Sunday, May 29, 2016

Alignment & Inclination

One thing I never knew until I started this crazy project of mine is that right from the start Alignment in D&D was supposed to be a character's religion. Some characters worshiped Law. Others worshiped Chaos. Neutral characters were unaffiliated.

Although in no way sanctioned by the game, you could have easily replaced Law and Chaos with Catholicism and Protestantism, Christianity and Paganism, or to put it in tune with the 60's & 70's the Establishment and the Counter-Culture. Ultimately it all boiled down to the Us and Them. I will say that spells like "Detect Alignment" now make more sense. It's not really a spell so much as a character's ability to judge another character and know just what side of the fence they sit on. As well as does penalizing characters for alignment changes or going to a heavenly abode based on it.

Hmm. Considering that last one, how did we not pick it up as a matter of religion?

For us, back in the 80's, alignment was a general statement of personality. As we grew to become teenagers and began to realize that moods do swing and can cause a person act chaotic one day and lawful the next, the system began to break down. I remember a friend of mine and I talking about it and coming to the conclusion that the only real alignment is True Neutral since it's the only one which allows for such waffling. With this said, Frank still wasn't going to let me dodge Detect Alignment spells by simply thinking good or evil thoughts.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and now I have my own game to build. I don't think that we as a society are as squeamish about religion as we used to be. We forget just how antagonistic the different denominations of Christianity used to be towards one another. My father, who was Catholic, used to love to tell the story of how he was almost ex-communicated from the church for playing the tuba in a parade with some friends who were in a group sponsored by the Episcopalians (Or possibly the Methodists? I forget). Yeah, there was a reason separation of church and state was seen in a better light back then than it is now.

Nowadays, no fantasy world is complete without some named religious orders of the game world's design. Alignment is still around but largely for nostalgia's sake and as a general statement of a characters opinion towards morality and society. My system - the Red EFT - is shamelessly fueled by nostalgia. If you haven't noticed it yet, I go out of my way to re-purpose established terms such as Hit Points, Morale, and Prime Requisites.

I had to let it go.

The problem with alignment is that the word itself always struck me as a conscious choice a character makes. They choose to align themselves with the forces of Lawful Goodness or Chaotic Evil. Meanwhile, what we really want is to know a character's nature - who they are when their guard is down. That's why I chucked Alignment in favor of Inclination, as in how one may be inclined to act in any given situation. Characters don't have to act according to their inclination, they just usually do.

And in a move that will probably make me no friends whatsoever, I also tossed out Law and Chaos. You can still add Lawful or Chaotic to a character's traits but they no longer hold the celestial bearing they once had. Why? Because they never made much sense to me. Consider Robin Hood and the Sherrif of Nottingham. Granted there is no definitive Robin Hood story but it can be said that Robin is usually a Chaotic Good character while the sherrif is Lawful Evil. And yet, Robin does act according to laws of his own making and will continue to do so until King Richard the Lion-Hearted returns. Meanwhile the Sherrif upholds the law but he does so arbitrarily which sows more chaos than order.

I hear he once even tried to cancel Christmas. The Bastard!

I chose to replace Law & Chaos with.... And do swallow whatever you have been drinking so you don't spit it out all over the screen.

Violent and Peaceful.

And the nine alignments they combine to create:

Violent Good | Neutral Good | Peaceful Good
Violent Neutral | True Neutral | Peaceful Neutral
Violent Evil | Neutral Evil | Peaceful Evil

Yes, I know it lacks a certain monster truck bombastity that Law Vs Chaos brings, but Violent and Peaceful make more sense since they don't rely on external forces for definition. They are expressions of the ways in which people solve problems.

Violent characters hit problems head-on. When something opposes them they force a way through it. As I had been writing on a different blog post recently, we have been cultured to accept violence as always being a bad thing but it is really just a means to an end. The same violence which causes a violent evil character to set a house ablaze is the force which pushes a violent good character to charge into the burning building to save the sleeping orphans within it.

Peaceful characters, on the other hand, prefer to not make waves. They bandy about the issue until the best possible answer can be found. This doesn't mean they are incapable of aggression. They are just more passive in the aggression they mete out. A peaceful evil character might use ones political connections to use some obscure law to swindle the house out from under the sleeping orphans. Meanwhile a peaceful good character might organize a fund drive to buy it back for after the peaceful evil character has put it up for sale.

By now you are probably thinking, "Alright, yeah that makes more sense but how on earth do you run an RPG for peaceful characters? At least with Law & Chaos the violence is always an option. What do I do when one of my characters wants to hold a bake-sale?"

Well, a few things about the Red EFT itself....

  • The GM is more a representative of the game world than the runner of adventures. If a player want to run a peaceful character it is up to them to figure out how to make it work. 
  • There are no experience points gained for killing creatures. Your character levels up when the GM tells you it is time to level up. Leveling up is not really a reward after all, just a way to keep the game interesting by changing its dynamics (and that's not just my game, that is all games). 
  • And last but not least, I think it will make for a more entertaining game as it forces people to find different ways to solve a problem while still keeping their sense of character in tact.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Game Nuttery!

Some listening music, this is a long one....

Money ruins everything. It really does. It's a damn shame we need it to live.

Before raging over $60 gaming books it is probably best to take a look at this article I ran across while trying to find the production cost of a pistol verses how much it retails for. The amount of money wrapped up in firearms is staggering and makes everything we have been bickering about seem astonishingly trivial.

What I found is that the average Glock costs $75 to manufacture and retails for $500. This is an amazing mark up that makes its parent company globeloads of money, enough to cause the white collar guys in its upper office to hire assassins and try to kill each other. Gaston Glock was assaulted by a killer wielding a rubber mallet who had been hired by one of his most trusted associates/embezzlers. Amazingly, despite being hit seven times in the head, Gaston managed to fight the man off with his fists.

You would think he would have something better on hand to defend himself with? Something made of plastic and more commonly associated with self-defense.

Hmm, what could it be....

Anyway, this blog post isn't about guns. This post is about products. Two very different products with very similar problems. Guns are made to work and made to last. Unlike television sets, dishwashers and computers they cannot play obsolescence games. There are guns manufactured decades ago which are just as dangerous today as the day they rolled off the assembly line. This has always been a problem for the gun industry which - believe it or not - was struggling to survive all throughout the 19th century, even in spite of the Civil War and the Wild West.

Back in the 19th century, the gun was marketed as just another tool in the house. It was priced reasonably and treated no different from an axe, shovel or lantern (all of which you may need if you had recently been using your gun). It wasn't until the 20th century that gun manufacturing truly took off. Partly this had much to do with the world wars being fought, fear-mongering and growing racial tensions, but it also had a lot to do with people leaving the countryside for cities and suburbia. People growing nostalgic for a time they never knew. Apparently the wild west was settled with rifles. Pistols were not trusted and only used as a weapon of last resort, but thanks to the wonders of product placement no cowboy would be seen as complete without a six shooter on each hip and a ten-gallon hat on his head.

A hat - BTW - which was neither worn by 19th century cowboys nor holds 10 gallons of water.
Go figure.

Somehow gun manufacturers managed to move from struggling to survive during a time when guns were used on a regular basis to selling millions of massively overpriced guns during a time when people had very little use for them. Face it. These days most guns just sit in a gun case, are occasionally cleaned and polished, maybe dreamt about a little bit and then put back in the case. On rare occasions they are taken out to the firing range to kill box of ammo and that's about it.

Just like RPG's!

Only we operate on shoe string budgets and store all of our worldly possessions in stolen shopping carts while the gun manufacturers drive their Maseratis in circles around us laughing loudly as their swimsuit model girlfriends make us dance by taking pot shots at our shoes.

So? It is deal with the devil time. What can we learn from the gun manufacturers about the secrets of success? Those bastards who constantly use the word utilize when they should be using use? For the record, I am not a gun nut, but I have been around enough of them to know....

The Gun is Who You Are

In the twentieth century the gun manufacturers stopped selling guns as tools and started selling them as souls. If you didn't own one you didn't have one. If you were a man the gun was a measure of your manliness. If you were a woman the gun was a symbol of your heritage. For those who love guns they are much more than just portable execution machines. They are the symbols of all that is just and right in the world. If you are an American then the more guns you own the more American you are.
Don't be a commie! Arm yourself to the teeth!

Tabletop RPG's are a bit like that but not in a good way. The worst among us have gotten far more attention than they should. Think of it this way, when you explain to someone who isn't into table-top role playing games that it is "totally not what you think it is." That is the sign of a serious reputation problem. Being involved in table-top role playing games is something you should be proud of. It shouldn't feel like coming out of the closet any time you mention it to someone who doesn't play them.

Secret Forces Want To Destroy What You Love

That's right. Nothing has spurred more gun and ammo sales than the specter of liberal government agencies sending their flying monkeys to take it all away.

It is good to remember that D&D was popular, but never insanely popular until someone accused it of satanism. I'll let Tim Kask explain the rest.

If only we could get tabletop RPGs listed as a controlled substance, or somehow bring SATAN back into the picture. That's right, not just any old satan but all-caps SATAN. Church lady where are you when we need you most!

Only the Coolest People Wield Our Weapons

Ever notice that the hottest people in action movies wield all the coolest guns while the bad guys (the uncool bad guys at least) get cap guns? We don't even recognize it as product placement anymore.

RPGs? When people are shown playing a tabletop RPG's it is pretty much a minstrel show done in geekface. Most of us are cool with that because it is funny and we all secretly believe that nerds rule the world, but this isn't exactly helping the situation. Movies such as the Dungeons & Dragons films from a few years back were so bad they did more damage than good.

Know what did do RPG's a world of good? A two minute segment in the movie ET showing normal kids playing an unnamed RPG while Eliot goes to get pizza (who I was approximately the same age as when the movie released).

It wasn't even a proper product placement since D&D is never mentioned, but I remember right after seeing it my friends and I ate some pizza of our own and tried to place what it was they had been doing at the table. None of us knew the answer but soon we would all find out.

Where we could get a pizza guy who actually puts the toppings on the pizza in his Datsun? That remains a mystery to this day. "Hey kid! I've got some candy covered anchovies if you want 'em! Was keeping them in the glove compartment with my pop-rocks when it got too hot out and...."

Hey! I just noticed something, playing gently in the background of that clip is Jim Carrol's "All the People Who Died." A punk rock classic, how did that ever get in there?

Features Sell

This article is interesting, even if it does discredit some of the things I have already said about the sale of firearms. It could be that the core audience of gun buyers are already so deep into the scene they don't need to be sold on the matter of gun ownership.

"The majority of gun ads (91%) emphasize the things that make one gun different from the next. For example, they discuss the quality of the gun (61%), its accuracy (38%) and reliability (35%), and its innovative features (27%) and uniqueness (21%)."

We really don't see RPG's advertised the way they used to be, possibly because without magazines we just don't see them advertised at all. Instead, most of us rely on positive reviews and word of mouth. Groundswell matters. Still though we don't often talk about what one system does differently than the rest. Instead we spend a lot of time harping on the similarities they share with past successes and deriding the differences. Then we get blase about a stultifying sameness shared across the spectrum. Maybe we should spend more time praising innovation than condemning it.

Cheap Guns Are Not Worth Owning.

You can actually MacGuyver a very cheap gun using nothing more than a block of wood, a copper tube, a .22 rim fire cartridge, a nail and a rubber band. Back in the 1970's they were known as zip guns and notorious for blowing kid's fingers off. A real gun the Glock company can make for $75 but it will cost you closer to $500 at market.

Are we cheapskates?

This has been the question of the week.

I really don't know the answer. I routinely buy PDF games which I know I will never play just to see what people have done with them, but the sad truth is that the last set of big game hardcover books I purchased was for AD&D back when AD&D was the only D&D around. I have the players handbook for D&D 3.0 and 4.0 and a printed copy of the D&D Next package but that's it. The enthusiasm for big game products just isn't there for me. I think I may have become too hip to their tricks with rule bloat and encyclopedic systems and the endless cycle of one version after another. I may have come to realize that less is truly more when it comes to table top RPGs.

Sometimes I do feel bad about that. When Venger Satanis came out with Alpha Blue he had originally asked for around $15 and it felt like too much. I think I may have suggested somewhere around $7 which is what I ultimately paid for it during one of his sales.

Alpha Blue isn't a game that excites me, but I have flipped through the pages and Satanis has done an admirable job of going the distance to pull together his delightfully perverted Field of Dreams. A PDF of it is actually worth $15 if not more if that is the kind of kink you are into, but my gut reaction was to say no. It was $7 or no sale.

But that's the player's perspective. From the manufacturer's seat there really is no question. If you want to stay in business you need to sell to as many people as possible as often as possible. If you can't do that then you mark up what you do sell to compensate for the lack of sales. You also need to get on the drum and beat out a constant rhythm which says that cheap games are not worth owning and old games are not worth playing (I did say this was deal with the devil time, didn't I?)

In this direction the gun manufacturers have it far easier than game manufacturers. Legally you cannot buy guns the way people buy games. There is a very narrow channel through which such transactions can be made and this has allowed a handful of established companies to monopolize the market. I am sure they do not get together to discuss what would amount to price fixing, but I am sure they are business savvy enough to know not to engage in a price war. If anything, the real war for them is probably on the manufacturing side of things. Is the Glock a successful gun because it is so well made? Or is it because it is both well made and cheaper to produce than the competition's guns? Something that would grant its parent company more capital to work with and use to out maneuver its competitors.

I often wonder about Supply & Demand and whether or not it is actually a load of Bull & Shit. I mean, the concept is simple enough, but when I go out to buy something the prices are non-negotiable and often seem to be set to an amount that has very little to do with how much it costs to manufacture the item and everything to do with what they expect me to be willing to pay. But what controls my willingness to see something as a good price? It is the history I have had with paying what I have always paid. I expect to pay over $100 to take the family out to eat, but only because we have always paid ridiculously high amounts to eat out. No one ever stops to think that it probably costs a place like Red Lobster less that $20 for the actual food that hits the table (Red Lobster? Make that $10 and blow a fog horn).

As much as I don't want to pay more than a few bucks for a game book. Perhaps it doesn't matter what I think and the manufacturers should be slapping higher prices on their games for the good of all.

I should be forced to pay $60 for a high-end RPG.
But don't expect me to be happy about it.

And don't you dare try it at gun point.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Kid is Alright! Almost!

As time moves on and memory fades I often find my imagination filling in the cracks with fiction, patching up the holes with things which I swear actually happened yet few of my old friends remember.

Of course, this does not mean they did not actually happen. It could very well be that my old friends are having the same problem, something systemic and probably stemming from the established fact that we all partied a little too hardy back in our early 20's and possibly broke our collective brain pan.

It could also be that at some point everything we remember becomes "fiction inspired by actual events," and this comes natural with age. The fact of the matter is that the older I get the less I trust what I remember of the distant past. If this hasn't happened to you yet - stay tuned - it will. It will.

So no, I did not run into an old gaming buddy recently. Actually I ran across something which for all intensive purposes might actually be a bit more interesting. I ran into myself in the back of module DL 5 Dragons of Mystery which is not an actual adventure but a sourcebook in module form for the Dragonlance series.

I have mixed feelings about the whole Dragonlance thing. I thought it was neat when it first came out but ultimately a bit railroady and hopelessly tarnished by the presence of the Kender. Ewoks without the fur. Smurfs dipped in bleach. Gremlins if they had been boring. The Kender were such an obvious audience pander it could suck the chrome off a fender. A kender fender bender, if you will.

But that's not why I'm bringing it up. Module DL 5 ends with a questionnaire which I did fill out yet never bothered to send in. Most of the questions on it are pretty banal and uninteresting but the last question contains 8 statements where you rate your feelings on the matter by circling a number between 1 and 5. 1 for Strongly Disagree and 5 for Strongly Agree. The module was released in 1984. I must have been thirteen or fourteen at the time so let's see how teen me did and what forty-five year old me thinks of it now.

1.) When I play a role-playing adventure I like for there to be a strong story.
Teen Me: 3. Today Me: 2.
My understanding of story has definitely changed since I was younger. Nowadays I almost cringe when I encounter the word in the world of gaming. Back then I was probably just thinking about being swept up in the grand scheme of things. Note though that teen me did not give it a 4.

2.) One of the most exciting things about the DRAGONLANCE game are the well-defined player characters.
Teen Me: 4. Today Me: 3.
Wait! There's something exciting about Dragonlance? Actually, I remember being impressed by the character art in this module but the characters themselves seemed a bit statistically deficient (ie - retarded), which is surprising considering....

3.) The cover art and graphics are an important part of my decision to buy a module.
Teen Me: 2. Today Me: 4.
Really teen me? Seriously? I remember you buying L1 The Secret of Bone Hill and it was not for the nigh-non-existent story hidden within. The same goes for the back cover of the D3 Vault of the Drow. Admit it, all the babes Larry Elmore drew for Dragonlance were hot!

Oh well, it could be that I was young and we were still being told not to judge a book by its cover or an adventure by its hooters. Today - yeah - the artwork does matter and I can't stand any of it.

Okay, Unchained Heroes has some pretty awesome artwork in it.

4.) The most important thing in a role-playing game is that there are terrible monsters to fight and great treasures to win.
Teen Me: 2. Today Me: 2.
Wow! We actually agree on something other than Duran Duran.

5.) I would particularly like to see a DRAGONLANCE boardgame covering the entire war.
Teen Me: 1. Today Me: 1.
Whack-a-mole with kender heads might be a different matter.

6.) The quality of accessories - large maps, character cards, tear-out sheets - make a big difference to me in my enjoyment of a role playing adventure.
Teen Me: 3. Today Me: 3.
Yawn. Back then as well as now I always thought of hand-outs as nice but nothing to get excited about. For me they always reminded me that we were playing a game instead of experiencing an adventure. Hand-outs pull me out of that state. I don't game to be impressed by what's being passed around the table.

7.) The fact that DRAGONLANCE products are also a trilogy of fantasy novels increases my enjoyment of the modules.
Teen Me: 4. Today Me: 1.
And in this case I actually like teen me better than today me. I actually do remember being impressed by the sheer magnitude of what TSR was trying to accomplish with Dragonlance. It was bright, fresh, new and had seriously had never been done before. Nowadays everything feels done to death. It's kinda sad that we've entered a world where the release of yet another novel grates on the psyche rather than excites it. And I actually write novels BTW.

8.) When I play/DM a role playing adventure the consistency and detail of the fantasy world is very important to me.
Teen Me: 5.  Today Me: 1.
Whoa! Hold on there teen me! Did you really drop a 5 on that? Whatever happened to making it up as we go along? To not having a solid setting so we can be free to do whatever we wish with it? Okay, that actually did disappoint me. Shame on you teen me. Shame!!!!

And that's it.

Even though I didn't always agree with teen me, I have to admit that I was impressed by my own maturity. For a teenager I was actually a pretty sophisticated kid, treasuring story and involvement over killing monsters and plundering booty. Of course, it should also be said that I did my fare share of monty hauling back in the day. This questionnaire was from near the end of my golden years with RPGs. It could be that I was actually getting tired of all the dungeon crawling by that point.