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.


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.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Great Clomping Feet, part 2

Cutting Up Museums is the latest Smart Party podcast.

Creating your own setting at the table through play might be all the rage, but nothing beats a good published setting.

According to Baz and Gaz there hasn’t been a decent setting this side of the millennium (discuss); so by “setting” we presumably mean the monolithic, supplement-driven mid-90s titles — in this case Earthdawn, Shadowrun, Deadlands, and Over The Edge. Although they do pay lip-service to Apocalypse World and at least mention Shadows of Esteren. I’ll get to those later. First I’ll get my personal prejudices out of the way:

  1. Worldbuilding is the great clomping foot of nerdism. The fictional power of a setting is diminished by definition. Other people’s settings are boring.
  2. More to the point, other people’s settings are overwhelming. If you’re a fanfic type (and one of those great clomping nerds) that’s not a problem — you’ll probably welcome the crush of the canon. But being a reader of Moorcock has meant that I could never really bring myself to run Stormbringer, at least not without seriously dicking with the setting to make it my own.
  3. In order for a setting to be good, the group has to own it. And the gents do say that the very best examples of setting are ones where they engage the world but make the campaign their own — which is surely the aim of all groups using published settings, but clearly doesn’t always come off. So here’s my main point: Having the group own the setting should be a design goal.

It’s interesting that Baz (I think) mentions Apocalypse World as having a “setting”. With respect, I don’t think that’s a setting. It has a premise, it has a genre, it has a theme. But nothing approaching a good old spoon-fed 90s setting. What it does have are mechanisms for both the players to own their characters (thanks to playbooks, the decisive nature of moves, etc.) and for the GM (sorry, MC) to own the environment via Fronts and Threats.

Similarly (and I know I keep going on about it) Beyond the Wall embraces the ownership principle — IMHO even better than Apocalypse World and its children thanks to the focus on genre, the cohesive way the Village is built from the ground up, and the support for campaigns in Further Afield. Recently the question “should I run with the playbooks at a convention, or start with pre-gens?” was asked on the BtW community and the overwhelming response was playbooks, for one reason — the amount of buy-in you get from starting the players off with the playbooks is huge.

Let’s take another OSR example, Sine Nomine’s Silent Legions. Here you have a mechanism by which the GM can design and own not only the mythos, the locations and the plot hooks, but the dynamic workings of the antagonists as well. They call this a sandbox but that’s a disservice — a sandbox would be static, waiting to be discovered (like so many other hexcrawl staples of the OSR scene). This thing moves and breathes and reacts. It’s Apocalypse World’s Fronts in a more traditional (and IMHO, functional) package.

It’s not all new-school games, either. Everway is contemporary of those 90s titles but it’s a game with a premise rather than a setting — one of many reasons why it turns up over and again in later RPG theory. It’s a toolkit game that guides both players and GM through owning the game they play together.

This ownership, like much of the “good GMing” craft and knowledge that we like to waffle about (on blogs and in podcasts, natch) is always implied as a good set of principles in the 90s-era games. 50% of White Wolf’s stock in trade was essays about how to engage with players, and pretentious as that was/is it did suck some people in, myself included. Despite owning a silly number of oWoD supplements I never ran with anything other than the rulebook, and (thanks to the system being made of cheese) most of that was hand-waving anyway. But those essays were at least an attempt to get the GM to own and lead the game.

So here’s the thing that we should take away from M. John Harrison’s Great Clomping Feet. Settings need to start small, and grow. This is a principle of decent fiction, and decent campaigns. GMs who embrace a vast published campaign setting still know this; they know full well to drip, drip, drip the setting onto the party and otherwise, let the party get on with their thing and react. That’s a time-honoured method, with the GM as the gatekeeper of information, for better or worse. (Although harking back to the chaps’ podcast on problem players, be wary of the players who know the campaign world better than you.)

But even though it’s a method, there’s precious little support for GMs to start small and grow their world other than doggedly following published material. Instead these huge settings rely on the GM first digesting and then filtering the bits they don’t want the players to see just yet. To me, this is a colossal waste of time. Why not instead start from a really strong beginning, and give the GM the tools to expand where the party goes?

Growth can be outward (beyond the village, exploring new lands) or it can be inward (confining the characters to a city, and building layer and layer upon that closed environment — the next game I’m working on). But either way, since it’s a game the absolute best practice must be for the GM to grow only slightly ahead of the players. Why buy into a whole world you’ll use only 1 percent of? And why needlessly constrain yourself?

That’s it from me. The gin has helped. Thanks to Gaz and Baz for another great podcast. But also I recommend this Canon Puncture “Game Advocates” podcast that also covers Earthdawn — because as monolithic as the setting is, Earthdawn really is a thing of beauty. I think Baz got that right.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

So Frightened To Lose Yourself

I recently discovered (thanks, social media) that every line of Stephen Lack’s dialogue in Cronenberg’s Scanners was re-recorded and used in place of the original. It explains how Cameron Vale’s voice is present in a subtly different way to the other characters, although maybe that wasn’t intentional.

I’d heard samples from Scanners before I’d even seen the film (yeah, I know).

On Biosphere’s Decryption:

Also on Among Myselves by Future Sound of London:

“They were drowning me.”

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Edith and Freddie Go To See The Harlequin

I said before that Over the Edge was the game I should have been running in the 90s instead of Mage. I also said in my #RPGCoverArtAppreciation contribution that I really prefer the 1e cover to the 2e. It’s surprisingly hard to find examples of the 1e cover of a decent size, so I was pleased to stumble upon this short-lived blog with a nice big version:


Based on the credits in the Player’s Survival Guide I assume the artist is Douglas Shuler, whose art turns up on a lot of the early Magic the Gathering cards (including the Serra Angel).

Anyway, this is why I particularly love Over The Edge’s cover:


That’s Edith and Freddie from the Invisibles V1e3, being observed by Tom O’Bedlam and Dane from the swings. Which, incidentally, you can now own in this monster of an omnibus:


Anyway… I don’t think I ever wanted to run Mage. I wanted to run The Invisibles, The Naked Lunch, Lost Highway, Sapphire and Steel.

I certainly didn’t want to run this:


“Hogwarts meets Castle Greyskull on Jupiter” (image found on this interesting French site

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Why, eh?

A few years ago at Reading I saw Marcus Brigstocke ranting about “guilty pleasures”. The gist was this: when someone says “Twilight is my guilty pleasure” they’re actually saying “Twilight is shite, but I’m self-aware enough that I can appreciate its shittiness, unlike the unwashed masses who take it at face value”.

The guilty pleasure fallacy is elitism by stealth. It’s particularly obnoxious when used by middle-class liberals to describe their relationship with the X-Factor. More to the point, it only appears in the context of adults seeking approval from other adults where the groupthink condemns this particular entertainment.

The same elitism has surfaced in The Slate, where Ruth Graham opines that we should be embarassed to read YA; although in a novel twist Graham appears to be projecting the guilty pleasure fallacy on her peers in the age 30-44 demographic who defend YA as “more sophisticated than ever”.

Yes, it’s a blatant wind-up piece. Cory Doctorow’s rebuttal opens a can of C.S. Lewis on Graham’s ass, and really that’s all you need to take away from the exchange. However there are a couple very obvious strawmen I’d like to comment on.

Firstly there’s the notion that YA wants to be “sophisticated”. That’s a clever use of language to suggest that YA fiction is competing with literary fiction by seeking the approval of an audience that considers “sophistication” to be the highest accolade one can place on fiction.

By Graham’s own admission “this kind of thing is hard to quantify” anyway. Why? Because it’s bullshit. Sophistication isn’t a metric; it’s as subjective as preference itself.

YA is just the latest in a long line of genres that literary fiction has put down to make itself look big — and it’s arguably scraping the bottom of the barrel now that Scott McCloud has taught us how to understand comics, BSG made SF gritty, Game of Thrones has (allegedly) rendered fantasy fit for adult consumption and Joss Whedon is doing his bit for superheroes.

Next there’s the priviledging of present over past with the notion that YA is getting more sophisticated (as a defence of YA). I assume Graham doesn’t believe this, but then she has little time for the classics either if the image of Alice at the head of the article is anything to go by.

There’s also the suggestion that adult readers are consciously seeking escapism and instant gratification, which by inference YA provides and adult literary fiction doesn’t. Really? Is the defining feature of literary fiction that its readers must be masochists?

“Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple.”

“The very ways that YA is pleasurable are at odds with the way that adult fiction is pleasurable” is such a broad statement that it’s not credible, and there are enough counter examples. One of the reasons I like YA is the distillation of the monomyth — but the monomyth’s themes and forms go beyond adventure stories and fairytales. While Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey simplifies Campbell’s original work it still demonstrates that a wide range of fiction can be submitted to the same analysis, and works for the same reason: the “hero” has an ordinary world that is upset, crosses a threshold, embarks on a journey and achieves some kind of apotheosis before returning “home” better for the experience. Fiction which misses out these crucial steps can frequently be incoherent or unsatisfying, and the fact that YA often nails this cycle is to its credit.

Most likely I’m preaching to the converted here, since the few readers I get will be fellow geeks and Spec Fic fans, used to the disapproving glare of lit fic. But still, being guilty or embarassed about what you read makes no sense; although perhaps you should be ashamed if you spend all your energy trying to like fiction that you don’t for the sake of someone else’s approval.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

New Thief

The new Thief game is apparently not good. I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.

Some say it’s a calamitous disaster. A woeful disappointment. There’s a complete roundup of reviews but I mostly went straight to the Zero Punctuation review:


Another good review, slightly less acerbic but just as sweary:

There goes my last reason for buying a new console. Oh, wait, there’s Dishonoured…

I would like to be the last person in this post to say “taff”.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Old and New Favourites

Weaveworld cover

Nothing like a bit of food poisoning to give you new perspective. For me it was the chance to re-read Clive Barker’s Weaveworld.

This is a book from my late teens, and like most teens I liked my flavours strong and not subtle.  It’s too long, the characters are mostly one-trick ponies, the prose is unnecessary, and the plot swings from being pedestrian to incomprehensible. Still, it resonates very strongly, mainly for Barker’s description of magic.

I prefer The Great and Secret Show (and Imajica, although I read that much later) for magical imagery, but Weaveworld has coloured my perception of what magic should appear to be in both fiction and games. I say appear, because I don’t think there’s any system behind the magic, it’s all texture and the effect it has on the environment. The closest we get to philosophy is probably the concept of Cosm / Metacosm / Quiddity in the books of the Art.

Compared to Immacolata’s  Menstruum and Gentle’s Pneuma, magic in D&D looks a bit agricultural. Barker’s mages usually either know innately how to do magic (the Seerkind), or they’ve seized it through hard work and sacrifice (the Jaffe, Swann), or have been gifted it (Shadwell). Mostly Barker writes about people using magic, rather than the magic itself.

This is probably why Mage: the Ascension appealed to me so strongly (and it cites Imajica in the bibliography). Unfortunately it’s mired in an awful system and an awful political structure, the same clans-and-tribes nonsense inherited from the earlier oWoD games. When I ran Mage the best fun came from mostly ignoring the rules and using the spheres as a rough guide, and pushing all the Traditions nonsense to the background (the characters were mostly Hollow).

I have no idea how magic works in a modern FATE driven game like Dresden Files. My preference is for something completely freeform; a bit like the Everway approach, if that weren’t so light and twee and goody-goody. And looking at FATE (which I have been recently) I’m not sure an Aspect driven game would work either. Of course being my new favourite thing WaRP has a lot of promise, with magic being described in the same loose sense as other Traits. The only downside is there’s not enough to lose; no sanity, no acquiring deformities through paradox, etc. I’ll work on that.

New Favourite: The Anachroneironaut

Now for a new favourite. My new favourite blog is the Anachroneironaut. Amazing gothic illustrations, lovecraftian houseplants, and ink. Check out this amazing piece of art inspired by Perdido Street Station.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

To SRD, or not SRD?

I’ve been going through a crisis with my game. The various procedures for city building and play are coming along nicely, but the thing I’ve been lacking is what happens at the individual level. You know, on the character sheet.

I’d convinced myself this would have an entirely new system. In some ways that’s a bit absurd: I’m influenced by certain kinds of games, and those influences are going to shape any kind of game system I design. Whatever I make up it won’t be from whole cloth; in fact I want it to closely resemble the games I like running today.

So, over the last month I’ve been going back and forth between different designs, trying to conceive the perfect, minimalist system as a base for the procedures of play, and beating myself up a bit in the process.

The first lightbulb moment came listening to fine folks on the UKRoleplayers board talking about their designs, and false dawns in their creative process. Now, I was nowhere near the dawn with this particular problem, but what it did remind me is that plenty of creative people will look at something they’ve done, and they will find fault with it, and that’s OK. Something in my gut was not satisfied with my base system. So I listened to it, and I felt better about saying “no, that’s not going to work.”

After that hurdle the second lightbulb came pretty quickly, and that was if you’re not going to design something yourself, why not look around and see what’s free? So I looked into open gaming.

FATE, fascinating system that it is, is not right for what I want to achieve. Neither is an Apocalypse World hack. Anything resembling BRP (such as the rather good Renaissance) is too fiddly, and Traveller is too stark. And d20? Not for me, thanks.

What I really want is a game where traits are painted with a very broad brush, with minimal moving parts. Something like Everway, except Everway isn’t open. But there’s another minimalist system by Jonathan Tweet (with Robin Laws): WaRP.

It’s Just A Jump To The Left

And that’s my third lightbulb moment. I knew full well that the system had been released under OGL following OTE’s 20th anniversary, but for some reason it took a while to sink in that I could use it for my own game.

I suppose it’s a peculiar choice in this day and age. WaRP’s three broad traits with a fourth fault satisfy my numerological tendencies, but they’re not exactly descriptors like FATE’s aspects, they don’t have the granularity of OpenQuest, or the familiarity of the OSR, or direct agency of AW’s moves. They’re kind of a throwback to 90’s minimalist gaming; exactly the kind of play I like the most, but not what you could call popular.

We shall see whether it works. These are the reasons I really like WaRP:

First, there’s the three traits. The central trait is basically a career trait, not dissimilar to Barbarians of Lemuria’s non-combat careers. The two side traits are slightly narrower descriptions of actual competencies (like driving, engineering, fighting).

The kind and number of dice are just right: good old D6, with small numbers in the pool so every roll doesn’t become a tiresome hunt-and-peck for numbers. The WaRP SRD gives various options for interesting results such as the effect of 6s (exploding or otherwise).

Fringe Powers (magic) are freeform, and limited use per session. Not per day, per session. That’s a smart mechanic that encourages continual use of Fringe Powers, but not so much that they dominate the game.

I also like the experience system: it’s measured in dice, as in real d6 that can be used to augment rolls, again per-session. However you also spend those dice to improve, leading to a choice: keep a large Experience Pool to help you out of sticky situations more often, or spend it to improve your core abilities?

Some features will need clarification, or expansion, but on the whole I feel very comfortable about using WaRP, modified or straight. It’s also something of a relief to have made a decision to use this system, at least in the interim. Now I can focus on other things.

Cross-posted to the UKRPDC.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Thief Reboot

One thing that has driven my PC upgrades — the Thief series. Of course, Deadly Shadows was released in 2004 which means my most up-to-date PC is a single-core clunker that runs on steam and Pedigree Chum.


For the past five years I’ve been putting off buying a new console until I heard news of the fourth instalment, which is a difficult thing to imagine. The third game closed the narrative loop very elegantly, and the three titles focused on the three factions of Pagans (Dark Project), Hammers (Metal Age), and Keepers (Deadly Shadows).

So, there’s not really a fourth faction. Knowing that and the amount of time since DS,  it should be no surprise that Eidos Montreal are rebooting the franchise — the refuge of an artist devoid of ideas or any connection to the original source material.

Seriously, I do not believe this reboot will be worthy of the Thief legacy. For one it looks like Garrett is multi-classing into an assassin which ignores the basic premise of the original TDP: you’re not a soldier, not a superman, and if the guards catch you they have a good chance of doing you in. But OK, I can live with that.

Second issue: Stephen Russell will not be voicing Garrett. Obviously there will be fan outrage, and justly so; but this is a reboot, not a straight-to-DVD fourth sequel. Huge shame, but that’s not the worst.

The big head-scratcher is the decision to abandon the Pagan/Hammer mythology in favour of “aristocrats vs rebels”. One of the most compelling parts of the series, the thing that contributed to the fantasy atmosphere the most was the concept of the Pagan wild outside the city against the Church-sanctioned industrialisation inside. Perhaps there will be more depth to the regime in the reboot, but at the moment it sounds like “just” another corrupt city state, a tiresome clone of various other assassination-themed franchises with a bit more personal larceny this time around.

The mythology and atmospheric elements were a big influence on a couple of my RPGs (City and Square, my current work in progress being influenced by the notions of inside/outside), so the abandoning of all that was good in the original franchise is a bit of a disappointment; on the other hand the series was past its peak with the third game (mainly for the unnecessary simplification of the city map) so it was time. I can hold the reboot at arm’s length, like the recent Total Recall.

I wonder if Eric Brosius will have anything to do with the soundtrack. I’d buy that. Just not the game.

Probably not.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Old Dogs

My mum recently said “your handwriting is wonderful… considering how bad it was.” That’s a backhand Andy Murray would be proud of.

Can’t deny it, though. My handwriting was the kind of labyrinthine scrawl that would make a GP proud. How did that happen? Well, I’ve always been science-leaning, which meant most of my handwritten schoolwork was equations, diagrams and chemical formulae — it’s a supreme challenge to make x2 illegible, although I probably managed once or twice. Prose was always an inconvenience and an afterthought — isn’t it clear what I’m talking about? It’s the equations! Science!!11!!

At uni one of my tutors took me aside and offered me help with my handwriting. I accepted and then did the absolute bare minimum to comply with the coaching I was given; I rarely practiced what I was taught and as a result my handwriting didn’t change.

Of course I still used a ballpoint, and a cheap one at that. One thing that tutor recommended was a fountain pen. He wasn’t the best example, given his handwriting was still utterly indecipherable after years of trying to correct it. And at the time I was poor and pens were expensive and I was still reeling from a bad experience with fountain pens in my junior years where I got the cheapest, scratchiest pen that ran dry and then blobbed ink everywhere. So I took no notice.

I don’t think there and then a fountain pen would have made much difference, though. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to improve my handwriting, and the last lessons I’d been given on writing cursive had been a decade ago — handwriting wasn’t something that was taught at my secondary school, you either wrote well or you didn’t.

The last time I wrote something down that mattered enough for someone else to look at it was my finals. After that my thesis was mercifully printed and bound, and then we were into the age of email and the paperless office. For a while I was fully behind never having to write on paper again.

The one thing that kept me writing on paper was writing for pleasure. Most of my notes for roleplaying games are in A4 hardback notebooks, and somehow writing something I was actually interested in, that didn’t feel like work, made my handwriting better. Even when I owned a computer my handwriting could keep up faster than my typing.

I’m recalling all of this because I’ve been reading Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor. I came across it via the page on why Britain made the change to vertical handwriting, which contains some interesting thoughts in itself to do with handwriting and ergonomics. I’ve been big into workstation ergonomics for years, but never considered handwriting — it’s taken me until now to realise why I vastly prefer A5 sheets to A4, because it’s easier to slant them properly on the desk to write cursive script.

The most recent article is Students Mourn Never Learning Cursive. That made me think of our general attitude to learning new things as we get older. No doubt many adults will think that because they didn’t learn handwriting as a child, they are now set in their ways and will never have good handwriting as an adult. I know that adults can learn fine and gross motor skills perfectly well — like fighting with swords. If you can tidy up a flanconade, you can work on your handwriting.

I wouldn’t call my handwriting good, but it’s certainly improved. It’s more consistent. Maybe I’ll call it good when a proper cursive “r” comes naturally.