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Thursday, 28 April 2022

A kind of tribalism


The way you choose to roleplay is up to you and your gaming group. Of course it is. But if you’re asking me, I don’t see the point of doing anything if you’re not going to commit to it heart and soul. Roleplaying to me means trying to be somebody else, imagining the reality of their life, and acting as they would. It’s fiction in the moment. And fiction is a parallel reality evoked by imagination that, while the spell lasts, should be taken as seriously as the reality we live in the rest of the time.

The road to Damascus ran through Keble College. It was 1980. I was running a Tekumel campaign and Paul Deacon, playing a pe choi called Keq Yossu, balked after hearing the lead-in to the evening’s adventure. ‘I’m not coming along.’

The others were aghast. ‘But… what are you going to do all evening, in that case?’

‘The whole set-up sounds off to me. You do what you like, but count me out.’ Paul dropped out of character a moment: ‘I’ll help Dave roll for the NPCs.’

It was the first time I’d thought of really getting into the head of a character that way. I admired Paul for it, and I admired him even more when he was proved right a few hours later. The whole party got wiped out. Paul imagined Keq Yossu getting the news back in Jakalla: ‘I did warn them…’

Not long after, in my Medra campaign, Mike Polling’s character Dagronel Kabo-Drasden befriended an NPC who was the sworn enemy of several of the other player-characters. When it came to the crunch, Dagronel sided with the NPC. In the game post-mortem, the other players were indignant. ‘You can’t value friendship with a nonplayer character above your comrades,’ they argued.

Mike pointed out that a roleplaying campaign is a fiction populated by characters. Nobody wears a lanyard saying PLAYER; it isn’t a Westworld style theme park with hosts vs guests. To use Professor Barker’s adage, there are no NPCs. Just characters. It’s only in bad fiction that somebody behaves out of character to ensure the plot goes in a pre-planned direction.

Both Paul and Mike are arts graduates, and it was an eye-opener for this scientist to see them insist on roleplaying as an art form. It was about then I started to eschew underworlds and puzzles. I should’ve known from Columbo that the how and the who are never as interesting as the why. Motivation is what matters. Characters who look at their world and say, ‘This is how it affects me and this is what I must do.’

Without that revelation, heaven knows what Dragon Warriors would have been.

I still come across the old-school approach, but these days it baffles me. A few years back I was playing in an SF campaign set in the Mass Effect universe. One character was a law enforcement agent. Some of the other PCs were rebels or pirates or – look, I don’t know anything about Mass Effect; in Firefly terms most were Browncoats and one was an Alliance officer. When it all kicked off, the agent sided with the local planet’s police and tried to arrest the Johnny Rebs.

Afterwards, one of the players in particular seemed to take it very personally – in real life, that is, not as his character. He went away seething. I asked a friend of his what was the matter. ‘He believes strongly in the players sticking together,’ he said. ‘He’s annoyed that player took the side of the police against the rest of us.’

‘But… what did he expect? The guy was playing a federal agent.’

‘He doesn’t think character should trump party loyalty.’

I honestly don’t know why you’d roleplay if you feel that way. Without commitment to character you might as well be paintballing. If you want PCs to stick up for each other, you have to give them a reason beyond the fact that they're all controlled by people sitting around the same table.


On the other hand, I also care that movies, TV drama and novels maintain integrity to the fiction they’ve created, yet a lot of people seem quite happy to excuse out-of-character swerves that are there to keep the plot on the rails the writer planned. To me that’s just not doing the work. It could explain why when I was a little kid and my school took us all to a Christmas panto it was loathing at first sight.

Everyone’s got their own setting on this dial. An it harm none, do as ye will. But what I want is to plunge right in to the imaginary lives we evoke through roleplaying, convinced there’s something amazing to be found there if just for a few hours we can let go of being ourselves.

Asking not telling


Amazon sent me this link to stream The Wheel of Time on Prime Video. I've never even read the books, nor had any inclination to, but maybe that's an unfair prejudice -- although articles like this and moody TV promo shots like the one above only serve to confirm my suspicions. I just always assumed The Wheel of Time was another Tolkien wannabe and that the TV show was a lame attempt to turn a bunch of third-rate fantasy novels into a new Game of Thrones. Any fans of the series want to disabuse me of that notion? I'd settle for anyone who's looked at the books or the show and wants to warn others off.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

Set out on a journey of fabulous adventure


The Fabled Lands CRPG has been on early access for a while now, but in just a few weeks you'll be able to buy the full release in all its glory. Initially the game will feature all the content from The War-Torn Kingdom, Cities of Gold & Glory, The Plains of Howling Darkness, and The Court of Hidden Faces. The plan is to add Over the Blood-Dark Sea and Lords of the Rising Sun as DLCs later in the year -- and after that, who knows? Possibly all-new FL adventures if the 23,000 people who have wishlisted the CRPG all buy it. Find it on Steam here.

If paper-&-pencil games are more your thing, this is a good opportunity to mention the Lyonesse RPG based on the fantasy novels by Jack Vance. I contributed to the book but it's the work of divers hands, all of them very talented and with the forceful gust of Vance's imagination to fill their creative sails. Video reviewer Pauli Kidd gives a good idea of what to expect:


Find out more on The Design Mechanism's website.

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Jewels from mire and mud

It's odd what can convince you to read a book. I'd listened to Paul Mason explaining why I should try The Wasp Factory, and he'd made a good case, but it was only when he read the blisteringly hostile reviews in the front ("filth", "should be banned", "the literary equivalent of a video nasty") that I realized I had to grab it off him and read it right away.

Paul also introduced me to the work of James Branch Cabell, of one of whose novels (The Silver Stallion) a contemporary reviewer said this:

“The malignity and malevolence of this monstrous literary sacrilege cannot be pardoned. Its banality is no excuse for its brutality. Its stupidity is no extenuation for its blasphemy. The author has in this book committed the unpardonable sin of art,– hooliganism. He may not be capable of understanding the vision of good that raises man above the level of vermin. He may not be able to feel the mystery of faith. He may not possess the power of reverence or the grace of humility. But he ought to love fellow creatures, and to respect their ideals and their dreams. He may find it amusing to hurt and wound the lowly and the simple, but he should not trample on their highest and holiest imaginings, even if he cannot soar out of his literary mire and mud.”
That's got to whet your appetite, surely? Technically I think Cabell is still in copyright for a few more years, but most editions of his works are long out-of-print or else are modern amateur-press copies, so why not try these online works (The Silver Stallion and others on Gutenberg) and then buy the books if you find them to your taste.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Death's twin brother


If you're a Dragon Warriors player you might already be aware of my project to return to Legend with the Jewelspider RPG. I'm running a Patreon page to fund the artwork for that, but there are also scenarios and articles of general gaming interest. The latest, for example, deals with the matter of first and second sleep in medieval life, leading into a dream-magic adventure seed that's reminiscent of a monster from the original DW rulebooks:

"Wild heaths and glades, moonlit meadows and secluded abbeys – these are the places where the demons called Nightmares are imagined to skulk. Malignant and hungry for souls, they wait and watch for wayfarers to stray upon their haunts. When the characters go to sleep for the night, the Nightmare invades their dreams. The Nightmare cannot be detected because it has no physical presence in the real world. An Eye of Foreboding may (60% chance) flicker as it approaches, but by this time the Eye’s wearer will be asleep and unable to heed the warning. If one of the characters has stayed awake on watch, the Nightmare will try to put them to sleep, matching its magical attack of 2d6 +14 against their magical defence. This is because the character could otherwise awaken their sleeping comrades as soon as they saw they were having an abnormally horrific dream. If the Nightmare’s sleep spell fails to work, the character can (if they have any sense) instantly arouse their comrades and thus drive off the demon.

"Having entered the sleeping minds of its victims, the Nightmare takes control of their dreams. It may or may not allow them to know they are dreaming, as it can make its dream-images completely realistic. One way for the referee to handle this is to start a gaming session in the normal way, gradually introducing a succession of increasingly bizarre elements until the players guess that their characters are actually caught in a Nightmare’s dreamworld. Only then do they remember how they happened to be camping out for the night, and the referee narrates in flashback what they did between the end of the previous adventure to the beginning of the dream sequence.

"The Nightmare will toy with its victims, subjecting them to a horde of weird and disturbing experiences. As it reigns supreme in the dreamworld, it may cancel out some of their powers—or alter various abilities so that weaker characters become strong while their former leaders become weak. Beings who appear to be characters in their dream-adventure may be friend or foe, the advice they offer may be for good or ill. Normal perceptions are perverted; an apparent pushover like a goblin may turn out to have the powers of a master sorcerer. The Nightmare always appears in the dream itself, usually as an archetypal figure such as an evil wizard-king in a high fortress, whom the characters must slay to obtain their safety. It may feature in other ways—as a legendary treasure the characters must find, a haunted place, a secret truth they must comprehend. In a spirit of malicious caprice, it may even enter the dream in a relatively weak persona, perhaps as a friend of the characters—if they can guess its real identity, they would easily be able to destroy it and awaken from the dream."

Tuesday, 5 April 2022

The expanding Vulcanverse


What was I saying recently about the Vulcanverse gamebooks? You'll either like 'em or you'll hate 'em. The reviewer above is in the former camp, and French gamers will be pleased to hear that Jamie and I are currently picking several dozen scenes from the books to be illustrated for the forthcoming Alkonost edition.

Or, if you can't wait, the English editions are still on sale -- and we are currently writing book 5, Workshop of the Gods, which should be out by the autumn.

hardbacks

 
  
Also at Blackwell's UK:
And at Barnes & Noble in the US:
paperbacks

Friday, 1 April 2022

Cry of the Woolf

Virginia Woolf had some smart things to say about roleplaying, in particular the tendency I often deplore to cram everything into a genre envelope and play self-consciously as if trying to replicate a TV show's contrived structure. Ms Woolf thinks there's too much of artifice in such narratives and not enough of life: 

‘So much of the enormous labour of proving the solidity, the likeness to life, of the game narrative is not merely labour thrown away but labour misplaced to the extent of obscuring and blotting out the light of the conception. The players seem constrained, not by their own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has them in thrall to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole. The tyrant is obeyed; the game is done to a turn. But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we feel a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as events unfold in the customary way. Is life like this? Must roleplaying be like this?
 
‘Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions--trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old. The moment of importance came not here but there, so that, if the players could do whatever what they chose, not what their characters arcs say they must, if they could base their actions on their own in-character impulses and not on convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted story style. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged.’