Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Debbie's Screwing the Ankheg from the Mailroom (or Gaming's Only Sorta Like Storytelling)...

So you woke up to rain hammering your window like a million tiny castanets in time to an invisible (and doubtless sadistic) Spanish dancer.  You wanted to sleep in, but since you like being employed better you sucked it up, put down some coffee, and hit the road with the enthusiasm of a condemned prisoner making The Long Walk...

Some asshole in a Prius cut you off, and all the good parking spaces were taken; so you ran under your briefcase from across that toilet of a parking lot and bolted for the double doors with all the grace of a staggering drunk.  Someone yelled at you and you flipped them off in the privacy of your mind - and you hadn't even made it to your desk yet! 


You spent the morning reading the new Privacy Policy while trying to ignore Brad and Deborah yucking it up two cubicles down and then went to a staff meeting where everyone competed for who had the brownest nose.  You didn't win.  Lunch was a pointless and relatively tasteless affair, but things picked up at three when you found out Deborah slept with the new mail room guy.  No biggie, except that Debbie's married to your next-door neighbor and you don't know how (or if) you can possibly face him and keep this awful secret to yourself.  Your bad day couldn't end fast enough, to be honest...

Luckily, home and your spouse await and things get better.  He or she asks you about your day and you tell the tale.  That's right, the tale.  You tell the story of your day.   

So here's a truism about gaming.  That encounter with the ankheg was just a random happening.  Something the DM rolled up while your party took its shortcut through Farmer Jacob's field and stole corn to supplement rations.  It's no different from the Prius or the Privacy Policy read over a stale bagel.  Just a series of events, maybe not even connected in any coherent way.  But by the end of the adventure it becomes the story of your day, complete with all the dramatic arcs.  And maybe it takes time to unfold.  Debbie's screwing the mail guy, but the whole sad, sick story doesn't play out until a month later when her husband finds out and tosses her stuff on the lawn for all to see...

Ditto for gaming.  Individual events are just events in a simulation.  But taken in retrospect, they become the story of your character's day (or adventure, as the case may be) that contributes to a narrative arc no one could anticipate in advance, which to say: Gaming isn't storytelling.  It's story making, and happily, everyone at the table gets to participate!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Skepticism in the Age of Magic...

Skepticism is alive and well in the real world, where evidence for the supernatural is remarkably elusive.  In ten-thousand years of history we've seen one magical explanation after another overturned by naturalistic evidence.  A process which, incidentally, never happens in reverse.  I'm not saying the supernatural doesn't exist, only that the skeptics aren't stubborn or unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination...    

And that's good.  A healthy skepticism is the spice of life and brings contentious debate to just about everything.  But what about our fantasy worlds, where magic is on constant display and the gods intervene in a way that would convert Richard Dawkins and make The God Delusion a ridiculous proposition?  Is there room for skepticism, much less outright atheism, in such a setting?  To be clear, we aren't advocating an atheistic or naturalistic campaign unless that's what you happen to want, but only a world where skepticism is reasonable and the accepted cosmology less than certain and up for debate.

So first, and as a disclaimer, we can always imagine a low-magic world where the supernatural is rare and suitably understated.  Magic, when and if it occurs, can be written off as coincidence and monsters as a feature of the natural landscape.  But we aren't really talking about that universe, although skepticism surely lives there as well...  


No, we're talking about the "mage on every corner" type of world.  What sort of debate can possibly exist when your party members are happy to demonstrate magic and what it's capable of?  As it turns out, doubt can thrive even in the face of seemingly obvious evidence to the contrary, and the following might help to make it all happen:

#1 MAGIC ISN'T REALLY MAGIC

Nope.  It's more of a natural energy that can be harnessed and released by means of specialized formulas to some predetermined end.  This is hardly a new idea, and D&D broke with millennia of tradition by imagining it as anything other than the work of bound spirits flexing their muscle.  Not really that big of a deal except when it runs counter to the prevailing view in academic circles.  A benign contention to be sure, but one that adds flavor...   

#2 THE GODS AREN'T REAL

This is a bigger deal.  The gods don't exist, and any power supposedly granted through worship is really magic of the more ordinary sort.  Once again, D&D already imagined this with respect to lower-level spells, but ours applies to everything.  Now this is the stuff of heresy - and inquisitions.  How dare those ungrateful apostates deny the blessings of faith and reject the gods who make it all possible?  And what of The Church and its place in society?  This usually ends with thumb screws in a dungeon somewhere.       

#3 THE GODS ARE REAL, BUT...

Again, no.  They're really just powerful beings who've mastered natural energies and probably steal a bit from the faith of their followers.  This isn't a new idea either, but it really lays the ground for skepticism - and heresy - in an otherwise magical world.  Perhaps it's apostasy in the eyes of The Church, or maybe the so-called gods resent any revelations as to their true nature.  This one leads to sprawling cosmic quests in other dimensions. 

All of the above can upend the social order and make the skeptics reservoirs of authentic knowledge in a superstitious age.  Of course, just because some things are possible doesn't mean everything is real.  Far from it.  Charlatans abound, and perhaps that shady peddler sells more fake amulets because the real thing exists!  Either way, we don't have to imagine bland worlds of uniform belief.  Yes, gods and religions are constantly warring for human attention.  But if the gods and magic aren't what they seem, things can get hairy quick, with crusades and inquisitions vying with charlatans for mortal hearts and minds...

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Lovecraft and What the Shadow Knows...

If you read enough Lovecraftian fiction, you'll start wondering what’s supposed to be so terrifying anyway.  I mean, any cosmic entity more than happy to annihilate us is scary, make no mistake.  But reading about black vistas on Yuggoth or non-Euclidean geometry hardly qualifies as the stuff of nightmares unless there's something else going on in the character's head.  And it’s not like Lovecraft has ever been a Hemingway or anything.  He was far too isolated and antiquarian to write good dialogue or develop characters beyond the situation at hand.  But I love him still despite his inevitable flaws, both literary and otherwise (he was quite the xenophobe), and we can still admire his unique body of work...

That said, Lovecraft was a master in ways that go far beyond his tentacled creations.  He understood that sometimes it’s better not to say too much, and while he couldn’t have possibly anticipated the advent of role-playing games, he did manage to offer some advice for those who play - and as it happens, some good advice indeed. 

Horror thrives on mystery.  It’s a fear of the unknown.  But if there’s ever been a medium more antithetical to mystery, RPGs are it.  These games are simulations, after all, and simulations reduce everything (people, places, and things) to hypothetical ones and zeros; and you can’t stat out a Lovecraftian baddie without describing both it and its assorted cosmic powers.  Chaosium tried hard to preserve the mystery by showing these as black silhouettes in the rulebook, but they still had to explain Cthulhu’s powers and abilities, which gave him (and all the rest) form and structure.  And this is largely unavoidable... 

Hey, we do it too.  Stalkers of the Elder Dark lays out its Elder Ones is statistical detail, although as a rules-lite game, this is suitably minimal.  But a re-reading of Lovecraft offers a few techniques for preserving mystery - and Howard wrote a master class!


First, Lovecraft imagined alien gods antithetical to human understanding.  Sure, we might discern their material forms.  But their psychology was diametrical to anything humans could possibly understand, much less relate to, and to the extent the "enemy" could be engaged rationally, it was always through alien races or human agents.  The dark powers themselves were always kept distant, remote, and inaccessible to inquiring human minds.

Moreover, while Lovecraft described "strange rites" and "non-Euclidean" geometry, he focused more on his character's reactions to said information than the sordid details of the knowledge itself, and the reader was set free to imagine some dark revelation or terrible understanding beyond words to express.  Something felt but impossible to put into human words.  Again, Lovecraft deflects to mortal agencies and leaves as much mystery as possible where his cosmic creations are concerned.  Cthulhu is barely knowable, but his worshipers are another story.  At best, we see these things reflected in humanity.
   
These approaches are gold for the horror referee.  Yes, the characters may encounter the Old Ones and most likely will.  But any sort of rational engagement should be impossible under the very best of circumstances.  We can do otherwise, of course, but now the danger has moved into something more predictable.  Mr. Derleth ruined Cthulhu by making him conventionally evil, balancing his power with Elder Gods of good (in opposition to Lovecraft's amoral and naturalistic universe), and reducing the bad guys to mere elementals having conventional family ties.  Hastur is Cthulhu's brother?  Yog Sothoth save us!  Now it sounds like an all-too-ordinary family drama.  Dark Gods should never be so ordinary...   

Moreover, while the players will eventually access forbidden books and uncover useful information, it's best to offer only a few nuggets of coherent intelligence surrounded by blurry impressions (consult the literature here) that a character can't explain and can't help but to feel and experience.  Tell them they can't get the visions out of their head but can't describe them either, and maybe salt the whole thing with hints of something they already think is disturbing.  Find out what bothers your players and exploit it!  But always strive to keep as much knowledge as possible under wraps.  The best horror is like watching shadows on the wall.  The shapes are blurry, indistinct, and outline something terrifying!  

Despite the tentacles, Lovecraftian horror is a subjective personal experience that thrives in the dark.  Knowledge is power while mystery is fear (and horror) in its purest form!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Is Gaming a Separate Fantasy Genre?

I’m a bit ambivalent towards fantasy literature.  Sure, I love Moorcock and Tolkien and confess a fondness for Tad Williams, whose writing (the earlier stuff, especially) transcends genre.  Burroughs, Howard, and Lovecraft also hold a special place in my heart, mainly because they evoke such authentic atmosphere (I’m not a huge fan of the modern Mythos writings though, and tuned out starting with Derleth, who sapped poor Cthulhu of all its mystery and demoted Lovecraft's creations to mere elemental status).  But am I hitting the bookstore and coming home with armloads of books with pictures of dragons and wizards on the cover?  Nope, although it does happen from time to time.

In fact, the last book I read was The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King, and I’m getting ready to hit Updike’s Rabbit stuff (again).  King and Klein are less interesting to me because of their supernatural inventions, which are adequate (although Pet Semetary is one of a few books that actually frightened me).  No, I prefer writing that focuses on the actual human condition (sue me), and both King and Klein (and Clive Barker) do nicely here.  It’s just a matter of preference.  Oh, and I understand that good fantasy can do this as well, and can be an excellent vehicle for exploring any number of human themes... 


But one place I love fantasy is in gaming.  Indeed, I’d go as far as to classify the role-playing hobby as a bona fide genre, with rules and play, among other things, as its medium.  Is it art?  Debatable.  But is a gaming session a form of performance art?  Maybe.  When it comes to tabletop (and some computer) games, I freakin’ love dragons, wizards, and eldritch spells, so bring em’ on!  Hey, some work in oils or clay.  Me, I work in dice.  And as far as creative mediums go, self publishing is a great one because you're reading, writing, and assembling what amounts to an arts-and-crafts project with every rulebook!

Now I'm not some literary snob (the King, Klein, and Barker are proof enough of that, not to mention the pulpy writings of Burroughs and company), and followers of this blog should already know how much I love fantasy.  It's just that my love of it is pretty tightly bound to the gaming hobby.  Simulating fantasy is a lot different from reading or writing about it, although writers are obviously doing a bit of simulation of their own.  But there's something special about listening at a door or hoping you make your saving throw.  Indeed, there's something entertaining about seeing how others simulate phenomenon and resolve actions that's unique and amounts to an entirely different experience of it all.  That's what I like.    

OK, so maybe gaming isn't fine art.  But there's definitely a way to do dwarves and wizards that's experienced differently and unique to it alone; a gaming genre...

So there's really not much else to say.  Literary fantasy?  Some of it is great because, well, it's great and good is good, though I read for something else, mainly.  But expressed as a rulebook with charts and tables?  Fantasy gaming, for all it involves (and implies), is a bona fide genre squarely on par with the Pulitzer Prize winners!  Just my opinion (and maybe a controversial one at that).  Is role-playing a genre or just a clever pastime based on a pulpy literary segment (Tolkien and others excluded)?  You can decide.  But my mind's pretty much made up.  Oh, and when I leave the bookstore, it might be with some role-playing title under my arm that I'll read for the fun of absorbing its rules before hitting the rack with Portnoy's Complaint (a funny, filthy little book) or something else that's purely of this world...