Saturday, August 23, 2014

Why Create A World

NOTE: This is an excerpt from the Developers Guide to the MRK which I was working on this morning. It's still a bit rough, but I'd love to hear what you think.

Here is where tabletop RPGs are different from all other forms of entertainment - books, music, movies, tv, video games, etc. - in creating these other forms of entertainment is a process which moves from a point of inspiration to a finished product, a state that must be reached before anyone can enjoy it.

With a tabletop RPG you go from a point of inspiration to a point of competency with “finished” left far off on the horizon. This is not lazy or wrong. It's a good because the play of the game, from beginning to end, session to session, campaign after campaign, makes up that other half of creation.

The whole traditional pre-game setup. The rolling of dice for abilities. The choosing of race, classes and equipment. All of that is like an artist setting up an easel, assembling ones paints and sketching out an idea of what to paint. It is not until the game gets rolling that actual paint hits the canvas and the strokes are made which will flush out a character and give it life. If you bring to the table a character who is already fully described, illustrated and advanced in level, a character who is 99% finished? That character might give you 1% play, if you're lucky. Detail adds weight and weight makes a character unwieldy, hard to shoehorn into a game it did not organically grow out of. If the character is a delicate flower of dependencies and multiple conditions then it can only go downhill as the action of a game breaks it to pieces.

As a Game Master, the world is your character. While there is something to be said about the fun of reading source books and studying the complete and fully flushed-out worlds of others as if they were vacation destinations, these same worlds can be absolute hell to game with. Remember, the players make the story and your job is to react to what they do. With a pre-fabricated setting, especially one that your players already know, your options are limited. Granted the MRK gives you the final word on everything, but that is not going to stop the bad feelings from flowing when some player tells you with definite authority that in the year 356 AC Lord Typhus defeated the Hoolerans at the battle of Crisis Ridge and although the Hooleran were obliterated under Lord Typhus's might their castle was not demolished and still stands to this day, supposedly with a dungeon chocked full of golden goodies to be plundered.

Because you haven't read that section of the source book, and had no intentions of going there tonight. You will have to tell them that – no - they cannot go to the castle of the Hoolerans. Because of the MRK they will have to agree with your decree, but quietly they will sit there and simmer and psychically sting you with accusations of rail-roading the game. For you it would have been better if Lord Typhus never existed.

If you create your own world then you only have to answer for what your players have already encountered. In this case the story lawyer can go from being your worst enemy to your best friend, helping remind you of what the party knows as opposed to telling you what you should have already known.

Creating your own world also brings back to adventure gaming something that has been lost over the years of splat books and source tomes (or is that tombs?) which is the thrill of exploration. For the game world you may have a blank canvas in your head, but the players don't know that. As player characters they assume there is something out there worth seeing which they haven't encountered yet. And there is! You just haven't yet encountered it either. Which is why it is not the worst thing in the world for these games to move at a less than speedy pace and with sessions which are days apart. While at work, or cooking dinner, or mowing the lawn - ideas will trickle in. This is yet another reason why the MRK has a website with a “Scribble Page” for quickly jotting down ideas without having to worry about making them fit.

Your friends will do this too, which is why the MRK has sharing and gifting. It's not just a matter of being friendly, it's an easy way for players to say, “hey the game needs this, I've put in my two-cents can you clean it up and make it work?”

World creation seems like a big task, but ultimately it is a group effort without a deadline. It is something you do while playing in the world. When done right, it becomes a part of the game and doesn't seem like work at all.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Kleros is one of those Greco/Roman words which is the basis of many other words in our vocabulary. It is a noun meaning "LOT" as in the "casting of lots," as in the ping-pong balls which once flew around inside big plastic domes on TV when they announced the drawing of a lottery back in the latter half of the 20th century.

Which may have also inadvertently given us the phrase "a lot of stuff," as in "there were a lot of Lots flying around inside that ping-pong ball thingamabob on the lottery last night. And no. I didn't win anything."

Now, what makes Kleros interesting is that it also gives us the word Cleric. Which, despite what those of us brought up on D&D may eagerly believe, is not the calling of a valiant war priest who fights for one's God with plate mail and mace, casting powerful spells and turning the undead.

No, a Cleric in the classical sense, is a secretary.

Priests go out and preach to the believers. Clerics wander around the back offices of the church and toil over the registry, counting up tithes and trying to keep track of who is who - and considering medieval times - who is more important than whom in relation to how much they have been giving to the church.

Which is where we get the phrases "clerical error," as well as "clerical work." Yeah, not too exciting. Except that the Kleros in Cleric can also be summed up by the phrase "one's lot in life."

Which is what they are keeping track of - a position which in the medieval mindset is handed down from one of three sources:

    God - through the miracle of birth which bears you into your station.
    King - through the power of regency, meaning the king has placed you where he wants you, via the power invested in him by God.
    Cleric - who accidentally made you a Bishop through a clerical error.

So behind it all there is this sense that life is a lottery. Something which to us seems quite random, yet we are taught to believe that the power of God uses to make sure that the people he wants in certain positions of authority are placed there.

Aka "Divine Right"

Aka the monarchy who lords over you has the right to do so because God made them monarchs - and God is never wrong - anyone who believes otherwise is a heretic and will be burned at the stake for defying the will of the Monarchy.

Oops, I mean God.

Or possibly the Monarchy. Or both or whatever.

It's easy to criticize when put that way. And yet the idea is still very firmly rooted in the collective unconscious of our ultra-modern psyche.

It's the reason why Right-wingers and the Conservative Right and the Christian Right describe themselves using the moniker Right. It's not just a direction. It's a decree from on high.

It's also the reason why the media goes ga-ga over yet another prince being born in England - even though his power has been constitutionally stymied to opening shopping malls and smacking around the papparazi.

It is also the root of all divination, which is the belief that divine powers reveal future intentions through random occurrences. Tarot Cards. Tea Leaves. Astrology is not based on a random draw, but your date of birth certainly seems to be. I know I didn't plan mine.

Numerology uses the name your parents gave you at birth, which - assuming that your parents do not understand the Byzantine mechanizations of numerology and aren't secretly trying to make you into what they want you to be in every possible way (parents can be so sneaky that way!!!!) - numerology is once again using a random seed to divine the will of the Gods.

All of which leads back to the earliest form of Divination, as well as our last incarnation of Kleros, namely Cleromancy, the practice of telling the future by a roll of the dice.

We don't actually know that Cleromancy is the earliest form of divination. We just assume it is because Tarot Cards need paper and ink. Astrology and numerology require higher mathematics. Alectryomancy - divination by way of watching chickens peck in the dirt - requires both domestication and agriculture.

For Cleromancy, all you need is a circle in the dirt and a sack of Lots to throw into it. Sea shells, knuckle bones, carved sticks, runic stones, seeds, nuts, dice, etc....

Oh yeah, and a ton of macho sexual overtones. I don't think it's an accident that we keep our dice in sacks and prefer to roll them in pairs, traditionally a pair of six-siders which - on average - are about the same size as a pair of shrivelled up testicles. Not that I have had much experience with such things but....

Another thing that is interesting about Cleromancy is that it has not held up as well as other forms of divination. If you search you can find "rules" for the "game" of cleromancy, yet on the whole even Exispicy seems to be more popular.

I believe that cleromancy didn't fall out of use so much as was forced out of use. Dice are most often associated with games. If you want to talk about the down side of relying on chance you bring up the phrase of "a roll of the dice." Even the modern game which most closely resembles Cleromancy is called, quite tellingly, Craps. I think cleromancy was intentionally undermined, and it may have been done by the exact same people who established it: the cleromancers - or more simply - the clerics.

Go back thousands of years in time and we encounter an age ruled by Priest-Kings such as Pharoahs and Shahs. However they did not know themselves as Priest-Kings because that would imply two different professions combined. As civilizations advance professions splinter according to need. Rarely do they ever combine. Back at the dawn of civilization there had yet to arise a need complex enough to cause the duties of Priest and King to separate.

So yeah, your king was your priest and your priest was your king and people would look at you funny if you suggested anything otherwise.

And then burn you at the stake.

But what did those Priest-Kings do? Aside from basking in the love and respect of a nation? They probably spent their days in consultation. Being appointed by the Gods puts you in demand. It also makes you out to be someone who could never and should never be wrong.

How does one maintain such a facade? Without shutting yourself away from the world? First you put God above you. People will call you a God, but even the Pharoahs of Egypt had the good sense to claim to be just an avatar of Ra and not the actual God. Next you divine his will in a cryptic way which vents any blame or accusations of error away from oneself.

Aka you roll the dice and see what turns up. Get something you don't like? It's the dice's fault.

Eventually though, writing comes into being, and with it history and case studies - basically the Bible in a nutshell - now people can keep track of all the times you have been wrong. This is probably also the time when the profession of Priest separates from that of King so that the King can  have an easier time remaining blameless.

These early priests still practice divination, because it is demanded of them, but behind it all is a more lawyerly affair that consults the history/holy books, looks back on what has happened in the past, and uses that to more accurately predict the future. The casting of Lots is phased out and dice are relegated to the lands of games and cleromancy is condemned along with all other forms of fortune telling when taken seriously.

Ever wonder why Christianity (at the very least, I don't know about the others) maintains such a vehement hatred of Astrologers and Fortune Tellers? Aside from the amazing amounts of bad advice which tends to spill from both? It was probably because back before the advent of writing they were all practioners of Divination and all in direct competition with one another. They did the same thing using different techniques.

Ever wonder why we still listen to them?
It's because we always have.


You really have to wonder why Gary Gygax chose to use the word Cleric instead of "War Priest" or "Battle Friar." It is known that TSR chose the term "Magic-User" over Wizard so as not to offend religous gamers (although apparently Thief and Assassin were totally Kosher). But you have to wonder if Gary being sneaky in choosing a term which he knew to be closely tied to someone who keeps track of lots, the predecessor of dice, and at one time used them to divine the will of God.

Is it an Easter egg?
Or just another roll of the dice?
Unfortunately, the world will never know.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sympathy for the XP

Before I heard of Dungeons & Dragons I was a utter video game nut. From 1979 to 1982 there was nothing I lived for more than shoving quarters into video games wherever I could find them - pizzerias, roller rinks, grocery stores, and (of course) shopping mall video arcades. I cannot listen to Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll" without thinking of that scuzzy bar outside the Marlboro Yacht Club where I used to dump every quarter I could find into their "Super Galaxians" machine. There actually is no "Super Galaxians" game but somehow they had rigged the machine to put five ships behind each quarter, which for a fourth grader perpetually strapped for cash was the best thing in the world. Nothing mattered more than affixing my initials to the top spot. Once or twice I even managed to do this without unplugging the machine first.

Then came September of '82 and my very first game of D&D. Even though I was stuck playing the cleric - the party heal bot - I was smitten from the start (note to former self: if you charge .25 cents for a Cure Light Wounds spell  every one will think you're a dick but at least you'll have a lot more to blow on Galaxians and Asteroids and Omega Race and Sinistar and Star Castle and Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr and GORF and and - where was I? Oh yeah....)

And D&D had points. Experience Points. Just like points in a video game they were thick with the prestige that comes from a long line of zeroes but instead of gaining an extra ship you built a more powerful character - providing you survived long enough to accrue them. Once I learned this I was off like a lythcathrope wemic. I was a monster among munchkins, tallying up every single piece of silver and copper I could snarf, letting not even the meekest of kobolds escape without milking its blood for precious XP. And, of course, I also fought with my friends. The rule in our group was that whoever scored the killing blow on a creature gained its XP - all of it - I never sank so low as to be one of those fiends who just sits in the back, lets the rest of the party do all the work and then slips forward to poink the beast with a dagger and suck up its XP. However, we did have one of those guys in our group and if you were to look at my 6th grade year book you would find his face scribbled out with a ball point pen, in red ink no less.

Yeah. I did that. And thirty two years after the fact, you know what? Fuck that guy. He stole my green dragon kill. He can BURN IN HELL! You hear me Pete? BURN IN HELL!!!!!

Anyway. Somewhere in the summer of '83 or '84 I took swimming lessons at the local rec park and after lessons were over I began playing Star Frontiers poolside with a completely different bunch of guys. Star Frontiers is a bit like D&D in space but there are no experience points, no levels to climb through, and absolutely nothing to gain by blasting a creature to pieces with laser fire (although admittedly we did an awful lot of blasting creatures to pieces with laser fire). It was also the best gaming experience of my childhood.

With Dungeons and Dragons the dreams the game inspired were amazing, but the reality was a pencil/paper/dice variant of dodge ball. It was fun, the kind of fun that comes from watching someone in ill-fitting shorts take a big red rubber d20 crotch shot and fall to the gym floor twitching. However, as anyone who has played dodge ball knows it's only a matter of time before you catch a ponger yourself and go down in a bundle of mind numbing pain. That's the nature of the game. With D&D there was and still is just too much single-minded focus on ones character and that character's level progression and how it can be weaseled forward at a more rapid rate. With Star Frontiers you felt free to roam and explore and interact with the inhabitants of the worlds you encountered. The game actually felt like traversing the galaxy with your friends tow, always in search of excitement.

Flash forward ten years and I become a college student. I am serious. I am dedicated to my studies. I am eager to see how my actual life will unfold and what it will become. I am not interested in fantasy worlds or the lives of imaginary beings, but I have friends who are and - being the hopelessly nostalgic person that I am - I agree to sit in on a few games of D&D. Admittedly, there were a few good ones, especially during my freshman year when I stumbled upon an exceptional DM, but most of them were terrible and as gut wrenching as catfishing a neo-otyugh.

I also had grown to become a very philosophical person. I could care less about the complex ideologies of certain German philosophers (whose names now escape me even though I had to memorize them for class, I think one of them may have been Peter), but I took great delight in burrowing into things to learn the true story behind the facade or at least an appetizing assumption. In doing so I unearthed a theory that experience points are a hold-over from D&D's origin in war gaming. In most old-fashioned war games a miniature on the battlefield doesn't represent a single person but a unit of fighters. Those who haven't yet experienced battle are your Greenhorns while those who have are your Veterans. It is generally believed that because they have experienced battle and survived that your Veterans are better fighters than your Greenhorns. They exist at a higher level than the other units on the battlefield and thus are more valuable (although we never truly know how they managed to survive so many battles. It could be that they were actually sucky fighters who were just very crafty at getting the more zealous greenhorns to do all their fighting for them, like a certain dastardly sixth grader I used to game with. Yeah, I'M TALKING ABOUT YOU PETE!!! DAMN YOU TO HELL YOU LITTLE BITCH!!!!!!!!). 

In this context it all makes sense. If battle is all the game is about then experience points make sense. But. Battle is not all it's about. Dungeons and Dragons is about adventure and exploration and character. It's about characters who start off with interesting back stories and detailed personalities which  are slowly whittled away and pressure cooked off until the character conforms to the pattern of a streamlined stereotypical fighting machine because God knows it really is just one freakin' battle after another in a world where the only way to make yourself a better person is to kill off as many creatures as you can and loot their booty.

I remember sitting in CCD and having a friend of mine ask our priest what was wrong with D&D. In his Irish brogue the priest replied with something like, "oh because it deals with demons, devils, witchcraft and the casting of spells, none of which the Church condones." But you could tell from the pained expression on his face that he had no idea what the game was about and really just wanted to speed the Q&A along so he could go find himself a stiff drink. If he had known the game he probably would have focused on that central core of corruption - that D&D teaches us that the way to get ahead is to kill things and take their stuff. Of course, in defense of the game, this is also the central core message of nearly all of human history.

The Bronze Age. The Iron Age. The Roman Empire. The Medieval Age. The British Empire. America's Expansion into the West. Wall Street. Main Street. Pennsylvania Avenue. It just goes on and on all around the world. It's not the way we want it to be, especially when we live in the crosshairs. Otherwise it's great to be rich while you're young, and killing people and taking their stuff sure beats work when you can get away with it. Our prisons are overflowing with people who thought they could do just that.

Flash forward another twenty or so years and we get to the Now. I am a grown man in middle age. I build websites. I program databases. I still pursue my original dream of being a novelist, but I do so in the same way that I still lift weights - not in the hope of becoming something great but simply trying to keep what I have from slipping away any quicker than it inevitably will. It has been almost a decade since I last played D&D. I was riding the twenty year nostalgia trolley and I played the game like an adult in the company of adults. We played it Star Frontiers style. There was no talk of experience points. We simply leveled up every now and then and it was totally awesome.

Gaming hasn't left my life. In my off hours I have been designing a universal system called the MRK which will hopefully be done later this summer. And, as you might expect, one thing about it which I've never been happy with is the matter of Experience Points. The MRK has something like them called Effort Points. The GM tells the players its time to advance a level and the effort points are there to control just how much change a character can go through. Which leads to yet another long standing beef I've had with D&D and other RPG's. I don't believe in random abilities. Why do we have schools? Why do we have gyms? It's so people have places to go to make the effort required to improve what one wants to improve. That is where everything we are comes from, but it is nothing that can be absorbed from something you have killed. It can only be earned.

Which all sounds good and noble. It also sounds like a death sentence for a game. Think of pinball. Would you play it if all the game had were ringing bells and flashing lights but no scores quickly ticking up into the millions? Think of classic arcade games, simple three scene image puzzles. Would they ever have been as successful as they were without the top ten initial screen to tell us who the best players around are? Think of your job, your crappy shitty job. Think of how much harder it would be to do if you worked in a communist system where there was no income, no quantifiable measure of self-worth to judge yourself and others by? It's no wonder the USSR fell apart.

Deep in the dark heart of the human psyche is a little fire breathing dragon that desperately needs to be the better than everyone else when it simply can't be the best. And that is what the experience point is all about.

Think of Star Frontiers, now just barely a footnote in the annals of gaming history. Meanwhile D&D is about to release its fifth edition and be showered with money by hundreds of thousands if not millions of fans around the world.

Now tell me.
Who killed the Kennedys?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Artwork and Gaming

A while back I came across a blog post I never thought I would see - a gamer complaining about too much artwork in the books being produced these days - specifically the dungeon punk trappings of Runequest 2.

Normally gamers go ga-ga over artwork, almost to a disturbing extent. I mean, so long as it doesn't look like arty art (Matisse or Van Gogh) gamers will do back flips over fresh artwork, but the guy had a point and a very valid one at that. He didn't sum it up so succinctly but: art gets in the way. It doesn't help to have graphics splattered all over the place or a stylish layout which does nothing but make it hard to find the rules you need to know while playing the game.

Of course, it should be pointed out that the guy is playing Runequest 2. If you're playing Runequest you are either a part of the Old School or the progeny of the Old School and do not need to be enticed into playing the game. It means you probably play that game on a regular basis and have cultivated your own personal vision of what everything looks like, meaning any new style artwork introduced by the manufacturers is going to be about as welcome as a pack of Orcs at a church picnic.

You have just leveled up to Grognard status.

Which brings us to a somewhat caustic yet seldom acknowledged divide between the people who regularly play a game and those who hopefully someday will. What is done to entice one will inevitably alienate the other. Unfortunately I don't have any connections to the gaming industry and even if I did I suspect I wouldn't get a clear answer because no one would want to admit it - but - business-wise, gaining new players wins out over maintaining older ones.

The people who loved Edition 3 are the ones least likely to buy into Edition 4. Those who loved Edition 4 will be least likely to buy into Edition 5. However there might be a chance of getting those players who loved Edition 3 to try Edition 5. And those who loved Edition 4? Wait until they see what has been done to Edition 6, new artwork and all.

And no I am not trying to imply any one game system whatsoever.

So I guess my point is that artwork sells. Unfortunately (for the game manufacturers), the magnetism of artwork doesn't wane with age and the artwork that entices one into playing a game will also hold that person to that edition of the game; thus making it a liability to a business model which is centered around re-packaging and re-releasing the same-ish material every five or six years or so. I think the big designers have noticed this and that is why 21st century game art has become so soulless. The quality is there. The quantity is overwhelming. Yet it is all so strikingly impersonal. It does not seem like the work of actual artists so much as an art from a factory in China. You cannot look at the depiction of a monster and be able to tell who did it, if it was the work of Erol Otus, Dave Trampier, or Jeff Dee (or even Phil Foglio, because Phil Foglio is freakin awesome!).

To take the broad overview....

1970's = little to no artwork, crappy pencil sketchings at best.
1980's = excellent artwork but many disparate styles, games lack graphical cohesion.
1990's = games become stylistically sound but the art becomes less than outstanding by having to conform to standards.
2000's = games become stylistically overwhelming, artwork becomes wallpaper, it's all over everything and yet easily ignored.
2010's = games become stylistically autocratic, artwork raises resentment. The OSR decides to return to the days of crappy pencil sketchings.

So what should be done?

Personally, I am biased. My own golden age of table top gaming took place in the early 80's and the artwork of that age will always resonate. The stylistic inconsistencies were not a problem since - even back then - I justified it by thinking that they were meant to be inexact. As if by showing us many different interpretations of what was "out there" we were being informed but not dictated to. The imagination was still free to see what it wanted without leaving the actual game behind. So if I were running the show, there would a number of different artists working in a number of distinctive styles, and we would somehow break away from a business model which is dependent on selling the same stuff to people over and over again. Meaning I would probably run the show into the ground.

So how would you ruin - I mean - run it?