SF and Gaming Blog

Thoughts, reviews and opinion on the overlapping worlds of science fiction and gaming.

On D&D Skills.

PolyhedralsThere’s an interesting post by Zak Smith on the skill list for 5th Edition D&D, the reasoning behind the skills, and how OSR games handle similar situations. Zak was a consultant on the 5e project, but even then there’s one skill he hates.

He raises some interesting points about skill checks versus attribute checks, noting that some skills only really exist because of game maths and could have been handled by attribute checks if the mechanics had been different. Expanding on that, Deceit and Persuade are different skills because a thief’s charisma is very different from a cleric’s. And finally, Perception is far more elegant than the mishmash of thief skills and racial abilities of AD&D.

DnD5e skill’s are a great example of a concise list that covers all the things needed for the genre the game is supposed to emulate, while avoiding the skill bloat that sank games like 4th edition GURPS, for me at least.

The whole thing is a useful read for anyone trying to build a coherent skill list for any game system.

Posted in Games | Tagged | 5 Comments

Trolls’ Paradises and Green Hells

There’s a thought-provoking post on the taxonomy of good and toxic communities which is well worth a read if you care about such things. It’s about the tabletop RPG community, parts of which have been destructively dysfunctional for several years, but it does have wider application. It’s quite a long piece, but anyone trying to devise a Code of Conduct ought to read it, even if they don’t agree with everything he says.

The Troll’s Paradise is well enough documented, it’s what happens when a community has no clear rules, and the loudest and most boorish members ride roughshod over everyone else. Even a community that’s civil and self-policing much of the time will eventually encounter a bad actor or three; the Trolls’ Paradise is what happens when whatever powers-than-be in the community are unwilling or unable to do anything about their behaviour.

The Green Hell is the other failure mode. It’s what happens when a community declares it’s opposition to harassment and bullying, but in practice their definitions of such are vague and subjective, and different rules apply to members of insider cliques compared to everyone else. Accusations are cheap, it’s considered bad form or even an act of harassment itself to ask for evidence to back up any accusation, and there are no consequences for spreading malicious lies. Such communities either dissolve in infighting, or worse, become sources of poison for a wider subculture. That’s why they’re toxic.

The online community around one band I’d rather not name took on aspects of a Green Hell at one point. At least one other band’s fan community is the poster child for a Trolls’ Paradise.

Read the comments below the linked post if you want some specific context, similarly avoid those comments if you don’t want to read about another community’s dirty laundry.

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When Game Mechanics Matter

PolyhedralsGame writer James Cambias has a pair of blog posts on why game mechanics matter, and why game mechanics don’t matter. Both are sort of true, but both are a reminder that we’re still having these arguments.

There was a holy war in tabletop RPG land over this not so long ago.

One camp believed that everything that could possibly go wrong in a game session up to and including lack of trust between the players could be fixed with sufficiently advanced game mechanics. Even disruptive players could be dealt with by cleverly designing game systems to be as unappealing as possible to the wrong types of people. Fortunately that approach is largely discredited nowadays.

The other camp believed that the game mechanics didn’t matter at all, and any worthwhile group should be able to route around an unsuitable system. One manifestation was the idea that a one-size-fits-all system, usually some variant of D&D, should be forced on the entire hobby at glaive-guisarme point. Another was the idea that a competent GM should be able to patch obviously broken rules on the fly. Tell that to a GM who had to deal with a total munchkin of a player getting her hands on the hopelessly broken GURPS 3.0 Psychokinetics rules. I was that GM…

There is, of course, a position between those two extremes. For me, game mechanics matter when they get in the way of fun.

A couple of examples:

First, some of the baroque and obtuse dice-pool mechanics fashionable in the late 1990s meant it was next to impossible to have any meaningful idea of your character’s chance of success at any given task, which could be very frustrating in play. The worst ones had probability curves that were so screwy they made the numbers on the character sheet almost meaningless. It’s difficult to believe some of those systems were ever playtested as thoroughly as they should have been .

Another example is combat systems that bog down in play, especially when there’s a large group. If it takes four hours to resolve a barroom brawl that’s incidental to the main plot of the adventure, your system needs some serious streamlining. Or it’s just plain unsuitable for a game with eight players.

So, over to you. What game mechanics have fallen short for you in fun-obstructing ways and why?

Posted in Games | Tagged | 2 Comments

Monopoly, Tool of Satan?

Jack Chick thought Dungeons and Dragons was a tool of The Devil. But David Morgan-Mar thinks it’s Monopoly.

Do want to ruin your family? Do you? Do you want to try to have a fun afternoon of togetherness and entertainment, that devolves into mindless stupidity and tedium, tempered with nastiness, back-biting, bitching, invective, people getting upset, people getting angry at one another, and people getting bored out of their skulls just trying to finish this bloody stupid ridiculous fricking game??? Do you want something that will turn a nice day of family togetherness into the most painful thing since having wisdom teeth extracted without anaesthetic?

No? Well then for god’s sake, do not even think about Monopoly.

The game is evil. I’m sure Satan himself invented it and is sitting back laughing at how much misery it causes. If there’s a Monopoly set in your house now, go call a priest and have an exorcism performed. Burn the wretched thing.

Do not expose your kids to Monopoly. You will ruin their lives. And the lives of their families when they grow up and have kids. Break the vicious cycle now. Do not inflict this evil on future generations.

The whole thing is a rather splended rant about something which has done more to put generations of people off board games for life than any other game.

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Poseidon’s Children


Alastair Reynolds writes hard-SF space opera constrained by current understandings of physics. That means than in his worlds, there is no magical faster-then-light travel, so spacecraft must take many years to cross the gap between stars. This in turn makes interstellar travel a one-way trip, which has a big impact on the sorts of stories you can tell. I haven’t get read his most recent “Revenger”, but here are some thoughts on his recent Poseidon’s Children trilogy, comprising “Blue Remembered Earth”, “On The Steel Breeze” and “Poseidon’s Wake”.

The three novels cover a time span of hundreds of years, with the point-of-view characters from different generations of an extended wealthy Kenyan family, the matriarch Eunice Akinya playing a central role across the whole saga despite being dead at the beginning of the first book.

With each volume, Reynolds turns up the scale. The first book, “Blue Remembered Earth” is part mystery, part family drama, taking place on Earth and all over the solar system. It’s the 2160s, Earth has been through some turbulent times and come out of the other side with nations like Kenya and India as major powers, and the Kenyan Akinya family has grown rich out of space exploration.

By the time of “On The Steel Breeze”, a fleet of generation ships made from hollowed-out asteroids is en-route to a planet orbiting a nearby star, where telescopes in the solar system have detected the presence of enigmatic alien structures. The action shifts between the generation ships and the solar system, as it slowly becomes apparent that things are not what they seem, and somebody or something wants the mission to fail.

In the final volume, “Poseidon’s Wake” a successful colony has been established on that distant planet, and an inscrutable alien machine intelligence has entered the picture. After early events on the colony world, on Mars and on Earth, the focus shifts to a third star system which might provide the key to the mysteries of those enigmatic ancient structures. Multiple factions, not all of them human, struggle over how or whether to interact with them.

Some themes recur from his earlier “Revelation Space” saga; in particular the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter, machine intelligences, generic engineering, and uplifted sentient animals. But where that earlier series was dark and gothic, the mood here is far brighter and more optimistic. Dealing with ancient and very alien machine intelligences is still highly dangerous, but the backdrop of Lovecraftian doom of that earlier saga is absent.

The believable future politics is another strong point. The politically-motivated minor villains aren’t the thinly-disguised caricatures of Tories, Communists, Republicans or Democrats typical of lesser authors. Instead they’re the result of far-future political faultlines in a world as far away from ours as we are from the high middle ages.

With this trilogy in particular, Reynolds is successful in combining an old-school Campbellian sense of wonder with well-realised three-dimensional characters. While it’s a long way from swashbuckling pulp there are some gripping action sequences and more than one supporting character dies in a seemingly futile and avoidable way. The result is something that’s old-fashioned in one respect and modern in another.

At a time when the world of SF seems divided into two warring camps, one championing socially aware work with ambitions towards literature, the other rooting for entertaining action adventure, Reynolds stands with a foot in both camps. It’s precisely the sort of thing that ought to be nominated more often for major SF awards.

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , | 2 Comments

OSR Thoughts

Here’s something I never thought I’d find myself asking, especially when I recall the backlash against Ryan Dancey’s “One System To Rule Them All” at the time of the 3rd edition of D&D, when Hasbro’s stated aim was to drive all other systems but d20 out of the marketplace.

Would my as-yet-unnamed RPG, currently written using a customised version of FATE, work as an OSR-style game?

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, OSR stands for “Old School Renaissance”, and refers primarily to an extended family of games derived from pre-AD&D iterations of Dungeons and Dragons, their publication made possible through the Open Game Licence. Some of these games are simply streamlined versions of early D&D, while others put their own spin on things. Swords and Wizardry and Lamentations of the Flame Princess are good examples.

On the surface it doesn’t look like an optimal match, but there are games out there that suggest the old D&D rules can be quite flexible. Will the default class-and-level system support characters who are defined as much by their allegiance to guild and clan as by their abilities? Can you create something that feels like science-fantasy psionics by re-skinning Vancean magic?

Or perhaps when it comes to old-school rules, Classic Traveller is a better fit for what’s essentially a Vancean sword-and-planet setting?

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Some thoughts on Gene Wolfe

There’s a thread on Mad Genius Club about the worst books you’ve read. I’ve suggested God-Emperor of Dune, probably the dullest book I’ve slogged though to the end, referred to as “God-Awful of Dune” for a reason.

A couple of other commenters suggested Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the Long Sun”.

You’ve gut a malfunctioning generation ship ruled by AI personalities that have set themselves up as gods, war, rebellion, sentient robots, mutants with psionic powers and the ability to possess people, an invading society of Amazons that come off like a female Taliban, and vampiric shapeshifters who want the humans in the ship to escape to their planet rather than a safe planet so that the humans can be preyed upon. How can all that possibly be boring???

But it is.

A bit harsh But…

I find Wolfe can be infuriatingly frustrating at times; when he’s good his books are so immersive and compelling than it’s worth persevering when another of his books seems heavy going. Wolfe always takes “show, don’t tell” to extremes, and always shows you his worlds through the eyes of his characters, and if they don’t understand what’s going on, neither should you. There were parts of Book of the Long Sun that seemed exceptionally slow-moving on the first reading, such as the interminable section in the tunnels beneath the city where very little seemed to happen. But this was a book that made more sense on a second reading.

Even then, it does lack the accessibility and magic of the earlier “Book of the New Sun” and the direct sequel “Book of the Short Sun”, even though both of those are as every bit as complex and enigmatic. Is the central character, Patera Silk less compelling that Severain of Book of the New Sun or Horn of Book of the Short Sun? Or is it something else?

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Literary Origins of RPGs

Interesting post on Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog on how the first generation of roleplaying games from the late 1970s weren’t influenced by the ackowleged greats of the golden age of science fiction such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke, but by a host of less well-know authors, many of which are long out of print.

If you take some time to read what the early rpg designers had read, you will see that they almost compulsively lifted material from pulp and new wave writers. The most surprising thing about this is the extent to which they passed over the grand masters of Campbellian science fiction. The authors that are synonymous with the field seemed to hold not one iota of attraction or influence to them. Mike Mearls thinks almost entirely in terms of television and movies. These things had a negligible impact on the first wave of rpg designers. For them it was short stories and novellas and short novels from dozens of authors that were primary. There was no “big three” for them: they read everything they could get their hands on.

He makes the valid point that Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke wrote serious stories about big ideas, which don’t translate well into roleplaying settings or scenarios. Meanwhile it was the lowbrow pulpy action-adventures that inspired Gary Gygaz and Marc Miller to create D&D and Traveller. In particular he cites Jack Vance as a huge influence on both.

Where, I wonder, does H. P. Lovecraft fit in? He was surely a pulp writer, and his work inspired what has to be the most successful licenced RPG of all time. How much has the Call of Cthulhu game contributed towards Lovecraft’s status as a cult author? I can’t be the only person who came to his fiction through the game.

Today’s generation of RPG designers get their ideas more from film and television than from books, with some games designed around the tropes and beats of a typical television episode, and combat systems designed to reproduce the fight scenes from action movies. As D&D line editor Mike Mearls says to Polygon.

“If you look at science fiction follows, I think an arc that fantasy is following now. In the 50’s, science fiction was very iconic, and at least in movies, very much templated. You had the flying saucer, or the rocket ship, you had either the aliens who were clearly monsters — like the guy in the deep sea diving helmet wearing the gorilla coming to eat people or whatever. Or they were people in funny outfits who were very inscrutable and so much more advanced that we were, and that was your pantheon.”

Later, as science fiction entered the ‘60s and the ‘70s, it began to be entrusted with more serious themes and dealt with issues of change in modern culture as a whole.

“So you have this new wave of science fiction coming through and science fiction grows up,” Mearls said. “It became Alien — a horror movie in outer space. It becomes Soylent Green, which is kind of like this social commentary on science fiction. It’s Rollerball, right? This entire thing about what’s it really mean to have free will, and can there really be freedom in a technological society? But it’s still science fiction.”

Barely a mention of books at all. Is this because the current generation of gamers read fewer books and watch more telly? Or is it because literary SF and fantasy have moved away from the sort of pulpy action-adventure that makes a good RPG in favour of more weighty topics, and the action-adventure genre in turn has switched to other media?

Posted in Games, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Fantasy Elves and their True Nature

Zak Smith has written an interesting blog post on elves in fantasy gaming and literature. Elves in fiction draw from two conflicting archetypes. There are the elves of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, noble and wise, and if they ever seem otherworldly or callous it’s because they take a long term view of things that shorter-lived races cannot fully understand. Then there are the elves of Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld, callous and cruel because that is their very nature, seeing lesser races as mere playthings. Both, of course, draw from northern European folklore in which things are far more complicated and morally ambiguous.

In the gaming world, D&D squares this dichotomy by having two distinct subspecies of elf, the “good” elves modelled on Tolkien, and the Drow, who represent the bad guys.

Zak Smith comes up with an alternative take. In his cosmology, elves believe that everything, from trees to food animals to tools and buildings has a soul and an inner life, and that’s reflected in the elven attitude towards everything, including “lesser” races.

Metaphysical faith–like all ideas requiring morality and power to work in concert–implies both profound contradiction and a willingness to ignore it. Your average elf will totally stick his or her foot in a shoe while totally believing the shoe has thoughts and desires the same way most of us have decided we simply couldn’t function if we continuously contemplated the totality of the plight of the chicken we eat or the homeless human we walk past on our way to get it.

The usual fantasy trope is that the evil elves are a distortion–that elfness is natural and noble, and that some drop of venom must have found its way into the formula to create the cruel ones. But in actuality the elf is already poisoned: it isn’t faerie. The elf is organized, technologized, militarized, civilized, and it draws psychological comfort from imaginary lines between its consciousness and that of things that don’t move on their own.

His conclusion is that “evil” elves as exemplified by D&Ds’s Drow, rather than representing noble elves who have fallen, represent the elves in their natural state. Noble Tolkien-style elves are those who have managed to rise above their own nature. It’s an interesting twist on the D&D default.

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The RPG Social Skills Monster rises from the grave

The RPG Pundit issues forth a pronouncement from his lofty citadel.

Some people have criticized my past blog entries where I argued that the best RPGs (like old-school D&D) are superior at handling actual roleplay because they DON’T have any ‘social mechanics’ and just make you actually play it out.

The common complaint is “RPGs should be fair to players though; it isn’t a competition; and if a player has a PC who should be able to do well at diplomacy or something like that, but the player himself is not very good at speaking or putting together arguments, isn’t it only fair that the GM give him a bonus??”

This isn’t really about being in “competition”, but it sounds like they’re saying that if you’re a really good roleplayer and come up with good ideas, you should roll with just your normal bonuses; but if the guy next to you is a moron who always thinks up dumb ideas or can’t roleplay worth a damn, he should get a Special Snowflake bonus so his feelings aren’t hurt.

Is that not going to create a sense of ‘unfair competition’ from the people who do not get that bonus?

Doesn’t that look like favoritism?

As far as your character failing to do things he should be able to do: the question would be WHY do you feel your character “should be able” to do those things? In an OSR game you don’t have 30 points to dump in Diplomacy so you can wave it around like a Mind-Control Superpower to avoid having to actually come up with ideas or roleplay, so that’s out.

You are in a ten foot by ten foot room. Ahead of you stands a very obvious straw man argument. Roll for initiative….

I know the role-play vs. roll-play argument about social skills is as old as the hobby itself, and it’s a distinction between what are really two distinct but equally valid methods of play. But in all the RPG sessions I’ve played, including those with plenty of social skills on the character sheet, I have never, ever seen a GM treat social abilities as if they were superpowers.

When you think about it, what is the difference between:

Player: I hit it with my axe.

GM: Roll to hit

and this:

Player: I tell the palace guard I’m on official business and have got to see the king right now

GM: Roll against your Deceit skill to see if the guard believes you.

That doesn’t look much like a superpower to me. That’s how I have always handled social skills when running a game, and how most GMs I’ve encountered handled things as well.

Why, exactly, are well still having this argument?

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