Friday, 17 April 2015

The Price of a Hauberk in Gomorrah

It seems almost obscene to extract something gameable out of the brutal and depressing revelations in Roberto Saviano's undercover account of the organized crime economy in his native Naples, Gomorrah. Nonetheless, this paragraph struck me, from the chapter titled Kalashnikov:
To calculate the state of human rights, the analysts consider the price of an AK-47. The less it costs, the more human rights violations there are, an indication that civil rights are gangrening and the state is falling to pieces.
It's made me rethink the usual scheme by which the party adventures out in the boondocks but then has to travel to the big civilized city to get the best deals, or any deals, on the materials of war: weapons, armor, foot-soldiers, and in a fantasy world, usable items like potions or battle charms.

It was not a good day.
But what if the opposite logic holds true? What if the best ratio of supply to demand is not found in the big city, which has to stay peaceful and organized to attract trade and reap taxes, where the state is strong, and men, arms and magic are regulated - and as a consequence, arms are sold only in black markets at greatly inflated prices? What if instead the deals are to be found on the borders of civilization, where swords and mail are regularly looted from the slain? Stocks in the house of war have to be high, for any day now a warlord could strut by looking to garrison a castle or equip a company. And if magic items are bought and sold, the ones useful in a fight are more likely to command a good price in a place where the line between life and death is as clear as the sea's horizon.

And human rights violations. Of course your adventurers (read; your players) are not the kind who would burn a hut to shake loose a few copper pieces, kill cows for experience points, right? But guess what, other adventurers are. And just as much as you lay waste the orcs, the orcs are equipped to lay waste the village, which means that they too have their hidden source of cheap arms and provisions. Consider: have the adventurers gotten to a point where they turn their nose up at loading a mule with the fallen goblins'crappy hauberks and scimitars? There are those on the other side who do not. You may even meet them someday.

Finally, Saviano devotes a lot of space to the economy and mystique of the Kalashnikov, its ease of use, its democratization of mobilization and massacre. A phenomenon confined to the industrial age? Maybe your medieval or Renaissance world is about to experience a rude awakening as one or another evil warlord figures out a way to stamp out reliable longswords with minimal craft. Or - more frightening still - maybe what is being mass-produced is enchantments on swords. Not straight pluses, that would be convenient to the party as loot, the glass-cannon wielders easily overcome. No, these are equalizer bonuses that give a flat attack roll as if you were 5 Hit Dice, and a flat damage bonus of +3 excluding strength. Effects like that get a little closer to evoking the sheer panic of well-armed, low-numbered adventurers who, like the knights and samurai of old, are going to have to get used to the triumph of the masses over the hero ...

Monday, 30 March 2015

d20x3 Genre Tables: Water

Slowly creaking back into blogging. Here's #28 in the ongoing series. There's another one coming up for salt water; this one digs a little more obscurely than the others into mythology and lore for its mixture of obvious cliches and recondite weirdness. It seems that worldwide there's an amazing effort put into creating alluring maidens, nefarious bogeymen,and dire beastsall to explain why people who can't swim drown in pools and rivers.

As usual, roll d20 on the columns jointly, separately,or have this do it for you.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Players Align Characters Through Actions

Since I got back into role-playing almost 5 years ago I have never used alignment in a game. It just seems ass-backwards -- writing down a promise to do some abstract things on your sheet, in a vague terminology, and then arguing about whether the specific things you do add up to that vague promise or not. If you're not arguing about your alignment, you're either doing your alignment or ignoring it, either of which is equivalent to what a player does in my games anyway, depending on whether or not they have a clear character concept.

To paraphrase Gygax, "character background is the first three levels" and in the same spirit, alignment is what you do with your character. Player alignment. Not the semi-jokey kind of schemes that lay out how players tend to behave towards each other, the GM and the game structure. One of those appears below.

By now several of these sectors are as mythical as the catoblepas (has anyone ever actually seen a "scenery-chewing thespian" player?) but this will do to illustrate what I am not talking about. I am talking about observations made over the years as to how players, when not constrained by alignment, tend to play their characters. Player-determined alignment is real but, going beyond what I wrote several years ago, it doesn't correspond to any alignment scheme used in D&D or in the most fervid, hair-splitting heartbreaker. It's a characterology all its own, that deserves its own terms, put together in opposing pairs.

Never put a fork in a toaster - PolyvoreImpulsive: The player can't stand boredom and pushes the character to propose reckless plans, start fights, and generally see what they can get away with. Their action will usually account for half the party's failures and half their successes.

Strategic: One kind of leadership role, this player moves very cautiously, often is found physically restraining other characters, and wants time to think things through. Not a rules lawyer, but the most likely to consider the rules as part of the plan.

Exuberant: Another kind of leadership role, the player runs the character as a striding, swaggering bag of charm; not so much reckless as eager to please the crowd with the best move, the best solution. The crowd, by the way, includes the GM.

Quiet: This player may be introverted, unsure, or just enjoys watching the game play out around them. They respond when spoken to, are often asked to run point or guard the rear or cast a spell, but rarely propose anything on their own. There is a lot of middling GMing advice written about trying to draw this player out but I find that acknowledging their existence in small and meaningful ways works best.

Dark: This player, through their character, expects the worst of what's around them, and so feels justified in doing the second-worst. This can take many forms and is not always the stereotypical dark elf assassin, but distrust, avoidance and sneak attack form part of their usual counsel to the rest.

Naive: The player enjoys portraying an overly trusting person, whether a fool or just really kind-hearted, to lighten up the grim, heavy, paranoid world of adventure. They're such a perfect patsy for the usual DM array of sympathy traps that you almost feel bad springing them on such an obvious mark.

Obsessive: What the "thespian" stereotype gets wrong is that real acting is hard, ham acting is self-policing, and usually players who want to play their character to the hilt open up a can of spam based on one obsession, be it food, wealth, combat, sex, religion, or hate. They use it more as a running gag than an excuse for soliloquies. Really, there's enough irony in the water these days that if the room isn't laughing heartily, they'll turn off the shtick real quick.

Eccentric:  Kind of the mirror twin of the obsessive but coming from an opposite place, this character sends out a lot of random signals but there's a difference between playing weirdo and playing impulsive - the impulsive player is trying to accomplish something and sometimes succeeds but the eccentric is just trying to make a style point, like Nerval walking a lobster. Truth be told, though, frame-breaking jokes are so common among everyone that this one's "wacky" in-character pronouncements get mistaken for out-of-character banter half the time. White Wolf did a good job of writing niches for this kind of player into their games.

So with this scheme in mind, there's really no reason to write it on the character sheet, because it's what the player does. But for a GM, rolling a d8 or two to come up with personality elements for an NPC that's easy to play because you have the examples all around you - that's another matter.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015


I'm not sure if I'll get around to recounting the latest misadventure of the Muleteers, but there's a couple of posts to be had reflecting about the last session.

Huizinga, in The Waning of the Middle Ages, calls to attention "The Violent Tenor of Life"; the ease with which harsh and tender passions in alternation were unleashed, the revelling in cruelty. Although controversial as historiography, this description perhaps tells us more about what we moderns seek in the medieval, the archaic, the Renaissance or the Regency or the Wild West, when these are presented as times where life was cheap, morals were loose.

The role-playing game in its imaginative detachment allows the same vicarious pleasure in the impulsive act of grisly consequence. Vicarious? No, the direct pleasure of being able to say "I waste him with my crossbow" and having it happen as easily as saying it; of watching, horrified and grinning, in the mind's eye as a series of critical and fatal hits makes Peckinpah work of the enemy. The pleasure of being such a fearsome character and choosing to exert a brash and self-serving virtue; of hoisting sacks of coppers to urchins, the equivalent of Nino Brown serving up turkeys. The pleasure, even for mild-mannered character players, of being the monk hiding from the Vikings, the Wild West schoolmarm, the scholar who can live a little shady and still look a saint by comparison.

The roleplaying scenario strips away nervous inhibition and allows action as transgressive and pointless as that of the pictured fellow under the terrier crest who is spit-roasting a man for the crime of wearing a rebec on his head. Dealing out violence under these circumstances acquires a palatable irony because these are people long since dead, or better yet, who never could have lived.

One final pleasure, to the player, is finding out the boundaries of the world of action and joy. Does having a handful of hit points above the norm means that world is your arena whose inhabitants are merely bled and bowed bulls for the matador? Or rather, is it a place where crime is abhorred, vengeance is meted, and the arm of punishment is long if not swift?  Hurrah, for the scales are tipped in the favor of the latter option, the morality of the Hays Code, where we see every murder and blasphemy dealt out by the arch-hoodlum before the coppers surround him and fill him full of lead. Because to deal out the rough justice of consequences is the particular pleasure of the gamemaster. And the truly dispassionate gamemaster knows to make the delay or denial of justice, as unlikely as it may seem, a possible adventure in itself, if one of the hardest.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Muleteers: Joy's Return

The Muleteers on Sunday had a surprise visit from dwarf Joy and henchman Little Pig Man, eager to follow up rumors of an adventurer's republic being established in Garyburgh. They had picked up a wandering hermit, Freya (possibly pictured in the transplanar daguerrotype to the right, or in any event, a representative of that type). This mystic of St. Sylvain, carrying a rope made out of her own hair, seemed more inclined to stick around with the Muleteers in the end than the former members of the party. Perhaps they found the small scale of the "republic" unimpressive, with fewer than 200 civilian souls and a score of adventurers to defend it, and the only fortification a waits-high barricade around the town square.

In any case, the arrivals found the Muleteers coming back from the Castle around noon and persuaded them, uninjured, to turn around for a second chance at adventure! Grimnir, however, declined, citing a splitting headache, perhaps brought on by cognitive dissonance at the sight of a young hermit of the Church named after one of the holiest gods of his religious tradition.

The others quickly traced their steps back to the sinister temple they had been exploring on the second level, defeated the lone baboon ("Ugly Boy") who had been guarding the place and proceeded to  loot, smash, and defile (re-file?) with holy water the altar and great statues of Demogorgon. Tracing a circuitous corridor, they completed what appeared to be the southwest corner of the dungeon map. Along the way they encountered a puzzle that defeated their powers of deduction and dealt out harsh shocks that turned Mantog into a twitching wreck tied to a mule, and if not for luck would have made Freya's adventuring career very short indeed. Some storerooms, a pair of shriekers guarding the corpse of a rabbit adventurer clad in remorhaz-hide armor, abandoned orc barracks (not surprising given the recent depopulation) and a room with a dismantled blade mechanism.

At the end, the party decided to make their own adventure, and assailed a nest of giant ants with the aid of a gnome-summoned lizardman, truly a champion of his kind with near-maximum hit points. Alas, the ants were lucky too, and a series of high damage rolls soon had the Muleteers in full retreat, leaving the reptile to perish in involuntary bravery.

And so, the megadungeon, where boredom and clearing-out can always be remedied by taking a tilt at the nearest unsolved mystery or unconquered redoubt.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Think of the Former Children

Thankfully most examples of people saying "Childhood ... ruined" are in a jokey, double-entendre-finding, Captain Pugwash kind of vein.

But there are enough people who say it with a tone of outrage (usually about remakes) to get College Humor to produce a point-stretching, heavy-handed video about the phenomenon.

Travis Pitts: Childhood ... improved, actually

As someone who studies moralization I often ask myself why and how the hell people pour outrage into fiction, movies, music or games. I think I can explain this one.

"Think of the children" is the emotional trump card in moral arguments, right? Now, you can't plausibly say that the remakes and reboots and prequels are ruining a generation that never knew the original and may even prefer the new stuff. So by some convoluted twist of psychology and time, you argue that this entertainment product retroactively harms the child that you once were.

I don't know. Maybe you have to accept your own love of imaginative works, here and now, in order to start taking your juvenile enjoyments seriously and critically? In order to break them out of the shrinkwrapped exile where you might consign childhood to eternal nostalgia?

Because if you accept that as an adult you can still enjoy some of the things you enjoyed as a child, you should also give your maturity its due, and accept that you might no longer enjoy some of those things, and value coming to understand why.

UFO stands the test of time (plot and character, not costumes, natch).

The Planet of the Apes cartoon does not.

So I can take remakes on their merits (for example, the current Apes arc, which updates everything nicely while keeping just enough of the preposterousness and Heavy Lessons of the original). I'm happy to have parts of my "childhood ruined," if that means that I can have other parts of it validated.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Dwarves and Weather

It makes sense that a civilized underground race like the Dwarves would treat things we take for granted like the sun, moon and weather as we treat arcane astronomical phenomena. This means:
  • Advanced dwarven settlements often have an above-ground observatory with wind gauge, rain meter, mercury column, smoked glass for observing the Sun, and other such equipment.
  • Ouranology is the civilization advance responsible for maintaining an objective, sun-based standard of timekeeping, because dwarven settlements with a sleep-cycle-based calendar diverge greatly over long periods of time. But timekeeping by the moon? Weird, occult, something humans and elves do.
  • Very advanced ouranologists observe the clouds up close
  • Superstitions spring up about fate and basic personality depending on the state of the sun and moon at  time of birth (So you're an Afternoon Waning? Far out, so am I)
  • Dwarves who venture above ground are seen as cosmonauts of sorts, and there is fussing about the optimal weather conditions and possible catastrophes that seems baffling and neurotic to humans.
  • Continuing the analogy, dwarves with lots of above-ground experience have physiological adaptations (no longer blinded by sunlight, losing their agoraphobia) akin to the effects of zero-gravity, that make them a little strange to those in their native habitation.
  • When dwarves name things after the "Day" and "Night" (like the Day and Night Kings in Monte Cook's Ptolus, which brought this whole topic to mind) it's a lot more arcane and cosmic to them than when humans do.
  • Dwarves sneer at any science or magic that gives importance to the stars or planets. Size matters, and the biggest things in the sky are clearly the sun, moon and clouds.