Thursday, 13 May 2021
Friday, 7 May 2021
If you believe in gods and in life after death, it's not inconceivable that you might consider it an honour to be sacrificed in order to carry a message to the world beyond. Some real-life cultures seem to have taken that view. Frazer gives several examples in The Golden Bough and talks about the sacred king whose reign might well end with a trip to the afterlife. Describing the 16th century customs of the Chichimecas, the friar Marcos de Niza said: "They cast lots to decide who will have the honour of being sacrificed, and with joy they crown him with flowers upon a bed on piles of wood which they set on fire, and so he dies. The victim takes great pleasure in this rite."
"Great pleasure"? Anthropologist Kathryn M Koziol isn't so sure about that. In this paper about another Pre-Columbian culture she says, "Among the Natchez, the mortuary rituals of the elite Suns [chiefs] included the killing of retainers. These retainers were members of the Natchez population and gained prestige for their kin by willingly dying, or at least by performing their willingness to die, to accompany their leaders." My emphasis there.
Professor Nicholas Humphrey gets outraged at the suggestion that the Inca "Ice Maiden" might have been an even enthusiastic participant in her own ritual killing (40 minutes in to this video)...
Players of my gamebook Necklace of Skulls may have been on the receiving end of such an honour. On your visit to Chichen Itza ("Yashuna" in the book) the priests of Chaac invite you to jump into the sacred cenote with a message for the gods. Of course, in the gamebook the cenote undeniably is a gateway into the mythic world. In real life (see photo above; that's me on honeymoon) it's just a dirty great pond in which you'd soon go down for the third time. Pleading hydrophobia was no get-out, as there was always the option of getting sacrificed as an esteemed ball player, which is what the spouting snake-heads represent in this carving:
It's not just in Native American cultures that we encounter the willing (and even apparently eager) sacrifice. Ahmad ibn Fadlan, writing in the 10th century, gives a vivid account of a Viking ship burial in which a female thrall has sex with each of the mourners in turn and is then ritually killed. Wikipedia wonders at the attitude of the thrall herself (a volunteer, according to ibn Fadlan) and says, "While the scholarly consensus assumes that the slave girl would have felt happy and privileged about having sex with many people before being killed, recent work has suggested that we should instead see this as an account of rape and brutal strangulation."
What "recent work" could that possibly be? Time travel? A séance? Because otherwise they just mean "somebody's recent opinion", which is utterly useless. It only tells us about the attitudes of the West in 2021, not of the Rus in 921. We cannot know how people from those far-off cultures regarded a sacrificial victim without knowing what the world looked like through their eyes. Even the word victim implies a modern viewpoint. To them the afterlife was probably as real as sunlight and rain, whereas we know perfectly well they were not off to see Chaac or Odin with a message from the mortal world but were simply being snuffed out. Would they have been frightened or honoured? Both, probably. As Professor Koziol says at the start of that paper I cited, human societies are capable of acts that are simultaneously great and terrible. Our rituals aren't unambiguous, so why should our reactions to them be?
No matter how sure you are that you're about to enter the afterlife, there's got to be a natural fear of death too. A kamikaze pilot crashing into a warship no doubt had feelings of both fear and pride. The September 11 attackers presumably felt exalted, terrified, uncertain and excited all at once. They were told their martyrdom would earn them immediate entry into a heavenly paradise, but did they completely believe that? Would Wikipedia describe them as feeling "happy and privileged" or as having been manipulated and psychologically abused? If we can't even exactly pin down the mentality of modern jihadists, how are we going to judge the cultural mores of five or ten centuries past?
Yet thinking our way into other cultures and other mind-sets is part of roleplaying. On Tekumel, prisoners of war who aren't of glorious enough status to be worth ransoming back to their clans will usually get sacrificed to the gods. In Tetsubo, a character performing seppuku believes he is undertaking an act of courage and dignity. Spock in Wrath of Khan knowingly took a lethal dose of radiation as an act of logical altruism -- it wasn't his fault he was then doomed to an eternal afterlife of sequels, and we can only hope that any player-character attempting the same thing in an SF campaign would be granted the dignity of a true death.
We don't know what it's actually like to be a person raised in another era or culture, but we are all human and we have universal emotions and our imaginations. We can conceive of a credible mindset for a kamikaze pilot or a 10th century slave girl on a pyre or a Maya citizen jumping into a sinkhole. That's as good as it's going to get.
Wednesday, 5 May 2021
The fact is that the Blood Sword books, while nominally set in the world of Dragon Warriors, have a very different flavour. Dragon Warriors is low fantasy, or was always meant to be, and that goes double for Jewelspider. But Blood Sword is the very essence of epic fantasy, with its mythic adversaries, heroic challenges, and save-the-world storyline.
Blood Sword, in short, is perfect for the kind of high adventure that 5e delivers. And I have a feeling it'll be the system that many Legend players have been looking for all these years. I've noticed that a lot of Dragon Warriors games throw out the cultural and small-scale folkloric elements in favour of grand plots worthy of the MCU. So the 5e edition of Blood Sword is going to be the RPG those gamers have been waiting for, while those who prefer the lower key of decidedly unheroic "real" Legend will still have DW and Jewelspider.
Here's the official description from publishers Tambù:
Blood Sword, the legendary 1980s gamebook series by Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson, is back as a new setting for the 5th Edition of the most famous role-playing game of all time.You will play as rough and ragged mercenaries or bounty hunters, in service to the lords and monarchs of Legend. You will be part of a vile stew of assassins and soldiers of fortune hired to fight bloody wars, to banish the monstrous creatures that plague woods and villages. But it is woven into your destiny that you will retrieve ancient relics – relics of great and terrible power such as the lost fragments of the Blood Sword, the only weapon that can defeat the five undying Magi of Krarth who threaten to unleash the Apocalypse.
Are you ready for adventure?
Friday, 30 April 2021
'You killed my character and I wasn't even there!'
It was the early days of roleplaying and we were still feeling our way, but the player was right to be aggrieved. It's like borrowing a friend's Hellblazer collection and returning it covered in coffee stains. (A sore point; we won't go into that.) Still and all, what should I have done? We'd been in mid-battle the previous session, we'd had to press pause, and that player hadn't been able to turn up to the next game.
I can't remember what I decided. There might have been a retcon, but I was pretty hardline in those days so maybe the player just had to suck it up. At any rate, they didn't die in vain. From then on it was understood that PCs wouldn't get killed in the player's absence.
One simple solution is to avoid breaking the session in the middle of a fight. I've talked before about why cutting a session there doesn't work. There are more suspenseful ways to build in a cliffhanger. For instance, suppose it's the eve of Waterloo and the player-characters are sent to evacuate an important NPC from a chateau some miles from the main battle line. They get there only to learn that an enemy detachment is also heading that way. That's a good point to break. There's tension, there's uncertainty. Before the next session the players will be thinking about what to do. Run for it? Barricade the chateau and make a stand? Head towards the enemy for a surprise attack? Negotiate? Disguise one of the party as the NPC?
The icing on this cake is that if any player can't make the next session it's easy to explain away their absence. Maybe they've made a break for it with a message for high command, or they're out scouting the enemy's position. Contrast that with having the enemy characters burst into the chateau and then breaking till next time. Quite apart from the problem of having to cold-start with action rather than character interplay, you have no easy way to account for the absent PC. They were there last time making plans with the rest of the team -- but for some reason they sit out the fight? The other players can just shrug and accept it, the way you have to give a free pass to plot details in Doctor Who, but it's not great for immersion. In every way the former solution works better.
It's easier when you have plenty of prior warning that a player can't turn up. Their character can be off doing something else and there's no need to come up with an excuse for them not taking part in the action. Our long-running Tekumel campaign used to be run by me and Steve Foster (the designer of Mortal Combat and Eureka) taking turns as referee. We soon spotted the flaw in this arrangement: our own characters were only getting to be half as powerful as the rest of the party. Our fix was to award our own characters 80% of the average experience points earned by the other characters for sessions when we were refereeing not playing, the one-fifth deduction reflecting the fact that we weren't in danger of death. If a player couldn't turn up one week, they got the same deal.
Nowadays it's less of a problem because I don't tend to bother with awarding experience points, or else I play in games run by referees brought up in a culture of "every kid gets a prize" who scrupulously award each character the same experience regardless of what they did. In settings less vivid and immersive than Tekumel, suspension of disbelief may be less of an issue and players may just accept without comment that a character blinked out of existence for a week. Whatever works for your group, just so long as you don't hand a borrowed character back in a body bag.
Thursday, 29 April 2021
I've been listening to The Lovecraft Investigations, a BBC audio serial by Julian Simpson that takes interesting liberties with "The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward", "The Whisperer In Darkness", and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". I've provided links to the original HPL stories there because I think you'll enjoy the audio serial more if you know what they're riffing off. I'm not sure if people outside the UK can download the episodes from the BBC website for free, but if not try here.
The conceit is that we're listening to a real-life mystery podcast presented by Matthew Heawood (Barnaby Kay) and Kennedy Fisher (Jana Carpenter). These are well executed dramas, with good scripts (bar the occasional exposition-dump episode) and top-notch acting. They even got the superb Nicola Walker on board. How on earth does she have any spare time? I suspect her husband, who plays Heawood, might have twisted her arm.
If I have any quibble (and of course I do) it's that the flavour of scariness is more Delta Green than authentic Lovecraft. And, yes, I know they're not trying to do authentic Lovecraft, but it's a big step down from cosmic horror to cults-&-conspiracies. Secret organizations saving the world from scheming bogeymen? Not again, thanks. Really, what we have here is The Derlethian Investigations, whereas Lovecraft's conception of horror was genuinely innovative and I'd love to see somebody turn his ideas into a modern horror movie, TV show or podcast. That sheer bleak dread was what I was aiming for with the scenario "The End of the Line" but even there the tension can only build for so long before it all breaks up into running and screaming. Maybe that's a problem with all drama: the takeoff is always more atmospheric and interesting than the landing. That could explain Lovecraft's own aversion to plot. Thrillers are just fairground rides, whereas what was at stake in his stories was something much more personal and disquieting.
But anything that retained the existentialist nightmarishness of unadulterated HPL would likely not be that popular. Audiences want the Doctor Who style of panto horror -- the same thinking that inflicted a queen on the Borg, so that they could get actors in to chew the scenery. After a century of tying plucky reporters to chairs and planning rituals that will summon the apocalypse, it's futile to hope that drama is going to change now. But The Lovecraftian Investigations is a great deal better written than Doctor Who is these days, so putting my purist nitpicking aside I'll happily recommend it as a gripping and genuinely creepy modern classic. I've been listening to it while strolling the sunlit woodland of Surrey and it has transported me to shabby London car parks, rain-swept patches of Orford Ness, posh Pall Mall clubs, and spooky old cottages at night. It's true what they say. On radio, the pictures are better.
Coming up tomorrow: what happens when your roleplaying adventure hinges on a key character -- and the player can't make it that week?
Thursday, 22 April 2021
Maybe you’re still in the halcyon days of roleplaying. I mean the Goldilocks time when you’re safely past the juggernaut of finals and have yet to be distracted by career or kids. The days of dossing around, some might call it. You get to see your friends all the time and together you can slip into the parallel life of your roleplaying world whenever it suits you. Nothing beats it for immersion. Arguably it’s the only true way to roleplay.
For me it was back in the ‘80s. We’d have at least one evening’s gaming a week with the whole group, and usually two or three side sessions featuring one or two players who could then flesh out their characters’ extracurricular activities. And after the big Thursday night game, often we’d sit into the small hours (or even dawn) talking about the world of Tekumel, or chatting in or out of character. It was at one such post-mortem gathering, after our characters had disrupted the summoning of the tempest demon Kirikyagga, that the wind started to pick up and somebody mentioned that Kirikyagga was annoyed. That was October 1987.
But I digress. The reason I mention all this is that there was an interesting difference of approach in those post-game chats. Some players (eg Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith) liked to talk about their characters’ goals and personality and what we’d nowadays call story arc. “As Jadhak I used to be very cruel,” Jamie might say. “But since that Llyani curse caused me to lose my sense of fear I'm much mellower. I was cruel out of fear, you see, as a defence mechanism, and now my need for that has gone.”
This was a foreign language to players like me and Paul Mason. We threw ourselves into the role while playing, but I didn’t ever think about my character in an authorial way. On reflection, that might just be because I don’t think about myself in an authorial way. I would never map out how my character was going to develop, or even have any interest in analysing his behaviour. “You must have planned it that Drichansa is always kind to children,” Jamie might protest.
Drichansa was my character. All I'd started with was a mannerism: tugging at my earlobe when really trying to get to grips with a problem. Everything else about Drichansa I discovered as I played him. Jamie found the kindness to children surprising because Drichansa was otherwise notably lacking in tenderness.
“Kind to kids? I suppose I am,” I said. “I never thought about it.”
“You told Jadhak you were adopted. Could that be why?”
“Maybe. Want another whisky?”
You might think it’s odd that an author wouldn’t go in for that kind of character analysis, but I don’t tend to do it with the characters I write about either. Sitting at a keyboard making stuff up can get boring if the characters don’t surprise you from time to time.
This could explain why I’m not much interested in narrative mechanics for roleplaying. I don’t want to control my character like an author; I want to be them. I recently saw the latter method derided as the Actor Approach, and the person went on to say, “That’s not even how real actors do it.” Quite right. An actor has a script (most of the time) and even if they’re in a Mike Leigh or Christopher Guest movie they’ll have sat through extensive character workshops and discussions of the storyline first. But the attraction of roleplaying for me is to be neither author nor actor. It’s more like life: fielding stuff as it comes at you, and finding the story (or rather, stories) that emerge from all that noise only when you look back at it – and even then only if looking for story patterns is your thing.
But that style of playing is not so easy once you’re out of the sweet spot between college and adult life. We get fewer opportunities for gaming (my sessions are down to once a fortnight) and less time (no more playing till after midnight). No wonder that today’s games look for ways to jump-start inter-PC relationships and squeeze your fantasy life into the familiar shapes and tropes that stories take in creative writing courses.
And it occurs to me that’s what dungeons were, back in the dim mists of roleplaying history: a story shape, admittedly crude and built out of rooms and ten-foot corridors, that led you to a Big Bad at the end and allowed for campfire moments back at the town in between expeditions. A three-act structure in architectural form.
Modern games do a lot better – although arguably a physical environment is just as effective a way to shape a story as using plot points and scene breaks. Still, I gave up dungeons pretty early in my roleplaying career and I enjoy the emergent unpredictability of just-dive-in roleplaying stories too much to want to wrangle them with plot paradigms. Also, one of my day jobs is sitting with other writers planning characters’ story arcs. I enjoy that exercise of craft very much, the problem-solving and the personality construction, but I can’t see an evening spent doing pretty much the same thing as relaxation.
An example: not long ago I came very close to running a campaign from a published book complete with pre-planned adventure. The book begins by saying that each player should pick one of the other PCs as their closest friend, and another who they most trust, and so on. For me that should all happen in-game. I don’t want written backstories, I want players to forge those relationships out of their experiences as they play. Then they’ll really feel it. If somebody at my table says, “Out of game for a moment, I think my character would…” then I feel like I’ve failed. They should be leaving their everyday life behind. If they’re stopping to view the characters from outside then they’re distanced from the fantasy, and that means the game isn’t working.
By the way, this applies to writing too. If you start a novel or script with two characters already in love, that won’t have anything like the impact of having them fall in love in the course of the story. Games likewise. A year or two back I consulted on the design of a computer game that began with a long cutscene explaining how the player had a pet dog called Jack who was your best pal, and together you got stranded on a desert island. I threw out the cutscene. “Have the player get shipwrecked and then find Jack trapped under an overturned lifeboat," was my advice. "You get to free him -- that's the first time you've met him, and so the bonding between you happens in-game rather than before the game starts." That way the player will actually care, because they experienced it rather than just being told about it. (Game storytelling 101, that, but you'd be surprised how many developers don't know it.)
Some people enjoy being the author of their character’s life, and/or bringing a five-page backstory to the first session, or calling time out to explain (often in third person) how their character arc dovetails with something that's happening in the game. They are more comfortable with the distance that brings. Well, fine -- you should play the game whatever way lets you get most out of it. But given all the RPGs these days that are designed to conform characters to types and tailor events to an archetypal narrative, maybe you should try it at least one time without preconception, script, or safety net. Just put on the persona and be that character. The worst that can happen is you'll lose yourself in the game.
I think I picked up a love of literary sailing from Jack Vance. Or maybe it was earlier, as I've been on Captain Bligh's side since the first time I heard the story of the Bounty.
So it was inevitable that Fabled Lands would feature seafaring adventures like you get in Blood Sword and Down Among the Dead Men. Connective tissue though it is for the rest of the series, I think I enjoyed writing Over the Blood-Dark Sea best of all the FL books.
If you've got the brine in your system too, Prime Games have an update on the Fabled Lands CRPG and it's all about the high seas. Hoist the mainsail!
Coming up tomorrow: how dungeons are a simple container to shape stories, and whether it's better to author a character or just play them.