28 September 2013

GGF #4: My Game Is Great, Your Game Sucks

We are an intensely tribal lot, and we take our gaming choices very, very seriously.  We're polarized into making so many choices - often based on the first thing of that type we encounter -- identifying with them out of reflex, and defending them to the death ever after. Of course, since deep down we believe the world is a zero-sum one, no one can possibly like a choice we reject without it taking away somehow from our own sense of self-worth.

This turns into a battleground, and there’s no end to our ability to pick fights.  Be it D&D versus other games, GURPS vs Pathfinder vs Hero, OD&D vs AD&D vs new D&D, 3.0 vs 3.5 vs 4.0, tabletop vs LARP vs MMORPG, prep vs. no-prep, dungeon fantasy vs story game, sandbox vs. railroad, indie vs. “mainstream,” it isn’t so much that our choices are to be virulently defended: it’s that anyone choosing otherwise is seen as a referendum on our common sense and good taste, tantamount to an insult.

For instance, I remember a thread a few years back where GURPS and D&D were being compared, and some people went into a hissy fit over the assertion that GURPS is more flexible than D&D.  Well, it is -- GURPS is a much more free-form, skill-based, point-buy system that furthermore is generic, where D&D is a game that limits the available types of character one can play and which seeks to emulate one genre, and one genre alone.  No kidding GURPS is more flexible.  It was designed to be.  But you know?  A computer does a heck of a lot more than a hammer does, and is a heck of a lot more versatile.  That doesn’t mean that if I’m doing some carpentry, what I want is anything but a hammer, and using my desktop PC to bang in nails isn’t going to work as well.  A honking lot of people feel that D&D is the game to play for the dungeon fantasy genre they want, and have felt that way for decades.

But that’s tribalism talking: for those fanboys, to ascribe a virtue to some other game that their own game allegedly lacked by comparison -- even if that game didn’t seek that virtue, and even if they wouldn’t want it to have that virtue?  It was a personal attack, to be opposed with all their might.  To call GURPS more flexible than D&D -- for it to be seen as more "anything" than D&D -- carried to those fanboys the implication that there was something at which D&D was inferior.  That was plainly intolerable.

After all, why else in the wide green earth would we possibly care that some stranger over the Internet not only plays Some Other Game, but resolutely rejects playing Our Game?  Because, of course, we Have To Get Everyone To Agree.  It’s vitally important that gaming groups stay in lockstep over system, genre, milieu and playing style, well ... because it just is, that’s why.  Otherwise the tribe fractures, and we can’t have that.

21 September 2013

GGF #3: Magic Changes Society

We know in detail -- if we're at all paying attention, that is -- about the magic and enchanting capabilities our game systems allow. The game companies which publish those systems are usually eager to sell us game settings.  These generally provide a good picture of how many mages of what degree of power live in those lands, by way of depicting key NPCs, from the Royal Sorceress to the fussy old enchanter puttering around his dingy shop on the corner. 

And time and time again, in setting after setting and system after system, GMs and players alike badly overestimate the amount of magic available to make life as rich and wonderful as necessary for the PCs to get anything they want on demand, without having to wait for it, and to not have the daylights taxed out of themselves to boot.
I've read a lot of D&D campaign settings. I've seen Greyhawk and Lankhmar, Al-Qadim and Blackmoor and Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms and the D&D version of Rokugan and NOwhere (with the sole exceptions of Eberron and Spelljammer), do you find these vast world changes. The cities, for the most part, look like any old pseudo-medieval fantasy city; the rural areas have farms and villages and things like any old pseudo-medieval fantasy fief. The shops depicted in these supplements don't have magical boxes where you insert a few gold and POP! WHIZ! a sword pops out; they have smithies where armorers pound them out on anvils. The farmers don't sit back and watch the priestess of the Earth Goddess de jour witch up some crops; they are depicted as sowing, growing and reaping in a fashion a 12th century Burgundian villein would recognize. The fantasy cities aren't fed by hordes of clerics casting Create Food or Goodberry; they're depicted with bakeries and butchers and grocers and stalls in open markets, all operating in a nice low-tech mundane way. People drink from fountains and wells, not from Decanters of Endless Whatever.

Many of the armchair fantasy economic theorists blithely presume a unique degree of efficiency in their gameworlds. Because there are X number of wizards in town of a high enough level to enchant Create Water items, of course the city has pure fresh water in ample quantities. Because there are enough clerics of Y level, of course there's free healing for all and enough food to cover. Because there's Z number of gold coins coming in, the city can afford to have magical streetlights and airships and levitating elevators and all of that.

Life doesn't work that way.

In what gameworld is there depicted a Mordorian totalitarian state, where every citizen works cradle to grave on the ruler's pet projects? (And, if there was one, why would the PCs be exempted?)  Few enough. You're not going to have every wizard of enchanting level doing nothing but pouring out civic goodies. They'll be enchanters, yes ... and also battlemages, teachers, researchers, detectives, adventurers, mages-for-hire and the aforementioned fussy old coots who just want to putter in their gardens and not be bothered. You're not going to have each and every priest buckling down and creating food every day, all day; they'll be holding services, doing pastoral work, being bureaucrats, researching, indulging in cloistered monasticism ... and there'll be the fussy old priests who just want to putter in their gardens and not be bothered.

Beyond that, hang on here.  So you do have X number of wizards enchanting, and that’s enough to make sure the city has that pure fresh water?  Alright, so stipulated.  So who’s enchanting the magical street lights?  Who’s enchanting flying carpets?  Who’s enchanting the animated war machines?  (And who, out of curiosity, is creating the enchanted swords, armor, wands, elixirs and other widgets so beloved of PCs?)  That would be “no one.”  If I have $100 in my pocket, I get to take my wife out to a fancy dinner or I get to take her to a nice show or I get to take her to the Bruins’ game or I get to pick up four new hardcovers or I get to buy a couple new pairs of dress pants.  I can only do one of these, and I certainly don’t get to do them all.  The same principle applies with magic in a fantasy society.

Another crucial error of the armchair theorists is in assuming that everything always goes right. What, the chief enchanter never gets drunk and breaks her neck in a fall the week before the UberDingus is finished? No funds or materials ever get diverted by corruption ... or flat out stolen? The enchanters never find out a month in that what they thought were the fifty rubies needed as material components for that civic enchantment are in fact a bunch of doctored garnets?  (Or, alternately, that war the PCs were involved with in Altania has cut off the only bulk supply of rose korf feathers ... can you get by with substituting king korf feathers?  No?)  Gee, sorry, but that fire that torched a third of the Palestra District before the mages put it out got the Mill Pond Waterworks, and half the city's Create Water items were destroyed?  That stuffy king is peeved that HIS Bowls of Endless Food are only silver while he hears the Bowls over in Vallia are made of gold -- so he just commanded the wizards to make up a whole new set. And so on.

Finally, there's the Who Has The Gold Makes The Rules precept.  Let's say there's a wizard in the city who can send long-range, one-way messages ... call it five times a day, for the sake of argument.  Cool!  Now the PCs can get word to Grand Master Bolan in Warwik City that they found the dingus, and the Master can stand down the alternate plans.  Not so fast.  They're in Seasteadholm, and that's the only wizard in the city capable of casting the spell.  That's an incredibly valuable spell: the baroness wants access to it to send messages to the capital and to her liege lord in the provincial seat, the regimental commander wants access to it to reply to his superiors, the commodore of the naval squadron wants to alert his counterpart in Shelaxin -- a hundred miles down the coast -- that he's chased the pirates in that direction, and every wealthy merchant magnate and compagnia in the city wants to order goods real-time, or alert the financial interests in the capital that the pearl fishers hit a rich new strike.  The odds are that each of those Magic Messenger uses are bought and paid for, long in advance, and the wizard isn't about to cough up Baroness Vydra's slot just because some ragamuffin adventurers (who are going to blow town day after tomorrow anyway) walk in demanding instant service. 

I have, whenever these economic discussions have come up over the last several years, asked the people who talk about the endless capacities of D&D player-characters why the writers, editors and creators of the D&D product lines don't seem to act as if they really do. I've yet to receive much of any answer at all, let alone a good one.

Lacking the same, I'll fall back on the only logical inference: it isn't depicted that way because it isn't that way.

14 September 2013

GGF #2: We Have To Have One Of Everything

No, we really don’t.  The concept of “niche protection” is one of the more bizarre tropes the wargaming roots of our hobby’s stuck us with.  Let's see if I have this straight: we decree that a questing team needs an artificial balance of certain archetypes (archetypes that, I might add, are not necessarily found in all of the fictional stories which are the underpinnings of the hobby). The players are compelled to make the expected selections, often ensuring that one or more run a character he or she does not wish to play. We then design pre-packaged, commercial "modules" so that a party lacking the proper percentage of these archetypes is punished for their failure to make the "right" choices in rollup.

What are my problems with it, I’ve been asked?

*  It's not only entirely artificial, the roles are arbitrarily chosen. The Tank / Blaster / Healer / Rogue paradigm presupposes -- farcically -- that these are not only the only roles conceivable, but that they're the only ones desirable. 

*  It's a self-justifying paradigm; we need to “protect niches” because some game systems are designed so that you can't succeed without them. 

*  Decades of RPGs with freeform or skill-based systems have proven we don't need them ... and never really did.  Heck, this isn’t universally the case across genres.  I’ve heard some of the most rabid defenders of niche protection concede that they don’t feel it’s necessary for SF or supers games.  Why not?  Is there some reason why “niches” for fantasy is essential, but not for other genres?  Is it that SF novels or comic books lack identifiable archetypes?  Or is this more of a case that the first really big RPGs for SF (Traveller) and supers (Champions) were classless systems lacking easily definable and exclusive niches, so people weren’t conditioned to think they had to have them for those genres?

*  It’s quite easy -- truly it is -- to write scenarios that don’t require (say) a thief or a priest to succeed.  Heck, I’ve had all-warrior and all-magician groups, and I’ve had campaigns go for years without characters who were any good at disarming traps or could call upon divine healing.

* It retards creative thinking. I remember quite well a niche protection debate where a poster flung the gauntlet at me: what if a locked door is key to the scenario and you didn't make the party bring a locksmith along? Huh? Huh? Well, says I, the party could bash the door down. Or the wizard could witch their way through somehow. Or they could pull the pins on the hinges. Or they could look for another way into the room. Or they could find out who had the keys and filch/bribe/seduce them from the owner somehow. Or the GM could devote a scrap of brainpower to developing scenarios that didn't revolve around a skill the group lacked. (This, of course, would require that (a) the GM didn't play out of "modules," or (b) exercised his privilege to change them if he did.)

* What’s wrong with redundancy?  Characters die.  The player with the key skill can't make the session. There are countless circumstances where multiple characters with the same skill make the task go much faster or much more safely ... never mind that combat redundancy is only ever, well, “redundant” if you never fight more than a single opponent at a time.  (I view the "But I have to be The Best in the party at something!" as the province of whiners channeling stereotypical 1950s Hollywood women who go into hissy fits if another woman shows up to the party wearing the same dress.)

* It reflects fictional sources but poorly. Especially before the late 1970s and the advent of gaming fiction, duplication of skills was rampant. Did JRRT worry that Aragorn and Boromir had much the same skill set? Did Fritz Leiber worry that his dynamic duo were both thieves? For every movie with Only One Of Everything, there was a Seven Samurai.

Beyond that, niche protection is one of the more angst-ridden subjects in gaming.  People get pissed off when they feel their "thunder" is being stolen.  People get pissed off because they think it was their turn to run the mage.  People get pissed off because they're being forced to play the cleric, again.  People get pissed off because it seems THAT guy always gets to play what he wants.  People get pissed off because one niche is (or is perceived to be) poorly balanced against another.  People gets pissed off when playing Niche A because someone in Niche B is doing a perceived aspect of Niche A better.  People get pissed off because the only face time they get is when someone wants a lock picked or a wound healed, and the rest of the time they’re relegated to being REMFs.

Much of what drives the ongoing controversy about railroading GMs is related; with the widespread practice of running nothing but commercially-produced “modules” straight out of the shrinkwrap, paired with a deep unwillingness to change a jot of them to suit their groups, GMs and groups require that the niches be filled because the modules (allegedly) demand it of them.

My wife, for example, played in a campaign in high school with her cronies. Around a bunch of testosterone-soaked boys, she was stuck with being the party healer. The concept didn't bug her, per se, and sure, she got to roll dice a couple times a session and do her healing spells. The "niche," however, didn't guarantee her a say in tactical planning or decision making, and in fact she didn't have one. What the rest of the group valued was the ability to put hit points of damage on the enemy, and that she lacked.  She was stuck, however, with the character she had and wasn't allowed to trade out for an archetype which would be better respected ... because they “had to have one of everything.”

Even the alleged virtues of the system, as articulated by its defenders, are weak:

* It's good to play characters who aren't good at everything?  Terrific, then design one ... who’s stopping you? 

* It's good for weak characters to be useful?  Shouldn't this be enforced with group dynamics and by the GM instead?  (Or, well ... in a skill-based system, a character doesn’t have to be “weak” just because he’s a performer or a scholar.  Better not jeer at Tanri the busker, because she works out at Saragam’s dojo and she’ll whap you upside your head.)

* Characters in class systems have different "flavors?" What makes restricting the number of available roles more varied and interesting than taking what you want?  (Beyond that, my flavor is oreo, thanks.  If you can’t hack any ice cream other than vanilla-chocolate-strawberry, whatever; you stick to those.)

* Characters ought to have defined functions?  Why do I need to have one-word labels for all my characters, and what makes this a virtue? 

* "Enforcing the genre expectations?" Please. If the GM can't manage to run the anticipated genre and the players aren't interested in running the anticipated genre, no character class written will compel them to do so. You can never legislate the munchkins out of existence. You can say, bizarrely enough, "Nice try, but no."

* It’s too hard to design characters outside of pre-defined niches?  Quite aside from that there are countless gamers out there who don’t need training wheels, many a game has optional “templates” based around popular roles, without requiring that players choose one or the other.

Alright, so some game companies would have to do a lot more work to write adventures which could be solved in more ways without niche protection.  (Other game companies, the ones who work with classless systems, seem to manage just fine, of course.)  But how many of us don’t work with commercial “modules?”  What’s our benefit in buying into this fallacy?

07 September 2013

GGF #1: Gunpowder Is Naughty

We’re heavily influenced by first perceptions, and the greatest influence on fantasy fandom for generations now has been Lord of the Rings, which depicts a bucolic agrarian paradise threatened by dystopian industrial enemies.  Written by a man whose upbringing and early years were in the grim industrial cities of Birmingham and Leeds, the trope -- from his pen -- was unsurprising.  How this trope turned into a granite-hard prejudice against gunpowder (and against anything smacking of technology more advanced than simple machines generally) in fantasy RPG settings is another matter.

Geeks, by and large, are not nearly as erudite as they fancy themselves, their knowledge all too often coming from a mashup of their favorite fiction, dimly remembered college textbooks, Some Article They Read Somewhere, That Movie They Saw Last Month, and -- in recent years -- That Guy's Blog or Facebook Post. 

In particular, they’re crappy historians.  People get these shibboleths about How Things Were Back When imbedded in their consciousness, and they will never, ever, ever shake them.  (There’s a scientific term for this: "confirmation bias.")  My first wife is a recognized quilt historian, something I pushed her into because of her frustration that idiots she ran into in the Society for Creative Anachronism kept telling her that quilts weren't period.  Now in an era where clothes were so expensive you made a point of disposing of yours in your will, it'd take a moron to imagine that people just threw cloth away, at any point in history after textiles were invented -- and what you do with otherwise unusable fabric scraps is quilt them, a practice which has been documented going back several millennia.  Alas, those mooks were firmly rooted in the paradigm that quilts were invented by 19th century pioneer housewives industriously churning out Log Cabin patterns, and defended their POV to the death.
It's the same thing here. We know that cannon were first used in Europe in the 1200s, and we know that they were ubiquitous by around 1350, the time handguns started to come into vogue. We know that well into the era of arquebuses, they were very inaccurate, temperamental and took longer to reload than many fantasy combats last. We know that longbows were far superior weapons to arquebuses -- the adage about needing to start with the archer’s grandfather in order to train him properly seldom pertaining to a RPG’s skill system -- and not many gamers whine about wizards casting powerful spells which blow the bejeezus out of foes at range.

But in the same way those SCAdians -- who fancy themselves as having an informed handle on history -- work nonetheless under their own unfounded delusions, gamers seem to equate arquebuses and muskets with the speed, accuracy and stopping power of modern firearms, and well, machine guns and assault rifles aren’t capital-H Heroic, doncha know.

The funny thing is that you not only can’t blame JRRT any more, you haven’t been able to blame him for decades.  From Roger Zelazny to Jerry Pournelle to Brian Daley to Joel Rosenberg, the guns-in-fantasy concept has been around for a long while.  (Heck, Dave Hargrave and Steve Jackson put them into their fantasy systems back in the 1970s.)  Can we stop making the sign of the cross at it, please?

06 September 2013

Gaming Geek Fallacies

Plymouth is the home of my heart, forever.  It's appropriate to begin with a sunrise!
I've long been a fan of Michael Wilson's brilliant Five Geek Social Fallacies.  They're extremely applicable to tabletop gamers (as, indeed, to most subcultures).

It struck me early on that there are several shibboleths taken as much as unquestioned, unchallenged articles of faith by tabletop gamers as GSF is with those subcultures.  So I wrote up my list of Gaming Geek Fallacies -- really, posting them somewhere permanent was the motivating factor behind me starting up a blog in the first place -- and here they are to get the ball rolling.  Hope you enjoy the ride!

GGF #1: Gunpowder Is Naughty

GGF #2: We Have To Have One Of Everything

GGF #3: Magic Changes Society

GGF #4: My Game Is Great, Your Game Sucks

GGF #5: “X” Is The Opposite Of Fun

05 September 2013

A beginning is a very delicate time.

So here I am.  Hoorah.

My name is Bob, and I've been involved with roleplaying games since the 1970s.  I've played them, I've gamemastered them, I've created them, I've playtested them, I've written for them, I've made money off of them, and I've pontificated a great deal about them -- gaming and music are the two enduring hobbies of my adult life.

That pontification bit is what I'm doing here.  I've been active on several gaming forums over a decade and more, and I'm an opinionated fellow.  I'm going to put down my thoughts, and even a solution or three.  Whether anyone cares, that's another matter, but heck, the Internet would never have gotten off the ground if its creators worried about how many people would bother with it.

My blog title comes from the legend of the invisible city of Kitezh, the Russian version of Atlantis or Brigadoon, and is the specific title of the last scene of an opera based on the tale by Rimsky-Korsakov.  From 1981 until around 1989, I was active on the UMass computer system, where there was a primitive chatroom facility called "Confer."  (As geeks will, they couldn't leave standard practice well enough alone, and insisted that it be pronounced COHN-fer.)  The program allowed users to create their own private chatrooms, which could then be made invisible -- and thus open for private invites -- and when I did this, I used this name for my chatroom.  I rather like the notion of reviving it.

I've a couple rules of the road that will color -- directly or otherwise -- everything I'll say.  First off, I don't play D&D.  Haven't played it for over twenty years, haven't GMed it in over thirty.  I'm a GURPS GM.  I'm happy with the system, I've been using it since before it was published, I'm not inclined to change.

Second, I'm a realism bug.  You'll hear more on that down the road, but IMHO, the "It's a game so trying to make it 'realistic' is stupid" crack is moronic BS, and you'll hear my refutation of that down the road.

Getting those out of the way now will save angst later.

I might be invisible here.  But I'm speaking nonetheless.