Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Abandoned Territory

DRAGON magazine #154 was published in February of 1990. It’s largely a forgotten issue (the theme was war, but wargaming was out of vogue in the RPG world at the time, so it mostly talked about historic examples of military conquerors, feudalism, and heraldry) except for an editorial by James Ward entitled “Angry Mothers From Heck (and What We do About Them).” This was the infamous article in which Ward explained that the 2nd edition of D&D (published in ‘89) lacked half-orcs and assassins and renamed demons and devils in order to avoid the negative publicity that had dogged the game through the ‘80s. The article loudly trumpeted the fact that D&D was about good, heroic characters and teamwork, and would feature “wholesome” content that would be beyond objection.

The result? Well, causality isn’t an easy thing to trace, but in ‘91 we got Vampire: the Masquerade, the game where you played a blood-sucking undead slowly losing their humanity. V:tM was wildly popular (though we don’t have numbers to know if it was Pathfinder-levels of popular) and brought lots of new faces (especially female ones) into RPGs and LARPing.

When a successful RPG publisher states, “This we will not publish,” what they’re doing is abandoning territory to their competition. They’re making it easy for you to find customers they’re not servicing (or to peel off customers they’re servicing poorly). WotC did something similar at the dawn of 4e, basically stating that they were no longer going to publish material in compliance with 3e’s OGL and abandoning those customers to Paizo. (You could say a similar thing happened at the dawn of 5e, but licensing issues and a perceived lack of popularity have prevented much of anyone from capturing the old 4e audience, to the best of my knowledge.)

Of course, everyone has their limits, and it’s interesting to note how Paizo has quite purposefully positioned themselves just a smidgen outside what WotC considers acceptable. While what is considered acceptable isn’t always easy to pin down philosophically, most of us can recognize where something falls on the spectrum when we see it. D&D looks like this, Pathfinder looks like that, and the thing over here with the penis-slugs has got to be LotFP.

This is what makes an article like Kotaku’s “Dungeons & Dragons’ Gradual Shift Away From Monster Boobs” interesting. While it’s not an official pronouncement from WotC about what will and won’t appear in D&D, it’s pretty close, including lots of quotes from Senior Manager Mearls and Lead Rules Developer Jeremy Crawford.

While at first blush it appears to make enough genuflections to political correctness to warm the cockles of any HR manager’s heart, that’s almost entirely from the author of the piece, D’Anastasio. If you read the words of Mearls and Crawford, you get a very different message. Here’s a list of quotes plucked from the article and out-of-order to make it clearer what I’m getting at:

“We’re equal opportunity cheesecake merchants,” Mearls added. “We don’t assume heterosexual male players.”

In an e-mail, Mearls said that nymphs were simply unpopular monsters among Dungeon Masters. 5th edition was designed after crowdsourced playtesting, and over 175,000 responses from early testers confirmed that gamers prefer elder brains and beholders, apparently, to monster boobs.

“When we considered the audience, we tried to think of how men and women would react, and make sure the reaction we elicited was in keeping with the monster’s character and the design intent,” Mearls said.

Bare breasts are absent from Volo’s Guide, the latest supplement to the Monster Manual out in October of this year, in what Mearls says was a conscious effort to “make sure that the art we presented was as appealing to as wide an audience as possible.”

“I think there was a feedback cycle where the inner circle of fandom was mostly male, that group gave feedback on what they liked, and you had art that delivered what they wanted,” Mearls said.

The Mearls quotes almost seem to backpeddle on the promise of the article’s title: “No-no-no-no-no! We’re not removing the cheesecake, we’re just recalibrating it to appeal to a wider audience. Calm down, owners of Hasbro stock. We know sex sells; we’re just making sure we use as broad a scatter of titillation as possible.”

It’s an interesting dance, one in which WotC attempts to both cater to current corp-world pieties while still promising to satisfy the entertainment-hungry customers. Of course, it’s mostly for show; as the article makes clear, D&D’s days as part of a counter-culture are over. Nobody turns to D&D manuals for titillation anymore. The idea is laughable, like someone saying they get turned on by perusing O’Reilly programming manuals.

Which means there’s lots of abandoned territory there. And I mean LOTS! Venger Satanis has staked out his claim to part of it, with his focus on campy, ‘70s comedy mashup of Benny Hill and Star Crash. Raggi’s planted a few flags on the hill of sex-as-body-horror, but he’s hardly saturating that market.

And that, to the best of my knowledge, is all there is, really. Both Numenera and the new Blue Rose give a wink-and-nod to sex-as-empowerment, but their love-as-thou-wilt (pun intended) ethos is rather lacking in friction or heat.

Compare that to where popular fiction has taken the subject. The obvious point of reference is Game of Thrones. You can probably get there from the new Blue Rose (there are some intriguing relationship mechanics in the game I haven’t had the time to deeply explore yet), but it’s not the direction Blue Rose is pointed. You can probably tack that on top of D&D, but WotC has no interest in helping you out. Pathfinder would love to point you in that direction, but they won’t go there with you.

And that’s not even touching the real 500 lbs gorilla in the marketplace: romance. Monsterhearts is a (small) step in the right direction, but also an understandably timid one that’s a bit mechanically complicated in all the wrong places. (The fact that it started out as a lampoon of Twilight that morphed to embrace Gingersnaps and Jennifer’s Body says a lot about why the game stumbles. When we get a game that openly embraces Twilight without a hint of irony, then we’ll know we’re on the right path.)

I should add, I say this not having played Monsterhearts, so if someone’s got a more experienced opinion on this, please speak up. Also, if there are games out there that I’m missing, please say something. The market’s so broad now, it’s easy to completely miss huge swaths of it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Apocalypse Star Wars

Ok, it’s not bad. I did enjoy watching it.

I’m not in a hurry to go back, though.

If you thought the TIE fighters coming out of the sunset was Apocalypse Now, wait until you get a load of this one. Forest Whitaker is Kurtz, complete with paranoid mumblings and devoted followers, with a heavy-handed dash of Darth Vader. The new u-wing isn’t really a fighter, it’s more a combat shuttle, complete with seat-belt strapping and slide away doors with pintel-mounted .50 calibre... er, blasters.

Rogue One is a very Cold War story, which makes its interface with Episode IV feel like an ill fit. The original trilogy wears its WWII on its sleeve. There’s no question the Empire is the Axis powers, with their Stormtroopers, howling TIE fighters, and Japanese-inspired helmets. Lucas famously used dog-fighting footage from WWII movies as filler for the FX starship scenes. The villains are vile and the heroes, even the princess, exude an aw-shucks nobility that personifies the American self-image of what we call the Greatest Generation.

Not so in Rogue One. Even the heroes have been damaged by war, their principles compromised for their cause. The rebel “heroes” are murderers, blasting people in cold blood, and carry the scars of those actions. (Though a few from the gang at the end felt more than a little too green to bear such weights.)

The writing doesn’t help. Listen, I’m one of those softies who loves Babylon 5 and nearly bursts into tears when Sam tells Frodo, “I can’t carry it, but I can carry you!” Purple prose doesn’t send my eyes a-rollin’. But there’s good purple prose and then there’s leaden purple prose, and the constant litany of “hope-hope-hope” just sounded flat. Especially when you consider how so many characters just seem to give up in their final minutes, shrug, and wait for their inevitable deaths.

And the music also isn’t helping. The call-backs are timid, the emotional beats are timid. There’s too much trying to be Star Wars and not be John Williams going on here, and it just doesn’t do the emotional heavy-lifting a movie with this sort of dialogue and themes needs. You can tell that poor Michael Giacchino was working under severe time restraints.

Which all sounds pretty bad, but honestly, as sci-fi space opera movies go, Rogue One was actually entertaining. There’s some neat characters, some fun banter, the comedy is excellent and not heavy-handed. It’s got cool locales, neat ships, and well-filmed action. It’s just not up the standards set by The Force Awakens or the Captain America movies.

Comic by jollyjack.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Doing Star Wars Right

Like Kiel, I’m often bit by the run-a-Star-Wars rpg after watching one of the new movies. (Never felt this way when watching the original trilogy, mostly because I was so taken by what the pros had done with the setting. Not so much anymore.) While I’ve never done as much work on creating a Star Wars game as Kiel has, here are my thoughts on what one would look like:

  1. Heavily Character Based. Everything is about the characters and revolves around them. But not only the characters individually but as groupings. Luke’s faith in his friends wasn’t his weakness, but his strength. These movies, each and every one, have been about relationships. I’d put that front-and-center in a Star Wars game by:
    1. Creating a quasi-class system where each class has a nice little expertise niche carved out for itself, but where the abilities of the different classes have powerful synergies. A pilot and a mechanic working together can make a ship do things neither alone could. A diplomat plus a warrior can play good-cop-bad-cop in negotiations and interrogations. Getting attacked by a Jedi and a sniper is far worse than being attacked by either alone.
    2. Give relationships actual mechanics. Being siblings creates synergies (Luke calling for Lea while hanging from the bottom of the cloud city), being romantically involved creates synergies (maybe by being able to boost each other’s skills a la Han and Lea in front of the bunker on Endor), and being able to call on the aid of NPCs the PCs actually invest time and effort into.
    3. A pile of dice in the middle of the table the group can decide together to spend on any one roll they agree is important enough to warrant it. Yeah, it’s a dissociative mechanic, and generally I don’t like those, but this very much fits the feel of a Star Wars band coming together and supporting one another. Maybe instead it’s dice that each PC has, but that get boosted if given to another player?
    4. Base most of character advancement on this. Sure, Luke becomes a more powerful Jedi over the course of the first three movies, but he’s an aberration. Han’s already a hot-shot pilot; his growth arc has nothing to do with his skills and everything to do with his relationships and moral fiber.
  2. Remember that, while swashbuckling combat is a part of Star Wars, it’s not what Star Wars is about. To that end, I’d avoid fights for the sake of fights and instead of a usual combat system adjudicate every fight with a variation of Daisy Chains of Death & Destruction. The fighting in Star Wars is almost never about killing someone, and almost always an obstacle that must be overcome to achieve a goal.
  3. And I’d keep in mind that the Jedi are mystics first and warriors second, and make the higher plane they operate on mechanically significant to the game. Morality in Star Wars isn’t quite black-and-white, but it’s pretty central to the original stories, and making that work in the rules is important to getting the right feel.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Two Years of A5t!

So 5e’s been out for a few years now, two this January to be exact (counting the DMG), and it’s finally been graced with its own general-purpose rules addition in Volo’s Guide to Monsters. (I’m not counting Sword Coast because it’s very setting-specific and, frankly, appears to go largely overlooked, at least in my neck of the woods.) Now seems to be a good time to look back at the evolution of the art of 5e’s hardbacks.

The first thing that’s obviously different is the utter disappearance of the Robert-Howard-esque, checklist multi-culturalism that was everywhere in the PHB and largely gone by the DMG. It’s still gone. Instead, D&D art direction appears to have fully embraced the post LotR-movies “generic gamest fantasy” trappings you see just about everywhere these days. We’re a far cry from the Dungeonpunk look of 3e; weapons are armor look serviceable and realistic (except for dwarven armor which apparently revolves around sculptural paldron ornaments). The clothing and gear looks worn, sometimes even stained or tattered around hems. The further you get from the PHB, the more careworn the look and feel is. Also, the more practical it looks, with pockets, pouches, straps and hanging gear, without going full Wayne-Reynolds-kitchen-sink, and certainly not like the pants-made-of-belts Dungeonpunk of 3e.

Still, we’re not seeing a resurgence of ‘80’s you-are-there, either. What we’ve got now is a very digital look with a soft focus and lots of color effects, clearly inspired by Frazetta but with the heroics tamed down. The proportions are strictly human, the heroics more Aragron-with-his-feet-planted-on-the-earth than Legolas-leaping-through-the-air. It’s kinda reminiscent of the reskinned 2e with Jane and Bob from accounting, but instead of a near-photorealistic painting of them in their late-‘90’s renfest garb, the wardrobe’s up to Weta Workshop standards now.

Nor are we seeing the WoW-inspired, ultra-cool of 4e. The palette is muted, almost muddied to the point of ‘90’s-era computer games like Morrowind or Quake. There’s lots of browns, umbers, and sienna with very little crimson or royal blue. When we get bold, brilliant colors, they’re atmospheric effects like lava, or a magical effect inspired by a monster, and almost never on a PC.

In short, the WotC focus has moved from who you are and what you’re doing and into concept-art style moods. The wall-of-action is gone; in its place are almost contemplative scenes that promise that action is imminent, but not happening just right now. Unfortunately, the moods tend to be things that art conveys very clearly, but can be more of a challenge in an RPG. The eminent attack of this giant is neat, but PCs rarely wait around for the monster to strike, not when there are buffs to cast, weapons to poison, and plans to make.

The other very common piece of art is the head-shot and full-body portrait, very reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen Paizo do for their adventures. Unfortunately, while this sort of thing ought to be extremely useful to DMs running adventures, my own experience with the art has been very hit-and-miss. It’s pretty rare that I see one of these pics and get a good sense of personality. These portraits rarely tell me anything useful about the people they represent. The most interesting thing about the headshot of Out of the Abyss’ Sarith are the bright orange spots that blatantly give away the most interesting thing about him.

The end result is art that feels like it’s attempting to justify its inclusion through utility, attempting to be informative and inspiring, but stumbling due to the traditional limits and expectations of RPG art. NPC portraits should come on sheets that can be handed to the players, with ample space for the players to jot notes on. Mood pieces should accompany tools and tips for DMs to create and maintain that mood to useful effect at the table.

On the one hand, I appreciate this respect for the consumer. The art’s not there just to be pretty, it’s not there just because there needs to be art, the art is actively trying to make my game better. On the other hand, I think WotC needs to be even more experimental, or, at the very least, pay attention to the experiments of others. Why are the end papers in their books still blank? Why don’t their full-color illustrations have the vibrancy and life and character of their sketchy line-art? Where are the visual puzzles? Where are the hand-outs of items and locations that contain visual clues for the players to pick up on?

All-in-all, I’m finding 5e’s art to be ok. Not great, but not off-putting either. It’s just kinda there. I don’t mean to be damning with faint praise, but yeah, it doesn’t really inspire or excite me. I won’t be rushing out to purchase poster-sized versions of any of it. On the other hand, I don’t feel like I’m having to fight against it, either, which is a step in the right direction for me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Weeping Iron Makes Wizards Writhe

Sorry, couldn't resist all the alliteration. ;)

Reading the fourth and fifth Black Company books inspired this. Most likely to be encountered by my Wednesday group, but considering how ubiquitous spell-use is in 5e, it seems it would have very broad application.

So, somewhere in the mists of time, someone hated spell-slingers. Someone hated them A LOT. And they devised multiple methods of killing them. One of the most effective, and enduring, was weeping iron. Weeping iron looks like black iron except it weeps a nasty purple oil that coats the metal. Most weeping iron weapons are enchanted (because, apparently, they didn’t hate all spell-slingers, or maybe they were one flavor of spell-slingers with a hate-on for another flavor; whichever works best for your campaign, naturally).

Regardless of whatever enchantments a weeping iron weapon has, anyone struck by such a weapon must make a CON save (usually against 16) or be poisoned (as per the condition rules in the PHB). If the victim doesn’t have any spell slots available, they’ll shake the poison off in 10 minutes.

On the other hand, if the victim does have spell slots, they have disadvantage on the saving throw and immediately take 1d6 damage per the level of their highest remaining spell slot. (So if a wizard has two 1st level slots and a single 3rd level spell slot remaining, the wizard takes 3d6 damage from the poison.) Every hour after, the spell-slinger takes another d6 damage per level of their highest remaining spell slot. The poison feeds on the spell-slingers magical potential; only magic will serve to purge the poison from a spell-singer’s body.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Black Company Brings D&D Magic to Fantasy Lit

I’ve read this book three times now, I think. Once was in high school. I could swear the second time was more recently, and I thought it had been since ’08, but now I’m not so sure; there’s a lot of this book I did not remember. Perhaps ’09. There are a lot of frustrating holes in my memories of ’09.

The Black Company is important to me in large part because it’s kinda-sorta the template I’ve based D&D on since high school. When I first picked up D&D, I was days away from turning the recommended age of 10. My models for fantasy were Harryhausen movies (especially Jason and the Argonauts and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger), a random sampling of Norse and Greek myths sanitized for elementary-school kids, A Boy’s King Arthur, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. A lot of the core of D&D can be found in these things: warriors that take blow after blow, their mail hanging off them in bloody rags, but staying on their feet and in the fight; professional specialization; the ensemble of disparate characters united in a quest; derring-do, danger, and reward.

But there was a big, ugly fly in my D&D soup: magic. I would learn before I reached high school that D&D magic was based on the writings of Jack Vance, but I wouldn’t actually read any Vance for over a decade after I got that first Basic box. Magic in my fantasy didn’t work at all like D&D magic. D&D magic didn’t fit in Camelot or Cair Paravel or Isengard. My earliest attempts to fix this with spell-point systems were, of course, disastrous; such a gameist solution actually snuffed out any sense of the mystical.

In my teens, however, I discovered two writers whose work really, really fit D&D. The first was Steven Brust with his Taltos novels. The second was Glen Cook with The Black Company.

In spite of Green Ronin’s free-form, point-based magic system to the contrary, magic in the Black Company universe is clearly based on very distinct spells, cast over and over again:

The occasional pair of balls howled over from Duretile. I later learned that Silent was throwing them, having been taught by the Taken.

The worst seemed over. Except for the three escapees Elmo was hunting, we had contained the thing. The Limper peeled off to the join the hunt for the three. Whisper returned to Duretile to refurbish her store of nasty tricks.

This is probably the most descriptive passage about magic in the Black Company books. Spells are, clearly, distinct and teachable techniques. And they need to be “refurbished” occasionally. In short, it looks an awful lot like D&D’s Vancian magic.

Even better, for me, The Black Company gave me a lot of what I loved from Tolkien and Lewis and King Arthur, but modified for the “reality” of D&D-style magic. We had the clash of armies, political skullduggery, the wide-ranging quests, the memorable locales and characters. Yet the focus was on grunts down in the mud and the blood and the beer. We got glimpses of great and powerful sorcerers, but from the thick of steel-on-steel melee down below the flying carpets and spiraling towers. Ok, yeah, there is a “chosen one” character, but she’s not a main character and we never see anything from her point of view. It’s mostly Croaker and his annals.

And what we get is very D&D-looking magic, with powerful artillery spells able to brutalize entire companies of soldiers at a time in horrific ways. There are rains of acidic dust, germ-warfare eggs, gargantuan invisible stompy things, and various sorts of pyrotechnics. Want to stop magic? You need either your own wizards to counter the spells of your enemy, or huge masses of cannon-fodder to absorb all that deadly magic and still swamp the enemy with.

Or, even better for D&D, be a small elite band that can slip in unnoticed, ambush the enemy wizards and rifle through their letters and documented orders, and then get the hell out before anybody notices what you’ve done.

And that’s the model I’ve used ever since to make my D&D worlds. There are powerful bad-asses bestriding the world like colossi, but still being very mortal and limited beyond the range of their particular suite of powers. And below them, entire pyramids of experts, specialists, spear-carriers, and grunts getting all the things done that need doing. The colossi have their own goals and rivalries and plots rolling along, and while most folks might just see that expected clash between Good and Evil, or Empire versus Free Cities, if you peek behind the curtain you’ll see that the game isn’t actually what you’d expect.

I remember thinking, the second time I read The Black Company that it clearly was intended by Cook to be a stand-alone thing, very much like his The Tower of Fear and the one about the guy with the magic sword. But if you look at the publication dates, that doesn’t seem to be the case. According to Wikipedia, Shadows Linger was published five months after The Black Company, and The White Rose came out six months after that. Then we get a four year gap before Shadow Games. It’s going to be fun to explore this journey again.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

D&D is a Transhuman RPG?

I was contemplating the realities of 5e D&D (the setting the rules assume/create) when I realized that D&D takes place in a transhuman setting. Notice the similarities:

  • There are superhuman abilities all over the place! Lots of common folk can do things like see in the dark or cast simple cantrips, or even higher-level spells like hellish rebuke, even before you start discussing class levels.
  •  Death is reversible. In 5th edition, a 5th level cleric can revivify a corpse if they’ve died within the last minute. This very much looks like tech medical researchers are perfecting even now. Many common folk have natural lifespans measured in centuries.
  • Enhanced reality and magical make-up! Lots of normal folk can toss around cantrips like thaumaturgy before you even start talking about class levels. High elves have access to the entire wizard list of cantrips, and these include things like lesser illusion, mage hand, and mending. A single 3rd level cleric can light every street-corner in town (given enough time) with continual flame.
  • Mind hacking is a thing. While friends and charm aren’t the spells they used to be, crown of madness and dominate person allow you to adjust a person’s behavior in real time, while suggestion, geas, and modify memory can distort or even reshape a personality.

And keep in mind, everything I’ve discussed above is available to characters below 10th level of ability. Modify memory and geas are 5th level spells, available to 9th-level wizards. I haven’t gotten into the really reality-bending stuff like teleportation circles, control weather, earthquake, true polymorph, or wish.

However, as in cyberpunk, the future is unevenly distributed. High elves are the big winners, having universal access to wizard cantrips and the longest life spans. Poor humans are at the bottom of the stack, though they do appear to have improved facility towards learning and personal development.

Just how uneven the distribution is depends on your campaign. 5e doesn’t assume, the way 3e did, what sort of campaign you’re running. If you decide that most priests can’t even manage a cantrip, then even kings might not have access to revivify. However, in most campaigns I’ve seen, almost every village has someone capable of casting at least lesser restoration, meaning they’ve got a 3rd level cleric or druid around. The rules for the teleportation circle spell state that “[m]any major temples, guilds, and other important places have permanent teleportation circles inscribed somewhere within their confines.” The DMG walks this back a bit, but there’s a strong implication that 9th-level wizards and sorcerers are thick enough on the ground to make these things useful to commercial and religious institutions (who usually don’t create wizards as part of their regular activities). Keep in mind, it takes a year of casting and over 18k gp (assuming a 365-day year) to create just one circle AND you need a 9th-level wizard or sorcerer at the other end, where people will be teleporting from. This isn’t the sort of thing you’re likely to do on a whim.

So while your standard D&D campaign may lack the usual trappings of a transhumanist setting, it has a lot of the mechanical parts of one. This should make transhumanist lit a good source for mining plots, conflicts, and themes for your D&D game.