Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Orcs and the End of Symbols...

There's been a lot of chatter about gaming orcs lately.  Orcs are a racist stereotype, and inherently evil orcs give cover to the idea that some races (and by extension, some cultures) are better than others.  I agree racist thinking is wrong, just as much as I admit that more nuanced orcs are a legitimate approach.  But I emphatically reject the notion that evil orcs are necessarily racist, especially when we consider the symbolic nature of fantasy.

Fantasy is allegory.  Fantasy is symbolism.  It takes abstract, ephemeral concepts and embodies them for closer examination.  Think of it as psychotherapy.  Dragons, with their hoarded gold, represent human avarice whereas orcs symbolize pure hatred for others, something everyone fears regardless of their so-called race.  These are universal concepts that speak to everyone, because the need for symbols is itself universal...

Not so much anymore.  Fantasy can't be fantasy.  It has to be a cold, naturalistic thought experiment.  Orcs can't possibly represent the concept of hatred.  Symbols have no place in the sterile imaginings of tomorrow.  A thing in a fantasy rulebook must necessarily have its counterpart in the real world.  Not a concept, but a literal, material thing.  Orcs are people of color, and all this talk of universal symbolism is just a cloak for the slavery apologists.

But life is more than just things.  Life is a collection of abstract, subjective experiences we must all grapple with.  Otherwise, fantasy has its flesh-and-blood realism, but loses its metaphorical soul in a Faustian bargain.  Now I'll say this just because I know it's gonna come up.  Some would blame this all on secular culture, a popular boogeyman for a certain moral faction.  I'm a secular humanist; and while I see no evidence for any supernatural claim, I see abundant evidence for humanity, physical brains, and inner lives...

And when we abandon symbolism, we abandon our humanity, which is the only thing that makes fantasy resonate in the first place.  Otherwise, fantasy is just science fiction.

Now to be charitable, if the goal is to make D&D a realistic (read: naturalistic) universe, nuanced races make sense.  The gods are aliens, magic just another natural energy to be  harnessed.  It's our world wearing new clothes.  I've long thought that modern D&D has become an Iron-Age Star Trek, complete with elven shopkeepers and spells on every street corner.  There's nothing wrong with this; it can be fun, but it's not the only way.

That said, orcs aren't people of color.  They're the cop with his knee on an unarmed black man's throat.  They're the Nazis who took my Jewish family to the camps.  Orcs are the hatred we all must grapple with, and I find it sad that those who would challenge racism are unwittingly erasing the very symbols used to describe it.  Orcs are pure, unapologetic evil, which comes in many forms.  The Klan, the Nazis, the sex traffickers.  You name it.  And we desperately need such symbols in these times lest we become the very orcs we fear...  

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Experience (Minus the Murder)...

Killing monsters and taking their stuff; what could be more old-school than that?  But isn't violence just a way of mitigating the threat monsters represent?  And if that's the case, shouldn't we be rewarding clever players for mitigating the risk of violence as well; because fighting adds insult to injury (so to speak).  From turning on the charm and schmoozing a potential enemy to leading them on a heroic chase only to escape down a back alley, timely mitigation is a learning curve that maybe deserves experience points... 

So first off, players should only get experience for active mitigation; basically, anything requiring planning and skillful execution.  Negotiation (including bribes) falls into this category, along with active efforts to distract or defang an enemy.  Simply spying on monsters and deciding not to engage doesn't cut it; there needs to be an actual plan requiring some active execution on the part of the group.  This is the heart and soul of old-school gaming, with its emphasis on personal decision-making and problem solving:

Killing a monster nets its full experience point value because it's the riskier option; but a clever party can earn a percentage of this for non-violent solutions as follows:

BRIBERY nets 25% of a monster's experience point value plus 1 experience point per 10 gold pieces (or equal value) parted with.  Victory always has its price.

EVASION awards 50% of total experience when a monster is aware of the party and the characters assume great personal risk.  Avoiding passive enemies nets none.

TRAPS are another matter.  Some rulesets grant experience for disarming these; and the decision to award advancement lies outside the scope of this posting.

Using Holmes Basic (the only book handy at the moment), successfully bribing an ogre with 500 gp would net 31 or 25% of the giant's listed value plus 50 (500 gp/10) for a total of 81, assuming combat is otherwise inevitable.  Causing the ogre to give chase only to lose it in a nearby maze would net 62 experience or 50% of the monster's value; again, assuming the ogre would catch someone if the attempt failed - and that this was always the plan.

The above isn't perfect; but it's passable.  And it lays the foundation for even better systems for rewarding a clever party.  Old-school is killing; but it can be much more.

Some DMs think avoiding a dangerous encounter is its own reward.  They could be right, obviously; it really depends on the tone of their campaign.  But if old-school gaming is really about good strategy and tactics, it might be appropriate to reward a group with something extra for their cleverness, especially when in service to an overarching plan.  Nothing should beat gold and kills; but this might be a good way to encourage the sort of behavior we old-school enthusiasts admire.  Anyway, we'd love to hear how you handle this stuff...

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Flagellants (Pits & Perils)...

We're of a medieval mind these days, and thinking about Pits & Perils as we dive into the coming second edition.  Here's a bit of fanaticism for your game...


MOVE: 50'
SIDE: Lawful of chaotic
NUMBER: 3-18 

Flagellants are fanatical members of a religious order, convinced that the end is near and salvation lies with self mutilation.  They travel the land in groups of 3-18 (with varying degrees of sanction from their respective churches) living off alms and making a show of righteous self loathing.  Baring their backs, they whip themselves bloody, with intermittent calls for repentance and submission to their deities of choice.  There is an apocalyptic bent to their sermons, making them a common sight in times of plague, war, and woe.

Those who stop to watch these displays are free to make a donation (the offering plate is always somewhere nearby) and might even join in if sympathetic to their beliefs.  Being fanatically devoted, flagellants are lawful or chaotic only and very good at reading the room, with a 1-3 in 1d6 chance of identifying those of an opposing side or (worse still) the hated neutrals, reviled for their lack of commitment.  These are in dire need of correction and must be purified by the lash, which they reckon to be the highest honor.

Subjected to continual punishment, flagellants are treated as wearing plate mail (+3) and shield (+1) despite going unarmored at all times.  Any unmodified attack roll of 12 with their whips requires an opponent to roll saving dice or become disarmed.  Monks can engage unarmed and avoid this, although they lose ambidexterity when doing so owing to the sheer ferocity of their foe(s).  These fanatics roll all saving dice at +2, ignoring pain and other distractions in their religious zeal, making them quite impossible to reason with.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Lovecraft: Scared, Not Scary...

So I've been reading a lot through the quarantine; which in my case involves plenty of Lovecraft (and his various imitators); and what I've discovered (and not for the first time), is that the master of cosmic horror really isn't all that scary.  He just isn't.  His creations are interesting enough; and that's a big part of it.  But Lovecraft has never been truly frightening, non-euclidean geometry be damned.  So why is he so damned effective?  And why does anything "Lovecraftian" automatically bear the horror genre's stamp of approval? 

I think it comes down to fear.  And between the reader and the writer, there's two possible sources of this.  A truly good story elicits fear in the reader, which is obviously the gold standard for any writer in the genre.  Scare your reader and you're a pro.  Pet Sematary (the book, not either one of the amazingly shoddy adaptations) did this.  You can frighten your readers by appealing to their humanity and threatening all they hold dear once that human connection is established.  Make 'em care, make 'em relate; then scare 'em...

But Lovecraft was far too isolated, too socially maladapted (and not in the edgy, hipster sense) to write compelling, relatable characters.  He simply didn't understand the minutiae of daily life and relationships except to mention these in passing, often with an air of relief to have it done with.  He was the ultimate mamma's boy, afraid to leave home.  We quite rightly denounce his racism and xenophobia (often with an air of superiority), while ignoring the genuine fear and insecurity behind it.  Crowded streets, loud voices, unfamiliar people and languages; these things would be terrifying to Lovecraft's brand of (social) insecurity.

And herein lies Lovecraft's pedigree: he (the author) was scared of everything: the outside world, the present day.  He was frightened of it all and sought escape in the familiar New England landscape and an idealized antiquity that never was.  The Dreamlands were all that he held dear, and he admits it.  But the howling Void, with its squishy alien creations, was analogous to the real world with all its noise and sex and social demands.  Lovecraft couldn't scare his readers.  He lacked the skill and experience.  But boy could he channel his own fears to atmospheric effect.  And if you can't scare your readers, scare yourself.  

I'm not sure Lovecraft did this on purpose; but he did it.  And it speaks to why he was so effective.  Good horror, whether literary or of the gaming variety, demands fear.  And that fear needs to come from somewhere.  Otherwise, Cthulhu is just tentacles and the mythos just another enemy organization to defeat.  And now we come full circle to the present quarantine and my reading list; and armed with this newfound knowledge, am convinced that the best Lovecraftian horror is nowhere to be found in most mythos literature.  Might I suggest...

Harvest Home (Thomas Tyron): There's nothing supernatural about this book.  It has a bucolic New England town; but I'm guessing God is absent.  And yet its (first-person) protagonist makes a horrific discovery when he and his family settle there.  A discovery that shakes all that he holds to be good and true.  He ends (spoiler) maimed and mad.

Revival (Stephen King): This lengthy tale (also rendered in first person) chronicles the life of a boy who becomes a troubled man, all in a very ordinary world.  Ghosts and ghouls have nothing on the horrors of real life.  Nothing at all.  From tragedy to addiction to the pleasures of love and friendship, we follow our hero through the decades of his life and the gradual reveal of something profoundly disturbing about reality.  De Vermis Mysteriis is mentioned, so the Lovecraftian angle isn't accidental; but there isn't a tentacle in sight, and that's good.  

Neither of the above, especially Harvest Home, would be the first thing anyone might think of as Lovecraftian; but that's only if we see Lovecraft through a geek-culture lens.

Anyway, the pandemic (and its implications) are frightening enough; but if you're looking for Lovecraftian stories to while away your isolation, just know that this hides in strange and unexpected places.  Tentacles are only scary if you're allergic to seafood.  Now I'm not saying this stuff isn't lots of fun.  Read it if you've got it.  But I am suggesting that some of the best Lovecraftian fiction comes in unexpected places precisely because its progenitor wasn't scary at all - he was merely scared - and that just might be enough to produce great horror...