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Thursday 22 July 2021

Manners maketh man

“It was their pity Driss hated. They seemed not to be aware that he could destroy them at any moment he chose. Destroy them and loot the little safe in their office, where they kept all their earnings from the bed and breakfast. They were not even aware of the compassion he was showing them. They looked right past his manhood and ignored it, as if it didn't exist and he was just a child who needed a bowl of milk every day.”
In Lawrence Osborne’s novel The Forgiven, an impoverished Moroccan named Driss illegally makes his way to Spain and is given a job by Roger and Angela Bloodworth. The Bloodworths shelter Driss from the authorities but they don’t appreciate that their liberal culture is not universal. The openness and trust they show to Driss, he takes as an affront to his masculinity. Wary hospitality according to a strict code would be fine. It’s the casual assumption that he can be treated as a member of their household that he finds disrespectful.

You don’t get much culture in fantasy. Oh, occasionally somebody will say, “It’s our custom to wear only green velvet coats on holy days,” but that’s barely skin-deep, a merely satirical look at the arbitrary nature of human customs. From the inside customs don’t feel funny, they feel like a matter of life and death. A Bedouin is obliged to offer hospitality. A samurai must atone for shame with seppuku. A calling card with “somdomite” written on it can destroy a reputation.

When roleplaying is set in a world with its own social structures and mores, and players are trying to get inside that mindset rather than play 21st century characters parachuted into a superficially exotic environment, then what you are doing is culture gaming.

Here’s an example of culture gaming from a convention game run by Michael Cule. There were a bunch of players who were new to Tekumel, and they were barbarians who’d arrived fresh off the boat in Jakalla harbour. Vortumoi, a priest of Hrü’ü played by me, brought them to be interviewed by his clan uncle, Lord Vrimeshtu, who wanted to hire them for an expedition. Also present was my bodyguard, Karunaz, played by Paul Mason. We sat on cushions to discuss the expedition over a meal – a real feast of Thai snacks that Michael brought along! – and Karunaz remained standing off to one side. (He’s Livyani, so never ate with Tsolyani, and in any case it was not his position to sit with his employer.) The tricky moment arose when Lord Vrimeshtu pointed to the wine and said, "Get your Livyani to pour for us, Vortumoi." Well, Karunaz was low clan but he was nonetheless a warrior, and you don't expect a bodyguard to serve you at table like a menial. What to do? Then I had it: “Allow me, uncle,” and I got up and served the wine myself. I could do that without loss of face because I was doing my uncle’s bidding rather than doing a favour for the barbarians. Thus my honour and Karunaz's were preserved and the clan head's wishes were fulfilled.

Whether you think that kind of thing is the lifeblood of a roleplaying game or a distraction from the main business of the adventure will tell you if you’re a culture gamer or not. It’s really the old (and often slightly forced) dichotomy between character-based and plot-based fiction. I lean towards character-based myself, much preferring Anton Chekhov to Robert Harris – though my bookshelves have room for both. And you do need both. If you think of the characters as heading towards a light, which stands for the plot objective, and the medium they’re moving through is their society, it’s the turbulence in the medium that makes the journey unique. Without it you’ve just got a straight line. But if there’s no light then they go around in circles or do nothing. 

(Examples of stories that are powered by events but flavoured by social constructs: Julian Fellowes' Belgravia, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and Francis Spufford's Golden Hill. Or any truly compelling narrative, really.)

So the plot isn’t just a MacGuffin. Still, I don’t actually remember the adventure from that session. I think it involved a ruined fortress in a swamp. Probably there were monsters to fight. The barbarians will have run about and hit things, but it’s the nail-biting nicety of that dining-room etiquette problem that has stayed with me.

So do we need rules for social interaction? Obviously there are rules – we live our real lives according to such rules, usually unspoken but very well understood. We are alert to nuances of manner in our own society, even if we couldn’t actually sit down and explain the rules of conduct to a foreigner. But do we need game mechanics - do we need that kind of rule?

I don’t think so. We use game mechanics for the “stage directions” of a game. “I climb the wall stealthily and the guards don’t hear me.” Do you? And do they? We’ve got dice for that.

But social behaviour happens in the dialogue. Players can handle it perfectly well in conversation and mechanics couldn’t cover all the permutations anyway. Often a dispute in social terms comes down to very fine distinctions, and it’s possible that neither party is wholly right or wrong. If you wanted game-mechanical rules for social interactions, in order to cover every outcome they’d need to be highly abstract. Something like this:
“I seek to impose my status on you, rolling 6.”
“I roll a 3 and resist the attempt, countering with a critical social roll.”
“Now let’s decide what our characters actually said.”
Some people like to play that way, but I prefer immersion. Fortunately all you need is a sense of what the society’s rules are in common situations and in general principle, and a willingness on the players’ part to throw themselves into that. For example, Tsolyani law treats injury or death as a civil crime which can be settled by means of shamtla (weregild). Once you know that and the form for demanding shamtla or for taking the case to a duel, you get a lot of emergent possibilities.

Then when you include the fact that in Tsolyanu insults are also regarded as an injury, your social outcomes explode into Mandelbrot-set level richness. Your players might even forget there’s a monster-stuffed ruin out in the marshlands, because the cut and thrust of society is much more real and involving. Instead of Dungeons & Dragons, you’re in the territory of Sense & Sensibility – and, speaking as a culture gamer, that makes for much more memorable games.

By the way, although Tekumel is an ideal setting for culture games, I don't want to give the impression that it can only be played that way. Professor Barker said that everyone should create their own Tekumel, and I'm sure most campaigns are very far from the "real" Tekumel. An example: in the Five Empires, belonging to a legion, especially in the heavy infantry, is a respected profession. In the most prestigious legions you'd need to be high-medium status even to sign up, and even "sergeants" (hereksa, commander of 100 legionaries) are mainly from aristocratic clans. Promotion is affected by your social class, manners, bravery and even looks as much as by your competence. That's the culture gaming version. Many Tekumel campaigns, however, treat soldiers as usually uneducated and poor, because that's what players in modern Western societies expect. Personally I can't see in that case why they wouldn't play D&D or something similar instead, but everyone should choose whichever style gives them the most fun.

Tuesday 20 July 2021

Popes & Phantoms

If you're a regular visitor to this blog you'll know the high regard I have for the work of John Whitbourn, who is possibly the leading author in the field of the English New Weird. And, full disclosure: John also happens to be one of my oldest and dearest friends. Not that I'd allow that to sway my judgement; I have lots of author friends and I don't recommend all their books with the same unforced enthusiasm I have for works like the Binscombe Tales and Babylondon.

This one is a special treat. It's John Whitbourn's second ever novel, originally published in 1992, which has finally been released in its complete version. I read it in manuscript more than thirty years ago and there are still scenes that are so vivid in my memory that I have to remind myself it wasn't a movie. To quote from the publisher's website:

"Admiral Slovo was a man of his time, but of more than one dimension. In his sixteenth century, a pirate might be followed by the corpse of his victim, walking across the ocean, until putrescence claimed it. Or an interview with the Pope might be mirrored, exactly, by one with the Devil. Reality shifts could cause a king to see his capital city shimmer into another realm entirely. 

"Through such scenes of macabre hallucination, mayhem and murder, Slovo is a man alone, set apart by his stoic beliefs from the rigours of human fears and passions. As such, he was a valuable find for the Vehme, a clandestine, subversive society that ensnares its members from an early age, securing loyalties by the expedient methods of blackmail, bribery and barbarism.

"But Slovo is more than a Vehmist puppet, and whether as a brigand on the high seas, or emissary to the Borgias, or as the Pope’s Machiavellian Mr Fix-it, he plots a course that suits his own ends as much as those of his paymasters. He knows that, in the words of his mentor Marcus Aurelius, 'in a brief while you will be ashes of bare bones; a name, or perhaps not even a name'. And there are few things that cannot be solved by a stiletto in the eye."

Thursday 8 July 2021

The problem with fate points

Fate points. In case this is your first visit here: I’m agin’ ‘em. They encourage players to think about their characters in the third person, and they break immersion by replaying an event that everyone just experienced. “That’s not the way it happened” belongs to videogames, not RPGs. Face-to-face roleplaying games benefit from character mindfulness – being in the moment as the character, rather than constantly analysing their arc and figuring out how to edit their scenes.

Tim Harford described to me how fate points had worked in a game he played. It struck us both as more like boardgaming than role-playing, in that you author your way around the character's foibles rather than playing those foibles:

“But what if characters end up dying in an unsatisfying way?” goes the argument. “It’s no good if the Man With No Name gets gunned down in a fight over a mule.” But how did we get conditioned to find certain outcomes, and certain story patterns, less satisfying?

What makes us favour the three-act plot paradigm of creative writing classes over glorious anarchic unpredictability? How did we get the notion that failure and tragedy can’t make for interesting outcomes too? Why do we seek the polish and security of a constructed story, even at the cost of ironic distance, rather than dive into the mess of surprise, shock, calamity and triumph that is more like real life?

The gems you find amid all the unscripted chaos, those perfect moments that arise spontaneously and trail loose ends, are worth more than the synthetic diamonds you’ll fabricate in an authorial narrative. If you have fate points that let you do over the bits you don’t like scene by scene, you risk missing the long-term payoffs that can emerge from what looks at the time like a setback.

Season 1 of Game of Thrones was good at confounding story expectations, with Ned Stark’s execution and the bathetic death of Khal Drogo. If you’d given the audience a stack of fate points and let them phone in their story demands, both of those events would have been overturned – yet they opened up the way for the story to go in more interesting directions, with characters who might have seemed peripheral in those early episodes moving to centre stage.

“But what if I die?” says the player raised on save points and retcons. “You can’t claim that’s fun.” That’s a matter of managing expectations. We’ve had memorable character deaths in our campaigns, a few heroic, some apt, and some devastatingly out of the blue. Sometimes it’s the fitting end to a series of bad decisions, like Butch and Sundance dying in a hail of bullets, and sometimes it’s just what happens to those who habitually put themselves in harm’s way. If no character ever took a risk and failed, where’s the frisson that gives the adventure its edge? And if every fumble can be rerolled for a fate point, what about those daring player-character gambles that pay off? They simply end up devalued.

Sudden death can work into a rewarding long narrative too, just as Tasha Yar’s departure from Star Trek: TNG, or Steven Seagal’s abrupt demise in Executive Decision, might dismay their player in an RPG but in the long run make for an interesting story.

And then of course there’s magical or divine resurrection, which is how most fantasy games ensure that it is hard to permanently lose a character who has built up a presence in the campaign. I don’t object to resurrections because they’re diegetic; it’s not a retcon, it’s fixing something using options available to the characters in-game. And, even better, sometimes it can go interestingly wrong.

Or in a non-fantasy setting, maybe consider making combat less fatal. Professor MAR Barker’s Adventures on Tekumel don’t have the death paragraphs that bedevil most gamebooks, used by the author whenever you stray off the plotlines he or she has in mind. How come? Because in Barker's gamebooks defeat in a fight results in you being imprisoned, or enslaved, or ransomed, or left for dead -- and the game continues from there. What would be TPK in a bad roleplaying campaign becomes a catapult taking the adventure on a completely new trajectory.

Instead of fate points, how about giving characters a pool of energy points? They can use those (in advance of the dice roll, naturally) to boost a result by one step: from fumble to fail, fail to success, success to critical. When they run out of points, they’re down to rolling their straight skill. I like it because if you’re thrifty with your energy you’ll have some in reserve for when you need it. And it’s so much better to give players a bonus for spending energy than to give them a penalty when fatigue sets in – which probably explains why most encumbrance and fatigue rules simply get ignored.

Or, if your players absolutely will not be weaned off fate points, at least make them part of the game reality:

"You stand in front of the angel of your god. She holds out her hand to lead you through the gates of paradise."

"'Hang on,' I tell her. 'I've got some credit on this cloud, I think. What about that holy relic I recovered last month? How about letting me go back and replay those last few seconds? Given a second chance, I'm pretty sure I can dodge that Doomkill.' "

That kind of divine intervention depends on the gods of your world being able to manipulate time, naturally. If they can't (and I'm not sure about the gods of Tekumel) then simple do-overs won't ever be possible. Characters will have to find ways to fix mistakes rather than undo them like they never happened. And, if you're after interesting stories, that's really the best place to start.

Thursday 1 July 2021

Countdown to the Apocalypse


Last chance to jump aboard the Blood Sword 5e Kickstarter, which ends tomorrow. It surpassed its target twice over in just the first twenty-four hours, so it's fair to say it is already a big success. I had the opportunity to play with the design team in the Quickstart game and it was amazing: packed with atmosphere, vivid NPCs, intriguing moral challenges, eerie experiences, and intriguing plot hooks. I hadn't played D&D in decades, and I'd never played 5e, but if other sessions are as good as that it won't be the last time. Authentic Legend flavour? You bet!

If you don't just want to cheer from the sidelines, and you're keen to grab all those goodies like the card deck and map pack and miniatures and not forgetting the dreaded blood dice -- don't delay, if for no other reason than that if the funding reaches 375% that will unlock a very special stretch goal: a complete reworking of The Walls of Spyte using my own notes for how I would write it today.