Games Blog

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

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…

Posted in Games, Religion and Politics | Tagged | 1 Comment

You can’t have an entire party of Bards

Ester Segarra

Sometimes you see a band’s publicity photo, and your first reaction is “You can’t have an entire Dungeons and Dragons party made up of Bards. Although it has been pointed out that the guy with the staff might be a Druid.

The band is Wytch Hazel, their album (which is extremely good) is out in April, and there will be a review on this site shortly.

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Emirikol the Chaotic

Emirikol the Chaotic This iconic image by the late Dave Trampier from the first edition A&D Players Handbook epitomises Dungeons and Dragons for me.

Here’s a figure on horseback firing Magic Mssile spells while a conviently heavily-armed warrior rushes out of a tavern to confront him.

It’s just like a scene from a western. Except it’s in medieval European dress.

Which, when you actually stop and think about the tropes, is what Dungeons and Dragons is all about.

 

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So who played Dungeons and Dragons?

Interesting post on Crooked Timber about writers and D&D

David Mitchell said he always asks other writers whether they played Dungeons and Dragons as teenagers. He keeps a mental list of writers who did and who didn’t. He played D&D himself (surprise!) and feels a certain bond of with other writers who did.

Kazuo Ishiguro had never even heard of D&D. Not a surprise. He is the wrong generation. Too old. And also, he is that kind of very straight writer who conjures a pinch of the clothes peg when dabbling in ‘genre’.

I have wondered the same about musicians. There was an interview with the late great Ronnie James Dio when the interviewer noted the imagery of so much of his kyrics; “Holy Diver” could easily have been inspired by “A Paladin in Hell”. But Dio, like Kazuo Ishiguro, was a generation too old, and had never played the game.

The imagery from so much of world of power-metal suggests that the scene must be filled with past and present D&D players. The only surprise is that we have yet to see a song about gelatinous cubes. I am told that the infamous church-burning black metaller and convicted murderer Varg Vikernes has designed his own RPG, though gamers might not want to publicise that fact.

But what of the grassroots prog scene covered by this blog? Aside from Rob Ramsay of Tinyfish, who not only played D&D but still does, who else has played either D&D or another tabletop roleplaying game?  There are one or two names that come to mind immediately…

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7th Sea: Sailing the Topographic Ocean

7th SeaReb Donaghue has an interesting post about the 7th sea RPG, for which he’s enthusiastically backing the Kickstarter for a new edition. But this one’s not about the things he liked about the game and why he’s backing it. It’s a list of things that were very, very wrong with it, which he hopes they fix in the new edition.

It reads like a litany of everything that was wrong with the RPG industry in the 1990s.

First, the utterly goofy setting, which he rightly describes as “Europe for dumb Americans”. There’s the obvious one about the heavy emphasis on pirates, despite the fact the setting has no Atlantic trade and no Mediterranean, which means there is no reason why pirates should exist. Each nation is an analogue of an actual European nation described in such a clichéd and stereotyped way that even European straight while males start complaining about “Cultural Appropriation”. Donaghue rightly points out that it’s a good thing there was no fantasy Africa in the game; its potential awfulness is best not imagined.

Then there was the curse of 90s games, the metaplot, an abomination that always made game designers look like frustrated novelists rather than designers of games to be played. In 7th Sea’s case essential information about the setting was dribbled out across multiple supplements, with the occasional Big Reveal that was almost guaranteed to fatally undermine some people’s campaigns. Why did anyone ever think that sort of nonsense was a good idea?

Much as I’ve been critical of The Forge, 7th Sea represents precisely the sort of thing it was a reaction against.

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Braaaap!

No caps! No batteries! Does that mean it’s powered by Brussels sprouts?

When I were a lad, we didn’t have first person shooters. We played Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians in the garden! Or sometimes British & Germans, since World War Two was still fresh in the collective memory back then. “Hände Hoch, Schweinehund!”

How the world has changed.

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