Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Ask Not What a Game Can Do...

Ask not what a game can do for you. That's an odd request because, obviously, games do quite a lot for us, and we judge them on what they have to offer.  From rules for making characters to content in the form of monsters and magic, games deliver tools we need and use to make it all happen.  We ask a lot of the games we play; and with so many great ones available, there's literally something for everyone...

We're not in the business of judging games.  It's all a matter of preference unless the rulebook can't even provide inspiration for games using better systems.  Thankfully, this is seldom the case, so don't expect a treatise on what's supposedly good or bad.  I'm only interested in what I care for and don't need others telling me what that should be, although I always appreciate informative reviews telling me what to expect.


So no, don't ask what a game can do for you; ask what you can do with a game, because ultimately, it's all about what you can use.  I call it "the feeling", and it's always been a trustworthy gauge.  Are you immediately filled with a million ideas for a campaign using System X?  Do its rules enable a thousand ideas you never knew you had?  Are you eager to put this new thing to use?  These things tell the truth of it.

When I got my Holmes Basic for Christmas, 1980, I immediately mapped a dungeon and badgered my family into playing.  Yes, this new thing was clearly doing something for yours truly, but that wasn't nearly the half of it.  The rulebook inspired me with a million ideas I immediately wanted to try.  D&D was an activity.  It's whole value lay in my ability to use it for my own purposes.  Gaming wasn't just a noun for me.  It was a verb.

Ask not what a game can do for you.  Ask what you can do with a game, because that's the sum total of its value, even if you only mine it for inspiration...

Maybe you find an intriguing system that needs house ruling.  How is this a problem, especially when the result is an awesome system tailor made for you?  And short of actually redeeming a system, what about a rulebook you can mine for ideas and inspiration that fundamentally changes an existing activity?  In all of the above, the game's value lies in its ability to be used.  And like food or sex, we immediately know when we want it...

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Leveling Up: What Does It Feel Like?

Leveling up is a big deal for the players.  They roll up additional hit points by class and assume whatever powers and abilities are due to them.  Points are allocated and new spells added to the spellcaster's roster.  A good time for all.  But what does this feel like for the characters?  How do they experience this windfall of proficiency?    

Ok, so 30 years ago I was a meteorology student.  Synoptic forecasting was the worst because you had to hand-analyze the surface and upper air charts, identify and depict any important atmospheric features, and correlate them into a coherent picture of the current situation.  Only then were you ready to brief the instructor, who invariably knew more than I ever would for the next two decades.  It took me somewhere in the neighborhood of six frustrating hours to prepare the charts alone, plus another couple just to figure out what the hell it all meant.  And of course, I was wrong about a lot.  How could I not be?

Four years later, I'm forecasting in Korea (Camp Stanley).  There was a typhoon and the weather station was flooded.  I remember standing on a stool and taking calls from legions of concerned agencies.  Our Automated Weather Distribution System (AWDS) was down, forcing me to analyze data the old-fashioned way.  Only this time, I analyzed the charts in under 45 minutes, and after all that, they only confirmed what I already knew from the satellite imagery we were lucky enough to still have.  When the dust settled and I returned to the barracks, I realized that I'd come a long way in four years...

I'm sure everyone here has an equivalent story.  Through practice and exposure we gain experience and get better at what we do, often without realizing it until one day we're put to the test and we remember how difficult it used to be.  I imagine leveling up feels like this; steady improvement the character doesn't notice until one day they do.


Clerics and magic-users are a little different because they master discrete spells; high-profile abilities which come on suddenly.  But it's not all that different.  Clerics may experience a spiritual breakthrough.  A moment when their faith is validated and their relationship to their deity strengthened tenfold.  No doubt the real-world faithful experience something similar; and in a fantasy setting, the cleric can ask, and ultimately receive, more.  Magic-users learn from spell books (at least in the OSR).  They gradually grow in knowledge and understanding until at last those ancient, obscure spells start to make sense.

In short, characters aren't aware they've gone up in level.  Only that they've improved in some way and/or have become more comfortable in what they do.  Non-humans with level limits don't perceive any discrepancy between themselves and their human counterparts because they wouldn't.  Humans are physically larger than dwarves and elves and hungrier for power.  Demi-humans have their own concerns and special abilities humans lack, so level differences are usually written off as human ambition and (sometimes) folly.  

Now this makes sense in the OSR, where characters are already proficient in a class, a profession they've entered through some previous, off-screen apprenticeship.  Not so for the skill-based game; however, where a character may, presumably, learn blacksmithing mid-adventuring career.  Blacksmithing is a skilled trade which requires a lengthy commitment to master at even a basic level.  Here I ask the players to tell me what skills they plan on learning in advance and build the time into my game.  This gets the players thinking about their desired progression and goals, which is both realistic and helpful...

If Borg wants to become a blacksmith, they must locate a trainer and make the time to practice between adventures.  Once they take the skill, I'll assume they're absolute newbies and limit what they can do until they've gotten some time under their belt.  Smart players understand this; and when their characters are in town, they make a point of declaring their time spent at the forge.  No dice.  No mechanics.  They've just told me their character is practicing, which makes taking (and improving) a skill reasonable and justified.

Character advancement is a discrete event for the players.  But for the character, true proficiency sneaks up unnoticed.  Skill-based systems are a little different because the new talent is initiated and mastered well after play has already begun.  I'm fairly skeptical of busy adventurers taking on a complex trade (from scratch) in the middle of a campaign, but also understand that these are games.  As long as the players document their work in the gameplay narrative I'm good.  From here, time and practice makes perfect.

It just goes to show; narrative matters, and the important things that hold a campaign together are often the things that don't involve dice or rules.  People play the game, but their characters are the ones who experience it.  A little something to think about as your party takes on the world.  And that's all.  We'll see everyone after Halloween.  Enjoy now...   

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Did Sophistication Kill the Fun?

I remember my first dungeon (the first one I mapped, anyway).  It had laser turrets and a dimensional portal to a sci-fi universe.  This was an adventure that ended with dinosaurs and intelligent apes with rifles who had to be convinced not to invade the setting.  Yeah, that's pretty much the tone.  I dialed it back in later adventures, but the metaphorical die was cast and a fun-house atmosphere remained.  These were good times.

My games were dungeon-centric affairs.  The wilderness called for a wandering monster check along the way; but the dungeon was everything, and descending into that underworld marked the transition into a fantastic other world.  An exotic place filled with absurd and deadly things.  In short, Wonderland.  Now let's imagine a sorcerer lives in area 13, growing magical mushrooms with unexpected effects when eaten...      

But first, you have the hair salon with an exclusive clientele: a mummy (getting fresh wrappings) and a medusa (getting her snakes oiled).  It could be a bloodbath, or maybe the party gets their hair done instead.  And don't forget the giant talking head that delivers a terrible curse unless the party completes its dirty limerick.  Bottom line, the encounters were designed to entertain and give the players a wide variety of experiences.  

It wasn't all goofball.  Some were serious encounters, whether the domain of an orcish warlord or the owl bear nesting grounds.  You know, things that make sense in an underworld setting.  These got included because they were cool; but they were still punctuated with gonzo fare because that was also cool, and because magic in inherently absurd and requires a little whimsy.  In retrospect, it was an act of respect to the players...


That's right, respect.  Each encounter was designed to entertain and challenge them, unconstrained by things like internal consistency.  There was a greater variety of monsters to fight and traps to overcome.  Serious dungeons have a reason for being and a realistic ecology, which is cool.  But the characters are just "passing through", and the world largely responds to itself.  Not so for the gonzo dungeon, which is made for them.

Of course, it couldn't last.  I grew up and got sophisticated, and that meant world building, complete with complex cultures and realistic ecologies.  This was creatively challenging and fun to do, and for obvious reasons.  Serious isn't a dirty word, and realism brings its own rewards to the game.  But in the process, magic became a science and wonder went out the window.  Fairyland departed, replaced by a Darwinian consistency.

And I'll come clean.  I was briefly a nerdy douchebag who scoffed at the gonzo fare I'd previously (and enthusiastically) embraced, laughing at silly worlds of kobold cowboys and dwarven rock bands.  I was insufferable.  Luckily, I was only 14 and eventually got over myself, much to the delight of pretty much everyone.  But by then I was sampling a variety of adult pleasures, and it would take a few decades to fully appreciate gonzo.

Did sophistication kill the fun?  No.  Maybe.  Kinda.  Really, it all depends on personal preference.  I won't denigrate serious games because mine is 85% serious.  But the older I get (51 and counting), the more I appreciate the simple wonder of a fun-house dungeon stocked with the players in mind and built to provide them with a variety of challenging and absurd experiences.  Hey, magic could always use a little nonsense. 

Childhood's gone.  But with age I've rediscovered the gonzo dungeon; that underworld excavated by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses (thanks Gary) and built with the players in mind.  A realm where you can dine with demons and play chess with storm giants - and all in one place!  A love letter to the players because it was made just for them to explore with childlike glee and adult avarice.  A place where magic is, well, magic...

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

People Eating People: the "Problem" of Intelligent Animals In Fantasy Books and Games...

Intelligent animals show up in fantasy literature and games all the time, typically as an anomaly and occasionally populating entire worlds of talking things.  Think Watership Down or maybe the Redwall books; although in the latter, the animals are anthropomorphic and basically human.  And then there's Disney.  Bambi and The Lion King both imagine a setting where animals are more than animals.  The animals are people...  

And this raises all manner of moral questions, although it's not necessarily a problem, especially when the whole point of said story is to examine these things.

Let's look at The Lion King.  Here, the animals are intelligent.  All of them.  The predators, obviously, and their prey.  In other words, everyone is a person.  They think, feel, and suffer in decidedly human terms when preyed upon.  And yet, nature mandates this obviously unfair arrangement, which demolishes everything we think we know about human morality and how to treat one another because here, people feed upon other people...

But the lions can explain.  Sure, we eat our antelopes, and yeah, they're pretty clearly terrified and mourn their dead just like we do.  That sucks.  But when we die, we fertilize the grass and they can eat us back.  And there's a lovely ballad too.  Circle of Life, kiddies, everyone sing along!  The whole thing is treated as both beautiful and natural.


Well, it is natural.  But is it natural for humans to eat one another?  Or to enslave one another?  Or to hold some above others based on race?  No, but then we're humans, we'd say, not lower-order animals.  We have an obligation to our own kind.  But what happens when the animals are also people, possessing of the same intelligence and suffering in just the same way when targeted by others (i.e., their neighbors) for harm?

And it gets more complicated because the lions aren't big meanies who could eat grass instead.  They're obligate carnivores.  How can they possibly treat the antelopes fairly when they have no choice but to hunt them for survival?  Can they ever be fair and just in their predation, responsible stewards of the persons they devour, and would (or should) any such arrangement even fly with the antelopes?  This raises endless moral questions...

If you're a lion, do you die before you harm another person?  And if not, how do you justify the pain you bring to your dinner?  And their families?  Or do you even bother?  If an antelope, do you lie down and take it, or fight back?  You have obligations of your own; to yourself, obviously, and your kin.  So who are the good guys in this situation, and who are the story's ultimate villains?  And what gods (if any) rule over such a universe?
  
Humans have justified centuries of genocide and slavery against their fellow humans in the name of a so-called natural order.  But here, that natural order is an actual thing. 

Now it gets worse in fantasy games because players interact with one another and the imaginary "people" they sometimes eat as a matter of course.  And what does morality even mean in such a universe?  In our own Red of Tooth, we imagine that most predators are basically unintelligent, along with quite a few prey animals.  Rabbits have the Spark, but not mice and other tasty critters.  Weasels are intelligent, along with owls.  But both can spare intelligent creatures in favor of non-persons, although many choose not to.

There's natural danger, and plenty of opportunity for heroism and villainy as well.  But of course, this is only one way to do things.  Sword and sorcery lends itself to mindless monster slaying, but worlds of intelligent animals ask more of us; something to keep in mind when playing Bunnies & Burrows.  And that's a wrap, folks.  I suddenly want some meat...