Friday, February 22, 2019

Sharpened Hooks: The Tower at the End of the World

Atop a tall ridge in the Bloodstone Crags is a tower, a tower built by an ancient wizard, a wizard awaiting the end of the world.

"This is all that will remain when the Drown'd World reigns."
The Wizard is alchemically perfect, a Rebis changed by the Chymical Wedding*.  Their features are soft, young, and feminine, but with the white hair and long beard and wizened eyes of an old man.

Tales say the Wizard is one of the Fair Folk, both as old as the stars and as young as a fleeting line of poetry flickering through the mind.  Tales also say that the Wizard used to be as human and as mortal as the rest of us, but only achieved their exalted state through spiritual alchemy, through meditation and symbolic interactions.

The Wizard has no name.  Are they so old they forgot it?  So young they have yet to earn one?  Did the process of alchemical exaltation scour it away, a forgotten bit of dross vaporized and floating around the upper atmosphere?  Did they sell it to the Terrible Old Man in exchange for the knowledge necessary to complete this feat?

Who can say?

We only know what lonely travelers to the tower have told us.  The Wizard is mercurial, but often kindly.  (Sometimes they are spiteful or angry, like a spurned lover or an Alzheimer's patient.)  The tower is sturdy, of ancient style but possibly recent manufacture.  (Did they find the tower or build it?  No one knows.)  The Wizard is a skilled astronomer in addition to being a skilled alchemist, and they claim to have learned the secret patterns allowing them to read the firmament as casually as one might read a book or scroll.

They claim they have foreseen the end of the world, and that the location of this tower is the only thing untouched.  (Although the addled mind of the Wizard often gives contradictory accounts of what the end will be.  Flooding is a perennial favorite.  Perhaps the world will end many times.)  They must survive to record The-World-That-Was-Lost for The-World-That-Shall-Be in the hopes that the same mistakes are not repeated.

The Tower at the End of the World is poor in terms of treasure and has few (if any) magic items, but is rich in terms of knowledge.  The Wizard and their library could conceivably hold any fact forgotten by the world at large.  (For a change of pace from the standard consult-the-sage quest, the player characters are sent specifically to cover up a fact that would be dangerous if released into the wider world.  Bonus points if covering up the fact or murdering the Wizard also destroys an equally important fact for the world to know, prompting a moral dilemma.)  Unscrupulous PCs could also steal the library and research materials for their own magical research, or murder the Wizard and start using the remote tower as a stronghold.  At least it's apocalypse-proof, right?

The obvious choice is to make the Wizard some kind of double-digit level badass archwizard, but it's probably infinitely more interesting if they're just low-level.  It's up to you whether they're delusional, or they have a unique ability to read the stars à la Joop van Ooms.  (If you want to combine "badass archmage" with "low-level neophyte," you can always run them as something akin to a BECMI Immortal on their second pass through the leveling scheme.)

* This is hardly the first time the Chymical Wedding has been referenced by sages and scholars.  Could the wizard in fact be Thearch-in-exile Giovanna d'Amalia of distant and forgotten Trias, member-state of the doomed Three Kingdoms?  Hard to say.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

On Learning New Systems

Two weeks ago, Cam Banks posted this on Twitter:
I wanted to respond to it at the time, but I got busy and time marches on.  Also, Justin Achilli posted a fairly concise response that largely corresponds to the thing I'm about to say:
I want to delve into this in a bit more detail, so here we go.

I'm guessing there are roughly two broad clades of RPG people: those who have maybe one or two systems they stick to using, and those who like to tinker and maybe like to look at a bunch of systems to see what's happening in the field and what interesting mechanics are out there.  I'm also going to guess that, by-and-large, the former are predominantly players and the latter are predominantly GMs.  If you're selling reams of splatbooks, you're probably appealing to players taking a deep dive into their preferred system; if you're selling new systems, you're probably appealing to GMs.

Generalizations, but that all seems pretty reasonable to me.  But that explains part of your problem: you're only targeting a subset of the entire RPG-consuming public, and at that, you're only targeting people who have actually heard of you.  With a field dominated by D&D and a handful of other systems, largely older ones, I'm sure it's difficult to get your tiny little system noticed.

I nominally fall into the latter category, but of the wide variety of games I consume, I only tend to play a few of them.  I've been thinking about this very subject because, after collecting a glut of retroclones for D&D, why do I need another one?  Likewise, most of the other indie systems floating around are variations on a theme.  Why do I need a new one?

What, precisely, am I looking for?

There are, maybe, four things that will get me to try a new system.  Keep in mind: this isn't a conscious effort.  I'm not sitting there with a checklist investigating RPG stuff.  This is an intuitive, sub rosa process, probably very similar to how I suspect most people consume advertising.  But I daresay I'm looking for these things:
  • Originality: Does it do something new?
  • Familiarity: Is it comparable to another system to merit easy comparison?  (Not necessarily incompatible with originality.)  Keep in mind that this will also be more useful to long-time gamers who like to tinker with systems.
  • Simplicity: Are the rules short and robust?
  • Setting: Does it have a unique or engaging setting?
I think part of the widespread success of D&D 5e — in addition to being D&D — is that it hits many of these notes simultaneously.

When I started with RPGs, I initially read World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu, Deadlands, and D&D 3e (of which I regularly played World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu), so I'm sure the wet computer of my brain is subconsciously checking all systems against that basic database.

Note that a system can do only one of these things and potentially pique my interest, but it's no doubt more effective the more things it does.

Your system doesn't have to reinvent the wheel — familiarity suggests it shouldn't — but it's more likely to pique my interest if it's somehow unique.  D&D 5e introduces advantage and disadvantage, eliminating the endlessly stacked modifiers of 3e and 4eUnknown Armies takes the simplicity of Call of Cthulhu's percentile system, but adds a bunch of dice tricks to make the system a little more robust and flavorful.  Powered by the Apocalypse games reduce everything down to the B/X D&D reaction roll as their base dice rolling mechanic to make everything consistent and lightning fast.

If it doesn't do something new, then why am I not using a game I already own?

However, your game system is way easier to understand if it has some grounding in what has come before.  If you make a game about robot butterflies that uses laser pointers and interpretive dance as a mechanic, I'm definitely going to be intrigued (because it ranks high on originality), but I doubt I'll understand and use your system, so I might pass on it.  It helps if it's grounded in something that's come before.  (I dig some of the stuff coming out of the indie scene, but they like to introduce new terms and mechanics with abandon.  After months of Dungeon World, I still didn't feel comfortable that I was monitoring move triggers correctly.  Many of the smaller indie games feel like they'd be a lot smoother as the first game you ever learn, before you have preconceived notions.  Then again, I'm sure that's a deliberate design choice.)  I understood Call of Cthulhu when coming from World of Darkness, because it had the basis of stats and skills, albeit with a different resolution mechanic.  Deadlands was straightforward because it used dice pools and had a similar separation but relationship between stats and skills.  D&D had stats and skills, and the leveling system is pretty ubiquitous in gaming.  Each system was different, but they had enough similarities for me to understand what they were trying to do.

If it doesn't have some familiar elements, then how will I understand it?  (Introducing a bunch of new terms can also break simplicity.)

Anymore, this is probably the biggest thing I want out of a new game system.  Is it easy to use?  Your core system should be easily summarized in a sentence or two, and I should be able to draft a rules summary in a page.  Maybe two at best.  (Unknown Armies 2e had all the rules on one page near the front of the book; the summary makes little sense when you first read it, but once you've read the rules section, you basically only need that one page.  I loved that design.)  If your system is really complicated, there had better be a reason for all that complexity, and it should probably be an obvious part of your game design.  (War simulation RPGs from the '80s tended to have high complexity, and given that they were trying to delineate the differences among different kinds of equipment and tactics, that makes a lot of sense.  Not my cup of tea, but I see why the complexity is there which gives me more buy-in.)  Complication can also be okay if it's intuitive — Deadlands uses a ton of different dice and deals in a ton of different modifiers, but the dice map to characters' skill level, and the modifiers are there to provide a realistic Western experience on the off-chance that you want to simulate intricate gunfights or Oregon Trail with it.

If it's not simple, why not?  I'm only going to invest in learning a complicated system if it's that way for a reason.

This is simultaneously the least and most important part of the package, because it might get me to overlook various other game design sins, but I might just use the back matter of the book to run my own game if it seems like too much of a pain to learn.  If you have a cool setting that engages me, I might not use your rules, but I'll at least buy your setting, which is a win for you.  (If I don't use your rules, but there are some cool ones lurking in there, I might very well steal them and tell people, "Oh, yeah, I swiped the swimming minigame from SCUBA Quest.  Worth checking out for the swimming rules and the dolphin-men culture I used this session.  It's rad.")  If you tie your rules into the setting, then I'm more likely to use them, even if there's a learning curve.  (Full disclosure: if I were running my own occult conspiracy game from scratch, I could see me using a variation of the Unknown Armies system while ditching the magick rules.  But I will never drop or even really alter the magick system in a standard UA game, because it's so intimately tied to the setting.  You can't change one without altering the other.  You know why I'm so gung-ho about the sanity rules and magick rules from UA?  That's why.)

If your setting isn't terribly engaging, then why don't I run something else or make up my own thing?  Why do I need to learn your system at all?

I'm just one datapoint on a graph, but the basic gist is the same with any advertising: you have to grab me with something.  If there's a game with a lot of hype, or a game that seems like it does something very specific that I want to do, I'll probably give it a look.  Mothership probably would have flown under my radar if it hadn't gotten all the good press in OSR circles, but it seems a robust little system for running sci-fi horror and I'm glad to have it in my back pocket.  Powered by the Apocalypse stuff largely hasn't grabbed me the way it's seemed to grab a lot of the indie scene, but I knew the quick resolution mechanics and low learning curve in Dungeon World were exactly what I wanted for the gladiator game.  I don't think I need another fantasy adventure system, but Belly of the Beast had such an engaging setting that I had to get it.

At this point, I have a ton of games, more than I'm likely to play or run in my life.  If a new game crosses my vision, it's competing with all the other games on my shelf or hard drive.  I don't want to learn a lot of new mechanics or terminology, but there also has to be a good reason for me to read it and not just use the games I already own to run something similar.  If you're just writing an adventure or a collection of monsters or even a handful of cool ideas, I'm going to be much more interested in using a system I already own unless you can simultaneously prove that your idea warrants a new gaming approach.  (Bluebeard's Bride is an excellent example.  I can run Bluebeard's haunted mansion in any game system, but that game delivers several tools to run that specific scenario, and is so engagingly written as to make me keen to play it.  Plus, it's a gorgeous piece of art in its own right.)

So new systems aren't hard to learn, but there has to be some immediate hook to convince me that it's worth my time to learn them when I have [redacted] games on my shelves.  I have to hear about it and see some merit as to why I can't do the damn thing with the games already available.  Good press helps, as does being from a game designer whose work I know and consistently like, but those are potentially secondary concerns to the need for it to either do something new or present its information in a concise way.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The "Personality" Problem

This is going to be a long post, and only tangentially applicable to RPGs, so read the next paragraph and skip the rest if you want.

Last week, Mandy Morbid and Vivka Grey both stepped forward with horrific accusations of abuse by a well-known RPG industry figure.  (There are a couple of other accounts nested in Mandy's account, too.)  Most commentary beyond the initial statements devolves into grotesquerie, taking victims' pain and transmuting it into something self-serving, either reframing accounts to be about themselves or turning it into the pointed dagger of some sort of agenda.  (For example: if you took this opportunity to gloat and tell people, "I told you so," then congratulations!  You're also a monster, one very similar to the creature described.)

(Cheyenne Grimes' and Luka Carroll's allegations against another well-known RPG industry figure also emerged within the same week.  Some of those have been repeated for several years now, but absolutely merit repetition here.)

Because people are complex and I'm a goddamn hypocrite, I would like to discuss something adjacent to the matter at hand.  I've been ruminating on it for decades, and moreso within the past year.  For obvious reasons, it's dominated my thoughts for the past week.  Maybe it will help someone else?  Or perhaps it will just exorcise it from me?

In either case, let's talk about the "personality" problem.

I've seen the term bandied about in the old-school RPG scene, but there are no doubt various terms across multiple disciplines that cover the same thing.  A "personality" is someone known for being a singular presence in a subculture, often able to exert their influence over cultural trends.  They're similar to the postmodern, social media concept of an "influencer," but there's usually a distinct difference: whereas "Influencers" act like courtiers in medieval salons, controlling what things become popular through social pressure, "personalities" usually do that and offer useful services to their subculture.  All the "personalities" I've met are intensely creative in their own right, and while they might benefit from good marketing, there's at least a modicum of substance around which the hype builds.

Basically, they're cranky artistic weirdos who have the influence to guide artistic trends through social pressure, because they have a cult of personality gathered around them who value their insights.  (By contrast, an "influencer" typically doesn't have anything to offer apart from their potential value as someone who correlates and collates content.)

A couple of warnings about the rant to follow:
  • I will offer no solutions, because there are none.  This is the Devil's bargain we took when we settled down to agriculture, cities, and the whole civilization schtick.  There are things you can do to mitigate potential problems, but there is no way to exorcise it from the species without drastic societal change.
  • It's probably going to be winding and disorganized, thoughts vomited upon a page.  Expect a variety of asides, all eventually leading to some manner of rambling conclusion.  Again, perhaps this will help no one, and I am only exorcising it from myself.
  • As a hobby blog focused on role-playing games, it's going to talk heavily about cults of personality in nerd spaces.  Make no mistake, though: it's applicable everywhere.  I am not involved in kink spaces, but a growing number of associates are, and I hear enough of a trickle of news to recognize cults of personality peddling influence in that subculture.  Strangely, my heathen ass gets far more news about ecclesiastical spaces, and let me tell you: that's a hot bloody mess of personality cults and Byzantine intrigues.  I've also seen personalities in every workplace I've ever encountered, and even in friends' circles.  It's broadly applicable.
  • In personal anecdotes, identifiers have been scrubbed to protect the innocent and guilty alike.  I'm not Mark Twain — and I'm a conflict-averse hippie freak, besides! — so my ability to throw shade is severely curtailed.  But maybe someone can read these words and change their path.  That's all I can offer.
First things first: every artist has a sociopath lurking in their breast.  The hubris of the artist is to look upon the world and deem it incomplete, so there's at least a little ego involved in the creation of anything.  It's just up to you how much sociopath you let into the wild.  (Stephen King's "Why We Crave Horror Movies" essay says we watch horror movies to "keep the gators fed."  That's descriptive of art in general, the overwhelming need to either exorcise something from yourself, or to share it with someone else in the hopes of human connection.  You're always trying to keep the monster in your heart at bay.)

You could (and probably should) make a case for any form of expression, beyond just the arts, requiring a little sociopath to fully put your stamp on it.

Therein lurks the kernel around which a personality can grow.

I'm not sure nerd spaces are more vulnerable to personalities than other places, but they certainly have some unique concerns.  Nerds have a tendency to be misfits for myriad reasons which all tend to reduce to it's easier to read than socialize.  Maybe you have a disability, maybe you're from a marginalized community or subculture, or maybe you just think running is bullshit.  You have a touch of an outgroup on your soul, and now you're reading three or four grade levels above your standard age range.

Astute observers will note that these are the exact conditions under which cults recruit.

A cult is actively looking for members who feel marginalized because they are more receptive to recruitment.  If you're doing well in your relationships, feel comfortable in your job, and are all-around confident in your skin?  You're probably well-insulated from cult recruitment.  But if you're somebody craving human affection and feeling somehow removed from your fellows, you're vulnerable.  A cult reminds you that they're the only people who can truly understand you and love you, the only people who can give you the affection you're lacking.  And when you're fully convinced of that, they can make you do anything.  Which you will do, because you love them.

There's a parallel with abusive families, with the added complexity that babies are born vulnerable to cult recruitment.  It's a species survival trait: since a baby takes a lot of effort and requires near-constant care, it forms a potent familial bond that ensures you will care for this tiny human (so that this child can become an adult and propagate the species), and that this tiny human will do what you say (so this child doesn't walk into an alligator's mouth, or whatever).  But abusive families will abuse this genetic, hormonal trust system, convincing you that the family is the only structure you can trust.  And again, they can make you do anything at this point, and again, you will, because you love them.

Truly astute observers will note that these vulnerabilities are often interrelated.

Back to the core point: you have a group of people who feel like misfits and tend to have small, intense interpersonal relationships.  Likewise, being a misfit, you feel grateful whenever a new contact doesn't immediately reject you for being eccentric.  And maybe you even have a weird, shitty homelife, so friends who understand you are far preferable to whatever hell in which you rest your head at night.

There's a truism that friends are "the family you choose," but that's not precisely true, is it?  You exercise a little more choice over your circle of friends than your family, but you are only introduced to your friends by way of complex environmental factors that are largely beyond your control.  And your choice to engage with them is likewise impacted by previous experiences you've had; a minute early or a minute late, a sentence more or a sentence fewer, and maybe you wouldn't have connected with this person the way you did.

As with many things in your life, there's a large illusion of choice.  (Don't get me wrong: you absolutely made a choice.  But your free will is mediated by a variety of subconscious influences that you may not fully recognize within yourself, and further mediated by external factors beyond your control.  Your free will, then, is never completely yours.  Especially if you refuse to confront the influences that push at your desires.)  But that illusion gives you a potent sense of ownership and engagement.  These friends are yours.

So, you're a smart eccentric with a tight circle of friends — your friends — and you didn't fall for the Rajneeshees' recruiting pitch and you didn't fall for the blatant racism and nationalism of British exit.  So nobody's going to trick you into joining a cult.

But thinking you're immune makes you more vulnerable to certain kinds of attack.

You might not fall for a cult or a fringe political movement, but your friends are neither of these things.  They don't have branding or a wide-ranging political agenda, they're just your friends.  They love you, and you can trust them.

Enter the personality.  You meet someone creative, with similar interests, who's charming and funny and gives great advice.

(A couple of other asides about this one: I'm not telling you to be suspicious of everybody you meet.  Your friends aren't plotting against you, and most of the people you meet have no hidden agenda, save perhaps a slight preoccupation with their own best interest.  Just be careful out there, okay?  Likewise, personalities aren't inherently bad.  It's that old saw about competition: good competition makes everyone bring their top form to try to get to the top of the heap, while bad competition cuts out otherwise viable producers through underhanded tactics.  That's an oversimplification of a complex idea with a lot of weird permutations, but you get the picture.  Sometimes what you need is a single iconoclast to shake up a staid old subculture.  But sometimes a single iconoclast can destroy that subculture, or completely remake it in their own image.)

Personalities are weird because they're as much the person as the group that forms around them.  It's that whole pointillistic, Big Data structure of humanity in microcosm: an individual person might not mean much from a Big Data perspective, but without a collection of individuals, you couldn't get the trends of the whole.  (Facebook and Google don't care about you, but there's paradoxically no them without you, you dig?)  Likewise, a personality in isolation is just a creative weirdo; it's only with a support structure that they can get thrust into a position as an agent of change with all the good and bad that potentially represents.

But the thing you get from a personality is usually an intensely creative person with strong Opinions™ about things that can be dispensed as wisdom.  Their well-considered opinions and creative output will usually earn them a small but zealous group of supporters; these supporters may also be creative people, or just friends and influence peddlers there to soak up the sun.  (Social media "influencers" probably fall in the latter camp, social remoras hitching rides on bigger fish, but potentially providing useful service as hype men.)  The support network is often a combination of archetypes: those who are creative in a feedback loop with the personality, and those who have learned to surf the social trends necessary to worm their way into the inner circle.

There's nothing wrong with this by itself — I bet we can all identify core movers and shakers in our friends' groups or work endeavors — but the real problem comes with isolation.  A cranky, gross weirdo is someone to be ignored and reviled, but if you end up in their orbit and think their behavior is normal, that's when you have a problem.  That knife cuts both ways, too: you might be a perfectly reasonable human being with a cult following, but when you start to be drawn into your own circle of influence, surrounded by people who think you can do no wrong, any action you take suddenly seems a lot more reasonable.  When the support group turns inward, all anybody can see is the personality.

Herein lies the beating heart of the personality problem: you are someone who feels a sense of alienation from the world, but you meet a creative soul who challenges your assumptions of what that world can resemble.  (Alternately, your sense of alienation prompts you to become that creative soul.)  You fall into their orbit.  If you're not paying close attention, it's very simple for the orbit to become all there is, a small group of people consuming each others' content and thinking the rest of the world looks like this, or perhaps the rest of the world should look like this.  The insidious part is that none of this is, on the face of it, bad — the world can always be improved.  It takes a great deal of reflection to notice when the commune goes wrong, when people are asking too much of you, or when they're cutting people out of the group due to minor disagreements or because it better enables them to jockey for position.  It also takes a great deal of reflection to notice that what's good for you and your friends' group isn't good for everyone else.

That also gets into the inherent paradox of the personality problem, because it's hard to tell who's in charge.  Sometimes the personality is in charge, but sometimes a supporter can subvert the original effort.  (Sometimes the sultan is in charge, sometimes it's the vizier.)  But it's the isolation that can turn a sweet little artists' colony into a hormonal hothouse, as things happen in the shadows and seem perfectly reasonable because at least it's better than things out there.

A handful of personal anecdotes from subcultures allowed to run in isolation.  I will freely admit I do not know all details, but here are facts as I know them:
  • Three associates indulge in a not precisely criminal, but certainly unethical conspiracy.  One is a personality; the other, their herald.  All three are caught.  The personality and herald turn public opinion against the third and completely push them from the friend group.
  • Two associates this time.  Same sort of conspiracy, same personality, same result.  The personality turns the group against the co-conspirator and pushes them out.
  • A friend operating at the periphery of the local cult of personality.  They're creative, enthusiastic, and among the best role-players with whom I've ever had the pleasure of gaming.  Someone you absolutely want at your gaming table.  But there is a strange undercurrent, and the local heralds do not like them.  They are forced in the periphery for reasons I do not understand and fathom.  (Although if we're all being honest, maybe it's the racism.)
  • Another friend in another scene, closer to the core.  Intelligent and insightful, I've never had a conversation with this person lasting more than maybe two sentences.  Why?  Because they're treated as a china doll, and it's usually only two sentences in before a paramour arrives and interrupts their train of thought.  We all pretend this is normal and not creepy and possessive in any way.
Why am I telling you this?  Because perhaps you'll recognize the rot that lurks in your own scene.  I previously told you there's nothing to be done — the damage was started when we outgrew our tribes, and had to rely on strangers to run the lion's share of civilization for us.  We still want hierarchies and families and senses of belonging, so we still arrange ourselves in these groups.

But while there's nothing to stop it, you can be aware of the dynamic.  You can extricate yourself from the horror if you're in the midst of it.  There are only a handful of things you can do, but perhaps they will be enough:
  • Self-reflection is key.  If you're in a situation you know is bad, or makes you feel bad, or makes you feel very conflicted, find somebody outside the scene to make sure it's normal.  Or just leave.  It hurts, and it sucks, but it might save you in the long-run.
  • If you're in the middle of a cult of personality, and you can look upon yourself doing all the weird, petty, kingmaker things previous described, extricate yourself.  Use your influence for good.
That's really it.  Be brutally honest with yourself, make sure you're doing the right thing, and you'll be okay.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Basic Red's Monster Draft

Haven't just posted random stuff from around the blogosphere as much as I used to, but I can tell this is going to be a sweet project.  Basic Red is instituting a monster draft where he recruits the 100 best monsters across all D&D-ish things and makes that his Monster Manual henceforth.  He'll eventually clean them up, give them basic stats and whatever write-ups they merit, and stick them in a big pdf.  The first entry is here.  Berserkers rather than orcs?  A strong choice.

It's not really an opinion I've expressed on the blog, but I fully support this, because most monsters are just slight variations of other monsters.  Like, once you have orcs are rampaging hordes, goblins dig hierarchies, and kobolds dig traps, why do you need other humanoids?  (Although, to jump on the LotFP bandwagon, why do you need humanoids at all; human cultures can rampage, dig hierarchies, and love traps, and sometimes do all these things at once!  Humanoids are just there to look weird and let the GM do silly voices, which is admittedly its own reward.)

Watch this space, is what I'm saying.

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