Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Shifting to Neutral (Cause' Most of Us Are)...

Many of us like to think of ourselves as good, the criminals among us as evil (or simply misguided), and all others as neutral and indifferent.  Good becomes the default setting for any stable, functioning society, with the rest mere aberrations...

But what if it ain't so?  What if most of us, even the good ones, are neutral?

Now I'm not saying this because most life is animal life; and animals, given their lack of sophisticated moral reasoning, are neutral by default.  I say this because it might just be that good and evil are moral extremes embraced by a select few.  Good is prized because it's laudable, not to mention rare.  Evil is reviled because it does harm and threatens all others regardless of their philosophical bent.  But neutrals predominate... 

GOOD characters aren't simply decent people.  They're philosophically committed to advancing good, fighting evil, and bringing justice to others.  Indeed, their attentions are for others, and they act with deep compassion and mercy for the downtrodden.  This is the questing white knight.  The one beloved by good folk and resented by the wicked.


Everyone wants to go to Heaven, but no one wants to do what it takes to get there, and herein lies the high regard champions are held in.  Few want the job!

EVIL persons are selfish and behave accordingly.  Their only real commitment is to themselves, and they actively seek advancement at the expense of others.  They don't care who gets hurt, and might just enjoy the suffering they inflict.  This is the ruthless warlord seeking domination by the sword.  The one feared by good and evil men alike.  

NEUTRAL adventurers care deeply (and genuinely) about their family, friends, and communities.  They really do.  But their commitment drops off sharply for those beyond their sphere of concern.  This is the viking warrior who prays for the safety of their home while happily raiding on distant shores.  Or the shopkeeper who never did anyone any harm, but never did any good either.  They aren't saints or sinners.  Just people.

Once again, good and evil are extremes.  Good characters are crusaders committed to bringing compassion to others while evil adventurers are villains devoted to their own gratification by whatever means.  Neutrals are pretty much everyone else; the vast majority of people primarily motivated to care for their own.  They'll stop short of making sacrifices for strangers, but take no pleasure in wanton cruelty either.  Charity starts at home...

Live and let live means minding your own business and returning the treatment you receive from others.  That's what a neutral might say, which makes them reasonable, not to mention flexible, companions.  Such characters often have deeply personal reasons for adventuring and may be persuaded to help once they've grown attached to a cause and/or its people.  But neutrals also have a price, and they know what that price is.

In short, neutrals are your friendly shopkeeper who puts their family first, but also that moneylender who thinks only of themselves but still draws the line at cold-blooded murder even when convenient.  The neutral is most of us, and maybe that's a good thing...

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Evil Orcs and Real-World Racism...

Now and again, I stumble upon an idea that percolates in my old man's brain until I can formulate a position.  This week's post is about one of those; namely, the idea that presenting certain monsters as inherently evil is somehow racist.  I'm talking about orcs and related humanoid baddies, the stock villains of the games we play and a convenient way to populate our dungeons with things to kill or possibly die at the bloody hands of...

Now, to be crystal clear, I understand the sentiment.  Dwarves, elves, and even orcs are intelligent and therefore effectively persons.  And the idea that orcs are inherently evil is one step away from deciding that Jews (for instance) are greedy or that native Americans are unwashed savages.  Offended?  You should be, because RACISM IS WRONG.  The very idea that some intelligent beings are, by virtue of genetics and nothing more, inherently evil (or inferior) lies at the misguided heart of racist ignorance.  

My great grandfather married a Jew and was disowned by his family.  Happily, they loved one another more than their German homeland and fled to the United States in 1903, roughly thirty years before a man with a stiff arm and tiny mustache came to power (and yes, my genes went through the gates of Auschwitz).  Even in my comfortable American existence, I've been shoved and called a filthy Jew by the children of parents who almost certainly would have approved.  Racism is nasty baggage we need to lose at the airport...


But in our zeal to do good, to be good, we maybe forget what fantasy is and lose something of its power and beauty.  Nothing less than the power of myth, in fact.

The power of myth is that abstract concepts are given material form.  Monsters haven't just chosen evil.  They are evil.  Literally, evil incarnate.  The power of myth (and fantasy in general) has always been to take ephemeral concepts and drag them into the light of human consciousness.  After all, evil is easier to pin down dressed in scaly hides... 

But worlds, especially game worlds, still require service to cause and effect and, especially, some notion of free will.  Not a problem.  The gods of evil don't value free will and prefer breeding slaves to siring loving (and willing) children.  Orcs were made evil by a Godhead who imbued them with only one perspective.  Dwarves and elves enjoy free will because their gods value it.  They want children who can love them back.  Not so for the selfish Lords of Darkness, who took from the worst parts of themselves and made a craven, wicked race (all the better to control through fear) reflecting their darkest natures.

In short, orcs might not be persons, per se, but merely physical extensions of the dark minds that made them, imitating human agency within the narrow boundaries of evil.*

But humans aren't automatons.  No way.  Moreover, the alleged "races" of humanity are nothing of the sort.  We're all just human beings.  Homo Sapiens.  Free agents who deserve to be treated by the content of our character and not the color of our skin (or any of the superficial differences between us).  This is self-evidently true.  Inherently evil orcs are only racist when we don't understand that humans (who really exist) aren't orcs.

Sure, we can give orcs free will.  This can be fun and interesting (the ones in my own campaign are nuanced), but we don't have to.  We only need to know the difference between fantasy and reality and to specify the conditions under which evil manifests in a universe operating under different rules (nowhere present in our own reality).  And really, most of us know the difference.  Fantasy orcs need say nothing about how actual humans should relate to one another.  In short, orcs aren't real.  People are, so let's be honorable ones...

*So kill away, you lawful murder hobos.  You're just smiting evil in one of its many guises!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Blasphemy! Or Gaming's Other Makers...

Some of the hobby’s founding fathers are still with us, and we hope they stay.  Gygax and Arneson are sadly gone, but David Wesely (the first founder) is still with us, along with Mike Monard and others who were lucky enough to be a part of the early campaigns.  We owe these leading lights our sincerest gratitude for sure, and if we’re fortunate enough meet them at a convention somewhere we should shake their hands and tell them so.  Their efforts in the formation of our beloved pastime can’t be underestimated.  But in our rush to recognize these pioneers we forget to cite the other founders of the hobby… 

I’m talking about the innumerable folks (not just fathers; women were a part of it too) who bought and played these games in complete isolation from Lake Geneva.  People who would never attend GenCon or meet Gygax or Arneson even when they still could.  These players added and changed things and house ruled like crazy.  They crafted innovations to the hobby, superior innovations that made their way into future games, including the latest version of everyone’s favorite.  These people also made the hobby - and in a big way.

From the 1983 Menlo School Yearbook

I remember playing in my friend’s garage in 1979.  It was Saturday and some of us were planning to watch the new Buck Rogers when it premiered, although a few (in the grip of puberty no doubt) were secretly looking forward to Charlie’s Angels.  Kiss You All Over by Exile played on a nearby car radio, the music slipping in and out like the Doppler shift of a passing train.  It was the last gasp of summer; a muggy recollection of July with a crisp breeze straight out of the future.  A shape of things to come.  We had the rulebooks, garish little things with amateur art, mere doodles from fifth period Math class...

But the rules were just a guide.  Gary said so.  We played, solved problems, and worked together as a team.  We used what we liked and changed what we didn’t.  Make no mistake, we owed Gygax and Arneson big for the brilliant content they created.  Sleep was a cool spell, and one we didn't have to develop ourselves.  Ditto for mind flayers and the dreadful beholder.  And dragons.  You name it.  But most of what we did didn't require any rules at all, and we were more than happy to fill in the blanks with personal innovations.       

Multiply this a thousand times over and you'll realize just how many people (gamers who'd never met Gygax and weren't hinging on his every word) were involved in spreading the hobby and keeping it alive.  Gaming's lifeblood was never this pantheon of founding fathers proclaiming from the Olympus of Lake Geneva.  It was always in the hands of those who played the games and made the hobby all their own.  This might sound blasphemous (and ungrateful), but I don't mean it that way.  As a game designer I'd love to blow sunshine up my own ass, believe me; but there's nothing I do that others haven't done.

The founding fathers created the first games and, for a while, crafted new content for their little experiment.  This fact can't be discounted.  And the Mike Monards of the world are absolutely the experts on what happened in those formative sessions.  Pick their brains if you're lucky enough to know them.  But Dave and Mike are not experts on what happened in my friend's garage and they never claimed to be.  My expertise is similarly limited because there's lots of garages out there - and the garage is where our hobby truly exists.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The License to Slay and Lapsus Calami (or Look at What Folks Are Doing Now)...

Ok, so we like stuff; and people who like stuff are fortunate to be part of a small-press community that makes good stuff.  So get ready for a post where we gush about something awesome we've discovered, but also a post about how our corner of the world world is breaking boundaries and generally coloring outside the lines.  We're doing things, making stuff - and all for the good of the scene!  Yeah, this is a post about that...     

So first off, there's the License to Slay from the Bureau of Dragons and the good folks at Damn Elf Press (who also run a nice little blog).  We've all fantasized about slaying dragons in our favorite suit of mail.  All of us.  Happily, the Bureau has us covered with the Official License to Slayimpressively rendered and suitable for framing.

The License comes on a classic 8.5 x 11 parchment with gorgeous calligraphy and your name (or that of a lucky recipient) emblazoned thereupon.  And it's stamped for authenticity by the Bureau, so accept no substitutes!  Each comes individually numbered and with a wallet-sized card to boot.  It's a nice presentation and a unique gift for the dragon lover on your list.  Suitable for framing, the License is just $9.95 in time for the holidays.

And while you're applying for your License, be sure to check out the Case Files and Dispatches, which add a nice sense of lore to the whole thing.  It turns out dragons are real and in need of slaying.  But the only thing worse than getting on the business end of a genuine fire-breather is running afoul of the law, so make sure you're dressed in asbestos underwear and covered with a License.  Don't mess with Louis Baston...


Now the cool thing about this (aside from being cool) is that it transcends the usual downloadable PDF paradigm and does so with something original.  We anticipate t-shirts in the near future (Damn Elf wore 'em at at GenCon).  More importantly, as the means of production and distribution increasingly falls into the hands of mere mortals, perhaps we'll see miniatures and other so-called "professional" items from small-press creators.  

We know, Kickstarter is making things happen, but we anticipate a time when 3-D print on demand becomes a thing and we'll release an official line of P&P miniatures...

OK, so the next big thing is Lapsus Calami by Matt Jackson, already a well-known cartographer and blogger.  To know him is to love him - and to know him means knowing he loves the old-school with an admirable passion.  Well it turns out that Matt has started an excellent little zine called Lapsus Calami.  He's made this available on his Patreon page for free but also mailed out a few hard copies as well.  You know, snail mail and stuff. 

Matt's not the only one doing this, and we don't mean to slight our other friends in the community.  We love 'em all.  But getting that two-page, yellow card-stock zine took this old man (Robyn wasn't part of the 70s scene) back to a time when your favorite small-press publication just might be a couple of photocopied and barely legible pages...

Of course, Lapsus Calami is very legible owing to Matt's excellent maps and also quite readable thanks to his great writing and clever back stories.  But in a world where everything is available 24/7, it sure felt nice to read something in a simple and delightfully low-tech format.  It's small-press designers breaking the mold and finding new (old) ways of making things and delivering them to their audience.  If you can, support Matt's Patreon.  

At the turn of a new century, print-on-demand technology enabled a new generation of publishers to get their ideas out.  And the innovation hasn't stopped.  Those same publishers are finding new ways to do old things (or vice versa), stealing some of the big industry's thunder and taking our esteemed hobby back to a time when the small-press scene was the scene.  The chickens come home to roost - and that's a good thing for once! 

Well, that's a wrap.  We're finally going to a monthly format, so see you in September...