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Friday 27 October 2017

How rules shape the game world

Occasionally in comments on this blog I've mentioned the idea of myth levels as a way to represent a step-change in capability between characters in a role-playing game. As a fan of Sergio Leone movies it seems only natural to devise rules like that. In this 2001 discussion (from Annwn magazine, by the way) between Tim Harford, Paul Mason, Ralph Lovegrove and me, we touch on that and other disconnects between how the role-playing world ought to be and how the rules actually shape it to be. I've seen a fair few role-playing games where the designer tells us how the game should be played, and what the resulting game world ought to be like, but the system they give us (when gamed, as it will be) doesn't lead to anything of the kind. Designers, it's like being the Founding Fathers - you want the game to turn out a certain way, you have to do the work.

Tim: The trend throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s was towards more rational, logical, modular and universal systems. The idea was to provide a simple but realistic means of resolving the usual game questions about combat, success rolls, and so on. Some did fairly well at this task, others didn’t. Along the way, something was lost. Perhaps the problem was with the idea of “realism”. Different games have their own reality. A system like GURPS, for example, is necessarily atheistic. Characters are defined in modern terms, and GURPS handles fate, luck, magic and so on rather clunkily. It’s just a patch, and in a “universal” system it’s hard to see any other way of doing that. In DW, we need to capture the spirit of the time and the place and build it into the rules from the ground up. Heroes can wrestle with giants because they have great spirits. Hannibal could freeze a man into an ice statue [a reference to Knightmare 4: Fortress of Assassins], not because he was a sorcerer, but because he was Hannibal. “My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure,” should be in the rules from the start, not as a “Pure of Heart” advantage (gives x10 ST). The best example of this, for me, was the Judge Dredd system. It was simple, it was stripped down, it gave everybody a special angle or talent, and it captured perfectly the “reality” that an unarmed Judge can take out a dozen thugs with tommy guns any day of the week. That’s the advantage of a focused system done well.

Dave: Or another example from Robin of Sherwood... Little John is wrestling with a stranger. It’s an edgy situation, a “friendly” match but not very friendly, as they don’t know who the guy is and they may very well rob him later. Then, angered by something or other, the stranger suddenly lifts Little John clear of the ground and throws him down. A conclusive victory (and very effective visually, as I recall, because of the sun behind them as the stranger lifts Little John aloft). Everyone sees this and, stunned, they go down on their knees, now recognizing the stranger as Richard the Lionheart. At the time, we talked about this kind of thing being represented by “myth levels”. If I’m myth level 10 and you’re myth level 1, you will not beat me in a fight even if you do have a much higher weapon skill. It’s back again to the idea that characters must be able to affect the narrative directly.

Paul: What’s the “narrative”? I think it’s dangerous to refer to characters affecting the narrative, because it seems to get people thinking in terms of manipulating their characters to make a story, which is different from immersing yourself in the character in the setting, and trusting in natural human processes to sort a narrative out of what happens.

Dave: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Instead of “affect the narrative”, I should have said “characters affect reality” – sorcerers and notable or mythic types especially. In fact, one thing we could say is that there is no difference (as Tim pointed out with the Hannibal example) between a mythically important character and a wizard. They can achieve the same results, even if apparently by different means. So maybe all magic-using characters should start at myth level 2?

Paul: Might it not be best to start off by talking about the spirit of the time and place, using whatever metaphors and references we can, before even starting to consider mechanics? To build up some kind of corpus of things we want the game to do before thinking of how to design rules that encourage those things to happen?

Dave: Agreed. Design should always begin with a feature-based description of the end product you’d like to have. Then we can start thinking about the way to achieve it.

Tim: If you look at the sources of inspiration for games like Dragon Warriors, you find that it doesn’t work the way it does in games. The effects are arbitrary, the limitations whimsical. Some great sorcerers never seem to cast a spell, while others never cast the same one twice. To a certain extent that’s inevitable: a storyteller can be creative and never needs to explain. A game designer is supposed to produce some kind of logic behind everything, for the sake of simplicity if nothing else. The lazy way out is to delegate all responsibility to the referee and players. That’s fine as far as it goes: they have far more responsibility for having a good time than any game designer. But professional (!) pride urges me to provide some framework to help this creativity, and to provide boundaries which are there to guide rather than constrain.

Dave:  RPG designers have been trying since 1975 or whenever to create a set of rules from which dramatically satisfying results will emerge. Obviously this isn’t working – for instance, applying D&D experience rules to an online RPG like Ultima has just meant the unbridled massacre of new player-characters for their experience value. Taking Legend: we know we would like a world that is very like the Middle Ages but with a delicate flavouring of magic. But Dragon Warriors played strictly by the books would not deliver that world. Possibly we could get better results from rules that dictate the end result, not the way it’s achieved, as in Maelstrom. The special effects are left to the player and referee to agree. Eg, a wizard can exert an effect limited by distance, duration, and area, the degree of deviation from reality, and the degree to which other people’s wills oppose the effect. The last factor means assigning points from each person’s will into what they care about. Say my will is directed 30% into preserving my own life, 35% into immediate family, 15% into my lord, 10% into my church, 10% into friends. So churches end up very well defended from magic because lots of people care about them, even if only marginally. Subtle use of magic is encouraged – I might wait until you are sleeping, and your will is weaker, or I might find ways to distort your senses so as to trick you into walking off a cliff instead of zapping you directly. Or I might undermine your reputation with illusions so that friends and family gradually turn against you, thus stripping you of your defences. (The way Mastermind manipulated Phoenix in the X-Men, for those comic fans among us.)

Paul:  There is another consideration: there’s little point in reinventing the wheel. It’s unlikely that Dragon Warriors 2 can be the same game Dragon Warriors 1 was, in the sense that it won’t be a mass market paperback converting gamebook readers into role-players. Rather, I would suggest, it might be best to approach it for what it really is: the game intelligent Dragon Warriors would want to be playing, 15 years down the line. Thus the magic system should be an attempt to do something that hasn’t been done before: create a magic system that actually feels like magic. Of the previously published magic systems, I still have a soft spot for Chivalry and Sorcery, simply because it managed to be genuinely arcane. But even if that approach had not already been bagged (and duplicated, by Ars Magica), it would still not quite fit the Legend that Dave described. As I understand it, DW magic should be more Mabinogion than Paracelsus. So it might be worth to start off by bouncing around general ideas about the nature of this framework. Does it involve “spells”, for example, or is it going to involve a more freeform set of magical “skills”? Is there going to be any effort spent on play-balance for magic, whether that be out-of-setting (mechanical) or in-setting (folkloric defences and so on).Another important issue: how homogeneous is it going to be, system-wise? Is there going to be the feeling that magic is pretty much the same however you learn, it, with only the decoration different? or will there be radically different systems to reflect a sense of diversity? That’s assuming there are any systems, of course.

Tim: (I like the idea as magic as a battle of collective wills. It seems to capture a great deal.) Homogeneity is to be avoided. I see a world containing magical creatures - fairies and sandestins, for example. They have their own ways of casting magic, which need not be transparent in the rules. Human magicians can bargain with them, or try simply to compel them to service. So that’s one way to command magic: by proxy. But I could also imagine a highly doctrinaire school which depends very much on ritual and on discovered spells. Here, the very rigidity of the spell system is an advantage: it emphasises rote learning. But such tricks as the “Imp-Spring Twinkle-Toe” seem another way to power; and the use of magical paraphernalia one more again. This doesn’t seem to be a problem. I wouldn’t want to see an attempt to break this down into “character classes”. I picture the “average” wizard in haphazard pursuit of magic in any form. We need to make the following concession to play balance: characters of equal myth level should be on a reasonably even footing. So a Myth 4 knight won’t be overly troubled by the enmity of a Myth 2 sorcerer - unless the knight is unwary, of course. Incidentally, I hate the nomenclature but love the concept of Myth Levels.

Dave: Again, I fully agree. I’m using this nomenclature just as a “developer interface”. And yes, a Myth 4 knight is of course on a par with a Myth 4 sorc. That is tautological - it’s the very thing that Myth levels define - eg, can this jumped-up little git really beat Captain Kirk? Of course not.

Ralph: Magic that feels “like magic” is quite a subjective term, but to me it suggests a slightly more spiritual or academic approach than the exoteric “press this button for fireball” spell system like AD&D. In order for magic to be truly mystical, it needs a cosmology behind it. This doesn’t have to be a defined “spirit world” as in White Wolf’s Mage... it’s more of a system of approach. The best model for magic are the real spiritual systems of the Kabbalah and other esoteric doctrines. The human body is the lowest, most base entity in the hierarchy of the human existence, and married to it is the soul, which (very) roughly equates to the personality and individual consciousness of the body. The soul is then a vehicle for the spirit, which is the “higher man”, the divine spark within a human. (To the more learned scholars out there: please forgive my bumbling through the halls of the arcanum, I’m still learning).Okay, metaphysics aside, what you have is this: the Spirit of a mortal is their true nature on the higher Spiritual plane of existence. Magicians are able to work their magic through their awareness of their higher selves. This is a concept prevalent in all sorts of spiritual teaching, from Hindu Akasha to Hermetic lore and Shamanism (in its broadest sense, encompassing systems such as Wicca and Scandinavian myth). In order to make it useful as a conceptual tool in the game, the “higher self” should have a set of statistics that are analogous to the “mortal self” on Earth - for example (picking a much used stat template) the higher self’s Fire, Earth, Air and Water translate to the mortal man’s Social, Physical, Mental and Magical skills respectively. The upshot is this: as the mortal man’s Myth status increases, it increases one or more of the higher man’s stats. Those Higher abilities might then be interpreted on the Earthly plane as incredible fighting prowess (Earth), the ability to sway enormous bodies of men and reduce a man to a quivering wreck with a glance (Fire), etc. This is not a particularly new idea: Runequest included the shaman’s fetch in its rules for Spirit Magic; Mage has the Avatar; Nephilim made use of elemental “Ka”. I don’t think that any of these games used the concept in quite the same way, however. The whole “Mythical Warrior” game is in many ways about both player and character ego, and the “higher man” literally is the Ego.

Paul:  This also matches some of the early thoughts on the I Ching. Some writers argued that the oracle directly connected with a higher, simplified plane, and because the higher plane was simpler than our own, interactions between cause and effect were more amenable to comprehension and control. Thus, although the I Ching tends to be regarded as a means of fortune telling, to early Chinese theorists it was far more than that: more like poking around with the motherboard of existence. An adept was supposed to be able to use the I Ching to effect changes in reality. All of which suggests that this higher (Platonic?) plane may be a useful concept, if only by analogy, for the working of magic. How, if at all, does it relate to Faerie? It would be nice if not handled directly. In other words, a high ‘Earth’ score doesn’t just represent ludicrous brute strength, but the capacity to affect ‘Earth’ on the higher plane... which will in turn end up affecting the lower plane, in the same way that the ‘myth levels’ that have been discussed before do. Thus, a very strong enemy will be able to beat a weaker (but higher myth level) character if the contest is narrow down to the purely physical. The latter’s advantage would be, however, that their higher myth level enables them to find other ways of winning. This can be rationalised (within the game) in metaphysical terms as being the exercise of a higher, Platonic, potential. It also seems to represent the ‘genre’.

Dave:  I just watched A Chinese Ghost Story 2 and was reminded that it was one of the inspirational sources for the myth level concept. The sword-wielding general in it is no sorcerer, but he is able to hold his own (briefly) against an invisible demon by dint of sheer skill. One idea might be that myth level lets you use the wrong skill for the job and still somehow get an effect.

Paul: I like that idea: presumably myth level is also useful in carrying on after one’s limbs have been hacked off? The danger here is of ending up with something that appears very similar to Feng Shui’s genre convention of “mooks” (whatever the hell that means) and “named characters”. On a very trivial level of course, myth level was something that original DnD level was supposed to represent. I also incorporate the “use any skill to defend against magic” in Outlaws, but without tying it to myth level (which doesn’t exist in Outlaws, except insofar as heroes tend to have higher skills).

Friday 20 October 2017

The mirror crack’d

And moving thro' a mirror clear 
That hangs before her all the year, 
Shadows of the world appear…
Hang on, I’m about to completely lay waste to Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” in an act of shameless cultural vandalism. If you haven’t read the poem, I implore you to do so now before looking at the rest of this post. That way at least you’ll have encountered it first as Tennyson intended. There are two versions, but for my money the 1842 text is better.

All right, warnings duly issued, here we go. I was introduced to the poem in an English lesson in my second year at grammar school. My interpretation of what was going on portrayed the Lady as a visitor from another world whose ship had malfunctioned, stranding her on Earth. Seeing Sir Lancelot on her ship’s scanner, she identified his shield as containing some mineral or gem needed to repair the ship, but she could not tolerate exposure to Earth’s atmosphere and died before she could reach him.

I’d pity the English master I inflicted that science fictional analysis on (to the great amusement of the rest of the form) except that he later put me in detention for writing an essay that he deemed obscene. So, you know, screw him. Although come to think of it I suppose that does give me a kind of honorary membership of the oppressed artists’ club, a taste of the crushing fascist jackboot that wants to stamp on every freethinking writer’s face. Hmm. A useful lesson after all, then. Mind you, I’d still be tempted to do what De Milletail does to De Blayac in Ridicule.

Festering schoolroom resentments aside, it struck me that you could turn that interpretation of “The Lady of Shalott” into a fun little scenario for something like Pendragon. If you want to end it in a big fight, she could be a shapechanger or even a (lady) dragon, rather like Al Williamson’s classic EC Comics story “By George”.
Twists-in-the-tail like that are a bit passé, though – and hard anyway to get the twist across the the players. Having lopped off the dragon’s head, how are they to know it was a stranded space-traveller who only wanted to fix a broken fluid link? And if they do find that out, why wouldn’t they just hand it over to her?

Well, they could do that, and thus it's all wrapped up as an uplifting interlude, but my view is that the scenario needs conflict. How about if the item she needs to repair her vessel is Excalibur itself? That’s not getting handed over without a struggle. And to make it more interesting than a head-to-head fight, how about those “webs” she’s said to weave:
But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights
Are those artificial constructs based on the people she sees in the scanner? “I am half-sick of shadows” – surely the lament of somebody who’s spent too much time playing on the holodeck. But she could use that web-weaving ability to create a simulacrum of one of the characters – or of Arthur, or Guinivere – to try to trick them into handing over the item she needs. Or she could be attended by a doppelganger of a knight known to the characters, either to establish her credentials or to trigger a feud with the real knight as a distraction.

The other question is: where is Shalott? Or at any rate, where is the lady/alien/visitor from? In my English class I was envisaging another planet. But maybe she's a time traveller? (That image above by William Holman Hunt strikes me as having quite a steampunk vibe.) Or might she be a Cthulhoid creature? An X-Men style mutant? A phantasmal shadow-version of Morgan le Fay? Over to you.

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Therefore let us confuse and scatter them

I'm always surprised when other people are surprised that I can get quite exercised over politics. Aristotle aside, you don't have to read much of my stuff to pick up on that, surely? And anyone who's looked at the Mirabilis comic -- or my Twitter feed -- will be in no doubt where my political sympathies lie.

On the other hand, if you read the Knightmare novellas you'd probably conclude (wrongly) that I'm strongly religious. So maybe not much of the author's personal slant makes it into the finished work after all; it only feels that way from this side of the keyboard.

Anyway, I'm currently finishing up work on my latest book, and I feel I ought to mention it here because it's a gamebook. My first since Frankenstein in 2012 (also pretty political, come to think of it). In this gamebook, though, there are no dragons or magic spells, no epic quests, not a single death paragraph. It's set in the real world and the conflict is not fantastical but political.

The picture shows a couple of the very weighty docs I've been working from over the last few months. Europeans will need no more clue than this to twig what it's about, and will understand when I say that no fantasy world could possibly match the madness, deception, fanaticism, stupidity, chaos and outright Kool-Aid quaffing involved in this particular real-life bonfire of reason. Other nationalities -- don't worry, I know you've got your own problems. The gamebook also has input from Jamie, and it should be ready before the end of the year. The working title: Turn to Article 50.

But if politics is not your thing, never fear. The regular Friday post will whisk us off to a world of mazy webs and noble knights, time travel and star voyaging, longing and loss... in a place not far from Camelot.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Whatever the weather

As I write this the Met Office says that a hurricane is on its way to Britain and we can expect to bask in summery temperatures of 25° C. That the one might cause the other is quite strange enough, but it reminded me of the story of a computer left in charge of weather control satellites that gets infected with a virus and starts to do even more harm to the world's climate than a certain tiny-handed orange demagogue.

It's not what you're thinking. This is Geostorm, the directorial debut of the writer of -- oh, Independence Day and Godzilla. And starring Gerard "Spartahhhh" Butler. I guess you could stay home and play Heart of Ice instead...

Friday 13 October 2017

The jackboot of stats

Another misguided attempt at writing up creature stats, this time for the Questworld pack I worked on for Games Workshop in the early 1980s. While playtesting one of the scenarios, Oliver Johnson had mentioned the Forest of the Serug - a typically evocative throwaway reference. I was intrigued and couldn't let it go. I kept coming up with abilities and spells for the Serug, dimly realizing each time that by doing so I was spoiling the mystery that made them so effective. (A point made very eloquently by JC in a comment to my recent post about Dunsany's gnoles.)

It's like all those Edwardian hunters who, confronted with the gob-smacking scale and profusion of wildlife in the tropics, let fly with both barrels. They had an emotion they needed to express, but they were going entirely the wrong way about it.

So my advice: use the stats for anything you like, but it will always be the undefined parts of your roleplaying world that most captivate the players.


The Serug are a very ancient and mysterious species, rarely encountered, living only in certain areas of the forest named after them. Local woodsmen will sell information about the Serug, but for the most part this consists of half-truths or outright fabrication.

The principal characteristic of the Serug is their murderous whimsy. If they decide to interfere with a party of travellers (roughly 20% chance of this each day that the party spends in a Serug area), they will avoid a direct assault. Instead, they may use crafty diversions to divide the party and then pick off stragglers, or extinguish campfires with magic and make a fleeting night raid. The party may catch a glimpse of sinuous draconic forms , long many-jointed limbs, a hooked beak or snout – but no clear description should be given.

Characters will almost certainly never learn, therefore, that the Serug dwell in a network of tunnels and chambers under the forest roots, built millennia ago when the species was still relatively sane. The tunnels are very low, and have sudden twists and slopes which make them difficult for any but the Serug to use. Entrances are usually within the hollow trunks of trees, and very well concealed.

The Serug can use all normal battle magic, and also have their own spells for raising a ground-mist, controlling forest creatures, and obfuscating or entangling a trail. They see well in darkness, and so prefer to fight at night if at all. In melee a Serug will strike twice a round, once with its weapon, once with beak or claw. The usual battle tactic is to concentrate most of their efforts against one or two individuals, then disengage when they have inflicted enough damage.

The following are some of the more commonly held beliefs concern­ing the Serug. Most are false:

  1. The Serug live on the moon and climb down to the ground using the tallest trees.
  2. A Serug is only visible when stationary.
  3. The Serug are actually a race of mad elves.
  4. Having draconic ancestry, the Serug never harm dragonnewts.
  5. There are no Serug, only men wearing costumes to frighten off interlopers.
  6. The Serug are giant spiders.
  7. The Serug are phantasms of the mind, and anyone seeing them will go mad.
  8. The Serug will not attack anyone carrying sprigs of dried heather.
  9. The Serug can only be hurt by fire.
  10. The Serug will always leave one member of any group alive to tell the tale.

Players may hear any of these as tavern rumours. Only the last is in correct, though the referee may choose to have others derive from a kernel of truth.

ARMOUR: 4 point skin.
SPELLS: Any— typically about six spells per individual
SKILLS: Climbing 90%; Jumping 90%; Set Ambush 75%; Perception 80%; Stealth 80%

I'll leave the last word to Kirk Douglas:

Thursday 12 October 2017

Ebon dragon gamebooks

On the subject of starting a story with amnesia, Mantikore Verlag, publishers of the German edition of Fabled Lands, are running a Kickstarter that may be of interest to those of you who like traditional fighting fantasy style gamebooks. Rider of the Black Sun is a 1350-section gamebook and the campaign runs till Guy Fawkes Night. Remember, remember...

Even if fantasy adventure gamebooks aren't your bag, don't forget to tune in tomorrow for the regular weekly blog post, in which we'll take another look at the Games Workshop RuneQuest world pack that never was.

And finally, in a completely spurious segue based only on the German connection, here's a video I found absolutely fascinating -- as will anyone who's role-played in a medieval or early modern setting, I bet. Cornelius Berthold at the History Park in Bärnau-Tachov explains how people in the past used to walk.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Start by forgetting

We're starting a new roleplaying campaign tonight. It's being run by Oliver Johnson, co-creator of Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword, and he always brings a unique blend of innovative story background and palpable atmosphere to his games, so excitement among the players is high.

The player-characters will begin with no memory of who they are. That in itself isn't going to win any prizes for originality. I think I'll be playing in at least one other amnesia-driven game this year alone, and that's even if I can't get my hands on a copy of Alas Vegas, but when added to the GURPS character generation system, amnesia should make for a particularly interesting cocktail.

GURPS encourages you to flesh out the details of your character's backstory -- too much, in my view. I've seen much better (more interesting, more subtle, more convincing) characterization from players developing their characters from the inside, once the game begins. The design-at-start approach is a little too much of an authorial straitjacket. But how about if you begin knowing nothing about your past?

With Oliver's upcoming campaign, which is set in New Mexico in 1862, I originally had it in mind to play a gambler. But then I thought, well, how would I know I was a gambler? I'm dressed like a gambler, maybe. Perhaps I found a deck of cards in my pocket. But what does that prove? What if another player-character is wearing a tin star. He might be a sheriff, but there are other explanations.

Here's how Oliver himself put it:
"The more I sit here reading through the rules, the more I'm convinced that GURPS is the enemy of roleplaying, and only when handled in the lightest way can it aid rather than overwhelm the game. That was why I decided to start everyone as amnesiacs. I want people to interact and make up their stories on the spot and have some good roleplaying, rather than prescribe their characters through these arbitrary skills and advantages and disadvantages and overthought back stories -- which, instead of expanding the character, merely justify the aforesaid self-award of skills, advantages, etc."
If GURPS allowed for a little more uncertainty, there might be some of those discoveries Oliver is talking about. As it is, I still have to know a little bit too much about my character -- those pesky GURPS disadvantages force you to join the authorial dots and end up with the usual cartoonish characterization. But in a different rules system with a little more leeway the amnesia could become a wellspring of creative improvisation.

One option would be to give each player say 80 points to spend on basic attributes, advantages, and disadvantages. Arguably you would know those pretty much right away, memory loss or not. But you don't buy any skills at the start of the game. When called on to use a skill, you roll 3d to set a brevet value X for that one roll only. You then roll in the usual way using X as your skill level for that one roll only. If you succeed, that sets a minimum value for your (still unknown) level in that skill. If you fail, that sets a maximum value.

For example, you attempt a Stealth roll. First you roll 3d to get your brevet value. Let's say you get a 12. So now you attempt the skill roll as if you had a Stealth of 12. Say you roll 9 - okay, that means you know your actual Stealth value cannot be lower than 9. Or say you roll a 14 - that's a failure, which means your Stealth cannot be higher than 13. Over time you'll nest in on values for all the skills you use.

This brevet system for discovering your unknown skill levels is not greatly different from the way James Wallis's Fugue system generates characters' skills in the course of play, as astute readers will have spotted, but I'm looking for something that's compatible with GURPS -- and, because we want to keep playing an open-ended campaign that could last years, we'll need a bit more detail than just having a skill or not having it. Also I confess a slight allergy to RPG systems that co-opt the tarot, simply because so many of them these days do that.

Starting a GURPS game with no memory naturally rules out giving character design points for Allies, Enemies, Reputation, etc. Those are things you'll discover or acquire in play. But that's a much better way to handle them anyway, just as in stories it's better to show than to tell.