Games Blog

Reviews, thoughts and options from the word of paper-and-pencil roleplaying games.

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?

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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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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?

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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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Invisible Sun

Invisible Sun

Everyone on the tabletop gaming interwebs is talking, or something subtweeting, about Invisible Sun by Monte Cook Games, whose Kickstarter has already raised more than a third of a million dollars.

There is heated discussion about the very high price. When you look at the fundamental structure of the game, designed around the needs of people with jobs, children and busy lives, you get the feeling this game is explicitly pitched at middle-aged players with a lot of disposable cash.

So, does this make Invisible Sun the tabletop gaming equivalent of the archetypal mid-life crisis motorcycle or Fender Stratocaster?

I’m probably being a little snarky here. Monte Cook has the game design chops to deliver which in all probability with be a very good game. I hope those who plunked down that amount of cash ends up getting their money’s worth.

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Lovecraft and the Fear of Ick

Thought-provoking post by Zak Smith on Lovecraft, Nerds And The Uses of Ick. H. P. Lovecraft is one of the most controversial figures in SF and gaming cultures. His massive misogyny and racism cannot be denied, yet the visceral power of his horrors mean he’s still one of the most influential writers of the genre. But both his bigotry and the power of his writing stem from the same fear of the Other.

Lovecraftian disgust is visceral, the kind that goes ick. The feeling of having a gun to your head isn’t ick. Ick is a fear of life–someone else’s icky life. Fear of mollusks, for instance–which are totally harmless–is Lovecraftian.

He then turns to the RPG world’s rather messy culture wars,  drawing parallels between Lovecraft’s fears and hangups with those of the faction who wish to sanitise and bowdlerise the RPG hobby.

When there is ick, there is fear, where there’s fear there is ignorance, where there’s ignorance there’s disgust, and where there’s disgust, prejudice.

I’m not enirely convinced that calling out some game designers by name is productive, but the points he makes are still valid.

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Genre vs Gender

On his provocatively but accurately-named website, Zak Smith interviews Stacy Dellorfano on the subject of “Women in gaming”. This paragraph is the one that stands out.

When people push genres or sub-genres as the fix-it solution for gender inequality (or any other type of inequality), they might as well be pointing out there’s a ‘pink’ part of the toy store and a ‘blue’ part of the toy store, and if you want to attract women you need to make sure to have a lot of the ‘pink’ stuff. Girls play with Barbies, boys play with Matchbox cars. Girls get romances, boys get action films. Girls are ‘crafters’, boys are ‘makers’, and so on and so on. It’s insulting and inappropriate.

One thing Stacy Dellorfano stresses again and again is that only way for gaming to become diverse is to have more diverse creators making the sorts of games they want to play, rather than white male creators trying to second-guess or form focus groups. Or worse still, trying to police the content of other people’s games.

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Politics by AD&D Alignment

This is a rewrite of an old post from a couple of years ago that got accidentally deleted from the archives. The Internet Wayback Machine does not seem to have saved a copy, so this is a reconstruction of sorts.

Does the AD&D alignment system help explain present-day politics rather better than “Left” and “Right”?

For those of you not familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, the Alignment chart is a three-by-three grid giving nine possible values, which serve as a shorthand for a character’s moral and philosophical values. One axis is Law vs. Chaos, more or less as defined by Michael Moorcock in his Eternal Champion series. The other is Good vs. Evil, which ought to be self-explanatory.

Both old-fashioned social conservatism and old-fashioned socialism are probably Lawful Neutral. Both like to think of themselves as Lawful Good, so the two are opponents when the truth is that both have a lot in common. Both believe that social order and the solidarity of the community trumps the freedom of the individual, and take a paternalistic attitude towards those considered weaker than themselves.

Liberals are more Neutral Good in theory tending towards True Neutral in practice, believing that the greatest benefit for the greatest number comes from finding the right balance between individual freedom and collective welfare.

Libertarians are Chaotic Neutral. They believe individual freedom is everything, and the consequence of that are somebody else’s problem. The fundamental split in the Tory party is between the Chaotic Neutral libertarians and the Lawful Neutral social conservatives.

When it comes to Evil, I would have hesitated to use that word for any mainstream political ideology, at least in the west. Lawful Evil or any other flavour of Evil ought to belong to things like the Nazis or Islamic State. But then I look at the rise and rise of Donald Trump and wonder…

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