Games Blog

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

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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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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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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15 Years of FATE

A tweet from Rob Donoghue was a reminder that it’s been almost fifteen years since he and Fred Hicks published the first edition of FATE as a free download.

Around that time there was a lot of discussion in the Fudge community on how to take the system forward, as more people tried pushing the envelope and starting hitting the limitations of Steffan O’Sullvan’s original design. At one point there was an attempt to create a next-generation Fudge by committee on the official mailing list. But it very rapidly got bogged down in fruitless arguments about what the standard attributes should be, and went nowhere.

It became obvious that what was needed needed was for one or two people with a clear and coherent vision to make their version of Fudge without interference from anyone else’s competing hobby-horses and sacred cows. Rob Donoghue and Fred Hicks went ahead and did this.

FATE addressed what for me had been one of Fudge’s biggest weaknesses, the ambiguous relationship between attributes and skills, something that was nevertheless a sacred cow for many in the community. But the very clever and elegant Aspects mechanic ended up more as a superior replacement for Fudge’s Gifts and Faults, and attributes were instead folded into skills. Skills became broad areas of competency, limited in number, thus avoiding the skills-bloat that bedevilled systems like GURPS. It really is a clean and elegant design, devoid of obvious cruft.

FATE has itself now gone through several iterations, but it has effectively become the next generation of Fudge we wanted fifteen years ago. It hasn’t entirely replaced Fudge, which is still out there and still has its adherents, but FATE, with its high profile licences has broken through to the gaming mainstream in a way Fudge never quite managed.

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Star Wars Monopoly: The Thing That Should Not Be

Star Wars Monopoly.There’s a Star Wars edition of Monopoly, and there is controversy of the absence of the new film’s female lead, Rey

It’s a legitimate complaint, of course. But there’s a another issue too. Star Wars is all about lightsabre duels and space dogfights. What does it have to do with a board game about property speculation? Especially such a dreadful one?

Monopoly is an awful stupid game that has almost certainly done more than any other game to put generations of people off boardgames for life. It needs to die. It persists because people who themselves do not themselves play boardgames keep buying it as Christmas or birthday presents for their grandchildren or great nieces and nephews out of misplaced nostalgia for their own childhoods.

With the notable exception of Scrabble, that’s probably true of a lot of older household-name family boardgames. Boardgames have evolved tremendously in recent year, and games like Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne are superior in just about every possible way. But out of all those supposedly ‘classic’ games, Monopoly is still by far the worst of the lot.

The world does not need a totally cynical Star Wars tie-in edition.

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Traditional RPGs vs. Story Games

I do not understand the holy war between “Traditional RPGs” and “Story Games”.

I’ve played many great immersive traditional games over the years, using systems from AD&D to RuneQuest to GURPS to Traveller to Call of Cthulhu. There was one game of In Nomine that was so intense it ended up filling my dreams that night.

I’ve also played some highly enjoyable Forge-school narrative-style games such as Primetime Adventures and InSpectres. Indeed, of my favourite new games of recent years has to be Umlaut: The Game of Metal, which screamed “Play Me!” the first time I read it, and every session has turned out to be huge fun. That’s a pure story game; there’s no GM, the mechanics are boardgame-like and revolve around narrative control. Every session have been memorable for all the right reasons.

But here’s the thing; they are really two different kinds of game. They both do what they do well. There is really no point in fighting a holy war over which one of the two is best.

It seems to me that this holy war is driven by personal feuds between rival cliques of game designers and their supporters. So we get that risible claim that the players of traditional RPGs were “brain damaged”, and the depiction of story game advocates as “swine”. All of which leaves the most actual players bemused and wondering quite what all the fuss is about.

It all reminds me of the messy Protofour vs. Scalefour battles in the world of model railways back in the late 1970s. And I still have absolutely no clue what that one was all about.

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Story Games vs. Traditional RPGs: An Analogy

I think this analogy makes sense, at least to people from Cricket playing countries.

Story games are the equivalent to limited overs one-day Cricket compared with traditional RPG’s long form of the game.

A game of Cricket in the long form takes place over the course of several days, five in the case of international games, three or four for domestic games. Connoisseurs of the game will always maintain it’s the higher form, where the story unfolds across multiple days. It’s true that some games do peter out into dull draws when neither side can press an advantage, but the best games ebb and flow with occasional dramatic reversals. Games like the 1981 Test Match at Headlingly where England came back from a seemingly hopeless position to beat Australia after heroic performances from Ian Botham and Bob Willis have passed into legend.

The one-day game, in contrast, cuts to the chase. It’s all over in a single day, appealing to a wider audience who doesn’t have the attention span to follow a single match over multiple days. It trades drama for spectacle, and tends to produce more exciting close finishes. But it also tends to result in far more cookie-cutter games, especially the ones that don’t end in close run chases. There is no one-day equivalent of that 1981 Headingly Test.

Like all analogies, it’s not an exact one, but does illuminate some strengths and weaknesses of two different forms of a similar thing. There are, I think, some definite parallels.

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