Saturday, April 21, 2018

Let's write a Labyrinth Lord gaming supplement (Part 1): be67 - a game of extraordinary splatter

I started writing a new adventure and things got complicated. Fast. The main problem being, that no rules (I like) exist for the thing I'm writing (classic grindhouse themes with a good dose of splatter). However, just pulling another light-rules game out of the hat sounds just as stupid, so after mulling this over a bit, I came to the conclusion that I should make it a supplement for another game, adding to one game's diversity instead. Here, have a look at my workbench ... 

What game?!

Games, actually. And part of a rather popular brand of games: I'm talking Labyrinth Lord (because it is the D&D Rules Cyclopedia at heart) and Mutant Future (because it adds things you'd want in a modern setting). Both are easy to tinker with and I know my way around the D&D RC. They also come with a fan base and I wouldn't mind that.

Going at this as a supplement would allow all kinds of crossover shenanigans and you could always take any part of this and put it in your games. I'll allow that for the adventure I'm writing, so if you want to go at it with your fantasy adventure group, you'll be able to do that (the fairy court will have some beef there and is looking for able bodies to kick some heads in ...) and if Mutant future is your thing, there'll be a hook for that as well (wanna stop the apocalypse from happening? time travel!).

There'll be new classes and all that as well and they could go explore Stonehell or what have you (wouldn't it be cool to play a couple of Marines infiltrating Stonehell? Definitely!), but that was to be expected, right? I also have a couple of (somewhat) radical changes in mind to make it work with modern world idiosyncrasies like, you know, fire arms and all that. I'm not opposed to doing fire arms like other weapons, but I want to offer a change of the game towards a more .... splattery combat resolution (grindhouse).

Ash knows what I'm talking about! [source]

I'll also port a couple of rules into it that came in very handy in that other game I'm writing, Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (a light version, if you will).

Here's the pitch and a first part of the rules:

be67

"be" stands for "basic edition" and we all know what that stands for. 1967 is the year we are playing. The war in Vietnam was in full swing, as was the Cold War and the hippie movement. The Dirty Dozen had been a hit in theaters in '67 and the president of the United States was traveling Europe. It's also the decade where spy and grindhouse movies had been wildly popular. Things had been "funky" and "gonzo" and "groovy", heroes and heroines had been cool and supervillains had their own brand of evil. Add horror and splatter, psychedelic experiences and all kinds of pulp elements to this and you are in the world we are playing in.

Not sure if the movie is any good, but that poster sure has it all [source]


Let's talk Hit Locations and Initiative first!

This post will outline the necessary stuff I'll need to test in our little D&D RC campaign right now, but expect more about it pretty soon. The basic idea for the changes I want to make for the combat in be67 has nothing to do with the already existing assumptions or values the game already offers. AC stays, HD stays, there'll be no changes to the stats as the game offers them, but a couple of small additions instead and a key to implement them.

Let's start with those additions. I wrote two little posts a while back about about aimed shots and a "wizard with a shotgun". Those will formulate the base line and a couple of directions I want to take this:
  • we keep level/hd and AC, but we add hit locations and give the six body zones a separate hp value (I'd alter the original idea a bit to make some limbs tougher than others)
  • the scheme for weapon damage needn't be affected by this, because the system produces an extra of damage itself (if you check out the posts linked above, you'll see that we used class based damage instead of weapon damage ... but you can use whatever you want)
  • the "more" of damage is produced by (1) allowing players to take disadvantages for their rolls into account to add them to damage instead and (2) by adding the overlap over the target's AC to the damage when using firearms (doesn't even alter the rolls themselves, we just use the numbers that are already there ... okay, you'd have to roll for hit locations, but that's that)
  • that said, I want combat to include a couple of elements D&D combat usually doesn't have implemented in the rules, like cooperation and a somewhat fluid AC system (because, if you have a shoot-out, you'd want people moving from cover to cover and all that)
  • Armor for different hit locations will also become somewhat important, of course, so it'd need an easy key for that as well
  • Damage will also have different effects depending on the source dealing the damage, of course (cutting, stabbing, clubbing, area damage ...) and it would be nice to have rules for pain (a saving throw when ... occurs - we'll get to that)
  • to see which body part is hit, roll 1d8:  1 left leg 2 right leg 3 left arm 4 right arm 5,6,7 torso 8 head (for now, might change to d12 ...)
And that'd be the bare bones. To find out how tough a limb of any given monster is, you just have to look at the following formula:

3 x HD (or level) + limb value (+1 for heads and arms, +2 for legs, +3 for the torso) + AC-value (take it all, magic, dex, protection, whatever)
= damage needed to dismember or cripple

Hitting a 4HD ogre on the head would need 12 hp damage to behead him, for instance (more if he has protection like a helmet, of course). A good aimed hit to the head will drop an ogre like that and it'll make sneak attacks way more brutal because of it.

However, add initiative, combat movement and level-based probability to hit a target to it, and you'll not only keep some of the basic assumption of D&D combat intact, you'll also add a necessity for tactical fighting beyond what D&D usually offers. If your character can loose an arm easy as that, you'd want to avoid it from happening.

Initiative in be67

All involved roll 1d6 + Zen-Modifier (ZEN is the be67-equivalent to WIS). A result of 1 (or less) will give you 1 Token to act that round, results 2-5 give you 2 Tokens, 6-10 will give you 3 Tokens and 11+ will give you 4 Tokens to act that round. A roll of a 6 with the d6 lets you add another d4 to your initiative. A combatant that doesn't get to (or decides to) attack although he could have, gets another +1 (per attack) to the next initiative roll (doesn't apply if initiative value had been 0 or lower, because than no attack could have occurred).

[source]
Tokens are the currency you use to get anything done but attacking itself (number of attacks per round as per the game you use, with initiative 0 or lower you don't get to attack). Unused Tokens will be added to the initiative roll in the next round.

Actions Tokens can be used for:
  • Protect - reduce your initiative and raise you AC the same amount (doing so might also reduce the number of available tokens and will make you slower) // can be declared earlier in initiative as soon as an attack is declared on the character, even if the character is faster (but never lower as the initiative last declared)
  • Helping - raise a die another character is using to the next higher die (order d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20 ... if a d20 is used, add another d4 and raise that with more tokens) // goes for skill checks, attacks or even damage (wizards might use Helping to raise another wizards spell effects!) // # of Tokens a character could use in a round is 1/3 of level/HD (rounded up)
  • Move - combatants can be "in reach" or "moved away [number of] Tokens" and if they are "moved away", other combatants have to use the same amount of tokens to get "in reach", for instance to make a melee attack // a combatants size and speed determine how many Tokens can be used for Move Actions (small = 1 Token per round, medium = 2 Tokens, huge = 3 Tokens and so on // slow = reduce # of Tokens by 1 (if that reduces the # of Tokens to 0, it'll cost 2 Tokens to "move away"), fast = raise # of Tokens by 1 // if a combatant gets 3 Tokens distance the opposition at the end of a round, the fight can be exited without penalty the next round after that (distance is kept until Move actions change it, of course) // the # of Tokens a target is moved away may affect ranged attacks
  • Counter -  1 Token per round may be used to counter any other already declared Token used in a round by another combatant (so you'd have to be faster) // countering Protection will leave the target at its original Initiative but have it lose the Token (which means the higher initiative is kept as well and a character might even get Tokens back he had forfeited to protect himself!)
Actions and attacks are declared from lowest to highest. You can react lower in initiative to declare Protect actions, either as you are attacked or at the new initiative you end with after reducing it to the bonus you want for AC.
Example: Say you have Initiative 7, that's 3 Tokens. However, the Goblin at Ini 3 decides to attack and he gets help from his fellows, so you decide to go down 4 point in your initiative and add that to your AC instead to dodge those attacks (couldn't go below that, as the Goblins declared at 3!). Down at Ini 3, you'd be left with 2 Tokens and one of them had to be used for Protect to begin with, leaving you with 1 Token, which also has to be declared now (if you raise your AC by just 2 instead, you would still be left with 1 Token to act at Ini 5, following that logic).
Oder of resolution is fastest to slowest after all Actions have been declared (Initiative values might have changed due to people protecting themselves). That means that combatants can move away from a combatant to avoid getting hit ... however, that can be countered!
Burning tokens, I'd say ... [source]
So combat is a negotiation with the Tokens allowing for a high amount of flexibility. People will talk and describe how they interact with each other and the environment and  as they do, the fight will manifest. It's also quite fluid, as people try to help or move or protect themselves and get moved towards or are countered.

Luck is a high factor here, but player decisions matter just as much. And remember: you can always keep tokens or forfeit your attack to get a higher initiative the next round ... so it's not just luck.

And that'd be Part 1 ...

This'll make your basic LL/OD&D/MF game way more bloody, limbs flying around all the time. Which means it doesn't hurt to have some cleric spells, for instance, available to regrow some limbs back. Or you go all medieval with it, using prostheses and whatnot (check it out). Way more gritty with just minor changes, I think.

Part 2 will explore a different approach on dealing basic damage (neither per weapon, nor per class or with one die to hurt them all ... you'll see) and how to protect against it with armor. The final supplement will collect all those rules in a nice pdf with character sheets mirroring those changes (maybe even with variants for LL/MF?) as soon as I get there.

If you like this enough to try this on your players, please tell me about it. If you think I'm missing something or reasons why this wouldn't work (beyond taste, of course), please feel free to share your thoughts. Questions are, as always, welcome, of course.

Nice hacking and slashing, folks!

Saturday, April 7, 2018

How about a Style Guide to write adventures?

I have a couple of things in the air right now and the good news is, it's more and more gaming related work than work related work. Some of it hinted, some of it still to be announced, and then there is that one gig where I get to be editor of a rpg release! Good times, good times. We are taking our time with the thing and want to get it as right as right gets, hence the need for a style and construction guide ...

Notes

A few words before we get into the thing proper. This is about how you structure content and what to keep in mind when writing something like a module or adventure with a publication as the end game. Content is still what the author has to provide (and what might be problematic in its own way) and grammar or syntax are the least of my concerns.

The lines are blurry, though, and I believe that taking the guide seriously will also take care of most of the rest. In a way, if you work hard on getting on a page what you have in your brain, you'll consciously and carefully make an effort to get it done. So a style guide will give you a structure for your text that allows you to test your material on every level of resolution. In theory.
[source]
Anyway, this is what I came up with. Jay and I thought it might be useful for the community at large, so here we go:
Style and Construction Guide (Modules)

This is by necessity pretty rough, just presenting the outlines of how a rpg module or adventure can be structured. There’s of course a high degree of variation and abstraction possible, but it’s a good, simple base to fall back on if need be.

Style will be first, since it’s the shortest. However, it needs to be applied on every stage of writing. While structure helps a reader memorizing and sorting the different elements of a text, it’s style that keeps them engaged. In that style and construction fulfill two purposes that’ll help navigating the material when read and when used in the game. The third crucial element, content, is what the author brings to the table and won’t be featured here.

Things to consider when writing (Style Guide)

1. Always consider that the reader has never heard of any aspect you are describing. In other words, take nothing for granted and instead find ways to either explain an aspect properly or give pointers, where a reader could find additional information. If you talk rules, either quote them in full (if short) or give a reference where to find more information. Same goes for every aspect of a story or skill … well, everything. Always answer the questions How? and Why? while keeping it short and concise.

2. Show don‘t tell. That also a basic, but nonetheless often disregarded: details are what makes a setting tick. I don’t need to know that there is a market, I need to know what’s special about this one. If someone is important for the story, name him, give him traits (and stats, USR is simple enough to allow for that). Every detail you give can somehow be used in a game, generalization doesn’t do that for you. What smells the arena like? What poison is used? What does the princess look like? Little things, but all the time.

3. Keep it short and open room for the imagination. In other words, don’t get too specific about the moving parts of an adventure. Rather tell people how something works and let them figure out what potential a situation has. However, doing so at different levels of resolution (what happens now vs., for instance, what are the possible outcomes) means offering a collection of flexible frames to support the CK* in a way that using them manifests the story you imagined. In that sense, a collection of short and specific random encounters and locations will trump lengthy descriptions every time, especially if they also bring something interesting or special to the table. Avoid unnecessary and redundant text.

4. Adventures are specific manifestations of rules. You don’t just want to tell a story, you want to tell it through a very specific lens, and that would be the rules of the game you decided to use. If there is action, then there’s also always to consider how the game gets involved. Are there chances for different outcomes? Name them. Little sets of sub-rules for a specific scenario? Tell the reader how you’d do it with the rules you use.

The big picture (Construction Guide)

Introduction

This is where you connect the reader with the material. You tell them in broad strokes what this is and what’s it about. It‘s the part of the module where you introduce some general ideas of how this can be played or what you imagine how it should be played. It’s where you tell the people how the material is structured. It’s also where you give people points of reference, like books, comics, games or movies they might want to check out to get an idea. It‘s where people decide if they explore a text further or not. The exposition, if you will.

Done right, it‘s where you hook the reader to invest more time and maybe use any of it in his games.

Main Part

How this is arranged strongly depends on the focus you imagine for the module and how big the whole thing is supposed to be. Look at the following elements A to D and decide a hierarchy for them, then go from most important to most detailed (mix, match and repeat, if necessary):

A. Setting: Where does the adventure take place? What characters are in it and what things are commonly known about it? What’s interesting, what’s strange, what’s useful? How does a CK bring it to live? Rumor and Random Encounter Tables are in that section.

B. Timeline: Is there a course of events important for the characters? Can the influence those events? How? What happens if they don’t and how would that manifest in the game? When describing events, go from a general description down to the necessary details. Offer rules and tools for the CK, if applicable. Weather would be here, too.

C. Factions: Who is or could be involved in the adventure/module and why? How can the players influence or interact with them? Also: consequences, dangers and benefits need to be assigned. Factions are best described going from groups to more detailed and important non player characters. Arrange all that in a hierarchy of importance (take single entities into consideration where applicable).

D. Aspects, Scenes & Locations: Usually a collection of short vignettes that aren’t covered anywhere else and might make the game more interesting. What interesting places are there that deserve more description than offered in A? What scenes are most likely to happen? It can also feature specific cultural elements that deserve further exploration. This is specific where A is general (a higher level of resolution, if you will) while being short enough to have a place in the main part instead of being put in the appendices.

Appendices

You will always end up with a set of specific events and locations that need even more detail (highest level of resolution): dungeons, CK tools, tables to big or complex to feature in the main part, extensive sub systems (that also have value beyond what’s happening in the module, like for races or riots, for instance) or locations that either have a high possibility to get explored in depth or give a general impression of common feature characters might encounter (taverns, apartments, boats, and so on). This is where they are collected.

They always should be referenced to in the main part and they, also, should be sorted hierarchical (as applicable).
I think I covered all my bases here. Following the rules outlined above should have you end up with a good start, if not a finished product (it's mostly what I did for Monkey Business, if you need my take on it). Most of it will apply to writing in general to some degree or another (the fourth style advice could apply to genre instead of rules and so on). I hope it helps.
Content hierarchies, always the same [source]
That said, I'd be more than happy to get some opinions on this as well. Did I miss something crucial? Is there advice in there you think doesn't apply? Please share your thoughts, observations and opinions where I can find them, if you were so inclined.

* That's the Crypt Keeper, which is just another term for Dungeon Master (thought I'd clarify).

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Misconceptions about Gatekeeping (Opinion Piece, not a rant)

You wouldn't think that having an opinion is how "gatekeeping" gets defined nowadays, but that's sure how it's done (happened to me just the other day). You would also think people see right through those things, but that doesn't seem to be the way it goes. Let me propose some ideas and thoughts about that. You are, of course, always encouraged to make up your own opinion, just make it an informed one.

Definitions & Implications

I'd point you to the English Wikipedia article, but the lack of content makes it useless, so we go to the German version instead and translate away (first paragraph, using DeepL):
"In sociology, gatekeepers are people who have the ability or position to influence the rise of people, also known as mobility in sociology."
It's so simple, there's almost no need to explain what this means. People at the top of a hierarchy decide who makes it and who is ... ignored. This is common knowledge. Sociology found this true in schools, in economies, actually, it's true in all the places where hierarchies are established.

The idea of gatekeeping originates from communication science and it is important to mention that the practice itself can be useful or even necessary in certain contexts, while of course bringing lots of responsibility to the one "keeping the gate". Take, for instance, the pre-selection of news before they are published: the criteria with which the available news are filtered and used can have all kinds of good or bad results.

Easy examples for this are found in the thousands. Take newspapers that decided to report unwelcome "truths" but filter politically, to those that filter for commercial reasons. Fake news is a thing for a reason: it shows how those deciding or influencing what is published (the gatekeepers) can and will abuse their power to reach goals that are not within the common interest, but in the interest of the few (whoever benefits from it, generally speaking).

Applying this to a scene or subculture has clear implications, I think, chief among them the realization that there is a distinction between a "scene" and a "hobby" (roughly the distinction between a belief (think "hobby") and a church (think "scene")). I believe it explains rather well how a hobby will have different co-existing (and shifting) scenes and why scenes themselves might end up with some form of hierarchical orders (like churches would). It also explains the dynamics that will be at work.

So scenes move and shift in the greater context of the hobby, hierarchies form and change the same way. The OSR is to be understood in this way: it's one scene among countless others in our hobby. As a matter of fact (and to be perfectly clear about this) some form of distinction is crucial to have such a thing as a scene (think catholics and protestants, to keep it with religious analogy), so you will have to state characteristics of distinction if you want to belong. Always.

Having established borders like this ("3e sucks" or "Traveller is the only true SF RPG!", insert your own), a scene will form hierarchies, mainly based on popularity and to some degree on competence, depending on how possible it is to assess or achieve any of that. I'd say the OSR is mostly popularity-driven (adding some competence from the successful publishers and some artists). 

Example of malevolent hierarchy ... [source]
Those at the top of the established hierarchy now naturally form cliques of supporters around them, and the next thing you will get are camps within a scene where each camp struggles for a better position in the hierarchy (pick the last flame war and you know what I mean). Given that this is mostly about opinions and artificial borders and with no objective measurement other than commercial success (which is to some extent arbitrary and/or manipulated by the same mechanisms), this all must come down to politics of taste.

And that's where gatekeeping comes in. Every scene has people that decide what gets popular and what doesn't. So if you are part of a clique, support will be voiced and a infrastructure of more or less sufficient sales-manufacturing instances is triggered, ensuring commercial availability and with that, success (which loops back to keeping yourself popular).

If you aren't part of a clique, the question arises how to gain access to one. This is the crucial choke point, the proverbial gate. I would argue it is also crucial in that it is the very point where it reveals if a scene is fair or corrupt.

The Corruption of the OSR?

In a perfect world, those at the top of a hierarchy would have the best in mind for the group. Publishers filter for true genius or art instead of going with what works, is popular or transports hidden agendas. Newspapers inform the public about what is relevant and offer information with the means for the individuals to form their own opinions instead of creating fake news or working for big corp or politicians.

However, we aren't living in a "perfect world", if such a thing could even exist. Instead we live in a world where those things coexist in a duality. That doesn't mean it has to be both all the time, one scene can be more or less completely corrupt and another one more or less fair. This opens a new line of inquiry: how to measure corruption in a scene. Let's look into that.

A most basic definition of corruption is (according to transparency.org):
"Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain."
Again, simple enough. How to measure (or proof) this in a community is a completely different animal. We have indicators for this, although indirectly (or concluding from established general research towards how it could manifest in communities).
[source]
There is proof that marginalization of people leads to criminal/aggressive behavior (here, have one paper on the subject, if you search for it, there is way more) and you can say that one of the main forces behind criminal (aggressive) behavior is the perception that a rise in the social hierarchy is prohibited if not impossible. This connects nicely to what is already established about gatekeepers further above.

It's important to understand that we have to take into account that we are applying those ideas to a social media environment, which means that "crime" and "aggression" will manifest somewhat differently while the social mechanisms are still very much in effect.

We also have to take into account that the only fair measurement of corruption in a society is based on its perception (at least that's what's used, see transparency.org linked above). Which isn't conclusive at all, but can give implications. So you'll have a higher mortality rate of critical journalism in corrupt countries, for instance. Corruption has measurable consequences.

I'd like to add that "social capital" is another important aspect to consider, not necessarily "just" monetary gain. There is also a strong trend to mix personal politics in all of this, which doesn't help.

With all those restrictions in place, we can go and make fair and conclusive assumptions how the perception of corruption in a scene like the OSR might manifest in what outside the social media environment could be perceived as criminal or aggressive behavior, or the appropriate equivalent thereof.

If I had more time on my hands and if I where more than an enthusiast for social science and psychology, I'd try to formulate some indicators for a healthy community and collect data to index all that. I'm not, so we'll have to work with some rough concepts here (would be willing to do so, if someone with an academic background would be willing to help). Here's a couple of good indicators:
  • TRANSPARENCY: We already established that the scene is not the hobby, but the same is true for commercial interests. The clearer a distinction can be made between the commercial interests of an individual acting in the community and its contribution to said community, the better (the more transparent, the less corrupt).
  • FAIR MODERATION: A hierarchy comes with responsibility for those higher up. How easy it is to address the hierarchy and how those in the higher positions interact with the rest (benevolent, malevolent, indifferent), gives indications how healthy or corrupt a community is.
  • QUALITY OF ARGUMENT: What discussion culture is apparent in a community. Are extreme politics tolerated? How common are personal attacks? How are opinions categorized in general? The way a community discusses (or allows discussions) gives indications about corruption in as much as people tend to get more aggressive and polarizing, if they believe they are not heard or taken serious.
  • QUALITY OF CONTENT: The quality and the amount of the content a community produces as well as the restrictions that are put on that output (pay walls, for instance) gives an idea about the decision processes behind the content. If bad stuff is hyped or if publications are ignored, it's a sign that the processes are corrupt.
  • MOBILITY: How likely is it to become popular (or known) in a community? Can everyone do it, if necessary from scratch? Or are always the same people in the spotlight? How open is the community to new people? Stay those at the top of the hierarchy at the top? How? By what measures? Are those successful parading their success (which would, again produce aggression)?
  • GRATUITOUSNESS: One final, but very important indicator is how many people are willing to contribute to a community for free. Whose taking the time to do all the little administrative things that make a community work and are they (in some way or another) charging for it? Gratuitousness is a sign of good will in a community. If there is none, it's most likely because people perceive the community as unfair in some way or another and that would be another sign for corruption.
Those six should suffice, I think. They interconnect and overlap a bit, but should differ enough to count. This also isn't a black or white type of thing, it should have nuance (like a grading system and an average result). If tested and any or all of them show signs of corruption, the more intense should be the reactions to it in relation to the grade of corruption.

In other words, if a community has a tendency to very polarizing and heated debates where no one changes his opinion, where personal attacks and marginalization are common occurrences, if that community also allows no development and doesn't divide between commercial and non-commercial interests, if material is hyped for reasons of  privilege instead of quality and if everyone believes his or her efforts should be remunerated, then you most likely have a corrupt community. 

And that's just by applying reason, nothing else.

Where does that leave us?

This is not about if there is gatekeeping in the OSR or not. There is without a doubt. The question is if it is beneficial or malevolent towards the community at large. There's also the question how to address and oppose corruption, if it is detected.

But before any of that can take place, people should come to a common understanding how the community they are part of works and why. I hope I helped a bit forming that understanding. I also hope I was able to make a clear case that voicing opinions is NOT gatekeeping. At best it is challenging a hierarchy, but most likely it's just a border conflict between different scenes or cliques.

That said, attacking people for their opinions is a bad sign for a community in general, for the reasons I summon above. So, is the OSR corrupt? Well, you should be able to form your own opinion about that. I believe the OSR took a turn for the worse in recent years. Maybe that's the natural course of things, as scenes have the same fluctuation among each other. However, that doesn't mean you can't have a positive impact in a community.

Every bit helps, right?


This post was inspired by an article over at Tenkar's Tavern and the riposte to it  (at least in spirit) over at Monsters and Manuals.


Saturday, March 17, 2018

Random Culture Generator Part 1 (LSotN Design Post - Basic Thoughts)

It's been over two weeks ... this blog needs some words! Something I have to tackle at some point for the game I'm writing, Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, is a Random Culture Generator. It's something rarely done for role-playing games. Let's find out why. But before we get into that, I'd like to take a look at what I already wrote on the subject and where I'm at with all this.

Ideas about culture

First, check out this post from 2016 reflecting on a post from 2014 (yeah, I'm slow processing like that). I'll also loosely take ideas from Jordan B. Peterson's book Maps of Meaning (or rather, the 2016 lecture about the topic, which I highly recommend checking out). You won't need all this to read the post, but documentation is everything and it's good reading/listening.

One might think the good thing with settings for role-playing games that lean heavily on history is that culture comes easy. It might be somewhat true, as it seems somewhat more archaic compared to what we call "culture" today. Easier, in a way. However, as soon as you look a bit closer you'll find that on the one hand cultures, even 2000 years ago and earlier, had been very diverse. On the other hand, humans will always be humans and we can recognize that over time.

So there is patterns that will always surface and variants that might go in all different kinds of directions, depending on the circumstances. You can define those people exploring, recognizing and reproducing those patterns in an abstract way as artists. And it is an important distinction in as afar as it explains how art seems to be what lasts (here's a good talk on creativity and art).
It also gives those old stories and fairy tales an easy credibility. They touch on something. That said, it's crucial to keep the "abstract" part of it in mind, just as important it is to recognize that our ancestors found ways to comprehend and communicate what they (what we) are. Psychology and biology have proven all of that nowadays, interestingly enough.

There is evidence that fairy tales are very, very old ... [source]
I had a dispute once with a guy about how I believed that there's ultimately no difference between believing that a thunderstorm is the gods making some noise or believing whatever scientific explanation we have come up with. He thought the idea was atrocious. I didn't know then what I know now, but I defended my case (and lost a friend).
Today I'd just point towards the research and advice him to make up his own opinion on the subject. I think it all comes down to pragmatism: it's a philosophy stating that you don't need to know the whole "truth" to construe a working theory for anything.
Here's an example: there's this famous cave found in Turkey that emits deadly fumes and had been worshiped as an entrance into Hades way back in the past. You'll notice that both the archaic and the scientific approach will yield somewhat the same results: they'll tell a story about how dangerous the cave is. The pragmatic part is, that you can tell it anyway you want as long as the result is what you intended it to be.
Reconstruction of the temple at the entrance to Hades! [source]
At their core, cultures are formed around this thinking. We can use that for our games.

OD&D and 10 year olds (intermission)

When D&D came out in the early 70s, it became hugely popular and to a huge degree with very young players. The reasons for this are very much described above: D&D described the world in abstract patterns and even without fully grasping the rules, the concepts themselves are so true to how we analyze, deconstruct and communicate the world around us (brilliantly so, I might add), that the success cannot be a surprise.

I've heard people claiming they had been as young as 8 when they first started playing. I had been 12 when I DMed my first game. Now, after roughly 25 years of playing role-playing games, it's somewhat hard to look back and understand how we could grasp the game back then, being so young and all that.

Again, it can be explained with pragmatism. It's how the mind explores the world in simulations. We all know this and we all know how good children are at it, too. So I'd say, children can grasp the game for those reasons at an almost instinctive level.
Found this great pic over at reddit .. [source]
I once drove with a guy from Leipzig to Ulm. We'd talked about role-playing games, as he hadn't the first idea about it to begin with and I like talking about it. We talked a bit about the basics and he recognized them from a game his 6 year old son played with his friends called "Level". They had a game master that gave a premise (like "you are stuck on an island") and the players had to negotiate their way out of the situation.

They didn't use dice or anything, but rules seemed to emerge naturally as they played along (established from the shared narrative, as I understood it). They'd been camping once and he had an opportunity to experience it first hand (as a spectator, as he had been cooking) and he described the game as fun and creative and as very social.
That's anecdotal, of course, but there are many, many stories like that out there, but it seems to underline the connection I described above: we explain the world in stories and we explore it in simulated stories. D&D is a game about exploration and children grasp that on a very archaic level.

If you look for any "deep" meaning in role-playing games, this is where it's at.

"Chaoskampf"

Here's a sentence from that lecture linked above that stuck with me: " You don't resurrect your father, you become the puppet of death." This needs context, of course. The basic idea here is that across time and cultures we have an understanding of duality in the world. Yin and yang, male and female, chaos and order ... it's very well represented in the three-fold alignment system in D&D, actually.
However, you'll have the same in almost all religions and pantheons in some form or another. Tiamat and Abzu are the oldest we know, but you'll find variations of that theme all over the place once you start looking. It's one of those patterns that keeps turning up. The two concepts interacting here are chaos (female, yin, nature, ...) and order (male, yang, culture ...). It's powerful stuff.
The individual and the world ... [source]
To bring the male/female aspect into it is necessary to understand fundamental functions of the genders in human society. Females are allegory for natural selection, so that's the nature part covered. Males are create the conditions and hierarchies in which the selection takes place, and that's culture.

Again, very abstract concepts condensed to pragmatic theories to make interaction work. However, read the stories that stayed around for thousands of years (pick any source, really, the Bible, the Tao Te King, the Edda, Grimm's fairy tales ... you name it) and you'll find them telling you about life in all the detail you can imagine.

Another pattern you'll see emerge on a regular basis is the fluidity of all things. The gods fight and love and betray and create and everything has consequences. It's what that quote above refers to: the father figure represents culture and people have to keep it alive (actually "resurrect" it, as in, making it a conscious act) or they'll become "puppets of death", which is another way of saying "governed by chaos".

It's a great example of the dynamics of culture, as it shows what happens when culture/order is neglected: chaos will rear its ugly head. It could be argued that the rise of fascism in the 20th Century is exactly that.

The third prominent pattern is the hero facing all kinds of challenges to overcome chaos. I that sense the knight facing the dragon could be an allegory for a man courting a woman or a woman facing mental illness or a child facing a bully (among other things, in all kinds of varying scales).
Heroes are agents of order, fighting chaos in an ever changing world to achieve some sort of balance ...

Things that go bump in the night

A word on monsters in that regard. Humans basically think of their surroundings in 3 categories: (1) safe territory (order, routine, home), (2) risks outside the comfort zone (all the things we know we shouldn't do for reasons) and (3) the unknown (chaos).
Monsters are traditionally situated in the unknown. It's the first thing you imagine when you wake up at night in the dark because of some noise. The first thing we imagine is a chimera of possible dangers. Then we start exploring, maybe by listening if the noise occurs again, then by turning on the light, and lastly by getting up and looking for the origin of the noise. It's a simple example of facing your fear, too.
This is all monsters ... [source]
But this applies to the big pictures as well. States work like that, institutions and religion. It's why we have borders, it's the reason for cultural distinction through, say, dialects or local cuisine. Because we can only accept a limited amount of shared safe territory before we decline to risks (the barbarians beyond the border, for instance) and the unknown (climate change, maybe, epidemics, the threat of terrorism ... everything we only have a vague notion of).

Risks and the unknown needn't be bad. So it might be risky to ski down a mountain, but the prestige might be worth it. And the unknown? That's the dragon from mythology and if you can overcome that, there's always a hoard, right (analogue to the idea of fighting terrorism to gain freedom, maybe)? But you might also break your leg skiing down that hill (low risk, low reward) or the dragon might kill you (high risk, high reward).
And here's another thing: people can be destructive forces as well. Agents of chaos, monsters. It's all part of the whole thing ...

Generating culture randomly

All this describes the dynamics of culture. It's the pattern we need to copy to create a credible culture from scratch or even on the fly. Ideally with one roll, right? The pieces we have are the duality of all things, the strive for balance through agents of order, the limits of cultural perception (or range?) categorized as safe, risky and unknown, and the circumstances surrounding and shaping a specific cultural entity over time.

Building something like that is what Part 2 will be about. Lost Songs already has a Random Territory Generator and a Random Narrative Generator (that works exactly for the reasons described above because it is based on fairy tales) that produce entities of chaos and order on different levels, so all I need to do is bring all of that together in a meaningful way.

Next time.

I think I need to close this by stressing that I have no interest at all to have a political discussion about any of the above. I intent to use this for my elf games, yes, and I believe that the assumptions I base the designs on are scientifically proven as much as they are rooted in our psyche. I might be wrong, but even if so, what does it matter if it works enough to make for a better game. Pragmatism, right? If it works, it's good enough.

Might not be true, works nonetheless ... [source]

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Don't pay the DM, pay the service (slightly NSFW, no pun intented)

Time to say something about the subject of "DMs for hire", me thinks. Not that I have made up my mind or anything, it's just something every DM growing up in a culture informed by western civilization will have day-dreamed about at some point and you can literally here the grinding of teeth when you read sentences like "Yeah, sure, if someone can make a buck with it, more power to them!". I was about to not publish this, but a friend told me to do it nonetheless. I also thought I could cut this in pieces and publish it over 4 parts, but decided against it. So here we go, have it all at once and RAW ...

There is supposedly two ways to see the activity of running a game for others: it's either a sport or it is art (could be both, gasp). Both sides have implications and real life solutions. Let's get into that.

You don't pay a referee to decide your way ...

Or at least you shouldn't. Okay, okay, sports is such a bad example because of all the corruption that plagues the high end of it. Fifa, anyone? IOC? It's a mess, right? However, I had an interview once with a trainer of mid-tier football club in Berlin and we had talked a bit about why he did what he did (which involved a 40 hours week at work and then another 30+ hours a week to train the club's youth without proper compensation) and it had been eye opening for several reasons.

First of all, work in clubs is not done for money most of the time (I'm excluding the big clubs here, because corruption, see above), it's done for the benefit of the work. Children joining whatever kind of sports club will more likely than not have a real educational benefit from it: working in teams, learning to win and lose, fairness, empathy ... all good things to learn.

That trainer told me how he lead children through puberty, how often parents didn't care (on several levels) and how hard the fight for help and recognition is, even when it's about children. The popularity of a sport like football (in Germany) is just a vehicle to keep the boat afloat. Of course kids aspire to become football heroes, but it's the journey they take to get there that really benefits them.

I think this is a really important first point to stress here: the popularity of a sport will get people to play and support that sport. Not because they all are going to end up playing for a big club, earning the big bucks (because most of them won't), but because to be a part of something they admire and aspire to. It needs that kind of beacon, corrupt or not*.

The second lesson here is that many, many (many) people do club work for almost no compensation at all, regardless of how popular a past-time is (but getting less and less paid in the fringes). As a matter of fact, most people will pay some way or another to participate. Clubs have fees and those working for clubs or helping them pay with their time.

However, the play's the thing, right? So there are at least two types of people that get payed for their trouble (sometimes, mind you, not always) and that'd be trainers and referees. Actually, clubs will invest into their training so that they'll get the job done properly.

A job well done ... [source]
And that's the third point we can glean from this: learning to be a trainer or a referee is like getting a drivers license, you'll get certified that you are able to preform certain tasks with a certain level of expertise. That's not to say that you are good at it, that's to say you get the benefit of a doubt because you'll potentially do a good job but at least will do it within a defined and acknowledged spectrum.

I know this is tricky, because people will be people, but that is why rules are established. It ensures that referees will rule a fair game more often than not. It also ensures that they are left to their devices to do so. If you lose in an official game, there'll probably be good reasons for it, too. Rules are established to elevate the referee to a position where a player's (or spectator's) wish fulfillment is not dependent on the decisions the referee made. The referee is absolved because of the promise of fairness.

The pay is also always indirect. That is very crucial: those who benefit from the outcome of a sporting event (not only monetary, sometimes winning is enough) cannot be the ones paying the referee in a direct exchange of goods. Remember that, it'll be a recurring theme in this post.

The DM as performer? No!

A performer is, in my opinion, a hybrid between the sports and the art approach as it forces the role of the DM into a very specific purpose: that of an entertainer. It's not anymore about the benefits of playing the game for the experience it offers and instead to consume a joyride of sorts.

Look at that D6! [source]
Those jobs already exist. We have topless DMs out there, doing their thing for bachelor parties and what-not (at least requested, but surely found?), we have DMs in funny clothes and with sets of tools equivalent to what a hired clown or magician would bring to a party. Actually, it's worse than that. Keeping with the sports analogy above, it's the equivalent of a aging boxer offering staged fights for hire to milk his former popularity a little more.

I'm not saying this out of contempt, I'm saying this as an advice for caution. No one but the deluded will take that boxer for the real thing (or more than a sad shadow of the real thing). However, there is a real danger that we won't be that lucky for Gamemasters if role playing games get popular through venues like this.

Look at the DMs in contemporary pop culture and tell me they are doing the hobby a favor. Big Bang Theory? Just sad. Harmon's Quest? Funny at times, but just a vehicle for some egos. The list goes on, most of them really do not care about the game, they care about the entertainment.

The closest to something I could relate to was how Stranger Things had it, to be fair, and there is hope that there'll be more than that in the future (Freaks & Geeks was solid, too, just wasn't mainstream). But there's also a very real chance that dungeon masters will be seen as goof-balls instead of getting the respect a referee (for instance) would get because of popular shit like Big Bang Theory.

I'm not saying people shouldn't earn money that way. To each their own, but if done as a performer it should be clear that it is just mimicking the game in a way a theme park is mimicking adventure for cheap thrills. Sure has its place, sure isn't the real thing.

Role-Playing Games as media ...

Yeah, that again. I think it's important to see that aspect of it as well in that kind of light. The short of it is: you (usually) buy a book before you read it. Actually, you don't buy it to read it, you buy it to own it. Of course, reading is your intention in some way, but ultimately you buy it to have it around because the idea to read it somehow enticed you. At that point you don't even know if it is any good or if you you like it. You paid for the opportunity.

Now, I've worked in book-selling and one thing that happens really only on rare occasions is that people read a book (entirely or partly) only to bring it back because they didn't like it. It just isn't done (or if, it's frowned upon). Only the audacity of opinion could make people believe that the world orbits around them and needs to be formed towards their bidding ... In other words, it'd be a sign of bad character :)

Take movies. I've heard of people that tried to reclaim their money from the cinema after a bad movie, but try to buy a movie in a store and bring it back afterwards, saying something like "We didn't like that, we want our money back!". Wouldn't work. And even if someone could make this work, the intermediaries in those scenarios (the bookseller, the DVD store or the cinema) will not go and take the money back from the publisher or the author or the director, and so on.

Good advice ... [source]
There's actually a whole lot more to consider, to be fair, but the argument stands, you pay for the opportunity to get entertained, not for the guaranty.

There's also the whole player side to consider with role-playing games. They participate and each contribution helps shaping the game, for good or for worse. This at least gets tricky when considering that the DM is paid. However, computer games are very much like described above. No one goes to Blizzard to get their money back because other players didn't behave. It'd be ridiculous.

Playing role-playing games is using a medium, just like reading a book or watching a movie or playing a video game. Just like all the other mediums, there are different levels of involvement, it has the full spectrum from producing content to just consuming product, with all kinds of shades in between.

If you pay for any of that, regardless of the level of involvement you bring yourself to the table, you should only be able to pay for the opportunity to be entertained and you should be fully aware of the "why". A DM does so when he buys a game or an adventure, why shouldn't players be when they pay a DM?

The DM as artist

There is that. DMs aren't authors, but in many ways they are like authors in regards to preparation and research, even the skill-sets you'd need for each overlap to a huge degree. Actually, DM can have aspects of many different artistic expressions. Stand-up comedians come to mind, as do actors.
 
Fair representation? [source]
The closest you will get, though, is the old tradition of storytelling as performed by (drum-roll!) bards or skalds, in that a story is woven for the participants as the elements of it are collected.

Let's take this one step further. Say, a DM not only prepares the game him- (or her-) self, say they write their own game or they publish blogs about their process or write adventures ... Our hobby gives many opportunities to express ones creativity and there are some that earn money with it. Admittedly, indirectly, but nonetheless.

The thing is, for a DM like that, money will most of the time be a nice coincidence. To get better at DMing doesn't have you also publishing and doing the marketing or the social networking. It's possible, but something always has to give if you do it all.

Here's another aspect of the "art": a DM needs to be good at managing a group and it is a commitment over years at a time. I see this in direct conflict with the whole DM-for-hire schtick. To give an example of this: I'm totally able to sit down in front of some strangers and DM a game for them. Chances are, they will be entertained. I did so just the other day for the free RPG day here in Leipzig. And while it had been fun, it lacked for me one important aspect: a connection beyond the game.

Nonsense, you might say, and I agree, it is strange. I don't fully understand it yet, but the idea to DM an evening for people I will not see again afterwards, just for a couple of bucks, is missing a crucial ingredient I need to make it all work. I need to get to know the players and I believe there is an art to forging a bond like that. At least it's one of the qualities of a good game (not necessarily the "we need to be friends"-argument, but that direction).

Maybe there's another perspective connected to this, as DMs are not just producing content, they are (in many ways) players too. There needs to be a mutual understanding in that regard. The whole idea that anyone can be a player, but a DM is something you could just as well pay for, is ludicrous from that point of view, as it reduces the DM from a player to a function. I want to be able to decide who plays at "my table" or whom I'm offering to join.

I also want to be challenged by a game and have fun.

And now, I rant a bit:

Our hobby has almost no structure beyond the commercial one provided by publishers (which is weak to begin with). We are also woefully behind in finding out what our hobby actually is (compared to, say, books or video games), so from that point of view alone I think commercializing it further will only throw us back.

Not that it can be helped, people will do what they always do and seize any given opportunity. Seeing how role-playing gets some traction with the main stream media, I'm sure all possible ugly faces of capitalism will manifest. They always do and just for the reasons stated above, people will get duped or will pay for inferior services or will demand their money back because they are not happy with what they payed for ... the whole kaleidoscope of capitalism fueled, unreflected bullshit is going to happen. I guaranty you, we'll see players for hire before long.

Maybe it needs to happen, too. We just have to take that bullet until people out of sheer greed up their game by offering "certified DM schools", which will have them proof at some point what they are doing ... It'll go a bit rampant there for a while and maybe we won't be alive to see all this calming down eventually.

Which leaves the question, why I even bother, right? Well, I wasn't sure when I started writing this, and I still don't have an answer. Role-playing can be more than just entertainment. We see this happening all over the place, in schools, in therapy, in jails, even. It has a tremendous effect on young players and we've only just started to explore what the possibilities are.

The entertainment industry, however, is the enemy in this regard, just as the big publishers are. They don't want to explore things, they prefer things to stagnate (just look at all the reboots, is all I'm saying, there'll be another Interview with a Vampire, ffs, and Star Wars is effectively killed to death). It's all about the next buck. Let them do their thing, but don't expect anything beyond what is already established. They'll harvest our hobby as they did with everything else and that's just that.

Is it insulting to earn money on what all those other people do for free? It's a question everyone has to answer for themselves. Just remember all the DMs out there not only offering their services for free, but also investing in tons of product to make it happen. Isn't it kind of a perverse system, where companies can not only sell people stuff, but also reinvent it in cycles to earn even more money, without actually doing that much? What do publishers offer besides their product? Gaming culture? Places of exchange? Recruitment??! I don't think so. Who has the money, who has the time, right?

And there are always those doing it for free ... Maybe we all should ask for money. I'll write a letter to some publisher right away:
[source]
Hello good Sirs, I'm about to start DMing a game of yours, I've already recruited 5 players (Recruitment fee: 50 Euro), we'll play every week for at least 4 hours (40 Euro per session, but we could talk a lump sum for the year). I expect to invest at least 1000 hours of work into this, preparation included. My fee could be reduced by future products from your side and all sorts of services you can offer around the game. Thank you very much.
Sincerely ...
I don't see this fly, do you? Now imagine the DM at the end of the session saying something like: "That's 10 bucks now from each of you, thank you for participating. See you next week." Or starting an offertory? Yeah, why not, I like money as much as the next guy and I most certainly DID THE WORK!
 
I know, nobody cares about that shit enough to even break a sweat. The personal benefits of simply gaming are still greater than anything greed could destroy, I guess. Or rather, hope.

Conclusion

This isn't against people earning money with rpg products, it's against a culture where people think everything can be bought with money, that convenience should be above all else and that everything you do should have a price tag attached, but doesn't. It's bitter, isn't it? Try go to your wife and say "I've cleaned the kitchen, that'd be 20 Euro for services rendered." Or charge your children for driving them to school ...
 
My point is, telling us everything has a price tag is the lie that gets imprinted in our brains so hard, we actually started believing it. Here's how it is: we do things without getting payed and not everything we do is worth money, but maybe worth something else. What that is? Doing something worthwhile for others, I'd say. An evening making a group of people happy is an evening well spend.

I believe the very reason why role-playing games became as popular as they are, is that you need nothing but a set of rules, some dice, pencil, paper and a couple of friends and you are set for life. Offering this opportunity to people is priceless. It's why I blog, it's why I tell people about our hobby, it's why I DM.

It's also why I think asking money for playing the game is diminishing not only the efforts of others, it's also against the spirit of the game. There's so many unexplored or untouched ways to earn money with this, it's uncanny. Look at roll20, there's a great idea. Offer a platform to bring DMs and players together instead of offering DMs for hire. Write and publish, do research.

Establish the hobby to a point where governments support it as art or sponsors as sport (although I rue the day a DM for hire comes to a gig with banners from Nike or McD on his shirt ... let's not do that). Official games, streamed live? Why not? Certified DMs? Go crazy!

Most of all, support a piece of culture that's not driven by profit (at least at it's core, the game itself).

Actually,  we all know it's already done in some places, with different levels of success. Little clubs here and there doing their thing, with many people doing projects with libraries or comic and gaming shops, schools even. They don't do it for the money, they do it because they see value in it beyond that.

So, before you start charging money to DM a game, contact your local club and ask them how you can help. If you think you are a good DM, offer seminars. It's something even clubs can pay for, if money is what you crave ...

Of course, this is just my opinion and I haven't made up my mind completely. It's a complex subject. As I said above, the trend is there and it will happen regardless of my arguments. I hope I could offer some food for thought for those on the fence, though.

[source]

* Shit, sorry for the detour, but there is something to be said about how much evil we are willing to accept because of the benefits something brings to a community. I won't go into this further, but the movie Spotlight pretty much shows it all and from all sides (although being about the church, it pretty much shows the dynamics behind a lot of looking away). Check that out, if you haven't.