21 June 2021

But but but ... what do I NAME it??

 Running out of names?  Not remotely close.

First off, Wikipedia is your friend here, and all you need to do is (for example) pull up a list of provinces of Moldova.  Hm, I see on this page a list of all the municipalities down to the village level, all 1681 of them.  Must be able to find some interesting names to call that random village in the middle of nowhere.  I think I'll call it Vranesti (a teensy village on the Romanian border, as it happens).

Beyond that, look.  English language naming conventions are pretty simple: so many placenames are composites.  My area seems to have an obsession with “-field,” for instance: Greenfield, Springfield, Northfield, Westfield, Deerfield, Ashfield, Pittsfield, Hatfield, Sheffield, Brimfield, Sandisfield, Plainfield, Middlefield, Enfield, Suffield, they’re all municipalities. † (Heck, for all I know, Vranesti means “Eastfield” in Romanian.)  

For the record, Vranesti's sole landmark.







A number of random name generators you can find on the Internet will throw such composites at you, but you can do it yourself.  Just close your eyes, turn around, point outward, open your eyes.  What are you pointing at?  Great, do it again.  There’s your composite name.  “Blueblanket,” alright, fair enough.  I missed pointing at my cat by inches.  The village of Bluecat?  Okay.  Not exotic enough?  Fair enough, let's let Google Translate render "Bluecat" into Romanian, say: "Pisica Albastra."  

Want a different route?  You have famous people in your gameworld, right?  Name something after them.  There are towns near me named for renowned Colonial and RevWar figures: Washington, Amherst, Otis, Monroe, Hancock, Adams, Boylston, Warren, Webster.  Some enterprising Aquilonian colonists must have founded a “Conanburg” or three, and I bet Gondor has a “Bagginstown” by now.

For people?  For starters, I don't feel the need to come up with a unique name for every NPC I've ever created.  I’ve made up, as is the case in the real world, a list of common names, both female and male, and at this point I've got variant lists for different cultures.  About five or six names in each list are the very common ones that are my world's equivalent of "Joe" and "Mary," 25 are pretty common, 70-75 are uncommon, and about 150 are unusual but not unheard of – the moral equivalent of "Xavier" or "Clarinda."  I keep a chart where if I use a name as a throwaway during a session, I rotate between the four sections, then strike it out ... obviously, I have multiple lines through Columns A and B!  

(The practice has given rise to a catchphrase: "Nath, Naghan, Larghos and Ortyg," being among the most common male names in my world, has come to mean a bunch of faceless mooks.)

Yes, this means that long-term players encounter the same name for key people more than once, but I don't think they're entitled to find this any more jarring than that they happen to know multiple people -- or have multiple relatives -- named "Anne" or "Bob."  It certainly isn't any weirder than that the lead long-term characters of my first and second wives are named "Elena" and "Elaina" respectively, and that the character of my IC-fiancee in a LARP was “Elana.”  Seriously.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Surnames?  If you need them, you've got various routes.  You already have your given names down, right?  So there are patronymics: Verella Elainasdaughter.  Pick a half dozen clans for that local village, and your NPC is from one: Verella Waflo.  Or a descriptive English composite from above: Verella Goldhand.  Or else a geographic name: Verella of Redwave.  Or an occupational name: Verella Smith (well, her father is one of the world's best armourers, at least).  Short of "Verella Hey You," that covers the bases.

Finally, just pick up a foreign dictionary.  I've had Finnish:English, Sanskrit:English and Gaelic:English ones for decades for just this purpose.  I don't even worry about finding the meaning of a word.  Hm, I think I'll call this rare find the "Tome of Sellainen."  And this is so much easier now with the Internet – no need to BUY a book for the purpose.

† - None of these are as much as 45 minutes drive from where I sit.  Some are in the Berkshires, on mountainsides ... seriously?

20 June 2021



“I’d like your help. Your help to make this game fun for everyone. If anything makes anyone uncomfortable in any way… just lift this card up, or simply tap it. You don’t have to explain why. It doesn't matter why. When we lift or tap this card, we simply edit out anything X-Carded. And if there is ever an issue, anyone can call for a break and we can talk privately. I know it sounds funny but it will help us play amazing games together and usually I’m the one who uses the X-card to help take care of myself. Please help make this game fun for everyone. Thank you!"

The X-Card has been a thing in the hobby for a number of years now.  Coming into vogue during convention runs, where a bunch of strangers get together for a Session Zero-less game under time constraints, it’s also a very controversial subject.  It works pretty much as described above: flash the card, the group is compelled to change an element, change the subject, fade to black, whatever.  I’m among the ones who don’t care for the concept.

I have always had an unusual number of female players, about a third of my player base over the years.  To my certain knowledge, a third of them were sexually assaulted/molested.  So I avoid rape tropes, beyond the abstract. My wife's best friend hanged himself on the main bridge in her hometown, so I avoid dwelling on hanging people.

But this is a hobby that involves a whopping lot of depictions of violence.  There's racism, and the whole spectrum of man's inhumanity to man.  A player who really does have "triggers" so deep that he or she's likely to freak out at their mere depiction around a gaming table has a responsibility to talk it over with the GM in advance.  Similarly, such players ought not be indulging in convention runs or one-shots, or if so need to pick out genres less likely to prove burdensome.  A Toon, an original Star Trek game, Golden Age supers, 1930s pulp, those are genres less likely to run into some of those problems.  (While coming into others: Thirties pulp, run straight, isn't for those seeking to avoid casual and pervasive racism.)

Further, my wife’s take: she’s a special needs teacher who deals routinely with traumatized children.  (And we’re not talking “Oooh, I get squicked out at the subject of violence” kids.  We’re talking about kids who’ve been sexually assaulted from infancy, or kids who get smacked around by their abusive parents.  THAT kind.)

She doesn’t have any use for X-cards.  She echoes that players who feel their traumas are so deep they cannot abide their depiction around a gaming table needing to be selective in their gaming.  She also says that squicked out players can just take a walk or choose that time for a bathroom break, that it strikes her as a very easily abused mechanic, that people with such traumas shouldn’t be gaming with strangers, and should hold Session Zero discussions.

There've been times, in the adventures I present, where PCs have found the severed heads of NPCs of whom they were fond. There've been times when the cute 8 year old died horribly.  There've been times when everyone in the sympathetic village has died of disease.  Like any other dramatist, I know and use the power of pathos, where and as I feel appropriate.  I would never think to question anyone who needs a more G-rated campaign for their escapism.  Never.  But they do need to find a table other than mine.

And my final thoughts are these:

* First off, it’s lazy.  People using such a mechanic aren’t attempting to mitigate their issues.  They’re not seeking out sympathetic GMs, or sympathetic genres, or – heck – avoiding the hobby altogether.  They don’t have to use their words (and this in a hobby utterly, entirely dependent on words).  And they’re unlikely to be seeking the professional help they really do need if their traumas bubble that hotly on the surface.  I am neither a therapist nor a psychologist: I can be compassionate, but tabletop gaming is not remotely the venue for a support group.

* Secondly, it’s aggressively abusive, as a lot of the “safe space” theorizing is: it allows one person to dictate the content of discourse for many.  That one person’s desire to avoid mention or exploration of a particular subject automatically, unilaterally and without question or recourse vetoes everyone else’s interest in doing so.

* Fear and discomfort are part of many genres and play styles.  Horror doesn't exist without it.  The whole gamut of White Wolf games become mere kill-em-and-take-their-stuff without it.

* Finally, I don’t entirely buy it.  I have a strong phobia: a near-paralytic fear of falling.  It's been high school since I've climbed a tree as much as a couple dozen feet.  I’m white knuckled just driving up a mountain, on a graded, paved autoroad.  The bravest thing I’ve ever done?  I’ve done rescues in howling winter storms.  I’ve been between warring parties in a drive-by shooting.  I’ve been in knife fights.  But the real bravest thing I ever did was during a college party on the roof.  One gal was drunk out of her mind and dancing on the parapet, five stories above Huntington Avenue.  I was the only sober one up there, and I went over to drag her off.  The last ten feet, I was on my hands and knees, because I couldn’t force myself to stand.  (Probably if I hadn’t had a huge crush on her, I might not have been able to do it at all.)

But I’m a grown-ass adult.  I can withstand a GM talking about us climbing a mountain.  I can roleplay a mariner clinging to a topmast.  I’m not actually there, and I don’t actually see it, and even though the mere subject has me breathing shallowly and quickly – remembering that terrified young guy pulling Di off the parapet, 41 years ago – I don’t need to shut down the screen and play solitaire instead.

And if I just couldn’t mitigate it, couldn’t control those images, felt them so strongly that a casual mention of heights had me shaking ... then I’d be in serious therapy right now, and likely avoiding such a potentially damaging hobby as RPGs.

15 June 2021

From the forums: Metagaming Monsters

Something I've done a whopping lot over the years is pontificate on gaming forums.  While the exchanges summarized below are about metagaming over NPC monsters specifically, the subject of metagaming generally is a hot button topic for me.  Read on for some modest ranting.


ForumDood: Whaddaya mean adventurers don’t know all the stats of monsters? Does your world have taverns?  Do adventurers stop by taverns to have a drink?  Do they talk to other patrons when having said drink?  If so, word has just spread in that town of the critters said adventurers have encountered.

"Alright, smart guy, what are its stats?"

These are, of course, taverns much akin to those in our own history.  You know, the ones where travelers swore that they'd seen dragons, hippogriffs, manticores, Amazons with their bow arm breasts cut off ... things like that.  Or, ya know, where the travelers blurted out, "It was TEN FEET TALL!!! Fangs like spears! Hide like steel! It ripped apart trees and boulders like they were PAPER!"  

Anyway, you just might be more sanguine about the honesty and reliability of your average drunk wanderer, trying to impress the locals, than I am.

For my part, no, of course not: players don't get to use their past knowledge any more than their PCs get to know the formula for gunpowder, who's really behind that death cult or how to rig a Leyden jar.

Beyond that, it's relatively simple: I don't feel the need to be bound by the sourcebook as far as critters go.

ForumDood2: How do you handle situations where the players know something the PCs don't, like a monster that has a weak spot if you hit it between the eyes or something.

Well, for one, GURPS makes provision for such skills.  Naturalist, Hidden Lore (Monsters), Occultism, Folklore ... they're all valid choices.  The better the roll, the more likely the info is both sound and useful.

For another, I'm not a huge fan of "This is an unstoppable juggernaut except for its left testicle, upon which a good shot will surely slay it" monsters. That smacks too much of the pull-the-right-lever-or-die dungeon fantasy BS I got past decades ago.  There are certainly useful strategies to engage certain beasts, and that's as far as that goes.  And even that doesn't mean some critters stop being tough -- sure, you made the roll, and you remember reading that giant crocodiles have relatively soft underbellies.  Awesome, but that's still a very tough, very tenacious 30' lizard with teeth the size of short swords, slithering on the ground so that it’s not showing you the underbelly, and it's comin' for you ...

ForumDood: Generic D&D-land assumes that critters like orcs and trolls are fairly common.

See, you're metagaming yourself: you presume that there's a certain density of monsters, that they all have unitary stats and abilities, and that these apply to every campaign out there.

I agree that "generic D&D-Land" is a thing, but sorry, that doesn't make any sense.  Some lions are a lot tougher and more capable than others, the same way that some humans are a lot flimsier and less capable than others.  I see no reason to presume that ANY foe of ANY kind always has 20 HP and always does 1d6+1 damage and always has the exact same move or armor protection, any more than were I to play D&D, I would presume that every enemy fighter I encountered was precisely 2nd level and had 20 HP and carried a bog-standard broadsword and sported AC 6.

ForumDood3: Do you suppose that people who live in an area where lions are a genuine threat to life would know a few things about lion habits, or would they be just as clueless as a zoo-goer like me?

It depends.  Do any of us really need to be told that human beings are very good at (a) thinking we know more about a subject than we really do, (b) swallowing the POV of the loudest, or the first, or the cutest, or the most eloquent speaker on a subject over that of acknowledged experts, and (c) blathering our inflated, flawed views to anyone who'll listen, except when they're (d) deliberately lying about the subject to get a rise out of the listeners?  How many parents, for instance, have rejected the all-but-unanimous advice of thousands of pediatricians, doctors and researchers on the subject of vaccination, on the strength of the word of the likes of Jenny McCarthy, whose credentials are that her boob job got her into Playboy a couple decades back?

Sure, I'd figure that a veteran herder or livestock farmer on the verge of lion-infested country would probably have a good handle on the habits of lions -- otherwise they wouldn't get to be veteran herders or livestock farmers.  Of course, those folks might be real willing to pull the chains of the outlanders ... "Aw, sure, yooze guys got nuttin' t'worry aboot.  Them lions be as meek as sheep.  Just toss 'em some raw candleroot, ye'll be fine. Does I got candleroot t'sell? Why, happen I do!"

I would presume such skills of no one else.  A number of other folks might have such skills.  Did you pick such skills when you designed your character, by the way?  A number would not, beyond the basics of common sense practice for any scary-looking critter lurking about.  (I'm minded of the NBA basketball player Manute Bol, who came from the Sudan, and renowned for having killed a lion with a spear as a goat-herding teenager.  Far from being an epic battle, he stated that the lion was old, asleep, and that he'd snuck up on it from behind.  Otherwise, he opined, the lion would have eaten him.)

Otherwise?  Look.  You and I live in a world of mass media and mass education.  People in a medieval world didn’t grow up watching Animal Planet, or have access to Wikipedia articles or encyclopedias.  “Damn, that’s a huge cat.  You think that's one of those lions Farmer McHayseed was telling us about?  Who's got the candleroot?” is the best I’d expect from medieval types.  

Make it an owlbear or a gelatinous cube, and “What the hell is THAT??  Mitra save us!” is more likely.

ForumDood4: Big furry cats who hunt. Are they social? Do they have a special diet? Are they different from those OTHER stories of cats? Fuck if we know.

And beyond that, there'll be the guy who is absolutely convinced to the marrow of his bones that he knows All About Lions, based on a dimly remembered conversation he overheard between two panther hunters a few years back.  And this is talking about something so basic and mundane as lions.  How will even expert naturalists manage to explain rare and bizarre monsters, comprehensively and accurately?  ("TEN FEET TALL, fangs like spears ..." yeah, yeah.)

My classic "confirmation bias" adventuring anecdote comes from a combat LARP session.  We had a Raise Dead spell, and a second-event newbie (unable, per the system, to have the spell at all before his fifth event) was absolutely convinced that the spell worked a particular way.  Me, I was a "magic marshal" of twelve years experience and the Grand Master of the guild that taught the spell, I set him straight.

So I thought.  The guy just wouldn't take my word for it.  Soon three other veteran magic marshals joined the conversation, each of whom had ten years or more experience teaching and adjudicating the system.  One of those marshals had invented the magic rules then in use.  Another was the guy who'd invented the previous magic system the then-current system had replaced.  The third helpfully had a pamphlet of the official rules on his person.  

The newbie just didn't care -- he was just one of those types who Knew What He Knew and no one could ever tell him any different -- and wound up being escorted off the event site when he started throwing punches.

10 June 2021

Picking Up The Wand / The Rainbow Sword

 So here I am again.  It's been several years.  But I've been sitting on some things to say, and so therefore.  Without further ado ...


“So, my sisters.”  I gazed out the clerestory window at the tableau in Court Square, and I made no doubt my gaze was as stony as were the rest of the Conclave.  “I see what you see.  Is there truly any doubt?”

“None,” said Mother Arathena, with a bitter hiss.  “That jackal has the true Sword.  Captain Noran saw her hack through half the enemy cohort to reach the postern gate, and I know Noran to be a reliable man.  Not given to exaggeration.”  She swallowed hard, tearing her gaze away from the triumphant spectacle outside.  “But – but how?  How was It found, after so long?”

Mother Selanya tossed her head with a sneer – she seldom had use for Arathena, I knew.  “Lady’s Grace, who cares?  Dueled with dragons or bought it from a peddler, what boots it?  The question is this: what do we do?”  Her mouth was set; she didn’t know.  Neither did the others.

Neither did I.

* * * * * * * * * 

“ ... and in the sundering terror of that hour, the Fell Lord, the Mantled One came forth in sooth.  In his clawed hand was raised the Great Fear, the darkness deeper than shadow, his sceptre and sword.  And its touch was Death, and the very air turned to poison whence It cleaved.  Strong heroes shuddered, and their boasts and resolve tore into silence in the fetid air like fabric rent between charging bulls.  But none would charge here.  None could speak.  Few could breathe.

“Yet the Lady stood, the golden, thunder-armed.  Awful was the grasping fear, but yet She stood.  In mighty array was Her raiment, in Her palm was strength, and in Her hand was the incarnation of pure light: Peace’s Friend, the Immortal Protector, the Rainbow Sword of the legends.  She was fury’s harbinger in lightning as She – She alone! – moved to face the Fell Lord, the Mantled One.  And that very lightning, with a screaming akin to the clangor of a thousand insane bells, ripped the poisoned air asunder as the blades clashed ...”

- from the Canticles of the Rose City, canto VII, The Last Battle Of The First War 

It is a battlesword wrought of milky crystal, which shines with rainbow hues of innermost radiance when it catches any light.  No wire or wrappings mar the shaped glass-smooth hilt, nor gems or carvings its surface.  The invincible blade of the Time Before Time, the Rainbow Sword features in many of the legends and myths of the world.  The one who wields it in battle is invincible, and it has been long sought by scholars and warlords alike.

Now it’s been found.  Not by a goddess of rainbows, but by living mortals.  And the world will never be the same.

* * * * * * *

This is, if you will, a Kobayashi Maru-type find: something that tests the character and common sense of your party, and not a plot hook to be used lightly.  

The Sword is part of the creation myth, the favored weapon of the Lady of Thunders, the goddess who defeated the great evil in the War of the Gods at the dawn of the world.  She renounced all violence after that hour, and famously left the Sword in the blooded dust of that fatal field.  There are legends of its reappearance thereafter, but they are generally disputed, and felt by many to be outright apocryphal.

It is a thing of elemental, divine power.  Don’t bother with stats for it; the Sword transcends such things.  Anyone it strikes in battle is instantly killed.  Anything it is used to smite is destroyed.  Hack a barrier with it, and the barrier is blown to pieces.  Chop at a two-century-old oak with it, and the tree is shattered into splinters with a hundred-foot cone of destruction.  It parries any attack, or any number of attackers.  Its wielder can’t be stunned, drained, affected by mind-control or direct damage magics, possessed, anything like that.

Other than that, we’re not talking Stormbringer here: it won’t corrupt you (except in so far as wielding an invincible blade of legend will go to a person’s head), the souls of its victims aren't consumed in horrible screaming, the Lady of Thunders doesn’t want it back, you’re not mystically bound to it, and there’s no Dark Being with a mirror-image version out there seeking a cataclysmic confrontation.  But:

* The literary influence to consider here isn’t Moorcock; it’s Saberhagen.  This is the sort of weapon over which wars are fought, or heavily influenced by its presence on one side or another. Its owner has a big red X on his or her back, from many sides.

* Never mind the ambitious monarchs, wizards or warlords who want it.  Gods will want it, either to use themselves, or to wrench out of mortal hands a weapon known to be a godslayer.  Sensible Powers-That-Be want to steal or disenchant it to keep anyone else from using it. The church of the Lady of Thunders (a pacifist faith these many thousands of years) finds its existence somewhat embarrassing, and its ownership by a mere mortal sacrilegious.  Uppity heroes will think they ought to be the one wielding it, or that the one who is doesn’t at all deserve it, and they’d like to test out this “invincible in battle” BS themselves.

* Read between the lines, and the weapon doesn’t make the wielder completely invulnerable.  He or she still has to sleep, eat, use the jakes, bathe, and do a lot of things that don’t involve holding the naked blade, which is the only time its powers work.  “Invincible in battle” doesn’t mean the wielder can’t be drowned, crushed in a landslide or roasted by a volcano.  (Also, I'm not enthusiastic about the wielder's chances solo against an artillery barrage or a crossbow regiment.)

* Further ... while the wielder’s stamina and weapon skills are significantly improved (however your system handles such things), they’re not limitless – a pudgy scholar neither turns into Conan nor can fight for tireless hours on end.  Apply common sense: wrapping the palsied hand of a 90-year-old invalid around the hilt doesn’t turn him into Conan either.

But given all that, the way to play the Sword is as a horrifically destructive force of nature.  Just plain drawing it exposes its bone-shaking aura, Fright Checks being appropriate.  Spar jokingly with it, and you’re going to find yourself cutting your sparring partner in half.  Poke someone just a half-inch deep with it, and he’ll scream as his organs all explode at once and that “half-inch deep” incision suddenly becomes large enough to put your fist into.  You really can knock down a castle tower with it, or at the least blow a hole in its side large enough to drive a wagon-and-four through.  Jam it point-first into the ground, and you’ll provoke an earthquake at least.  Drive the point home (without saying so explicitly) that this is something plainly not meant for mortals, the use of which involves perils beyond imagining.

19 July 2015

Gaming With Kids

As is often the case, a forum discussion provoked this post.  This one involved people being creeped out by a GM of the original poster’s acquaintance including a couple 12-year-olds, neither being family members of his, in his campaign.

It’s not that society's "OMG but the CHILDREN!!!!!!" riff is getting surreal, it's that it hit surreal quite some time ago. Swear to God, I met a woman who bragged – bragged! – out loud to me that she had never yet failed in avoiding leaving her husband alone with their five-year-old daughter. Heaven knows how she failed to pick up on the shock and revulsion on my face that she would just assume her husband was a pedo-in-the-making, or if she had genuine evidence to believe he was, that she was still living with her children under a roof with him.

To me, the true creepiness and perversion is in the automatic presumption that the only reason a grown man could possibly have anything to do with a minor is for sexual purposes. If that's what any of you believe, I ask you to examine in yourselves why you're so obsessed with underage sexuality that this is the first thing you'd conclude, and to seek psychological help for your unhealthy obsession at once.  (This is my polite way of calling you an obsessed moonbat.)

Now alright – I know teenagers can be annoying, quite aside from the simple fear that having a teenager at your table would provoke the aforementioned obsessed moonbats into siccing the cops on you.

For my part, I’ve had teenagers at my table, and yes, well after college days, thanks. I'd take a player of any age who demonstrated to me a certain level of maturity, the ability to handle mature themes and a willingness to meet my regular schedule of pretty much all-day-Saturday on 2nd and 4th weeks. For the record, the most recent two players I bounced for immaturity were both in their 40s, and the oldest players in their groups at the time.

I have an anecdote. My college chorus allows alumni to sing in it, and I did, until moving back to western Massachusetts.  Six years ago, with an interim conductor, the situation was scrambled enough that I wound up as interim tenor section leader for the semester.  (I expect that they found the presence of a veteran greybeard who’d been with NUCS on and off since the 1970s comforting.) The vice-president invited all the other officers and section leaders to her place one night for a planning session and get-to-know-one-another evening, which wound up being silver-haired me – I was 49 at the time – and four young ladies. During the course of our chatting, the topic veered off onto dating, and one of the ladies mentioned her dismay at having a 30-something guy asking her out.

This was the point where I remarked, quietly, that my wife was 18 years younger than I am.

In the brief moment where all four gazed at me like shocked owls, one cleared her throat and asked, "What do you TALK about?" To which I answered that, well, you're all nearly thirty years younger than I am. What do we have in common, and what are we talking about?

Now leaving aside my cacklefest a couple years later when the original speaker, by then an alum herself and still with the chorus, admitted to me that she was dating a 35 year old guy – whom, happily, she married this past spring – I stand by my own statement. There is something deeply disturbing to me in the automatic presumptions that there is no way a grown man can be friends with a teenager without rubbing the front of his pants, that all grown men are might-be-perverted animals who can't be trusted, and that adults and children couldn't possibly have anything in common, any common ground or any reason to talk to one another civilly and socially.

And that includes sharing in this wonderful hobby.  Because, think about it: two of the original D&D players were children.  How old was Ernie Gygax at those first games ... 13? 14?  And Elise Gygax was his younger sister.  No one suggested, then or subsequently, that Gary Gygax was a sicko for that.

Honestly, some people need a reality check.

19 June 2015

My Pet Hates

We all have system elements that drive us nuts, and some that just plain drive us away from the table.  By way of further informing my dear readers (as Miss Manners would phrase it) of my gaming philosophy, here are mine:

Absolute Dealbreakers (I won't touch a game or a campaign with these elements, ever)

Alignment. The single stupidest, most insidious and by far most mismanaged concept ever foisted onto RPGs. Screw you, Gygax.
PvP. For every person energized by backstabbing and screwing his fellow players (and somehow, these people are overwhelmingly the screwers as opposed to the screwees), there's a gaming group that's been broken up over it. This is the most unforgivable sin in my own campaigns, always has been, always will be.

Hack-and-slash. Look, if all I want are tactical situations, I'll play a wargame. Heck, I'll play a console game – the graphics are a lot better and I don't have to shave, wash or travel to play one. I'm a roleplayer, sorry.

Random chargen. Think Monopoly would ever have gotten off the ground if you got to roll 3d6 x $100 for starting cash? Is there any other type of game other than RPGs where players start out with wildly disparate levels of ability or resources?

High mortality rate. I get attached to my characters, and I want to develop them. If they're just cardboard cutouts with a life expectancy of three game sessions, what's the point? (See Hack-and-slash, above.)

Lack of credible realism. I like gritty, realistic games. If you don't know your shit, or it's not reflected in your game, you really don't want me as a player. Trust me on this one.

Dungeons. It's no longer 1975. We don't use Trash-80s for computers any more, and we stopped listening to disco, and Earth Shoes are antiques, and the polyester leisure suits are all in landfills now. Why the pluperfect hell do these crapfests still exist?

Skills that work. The last time my wife and I attempted d20, she damn near erupted in frustration having failed nine straight First Aid rolls.  Look, if the sailor you hired has only a 50% chance to tie a knot, you're going to throw the incompetent loser overboard.

Jackass/agenda.  I refused to have anything to do with a game written by a fellow who got onto my Ignore list on a prominent Internet gaming forum almost twelve years ago, and who defines "arrogant, obnoxious prick" to me.

Probably Not. (I won't automatically rule these out, but they're huge strikes)

Character classes. Sorry, I don't need a label. Give me a point based system and I can decide for myself what skills I get, thanks.

Levels. Sorry, I don't need to train all at once at some artificial point, and furthermore have an arbitrary basket of arbitrary skills improve. Give me a point based system and I can decide for myself when and what to train, thanks.

All-male groups. Quite aside from that I like women around, an all-male group has a significantly higher chance of having a number of elements I don't like.  I can do without testosterone poisoning at my age.

Horror. It isn't that I hate the genre, per se – although it's no favorite of mine – it's that I don't think RPGs convey horror well.

Silly. I don't do that style well either. Slapstick isn't my cup of tea.

Fire and forget spells. It goes to figure that of all the magic systems in fiction, Gygax would have to copy the one author (Jack Vance) who used a fire-and-forget system. Screw you twice, Gygax.

Lack of walkovers. Sometimes the players make all the right guesses or have all the right luck. I want my decisions, skills and actions to have a material effect on gameplay. I don't want scenarios to be artificially prolonged just because the GM decided they ought to be and nerf anything that interferes with his timetable.

Overforced narration. Hello, there, we're the players, not you, Mr. or Ms. GM. If you want to do nothing but to tell stories, there are coffee houses and bardic circles that cater to that. If it's that you'd rather play yourself, go for it; I'll trade seats with you.

Over the top skill lists. You're seriously telling me I have to take skills in Abacus and Soldering and Isometrics on top of Merchant and Electronics and Fitness?

PDF only. I'm an old fashioned chap who likes a printed book in my hands. I've absolutely no problem with the outfits with PDF options, but if I can't order a bound hardcopy, I'm unlikely to use it.

BS having nothing to do with gameplay. I'm disinterested in the several pages of turgid twaddle by a gamewriter desperate to prove he can really write fiction, honest! I don't need two dozen pages full page color stills and character writeups of the cinematic party of the licensed property. I don't need a fifth of the book taken up by artwork and graphics. Since I am not six years old nor suffer from ADD, I'm capable of reading a book without dozens of (allegedly) pretty pictures to break up the text.

Major sections missing. If your game is missing a character sheet and an index, it's incomplete. If your SF game (say) lacks space combat rules, it's incomplete. I am disinterested in the excuses why ... especially since games missing such sections always seem to have plenty of the aforementioned art and fiction. The only reasons not to include such glaringly obvious sections involve carelessness, laziness, incompetence or obstinacy, none of which bode well for the rest of your rules.

"Fate" points. I don't want to handwave success, I want to earn it. I don't want a Get Out of Jail Free card any time anything bad happens to my character, I want to suck it up and deal with it.

Impenetrable jargon. I don't need some obscure polysyllabic term for every ability and game mechanic. (Yeah, WoD, I'm talking to you.) It's not even so much as needing a copy of Webster's handy to translate the terms during play ... if doing so does you no good, that's a large headache.

Half-assed attempts to emulate a skill-based system with a class-based system. Call them demi-classes, "Prestige" classes, what have you, but the end result is a system far harder to learn and far slower to play, if a GM has to flip through a splatbook every time you try something offbeat.

Lack of "light" options. I like crunch. I like a good bit of crunch ... but not nearly as much as I did, once upon a time. If a system crashes in ruin when you handwave modifiers or don't use every picky rule, I'm less interested.

So-called "social combat."  ... in most cases Just Another Combat System with the serial numbers filed off.  Look, we already have systems with tactical choice, CRTs and all those trappings.

Filler proliferation It's good that production values have increased.  It's bad that a lot of it is wastepaper.  I don't need a fifth of my book (and the count is that high) taken up with inch-wide decorative borders, full-page illos, long fiction sections and suchlike crap.  How about you chop the 50 pages that sucks up, just give me rules, and reduce the price of the book accordingly?

Watermarks/fonts I don't need fancy backgrounds on every page.  I don't need bizarre fonts, tiny type, or brown-colored print.  Don't worry so much about PDF thieves; worry about me not buying your stuff in the first place, because I can't read the damn thing.  A lot (daresay, the majority) of your customers aren't 20 years old any more, y'know.

Splatbooks Look. I know why they exist: so companies can make more money.  I don't even disagree with the principle.  It's the results I deplore ... that far from optional for those who love crunch, they've become essential; that they shoehorn New Stuff in whether it fits or not; that said New Stuff often conflicts -- and often badly -- with the core system, and more often than not was poorly playtested; that they provoke a rules armsrace for Ever And Ever More New Stuff; that the end result is a massive rewrite of the system to disavow much of the New Stuff, whereupon the whole cycle begins anew.  (Only without a large faction of players who declare Rewrite 2.0 to be suckass, and who insist on sticking with the “original” rules.)

New For The Sake Of New. The hobby's been around for approaching half a century.  There is very little conceivable that no one's thought of before.  Most of which IS "new" is in fact some old idea dressed up.  A particular pet peeve of mine is baroque combinations and types of dice resolution mechanics.  Look, it's a randomizer.  It's not revolutionary, it's not new, and it doesn't make any game stand out as Uniquely Kewl. 

27 May 2015

Helping the players out.

A couple forum threads about courtesy and status of PCs has provoked a bit of thought, which I'd like to share with my avid readers.  (Well, all few of you, anyway, even though I just went over 10,000 page views!)

In a lot of campaigns, the PCs are set up to be bumbling fools.  Even in the stereotypical "Dungeon Fantasy" games, with bog-standard cookie-cutter expectations players bristle if they don't find, too many GMs set them up to fail, socially.  Ignorant of customs the GM mentions only in passing if at all, ignorant of social cues and clues, a great deal of tension, angst and anger is often the result.

Now I think of all the customs and social cues I take for granted, as an American and lifelong New Englander.  You drive on the right hand side of the road, and you walk on the right hand side of the sidewalk.  The woman in the dark blue uniform, with a holstered pistol and nightstick, wearing a garrison cover and sporting a silver badge, is a police officer.  Someone dressed all in black, with a matching high collar with a small white rectangle in the middle, is a Catholic priest.  You greet newly met strangers with a handshake using the right hand, and "How do you do?" is a standard opening sally.  You cut meat at dinner with your knife in the right hand, transferring the fork back from your left to eat that meat.  You don't -- if you have pretensions to courtesy -- wear your hat indoors when visiting; you generally do keep your shoes on.

And so on.  So many of these cues are unconscious, reflexive and subtle that we only think about them in the breach.  So many of them are also deeply national or regional: not a single one I just listed pertains to traditional Arabic mores, for instance.

The way I see it, not even the best educated and informed among us are natives of the milieus most of us run -- or have worked out in realistic detail what all of the customs are -- and we don't have the level of immersion to notice what someone who isn't a 21st century Westerner gaming out of a comfy living room with a soft drink and a slice of pizza would. 

 There are any number of times where it's not merely the case that the PC should know a key bit of social/cultural information ("Okay, make a roll against your Savoir-Faire skill ... thankew") but would reasonably know it reflexively, and never normally botch or forget it. None of us need Savoir-Faire/IQ rolls to avoid spitting into open coffins, punching pregnant women in the bellies, saluting the dark skinned archbishop with "Yo, nigga," or failing to understand what the aforementioned blue-uniformed lady with the garrison cover, pistol, silver badge and nightstick is.

So I figure it's my duty to double-check when a player commits what I think is so egregious a social blunder -- well, short of the PC being portrayed as an ignorant lout -- that any informed member of the culture would reflexively avoid it, with a phrase along the lines of "You do understand that this is the Queen's throne hall, and her Chancellor is standing right behind you. Are you sure you want to do that?"