The Seven-Sided Die

The odds & ends of roleplaying

Move people, not things

written by d7, on Sep 18, 2008 6:08:29 PM.

I love little details in settings that add to verisimilitude. The problem with this predeliction is that when I do my own world building I often let these details bog me down. It's hard to tell what sort of thing is going to add enough to the setting (and play) that it will be a worthwhile investment of creative energy.

One of the things that I like to think about is the economic situations and connections between the communities I describe. But, as Levi of Amagi Games aptly observes, "it rarely makes for awesome play to know that the Sto Lat plains export cabbages and cabbage products".

Detailing imports and exports of a region can have a payoff in creative terms. Knowing that one region depends on another for its supply of iron might inspire political details revolving around this supply/dependence relationship. All too often though such details are just so much baggage, and eventually it stultifies the fantasy elements of a setting when too much has to be "realistic" and work like the world we live in. As one of my players pointed out in a different context (paraphrasing), "it's no fun to play paycheques and pensions".

Levi is good at coming up with little shards of genius, and his latest gambit[1. "Gambit" is Levi's term for a modular fragment of system-independent game rules that can be dropped into an existing system in order to tweak its operation. Check out Event Bounties and Temptation Dice for two interesting examples.], Import-Export, is a good one. Instead of noting what moves between communities, note instead who is being imported and exported.

A city exports faith healers and imports soldier-recruits? That sounds like a pretty awesome expansionist benevolent theocracy, which could be a good shades-of-grey ally or adversary for the player characters. Noting the movement of people and professions says so much more about the social, cultural, or political landscape than does how much silk and silver ore moves around.

See, already I'm having ideas that are directly creative, whereas thinking about commodities exchanges tends to bog me down. I have another idea, but since it's for an imminent plot point in Edge of Empire it'll have to wait a few sessions before it wouldn't be a spoiler...

Kids, roleplaying games, and the information revolution

written by d7, on Sep 15, 2008 1:23:26 PM.

I'm reading Shirley R. Steinberg and Joe L. Kincheloe's Kinderculture, a book on the need for media literacy in the generations currently growing up in our new media-based information culture. The book focuses mostly on the implications that corporate control of media has on the enculturation of children, but the secondary message is that childhood today is very different from what most adults assume.

Although the central point of the book—that business has put a lot of money into learning how to instill values into children that are convenient for their profit margins, and that the cultural sheltering children from adult ideas actually makes them more vulnerable to corporate predation—is an important and alarming one, in this post I'm more interested in the secondary point:

Children are at the center of an information revolution—they understand it better than anyone else, they are connected to one another by it, and their self-images and view of their social role are altered by it.

As a new parent this is really relevant to my family. I span the cultural shift, with my childhood firmly in the realm of running around in parks on my own with the occasional bit of television and early 8-bit video games. Today my work and play is steeped in the culture created (still being created) by the information revolution, but I necessarily see it all through the eyes of someone who didn't grow up with it being a matter of course. My child will take computers, the Internet, and everything that grows within and around it for granted, and build the next version of society on top of it.

The difference that will make is both easy to dismiss, and incredibly profound.

In this context school becomes less an institution of information delivery and more a hermeneutical site—a place where meaning is made, understanding and interpretation are engendered.

Our job as parents will become less one of passing on culture and information, simply because our kids will be getting culture and information from the outside world at a much greater pace than familial conversations ever could. Steinberg and Kincheloe observe that, given there is no reasonable means to prevent children's exposure to information in this culture—short of a degree of sheltering that would rob them of their ability to function in the world they will inherit—the role of parents and educators must shift. We can give our children the skills to intelligently navigate and critically evaluate the messages and information they encounter. We must teach media and cultural literacy, and empower our kids to decide what to absorb and how to cope with diverse ideas.

What does all this have to do with roleplaying games, though? Roleplaying is a relatively new hobby on a generational scale, and the gamers who started playing in the 70s, 80s, and 90s either already have kids or are just starting families. Not coincidentally there has been a slow but steady development of roleplaying games designed with children in mind. And, with the post-Forge explosion of independently-created games and critical theory on how and what we play, nearly all of them have been made by indie publishers with more stake in empowering creative and thought-provoking play than in turning a buck.

Roleplaying games have come a long way from their orc and pie roots. Although I love me some pie, and the orcs that guard it will get what's coming to 'em, roleplaying games have the potential to engage kids with ideas so much more important than the cosmic battle over baked goods. In terms of design, too, modern roleplaying theory has given us some impressively elegant games, some of which wouldn't even be recognised as RPGs by the grognards of yore. It's worth noting too that, being indie games, they're generally cheap or available for free—not a small consideration for parents on a tight budget.

Zak Arntson's Shadows is my most recent discovery. It's an elegant set of rules that can be taught to kids (and adults) of any age "that can read and compare numbers". Players play themselves and each of them has a shadow, which is "an invisible person or monster who always wants you to get in trouble." The game starts simply with the kids being woken by a strange noise. As the players guide their characters and encounter challenges (such as being tempted by the fresh cookies cooling on the counter while investigating the strange noise), they decide what they want to do and what their shadow wants them to do. A roll of the dice determines which one happens, and interesting situations result. The moderator is cautioned not to plan out what the game will be about and let the children's natural creativity be the guide. The game is a short web page, so you can go read Shadows for yourself.

The Princes' Kingdom[1. The Princes' Kingdom has been the subject of much discussion regarding its treatment of gender. Although it explicitly says that it includes both boys and girls, in practice it takes the male as default in all examples and gendered nouns. This review aptly addresses the gender issues in TPK. Fortunately it's easy enough to amend this when presenting it to children, and there have been a number of actual play accounts that show that gender issues in TPK can be navigated successfully. Here's one such delightful actual play report. I think that TPK is a good game despite this flaw.] by Clinton R. Nixon is the game that introduced me to RPGs designed for children. Based on the system from Vincent Baker's indie classic Dogs in the Vineyard, the players guide royal children out into their kingdom of Islandia, meeting different people on each new island and dealing with their problems. The game is about responsibility, coping with problems with no single right answer, and learning to make choices with consequence. Being able to explore these things within the safety of a game is a wonderful opportunity for a parent and child. As one parent discovered in this actual play report, kids will bring issues from their life into the game where they can safely explore risks and new ideas.

Inuma is probably the oddest of the lot and doesn't even consider itself a roleplaying game. Not just a book, it's intended to be a physical box with treasures inside. It provides a set of guidelines for making up a place with interesting people in it, and then telling stories with those characters. It's such cutting-edge experimental indie stuff that it's still under development (and open-source as well!), but it's all online at those two links to be read and pondered. Even unfinished, it presents some interesting ideas for how to give kids just enough structure to focus and exercise their natural creativity, without telling them how to pretend.

Two other games have caught my eye, although I haven't yet read much about them. Dragon (by John Wick of L5R and 7th Sea fame) is a game about stomping around as the best kind of dragon out of fairytale. Vincent Baker wrote the short and sweet The Nighttime Animals Save the World, where the players are nighttime animals like raccoons, mice, and skunks, and they save the world from something dastardly (like a popsicle-thief who's making all the neighbourhood dogs mean). It's designed to be played while on a walk with a six-year-old and incorporates things that you pass into the story. I think that feature is ingenious, considering just how many walks parents of little children find themselves on.

Games for children aren't just aimed at little kids, either. In The Face of Angels "a story about inhuman powers and human relationships" is told, "like a cross between superhero comics and teen drama movies." The characters are high-schoolers suddently granted inhuman powers on graduation night. The story is about the human drama between the inhumanly-gifted friends as they are discovered by the world, try to change it, and have the world push back. Most adults would consider those to be heady themes even for teenagers, but the parallel with the liminal position of teenagers in the real world is inescapable.

And, no article about kids and roleplaying games is complete without a link to the instantly-classic Shadowfell with my seven-year-old thread at the Story Games forums. This is one of the best parts in an account full of great parts:

While I was setting up mini-figs on the cave map, D spotted the huge pile of treasure printed on the map. His eyes got very big. "Wow," he said, "That's a lot of treasure!" I nodded, knowingly: Well did I remember the intoxicating allure of imagined riches. I wasn't quite sure what he could buy with all that in this system, but I figured something would suggest itself.

"The people of Winterhaven sure will be glad to get that all back!" D continued.

And that's all I have for you right now. If you're looking for more, over at Role-Playing Games for Kids Edmund Metheny and Sophie Lagacé describe and link to dozens of games indented for kids, playable by all ages, or tweakable for young players. I'm certainly looking forward to playing some of these with my own kid.

Innocence is bliss, sorta kinda

written by d7, on Sep 14, 2008 11:18:51 AM.

I ran a game of D&D 4th edition shortly after the books were released, and I badly mangled that abortive campaign.

I want to say that the books made me do it, and I have good reason to think so, but the blame is mine for letting them. Let me explain.

If you're a roleplayer today you probably started when you were a teenager. Not even an older teenager, but probably around 13 or 14 years old. Kids, really. That's when I started running D&D. The funny thing about ageing is that you gain experience. The thing about having experience is that you constantly use it, and understand the world through the lens of a great big pile of lessons hard-won. This, by itself, has the power to utterly destroy the imagination, if it's allowed to.

Our imaginations were on fire when we were young, and the fires are now banked, under control, and burning evenly for our adult use. As such we're much better at perceiving with accuracy, say, what's in an RPG rulebook. What we're less good at than we once were is filling in the blanks with utterly creative nonsense.

I assert that the enjoyability of D&D (in its various incarnations) is not due to it being a good system with good settings. Rather, it is just enough mechanics and evocatively-colourful setting to inspire that kind of fertile imagination that is endemic to young adulthood.

That game of 4th edition D&D I ran, I ran by the book. I believed, from previous experience, that I could just run D&D "as written" and it would be an enjoyable game. This belief set me up for a really disappointing series of games, though. 4th edition is bare mechanics with a few impurities called "flavour text" that don't really amount to a consistent assumed setting. The mechanics are all about how to vanquish obstacles and thereby get the mechanically-quantised character advancement objects (levels and magic items). There's nothing explicitly provided for creating good stories, immersive simulations, or satisfying game-type challenges. Since I was running the game "as written", none of that came out in play.

I'll say that again: RPG books are incomplete, and not nearly as full of awesome as you thought they were when you were younger.

If I'd been younger, I'd have automatically thrown in a whole bunch of things in addition, and it would have been lots of fun. I would have done it because I would have believed that "that's how the books say to play the game", but I would have been wrong. The "awesome" always did come from us, the players, not the game.

Having quantified knowledge of RPG theory makes it clearer to me when a gaming element isn't an explicit part of a rules set, but it also means that my intuition is inhibited from filling it in. Now that I know "better" as a gamer, there's all kinds of stuff I don't get for free anymore.

On the plus side this means that I have better tools to create a consistent quality of play for myself and those who game with me. When I was younger I had those sessions that "just sucked" without knowing what went wrong, which were all too frequent in among the awesome sessions. Having critical knowledge of how we create play is a tool I wouldn't trade away, but it does mean that I need to be conscious, in a way I didn't need to as a young GM, of how I develop the fictional elements that makes everything else fun.

Tommi Brander's Cogito, ergo ludo

written by d7, on Sep 8, 2008 12:40:56 PM.

I've just started reading Tommi Brander's blog, Cogito, ergo ludo. So far I've found Tommi to be a consistently engaging writer and an imaginative roleplayer. His homebrewed persistent fantasy roleplaying system looks intriguing, but I think I'd need a pile of designer's commentary to successfully digest it. I do like the goals of the system and it does look like it fulfills those.

I was going to write about Tommi's division of play-preparation into sandbox, scripted, and volatile, but I need to think about it some more. I've always tended toward improvisation GMing and something non-obvious in there is speaking to me on that. I would just write a rambling post if I didn't ferret it out first.

In the meantime, go read some of Cogito, ergo ludo. Tommi's quality of writing and thinking on roleplaying is quickly becoming a personal benchmark for what I aspire to someday do.

Why it's not insane to like Rolemaster

written by d7, on Sep 4, 2008 10:22:32 PM.

Recently I was reading the Creative Commons version of Clinton R. Nixon's The Shadow of Yesterday. That he chose to release it under an open license is awesome, and though I could write about that I'm more interested in an aside he buried in the game.

Note that this is from an older version of TSoY, marked as version 0.9, which is somewhat less polished than The Shadow of Yesterday 2005. The neat thing about the older version 0.9 is that it contains a bunch of design notes, including the following (emphasis mine):

The phrase "role-playing game" is totally misleading. The types of games lumped into this phrase differ from each other as much as playing a first-person shooter computer game differs from acting in a play or recreating a historical battle. [...]

Why is it a misnomer? Here's why: some RPGs provide a framework for telling a story with your friends, others provide a structured system for representing day-to-day occurrences in a real or fictional world, and others provide a play environment for competition among the participants. Only one of the above—the last—is what would traditionally be called a game, and none of the above, with the possible exception of the second, fit the definition of role-playing as it's used in psychiatrists' offices or corporate team-building exercises.

That bolded phrase above is what really caught my eye. I don't think it's exhaustive—it likely wasn't intended to be—but it neatly chops up different kinds of roleplaying styles.

There is a huge variety of roleplaying games out there. Very few of them actually make explicit the style of play that they are suited for. Like tourists visiting a foreign culture, most people who game assume that their favourite style of play is the only or best way to play. On encountering a new game most gamers will try to evaluate it by a standard of play that doesn't apply to the game, and consequently they find the new game coming up short.

That's why I like that short list Nixon wrote. You don't have to be steeped in hard-core roleplaying theory to catch the simple idea that different games are enjoyed for different reasons.

The creator of the world of Hârn and its companion system HârnMaster, N. Robin Crossby, died recently. I'm sorry to say that I had never heard of his lovingly-detailed creation until the news coverage following his death. It's a good example of a world and a system that seems to sharply divide roleplayers: some love it and sing its praises, while others consider those player's tales of roleplaying feeble escaped peasants and their senseless deaths at the whim of the dice to be thoroughly inane.

The difference is in those lines Nixon wrote. There are so many different kinds of game that go under the misnomer "roleplaying game" that it's often like comparing apples to sheep. Hârn really appeals to me precisely because it offers a different sort of play than what I usually get: deep immersion in a plausible fictional fantasy world. The detractors of the game might focus on the crazy-complex rules system, but for people looking for that deep immersion the rules are not the point, but merely a tool to achieve their nirvana.

Which brings me back to The Shadow of Yesterday. I like me some fantasy swords and sorcery roleplaying, but I'm increasingly leery of combat-focused rules systems for that style of play. (I suspect that this is mostly a phase in my tastes, because I don't see anything wrong with D&D 3e when I'm in the mood for it.) Most traditional fantasy RPG systems detail the combat and character creation and then stop there, assuming that the why of playing is self-evident. These systems are great for exploring fictional worlds, but they're not so good at creating stories that are anything more than just travelogues with swords and monsters.

The Shadow of Yesterday offers something different. The conflict resolution system is designed to address not only physical confrontations, but also social and moral conflicts. It provides a framework for character creation that puts the motive for adventuring in the spotlight, and supports all kinds of dramatic play equally well with a structured resolution mechanic that isn't just about swinging swords or slinging spells.

Most importantly, its reward system hooks directly into the character motivations, which means a player powergaming the system is roleplaying more. I want to play more games like that.

What's wrong with alignment

written by d7, on Sep 4, 2008 4:50:24 PM.

My recent return to 1st edition AD&D has been illuminating. Re-reading the books now, I realise that much of what I thought was "wrong" with the game then was a product of my immaturity, both as a person and as a gamer and GM. I've been a D&D player of various editions after AD&D, and many mistaken impressions I established then have followed my play since. Not least of these is the meaning and purpose of alignment, although I have the dubious consolation that I'm very much not alone in that.

Alignment is usually maligned as unnecessarily restrictive, offering a stereotype of behaviour that drastically limits roleplay. It's been accused of stifling creativity and mechanically enforcing play decisions. I've felt this way about it, more or less, for most of my roleplaying career. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I began reading those old books and found that it was never intended as such.

Over at the excellent Gnome Stew, Walt Ciechanowski writes of alignment that "[it] only seems universally acceptable in games where it is an explicit part of the genre (e.g. jedi knights and occult professors reading things that they shouldn’t)." What made this jump out at me is that alignment in D&D was, originally, an explicit in-fiction mark of which sides of the cosmic battles of Good versus Evil and Law versus Chaos the characters had literally aligned themselves with. Alignment was an explicit setting detail.

(Oddly to our sensibilitiese, the Law versus Chaos battle, culminating in Ragnarok, was the more important one. That's why OD&D has the tripartite Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic alignment system that baffles so many modern gamers.)

That detail makes alignment in D&D make so much more sense. Alignment languages (anyone remember those?) seemed odd and out of place to me, but they were actual in-game Shibboleths that people in the game setting were aware of. Gygax noted in the AD&D Players Guide that it was a grave social faux-pas to speak in an alignment tongue in public.

The alignment restrictions also made more sense. It wasn't that only certain alignments could become Paladins or Monks, but that such organisations only existed within certain sides of the cosmic war. Similarly, the harsh penalties for changing alignments wasn't an arbitrary mechanic to enforce behavioural compliance with an even-more-arbitrary rules feature. Rather, those lost experience points and class abilities represented the character's loss of moral compass and place in the world that comes from transitioning through moral crisis, abandoning everything they once thought they understood, and discovering their place in the world anew through a fundamentally different conceptual lens.

Of course, the players of the game who misunderstood that aren't entirely at fault. The game itself, though explicit in a rare few places and implicit in a few others, undermined this by equivocating with the meaning of alignment. Mostly, this happened by over-using non-Neutral alignments. If the typical city-dweller your character comes across is Lawful Good just because they're a townie and thus invested in good government and orderly life, that cheapens the meaning of a character having aligned themselves relative to the cosmic struggle. Monsters are the worst for this: is it really plausible that every random non-animal creature encountered has either taken a moral stand on a cosmic scale, or is in the direct or indirect employ of the greater powers? Perhaps in some campaigns, but even in those the GM would have needed a good grip on the point of alignment in the first place, which wasn't a given.

An over-use of alignment in the original books implied that it was just what people took it to be: a simple indication of a broad behavioural profile. A more sparing treatment of it would have kept it clear and purposeful, maintaining its status as a marker of alignment with a cause.

Of course, later editions of D&D did not share the implied setting that featured such a cosmic war, yet they retained the concept of alignment. More blame for the oddness of the alignment system can probably be laid at the feet of 2nd edition AD&D and D&D 3.x. They no longer had Ragnarok looming in the future to motivate heroes to align themselves with or against the forces of Chaos, yet alignment remained. In these editions, it really did just serve as an odd and inflexible behavioural rule of thumb.

Ironically, though this is essay is overall a defense of alignment in D&D, I do think that it really should have been removed entirely from all editions from 2e on. It's now more of a hindrance than a help, and there are much more interesting and better ways of fostering focused character behaviour and roleplay.

OpenCourseWare, for learning and inspiration

written by d7, on Sep 3, 2008 10:14:40 AM.

OpenCourseWare is a pile of lecture notes, tests, syllabi, and other course materials put together by MIT for anyone's use. It's intended as a resource for instructors and students, but the list of course materials for each of the hundreds of courses is complete enough that someone could use it to do casual self-directed study entirely outside the traditional institutions of academia.

The navigation leaves something to be desired, but it's good once I figured it out: once a course has been chosen, the left navbar's scope isn't site-wide anymore, and that's where they keep all the links to the different materials.

Damn, there's some cool stuff here. There's a Women's Studies course called The Anthropology of Computing. It seems to be more focused on the tech stuff than on the women's issues stuff, but it folds in gender-aware cultural study. Actually, I guess that's a nice balance: anthropology and tech study that acknowledges gender inequality, rather than a course on gender inequality that happens to mention some computers sometimes.

And week four of that course has the best title: "World War Two: Cybernetics, Communication, and Control". It makes me think of an alternate history where soldiers marched through that horror bristling with vacuum tube–punk technology, and enigmatic code-breaking computers with whispers of a machine soul pondered nascent plans of their own.

(Yeah, these days everything sounds like a roleplaying game to me.)

There's a lot to like here for roleplayers. Many GMs consider the library one of their best setting "sourcebooks" for their system of preference. Courses like The Ancient World: Rome offer a tonne of inspiration and reading resources for building a game, all in one place. The materials presented are thorough enough that you could build a setting around not only the elites in the capital during the heyday of Rome, but also the daily lives of the common people, or during the monumental build-up to the establishment of the Empire.

For players, it's a great resource for inspiring characters. History is full of dramatic personæ and stories laden with pathos.

Shock: review

written by d7, on Sep 1, 2008 6:06:31 PM.

Traditional roleplaying games make the player responsible for the success or failure of one character in the game, and gives responsibility for the challenges, structure, integrity, and enjoyability of the game to the Game Master.[1. Yes, this is a huge simplification. Run with it.] Understandably, many players then decide that the point of the game is to seek out good things to happen to the character ("successes") and avoid bad things that might befall them ("failures").

In extreme cases, the player will do what Brand Robins calls turtling.[1. This is the best Actual Play report I've read, for any game, ever. It's an interesting short story in it's own right, too, and accessible to non-gamers. I highly recommend reading the whole post.] They make sure their character is safe from anything the GM might throw at them by creating a static character with no motivations, no relationships, and no hooks to give the GM a way to make the character's life difficult. And yet, the greatest desire of a roleplayer is to be handed conflict tailored to the character they've created. A player who turtles is undermining their own enjoyment.

Shock: social science fiction does exactly the opposite of this. Shock has the players (there is no GM) each create a Protagonist with conflict built-in. (Actually, there's nothing on the character sheet that isn't an element waiting to push the character off-balance.) At the same time, players briefly sketch an idea for an Antagonist to the next player to the left, who will be creating and running the Antagonist to the first player's Protagonist. The Antagonist's job is to make the Protagonist's life miserable. A Protagonist pushed to their limits—who changes, bends, and maybe breaks—is what makes science fiction stories so compelling. So it is with a game of shock.

Read on...

Not the Realms anymore

written by d7, on Aug 30, 2008 7:00:01 PM.

Wizards of the Coast has released the Forgotten Realms Campaign Guide. There's a review at RPG.net that is less than glowing. Judging from the material mentioned in that review, I think my opinion would be even worse.

The 4e staples have been introduced: Dragonborn, Tieflings, the Shadowfell, Elemental Chaos, and so forth. To accomplish that they killed Mystra and had the world plunged into a hundred years of magical chaos. The reviewer gets the detail about the Great Wheel wrong (it existed in the Realms in 2nd edition and earlier, but Wizards changed that when they updated the Realms for 3e), but apparently it's been smashed up and somehow became the Chaos and Shadowfell and Feywild and stuff. Gods have been randomly removed or redefined as something that's not really a god.

Other weird things have been done. The ancient empire of Netheril, which destroyed itself in a magical holocaust centuries past, is suddenly back. There's no such thing as Maztica, which has instead been replaced by something called Returned Abeir: a confused fragment of the plane of the gods mixed up with bits of the Elemental Chaos, fallen to the planet. Apparently there's a major metropolis and a lot of wilderness on it? I don't know, but I'm not buying it.

I mean, I'm really not buying it, with money. Let's try a thought experiment: There's this setting just put out for 4th edition D&D. (Let's assume that I'm playing 4e at all.) The book presents a post-apocalyptic setting that neatly mixes up the fiction elements of the main 4e book in a novel way. There are countries swarming with undead, mystical plagues, magic-warped mutants, a mess of elemental and godling stuff going on across the sea, and the darkness and decay that a century of apocalypse brings. Now let's call it The Ravaged Domains Campaign Guide. It sounds pretty cool, but it's not the Forgotten Realms.

I do think there are some interesting ideas in there. I like the elements that have been put into this stew, and I might be tempted to get it just to scoop out and repurpose the bits I like. On the other hand, I have lots of raw material lying around as it is, and buying it would be sending Wizards of the Coast the wrong message. The right message is: I do not approve of this new Realms. I'll be keeping my 2nd edition boxed set near at hand, thank you.

Not reviewing Shock yet

written by d7, on Aug 25, 2008 7:23:59 PM.

Out in the wilds of Suburban Onterrible, life-giving internet connections are hard to come by. Nonetheless, I managed to discover, under a scrap of driftwood, a review of Shock not written by me. I have managed to stuff it into the narrow straw through which I am accessing the webbernets, just for you: Jono DiCarlo's review of Shock.

I have to run now, as dusk approaches and brings with it the terrible sound of the trampling herds of vicious Esyoovi that rule this land. I should have more to say next week, should I return to the green hills of my homeland safely.