Monday, 16 January 2017

The Fundamental Principles of RPG Style

In the early 20th Century the Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin attempted in his Principles of Art History to come up with a method for describing works of art purely in terms of their form (rather than their quality). He eventually came up with five different "successions" which can be thought of almost as axes or spectra on which to locate a given work of art. Thus works of art can be compared on the basis of being linear vs painterly, planar vs recessional, tectonic vs a-tectonic, and so forth. You can then, according to Wölfflin, use this to understand and explain how representative forms change over historical periods.

Wölfflin's method is based on a cod-Hegelian historicist theory in which everything moves cyclically in a thesis-antithesis-synthesis sort of way, but his basic idea - coming up with a way to describe the differences between any given set of paintings - is interesting and sound. Let's try and do something similar with RPGs.

What I'm suggesting here is a normatively-neutral way of describing any game, campaign setting, adventure module, or even individual session, using these four handy Wölfflinian "successions":

Open v Closed. An open game system is one in which there are many (or infinite) possibilities - you could in theory do anything with it. Risus, GURPS, etc. A closed game system is one which is highly specific to a certain period or mood (Night Witches, Dogs in the Vineyard). An open campaign setting is one which leaves things, well, largely open (Isle of the Unknown, Planescape). A closed one is detailed and largely pre-determined (modern Forgotten Realms, the Known World). An open campaign is one which begins as open-ended. A closed one is one in which there is an expectation of a completed narrative arc. An open session is one in which the PCs begin without anything particular to do and set their own goals. A closed session is one in which what happens is largely dictated by circumstance.

Light-hearted v Serious. This is more self-explanatory. Light-hearted doesn't necessarily have to mean "humorous" - it could be, say, a non-combative animal fantasy game you run for your kids or something. Equally, it could be a game involving lots of death or torture if the players aren't taking things seriously or are playing Paranoia or something.

Easy v Hard. A hard game system would be Rolemaster. An easy one would be Ghost/Echo. An example of a hard campaign setting is Wraith: the Oblivion - you have to think about it a lot before you can really understand what's going on; an easy one is the Known World. An easy campaign is one which has simple goals or expectations (clear a dungeon); a hard one is complex and has many different strands. An easy session is one which places few demands on the players; a hard one requires lots of thought and effort.

Loose v Strict. A loose game system is forgiving and has rules which are readily broken or manipulated - like OD&D. A strict game system resists being fooled-around with, like D&D 4th edition. A loose campaign setting is one which does not hold fast to genre convention or to a specific canon, like Rifts. A strict campaign setting is one which does not mix well with others, like Middle Earth. A loose campaign is one in which the DM adopts a kitchen-sink approach; a strict one holds fast to expectations of genre, mood, or style. A loose session is one in which the players and DM frequently "break the fourth wall"; a strict session is one in which most things take place in-character.

Thus, you might describe D&D 5th edition as moderately open (you're generally going to use it for fantasy games, but other than that you're relatively free from constraint), moderately serious (there is a slight tongue-in-cheek element to it but it is essentially played straight), sitting between easy and hard, and relatively loose (you can fiddle with the rules quite easily).

Alternatively, you could compare D&D 5th edition with Pendragon and say it is more open, less serious, easier, and looser. Compared to Amber Diceless, Pendragon is more closed, about as serious, harder, and stricter.

Moving down to campaign settings, you could say Planescape is open, somewhat light-hearted, somewhat hard, and somewhat loose. It is more open than the World of Darkness, more light-hearted, harder, and looser. The World of Darkness is more open than the world of Cyberpunk 2020, more serious, harder, and stricter.

Yoon-Suin is somewhat open, somewhat serious, somewhat hard, and somewhat strict.

Maze of the Blue Medusa is somewhat closed, somewhat serious, quite hard, and quite loose.

Apocalypse World is somewhat closed, serious, somewhat easy, and somewhat strict.

In comparison to AD&D 2nd edition, BECMI is equally as open/closed, but a little bit more light-hearted, a little bit easier, and a little bit looser. On the other hand, 2nd edition is equally as open/closed as 3rd edition and probably equally as light-hearted/serious, but is a little bit easier and a little bit looser.

You can probably think of game sessions you've been involved in and how you might categorise them. I reckon the most recent one I played in was rather closed (it was a pre-published adventure), rather light-hearted (we approached it with a fair amount of levity), pretty easy (what we had to do was largely clear) and rather loose (we didn't hugely get into our characters and often commented on what was going on).

There may be other "successions" I've not thought of.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

In Praise of Maximalism

I expect if you're reading this you'll know about Melan's recent post, "Against Ultra-Minimalism". This post is an orthogonal response to that.

My basic idea of a good game book (whether a good rule book, good module, good bestiary, whatever) is that it should be well-designed - which typically means efficiently designed - and interesting to read. Those are the platonic ideals. While the design should therefore be "minimalist" in a functional sense - it should be minimally complex, i.e. only as complex as it needs to be - the approach to content is subject to a totally different set of considerations. Give me good, interesting, exciting, readable, imaginative, dare I say even poetic, prose. I don't want to read a rule book written like a car manual. I want to read a rule book written by Proust, Ellroy or Vance. I don't mind how different the style is, but give me style. Give me voice. Give me something good that I actually enjoy reading for its own sake.

By the same token, I don't want to read a book full of "This is a bronze-age village exporting pitch next to a bunch of Vikings and a colony of 15 ents." I want a rule book full of real ideas to inspire and entice - ideas that mean something - and which I wouldn't have thought of myself. I can't get enough of those.

So I don't actually mind how long a rule book is, if it's genuinely well-written and imaginative. I tend to prefer shorter books because most RPG writers are completely dreadful at writing and pretty unimaginative. But if you can write, and have good ideas, why go minimalist? Give me more of it. Be as maximalist as you like. Misty Isles of the Eld could have been twice as long and I'd have still loved it. Ditto Maze of the Blue Medusa. I want books, like those, that are brimming with invention, not limited by the false modesty of minimalism. "Less is more" as a principle is over-rated; you can over-egg these things, but nobody ever talks about the dangers of under-egging, which in my view are all the more pernicious because that sort of approach tends to take on the character of an orthodoxy which cannot be questioned.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Incomplete list of books which could form the basis for RPGs, but probably never will

The Dice Man, George Cockroft
The Game, Neil Strauss
Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, Cyrano de Bergerac
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
Snowblind, Robert Sabbag
The Nowhere Men, Michael Calvin
Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose

Add your own.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Scenes of a Medieval Battlefield

Yesterday I headed up to North Northumberland, very close to the Scottish border, to the site of the Battle of Flodden. It is a very quiet and, in winter, desolate area, with beautiful but bleakish views of the Cheviot Hills and, really a stone's throw away, Scotland itself. Nearby is a small and exceedingly peaceful village, called Branxton. It is in all respects the middle of nowhere, but in 1513 somewhere in the region of 14,000 men were killed there in a matter of a few hours (a casualty rate apparently higher than on the first day of the Battle of the Somme). The retreating army of James IV, who had invaded England, were cut off in their path back North by an army led by the Earl of Surrey. James IV himself was among the dead.

The battlefield itself is very moving, because it is so well preserved. You can go on a relatively simple 1 hour hike around it, and information boards tell you what went on at various stages. It seems more-or-less unchanged since those days. The Scots primarily lost because of the weather and terrain - it had been raining in the area for weeks and on the day there was a rainstorm; the main body of Scottish pikemen got bogged down in knee-high mud in a marshy area which they hadn't realised was there. They lost their order and got pinned down by English longbowmen, and when they finally made their way clear in small exhausted groups they were killed easily by English men-at-arms with billhooks.

Even though that area has been drained now and it hasn't been a particularly wet winter, I had an inkling of what it must have been like - the mud was pretty thick underfoot, by turns slippery and thick. I certainly wouldn't have relished trying to navigate it dressed in armour and carrying a 14 foot pike.

I took some photos and thought I'd share them on the blog as a matter of interest for people interested in medieval conflicts.

 

A guide to the battle. 


The monument, to the dead of both nations. It's difficult to imagine Scotland and England at war with each other these days in some respects, and yet on the other hand I'm sure if Nicola Sturgeon could arm herself with a 14 foot pike in the name of Scottish independence she'd do it gleefully.


This is where the Scottish left flank stood, looking down the hill. The smaller slope in the middle distance is where the English were positioned. 


This is looking 45 degrees to the right from the same position, looking across to where the English centre and left flanks would have been positioned.


Looking parallel across the initial Scottish positions from roughly the position of the left flank.


The view the Scottish centre would have had, looking down at the English positions. If you'd had this view that day, the chances were pretty good that within a couple of hours you'd be dead or injured. From this point you can see Scotland in the distance (the Scottish town of Coldstream is about 4 miles away). An odd quirk to the battle is that the Scottish were positioned in the south and were attacking north. This is because they were heading back to Scotland and the Earl of Surrey had brought his army around to block off their path. 


This is where most of the fighting took place. The Scottish pikemen advanced down the slope (i.e. from the left of this picture towards the right) and then became bogged down here. So this is where the melee happened, and probably where James IV was killed as well. In those days political leaders who took their countries to war had real skin in the game. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

So Long Ago and Dream Dinosaurs on Venus

I found an old book while looking through boxes in my loft. It must have been bought for me as a kid at a car boot sale or something (it was published in 1944), but I can barely remember it. It is called So Long Ago, and it is beautiful and strange and brilliant.


The book is a kind of pictorial introduction to the prehistoric world, but it is what the prehistoric world looked like in 1944. The way people in the past thought about their own past is a source of endless fascination, just as much as the way they imagined the future. I think that somebody could probably write a Guided History of Past Imaginings of Dinosaurs if they wanted to: a chronicle of how dinosaurs have been conceptualised and re-conceptualised with each generation.

The art in the book is just completely delightful - and I don't use that word lightly. The illustrator and author, E. Boyd Smith, doesn't even appear to have a Wikipedia entry, but take a look at these pictures and tell me they don't delight you.






Just look at the face on that Tyrannosaur. He seems full of trepidation almost, as though compelled into violence which he does not really seek. The dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts in the book are so anthropomorphized they are practically people. Everything about their eyes, faces and gestures is so incredibly expressive - even the dimetrodon in the first picture seems almost sad and desperate as he chases after his prey.




What kind of a world was the Boyd-Smithian prehistoric earth? A world thronging with sentient, thinking, feeling, creatures, almost more human than humans. A world of vivid colours and dream-like hallucinogenic vistas. A world that is almost friendly - yet one in which predation is everywhere and nobody can rest for a moment without having to find a way to defend themselves. It's like a world where everything is dialed to 11: everything in it lives with its heart on its sleeve, by turns euphoric, terrified, aggressive and playful.

This dream-dinosaur world is more fantasy than science, as we now know, but I love the idea of it and the vividness of its vision. I want to make a campaign setting there - or, more specifically, a campaign setting on an old pulp vision of a "wet Venus" covered in jungle and volcanoes and inhabited by these uber-emotional beasts. The fertile, fecund, feminine counterpoint to barren warlike authoritarian masculine Mars, as it was imagined, funnily enough, in the 1930s and 1940s - the era of E. Boyd Smith himself.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

We Were Never Being Boring, We Were Never Being Bored

Being bored is extremely important for the creative process. Sitting staring at a blank piece of paper, canvas or screen with nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to think, seems to be an essential part of what allows us to make things that are good and new. For long, long minutes you can sit there, putting every ounce of effort you can muster into trying to think up something, anything - trust me, this can be worse than an hour lifting weights or circuit training. Eventually, from the well of ideas that drills deep down into the middle of your soul, some wild and resistant gremlin of inspiration is dragged up, kicking and screaming, and then brutally pinned down onto the page, still breathing but broken. Then you make a cup of tea and wait for the next one.

The other reason why boredom is your friend and ally is that it forces you to sit down with that blank piece of paper in the first place. After you've cleaned the house and fed the cat and unblocked the plug hole and clipped your toe nails and picked out all your belly-button fluff and done every single little last thing that you can think of, boredom sets in, and that's when you can really get to work, because finally you have no excuse not to. 

TV, the internet, and social media are your sworn enemies, because they assuage boredom. You can sit down with a remote or mouse and flit from one little island of entertainment to another until it's time for bed, and never once feel as though you need to do anything creative at all. And if somehow you do get that feeling - which you will, as all human beings do - and do go and sit down with that blank piece of paper or screen or canvas, you can very quickly get sucked back down the rabbit hole of non-boredom the instant things get difficult. That remote control or mouse is still there. The siren song of cheap and unearned distraction. 

If you want to produce anything worthwhile, my son, embrace and even seek out boredom. 

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

A Taxonomy of RPG Fiction

The Tie-In Novel. Self-explanatory: a full novel based on the game or its setting. Examples: the Dragonlance series, the Blood Wars trilogy, the Shadowrun novels.

The Flavour Snippet. Small sections of text - usually just a sentence or paragraph - somewhere on the page to break up boring chunks of exposition and add to the "atmosphere". Generally purporting to be overheard from a conversation. Examples: perhaps most famously deployed in the Planescape books, but also prevalent in Cyberpunk 2020 ("Frack, she was good. She was the best...")

The In-World Expository Text. Part of what would otherwise be explanatory text or rules is introduced in the form of fiction or a fictional conceit. Has three sub-taxons:

(a) The Fictional Gazette. A fake magazine, newspaper, book, etc. in one volume. An item of realia which is dressed up as being an actual text from the setting. Examples: the Cyberpunk 2020 "Chromebooks" - essentially equipment lists but presented in the form of magazine adverts and articles. The recent Volo's Guide to Monsters for D&D 5th edition is another example of the Fictional Gazette. My journal of Laxmi Guptra Dahl from Yoon-Suin would probably fall under this taxon.

(b) The Fake Grimoire Extract. A segment of text, often used to introduce and describe a monster or certain key concept, that is supposedly taken as an extract from some non-existent longer work and inserted into the existing book. Example: any D&D Monstrous Compendium or Monstrous Manual where to break up the monotony one of the monster descriptions is done not by the author of the manual but by some supposed sage or adventurer.

(c) The Fictional Narrator Telling You About Things. A (typically annoying) fictional character appears in the book to explain certain things to you about the setting or give insights into aspects of it. Example: the description each type of fae gives of the other types of fae in the Changeling: The Dreaming Player's Guide ("Why bother? Those poor lost souls crouch so close to banality that they love machines more than people!").

The Literary Introduction. A paragraph or two of poetry, fictional prose, fake quotations and so on inserted between sections or chapters. Example: extracts from "The Book of Whispered Psalms" etc. in Houses of the Blooded.

The Fictional AP. A fourth-wall-breaking fictional account of an incident from a gaming session that didn't actually happen. Typically comes in the form of a script, with the GM and "Bill" and "Jane" as characters. Example: almost any page from Amber Diceless.

The Full-on Cringeworthy Rulebook Short Story. It would be cruel to list examples, but.... Unknown Armies. And The Blossoms Are Falling deserves a special mention for egregiously having two of them right in the middle of the book, one after the other.

The Good Rulebook Short Story. I'm not sure there actually is an example of anything within this taxon.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Art of Reading RPG Books

When was the last time you actually read an RPG book cover-to-cover as though it was a novel? I have done so from time to time (most recently with Maze of the Blue Medusa), but much more often I approach them like a kind of literary flaneur. I dip in. I read a page here and a page there. Magpie-like, I gather bits and pieces of things that interest me. Sometimes this is just a flavour of inspiration that I take in a new direction. Sometimes it may just be a spark which sets my imagination off and running. When it comes to "crunch" I tend to scan through and identify the important bits and read them carefully. Sections of actual fiction never, ever get read. I probably read somewhere around 60-75% of the total content in the course of interacting with the book over time. 

This means that for me RPG books might as well be written in any order. In fact I wonder whether I wouldn't be better suited with an RPG book that would come in a folder and you could just pull out clearly defined sections to read - a completely modular setup. 

This also means that RPG books (in which the writing is complete shit as a general rule anyway) need to be really interesting at every turn if they're to be really successful. Each page has to have something good on it - preferably something which gives the reader ideas, in a presentable and quickly accessible way. The reader isn't engrossed in War and Peace. He's grabbing a book off the shelf and flicking through it, or sitting on the loo, or he's a player in a game idly perusing while his character is otherwise off-scene. The best book is one that works with that in mind. 

This is part of the reason why I quite like how Yoon-Suin turned out. I can't claim it being deliberate. But I think one of its successes is that when you open it up at a random page there is generally something on there that you can get interested in. It isn't just a page of blah, which is what you tend to get with most RPG books. 

Monday, 2 January 2017

5th Edition, Youthful Invulnerability and the Red Queen Syndrome

Shortly before Christmas I was one of two PCs playing through the introductory D&D 5th edition starter box adventure, The Lost Mine of Phandelver. It was a great evening, but I was struck by how this new edition lulls you into a false sense of security. You think that with so many hit points and abilities you are practically invincible and can take on all comers. In fact the opposite is the case because 5th edition monsters pack a heck of a punch; we effectively had two TPKs in the session because we kept stumbling into deadly scenarios thanks to our attitude of blithe self-confidence. Rookie players used to Basic D&D or OD&D, take note: you may have a lot of hit points and spells but that won't matter when bugbears do 2d8+2 damage per hit.

This is certainly a big improvement on 3rd and 4th edition, though you have to wonder if there isn't a bit of a red queen syndrome going on: 5th edition PCs, it seems to me after running and playing in about a dozen sessions, are about as fragile as Basic D&D ones. Everything has been amped up in turns of hit points and healing, but all the threats have been hugely boosted as well. The game works and is probably objectively the best version of D&D since the Rules Cyclopedia, but the feel is also quite similar to that iteration because the threat levels (and also the pure vanilla tonal palette) are effectively the same - it's as though we've gone through 20 years of change to end up in exactly the same position we were in back then. This is no bad thing, but perhaps a cautionary tale about the value of change in itself?

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Names of Places

I take great pleasure in looking at maps - particularly low-level highly-detailed local maps like Ordinance Survey ones and road atlases. I can get lost in an AA road map for hours. One of the things that keeps me going is the richness of the names. Earlier, sitting around bored with nothing much to do on a family visit, I picked up a road map and flicked through. I was struck, like I often am, at how much more imaginative the real world can be in comparison to the supposedly highly creative fantasy author.

For instance, lying before me is the page covering the SW corner of Dumfries & Galloway. Just scanning the page I see the following utterly fantastic names:

Gatehouse of Fleet
St John's Town of Dairy
Minnigaff
Tongland
Wigtown
Townhead of Greenlaw

This is not to mention the odd habit of giving things two names, so you get stuff like "Kippford or Scaur" and "Rhonehouse or Kelton Hill", suggesting possibly that the locals call their village one thing and outsiders call it something else (or, better, that the village is divided like the Sharks and the Jets, fighting a constant bloody civil war over whether their home should be known as Crocketford or Ninemile Bar).

For some reason Southern Scotland has a particular genius for this sort of thing. I suspect it might be something to do with Anglo-Saxon speakers transliterating Gaelic or Cumbric phonetically, plus of course the influence of Norse. So you get names like:

Town Yetholm
Oldhamstocks
Morebattle
Maxwellhaugh
Lilliesleaf
Coaltown of Wemyss
Burntisland (actually pronounced like "Burnt Island")

You also get some great ones in Lincolnshire and the Fens, often featuring saints' names in a quite specific and peculiar style. Viz:

Wainfleet All Saints
Leake Common Side
Leake Hurn's End
Bennington Sea End
Little Sleeping
Spilsby
Old Bolingbroke
Scrane End
Terrington St Clement
Walpole St Andrew
Walpole St Peter
Castle Rising
Burton Pedwardine
Kirkby Underwood
Covenham St Bartholomew

I'm going to publish a module set in a village called Burton Pedwardine next to a megadungeon called Lilliesleaf.