set the players (who are Dealers) are allowed to read.
  4. How to do all kinds of contested actions, a Blackjack mini-game, and so on, including narrating the outcome based on the Tarot draw.

Now, here’s what you don’t find in the Fugue document:

  1. There’s nothing about weaving flashbacks and abilities into the narrative.
  2. What do to with the Dealer’s “persona” (PC) when it’s their turn to run an act.
  3. How to hedge on facts as the Dealer, when you don’t have enough objective information to provide the answers.
  4. How to hand over between sessions.
  5. How to write Content Sets.

While the player-led narrative control sounds like the new indie school, all of this freedom is entirely around the flashback mechanism and turning the Tarot strings into a narrative. It’s totally freeform, but it’s not dissimilar to other minimalist designs from the 90s like Over the Edge and Everway.

When it comes to Dealer behaviour, other than being prompted for flashbacks when a Significator comes up it’s very traditional, authoritarian GM stuff. The first act I read is not completely railroaded to hell, but it’s not far off. It’s been structured with scene-by-scene set pieces, drip feeding the plot to the players as you go on.

Now, thinking about the constraints above — 4 sessions, 3 hours each, and rotating Dealer with deliberate obfuscation of objective facts in the early acts — I am not sure if it could be done another way. But this raises some interesting questions about the relationship between game author and GM. The author of any Content Set is going to be unable to playtest their own game in the way it’s supposed to be presented to the players according to the Fugue rules.

This is an adventure-as-novel style, heavily plotted, a 90s throwback. There are other clues in the document — the way the Dealer is advised to make the Personas’ lives a misery, but stop short of actually killing them; the way the Dealer is advised to put off the players’ difficult questions, to restrict their movements, because where they’re supposed to be is defined by the act they’re playing in. Honestly? It reminds me of Vampire. Not a metaplotted to hell Vampire, but the intensely personal, introspective, first-edition Vampire. The version I actually like.

Closing Remarks

Thanks to this design, Alas Vegas could never have taken advantage of crowd-sourced playtesting. This is because the Fugue rules are only half of the required mechanism in any Fugue game; the other half is the Content Set.

I expect the Content Set to plug these gaps:

  • weave the Personas back into the narrative. I guess the logical place this will happen is where there are Flashback triggers written into each Act. I don’t see any dynamic, player-led linkage.
  • handover from Dealer to Dealer between sessions. The game may well assume this “just happens” because “the GM knows how to do this kind of thing”. But actually I think this is non-trivial; what if the Dealer played the cards close to their chest and didn’t reveal everything in the previous session? What if the party refused to go where the Dealer was supposed to send them? What if a later Dealer forgot some vital plot from the previous session? Consensus is needed.

Time will tell if this is successful; but these are the criteria I will be using to judge all four content sets when we finally see them. But considering a Content Set needs to plug these gaps and provide a snappy, structured four-act game, I’m not surprised that the initial delivery dates proved ambitious.

I’d compare Fugue to Hillfolk (with its Series Pitches) or WaRP or possibly GUMSHOE. Ostensibly freeform, but from a school of heavy up-front plotting. Like I said, a 90s throwback. Fugue is the antithesis of modern emergent design; it isn’t is Fiasco or Monsterhearts or (ironically) Penny For My Thoughts. The controls on the Dealer authority are baked into the Content Set but instead of mechanistic controls (e.g. the way PbtA limits MC moves) the controls are entirely fictional, deliberately limiting context.

I’m still very optimistic about the final product. Partly because I’ve done this kind of game in the past — when four of us played four Eternal Champions back in the 90s, where we muddled through four sessions, rotating the GM role. Almost entirely free-form, with no controls on how far each GM could go aside from trust and a shared commitment.

As for the Fugue system itself, I think there would be no problem in running a game with a very traditional structure, avoiding the whole rotating Dealers thing. The flashback mechanics and the action rules still work, compartmentalised from the Content Set. I’m sorry I didn’t do that a year ago when we had the first document.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

The Squid Abides

My first Dragonmeet happened. Highlight was the announcement of Seven Wonders, and even better the con-only print run sold out by lunchtime!

I attended the What’s Hot seminar and the What Would Jackson Elias Do? session (available here and here respectively) and played Blades in the Dark for the first time, and bought stuff:

aru

books

Cosmic Fear

An eclectic mix, but a nice spread of OSR and storygame type stuff, plus All Rolled Up’s fantastically useful accessories.

Graham Walmsley was kind to autograph our copy of Stealing Cthulhu which I’ve wanted forever:

Colour

Graham asked us what our favourite monster was, and why (I assume he asks that of all his customers). I said The Colour Out Of Space, for a couple of reasons (which might not have been coherent at the time):

  1. Colours don’t get a treatment in my 4th edition CoC, and tend to get glossed over in favour of tentacles (they don’t make any of The Good Friends’ top three, for example).
  2. The Lovecraftian Science blog dissects the origins of Colours nicely and appeals to me as a scientist. Quantum life-forms would not be out of place in Star Trek, either.
  3. The Corruption trope is (like Cosmic Horror) seductive in an abstract, all-encompassing way — we love the stench of Chaos in the Warhammer universe, for example, and the way it perverts the natural.

As Graham says on p.85:

Since the Colour is more dreamlike than horrific, the final horror is probably a victim of the Colour, rather than the Colour itself.

Putting a human context on horror is essential for it to be horrific; without that, it’s weird science fiction — or in other words, horror is sensation, sci-fi is genre. And while Lovecraftian roleplaying has moved into the realm of pulp with Dark Young being answered with shotguns, the Colour remains nihilistic and faithful to Lovecraftian sensations of alien wrongness, promising a thoroughly miserable gaming experience. That’s a great monster.

The other Dragonmeet find was The Grognard Files who were promoting themselves with a neat little booklet and also plugged by Scott Dorward. I’m pleased to add them to my subscription to UK RPG podcasts. I guess the appeal will be limited to gamers of a certain age, but with the US-centric OSR it’s nice to have a British perspective on gaming nostalgia. If you want a run-down of the history of Runequest, Call of Cthulhu and others (I can’t wait for their take on Stormbringer) in the British RPG scene from the early 80s onwards, it’s recommended.

grog

Their second podcast features a Call of Cthulhu retrospective, and name-checks several White Dwarf contributions including The Horse of the Invisible from WD66 and Ghosties, Ghoulies and Squid by Simon Nicholson from WD91 (July 1987 — just before White Dwarf’s peak and sharp decline).

GGS

Let’s put that article in context: CoC was released in 1981, and I guess will have been available in the early 80s in the UK — but the edition that raised its profile here will have been Games Workshop’s 3rd edition hardback in 1986. That was the first time I’d heard of Lovecraft, and like Dirk I also looked for Lovecraft books in shops and the library, and found those same Grafton omnibuses with the awful and unrepresentative covers:

Lovecraft Omnibus

Given that Cthulhu gaming is maybe a decade old at this point (if you count Appendix N references) Nicholson’s article is fairly cutting-edge stuff. He nails the fundamentals of the Lovecraftian worldview:

  • God and the Devil are human constructs
  • The universe in vast and humanity is insignificant
  • There are aliens, who have motives and societies that we can’t hope to understand
  • Human life is a chance event

And so on. Nicholson also differentiates between the Derlethian (black and white) vs Lovecraftian (shades of grey) outlook. He does call Lovecraft “an athiest, materialist, and nihilist” (implied but by no means proven), “not a great writer… his characters were two-dimensional at best” (a matter of taste), and maintains that the horror in Lovecraft’s tales comes from a bleak, nihilistic vision (I don’t agree). But Nicholson also recommends taking conventional monsters (vampires, werewolves, ghosts) and regarding them — and magic — from a scientific point of view, which is a great piece of advice espectially looking forward to the 90s where contemporary urban horror fantasy becomes the mainstay of gaming and characters have access to scientific techniques and seek explanations (arguably my Department V game was more Lovecraft than World of Darkness, with its focus on alien forensics).

With that in mind, I think it’s fair to mention Ghosties, Ghoulies and Squid in the same breath as Stealing Cthuhlu. Walmsley’s book is more mature — as you would expect, with 30 years of collective experience in Call of Cthulhu as a roleplaying exercise, and the ways the narrative may be subverted. Both works advocate deconstruction of the genre, getting back to the fundamentals, the expectations of players and how to subvert them. Just as Silent Legions deconstructs the elements of Lovecraftian (and other horror) worldbuilding, these texts are a critical eye on the elements of the Lovecraftian narrative.

At the end of the Smart Party/Jackson Elias podcast (around 59 mins) there’s this quote from Scott Dorward:

I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what Lovecraft can offer in Roleplaying games… when you think adding Cthulhu to a game, don’t think of there being too many tentacles or Deep Ones, think of what else Lovecraft and his ideas and tropes can add to your games

Cthulhu as a pulpy tentacled monster is indisputably played out; but Lovecraft as a genre still has legs, and the analysis in Stealing Cthulhu and Ghosties, Ghoulies and Squid are the kinds of discourse that keeps it fresh, peeling the genre back to the authorial intent and fundamentals. This kind of deconstruction is what enables new ground to be broken in the Lovecraftian genre with games like Lovecraftesque.

Just don’t call it horror. Horror is an emotional response; this is science fiction. In any other game a starship’s crew will look upon the pulsing nuclear chaos of a black hole with wonder, not horror. They will transplant their consciouses from one body to another in transhuman societies, without a thought for what this means for their identity. They will accept that the universe is vast and contains many other races, for whom Humanity is an irrelevance. The first spell I encountered playing CoC was Brew Space Mead; the idea that a traveller could reach distant worlds in the arms of a byakhee or star vampire filled me with curiosity, not dread.

End

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Smart Party Does OSR

This week the Smart Party tackled the OSR with Daniel Sell, creator of The Undercroft.

I’m with Dan on two points: the Renaissance portion of the monicker (it’s a cultural movement), and coming to the OSR late. D&D was available when I was a kid but it was also displaced by Fighting Fantasy and WFRP (which are my old-school games) so didn’t get a look-in. I also don’t have a beard to stroke or the nostalgic feelings towards BECMI D&D (and I reject the general assumption that the OSR is looking backwards).

So, positive things about Teh OSR:

  • “Rosetta Stone” — yes. By keeping things “looking like D&D” you keep the cognitive load and comprehension barriers low.
  • From that basis, you can manipulate the various moving parts to tighten or refocus the system to do whatever you want. This is not reinventing or re-hashing, it’s optimisation for performance.
  • Or to put it another way, OSR is Linux, and individual systems are like distributions — for interoperability, customisation potential, and freedom to roll your own.
  • ACKS is a modern successor to BECMI’s zero-to-hero concept.
  • Lethality incentivises players to negotiate for advantage rather than take the raw deal that the rules give you in a straight fight.
  • But them I reject the notion that OSR is about lethality and I changed the rules to suit.
  • OSR games excel at providing GM resources for managing a campaign as a project, e.g. Sine Nomine games such as Silent Legions provide a way to generate your own sandbox, and crucially manage antagonist factions dynamically. This is such an obvious problem and yet a massive blind spot for many commercial RPGs.
  • Sine Nomine games are all good examples of deconstructing genre. Comparison with GURPS supplements is probably apt
  • Much as I like theory, OSR gives good practical examples like this one from Chris McDowall.
  • OSR games are probably a better model for learning how to GM and design adventures. They’re pictorially based and clearly itemised, and not predicated on “plot” with GM-as-entertainer role (the CoC and WoD models).

OSR games are no more reliant on GM/facilitator skill than any other traditional format game. The idea that more complex games can excuse lack of skill through rules is dodgy — really you’re playing a different kind of game if you’re just pushing counters and dice around the table for an hour. My experience is that GMs do the opposite, if the rules are too complex to fit seamlessly into the game, it’s the rules that get ditched in favour of common sense.

OK, while we’re talking about OSR and assumptions, I just dissected an old LotFP game I ran with Josh (Black Armada). During that game, Josh’s character lost both feet to standing in a field of slime (which had been eating the farmstead’s cattle from the hooves up). I set that up because I wanted characters to lose limbs and have other horrible things happen, and see if the players continued to treat their characters as disposable pawns and roll a new one, or persist with their PCs. There was actually little in-game debit to losing a limb, and it hasn’t stopped the Flame Princess adventuring.

Flame-Princess-T-shirt-display

Josh’s assumption was the PC was no longer playable; but there was nothing to prevent him continuing to play that character. Those assumptions are maybe fair given we have a legacy of dismemberment tables in WFRP, etc. But those assumptions like many assumptions about the OSR need to be challenged; there’s a weight of gaming propaganda that continues to say this style of game is all about disposable characters and casual murder for treasure, and that’s just bollocks.

Then we talked about the effect of disfigurement in other games that suddenly make players no longer want to play. This is not a functionality issue, it’s an issue of player self-image projected onto the character, (as well as the perceived value of a 1st level character in D&D). It’s not an issue of fairness or functionality.

I don’t see this enforced change on the character in D&D as any different from, say, a forced change to Darkest Self in Monsterhearts. That’s the game world and other player’s fiction intruding on your own character, and it’s a good thing. It forces you to change and adapt.

P.S. back Lovecraftesque, it’s good.