Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Vital Issue That Affects The Entire DIY Gaming Community

Y'know, as much as I have grown to appreciate the DIY D&D and Old School game bloggers over the years, it's important to keep it real and raise a flag when you see something has gone wrong.

And this is one of those times. The community has really dropped the ball on an issue of genuine importance and it's time to take stock of how this happened and make sure it never happens again:

Why the fuck is nobody talking about Gammarauders?

Seriously, look at this:

There's no excuse for the lack of engagment here.

As the box clearly states: "They're monsters, they're machines, they're here". But are they? Where exactly? Where's the Old School Renaissance's much-vaunted dedication to inclusivity and visibility on this?

There is a postapocalyptic, TSR-made, hex-based, mutant kaiju game with cyborg kangaroos in it that's so retrostupid it makes Lysistrata look neosmart and no-one sees fit to comment?


How long can we continue to ignore a game that was to Gamma World as Adeptus Titanicus was to Warhammer 40,000? (And if that sentence didn't make any sense to you then we know where to lay the blame.)

It's high time we take a look at ourselves. And at a giant turtle that brought a gatling gun to Pride.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Badwrong Wheel--East

So we continued playing Burning Wheel incorrectly this week in the Exotic East.*

Click to enlarge my Exotic Burning Notes:
Burning Personae

A. Lady Oborozuki (young witch/acupuncturist) (Mandy Morbid)

B. Impetuous Lotus Peril (deluded noble) (Zak)

C. Eye-Shaking King (sad elf) (Cole)

D. Sagei Takahachi (loyal retainer) (Michael)

Burning Notes

E. (you have to imagine all of Wheelmaster Harald's dialogue in a...sort of...halting...but precise...eurovoice)
Harald: "So, in Burning Seas all of the seas are burning."
"That makes total burning sense."
"The clarity. It burns."

F. These are the experience point notes. Why did I put an "F" here? Who cares? I got xp for killing some ghosts. Like you care.

G. Oh, I defeated them with Calligraphy. In Burning Wheel you can bring in any skills that you can justify to add to your roles. (Or at least in Badwrong Wheel you can.) Anyway I patiently explained to these ghosts that their 300-year-old tragedy was totally like enshrined forever in the memory of the people of the land of rain and blossoms because the very ideogram we use for "tragedy" actually includes their family name. So they should totally stop psychically attacking me because I like understand their pain and aiding the Impetuous Lotus clan in spreading order and civilization to these benighted lands is totally getting their guy in the big house. I got an extra die and they totally bought it.

H. Shaking Eye King kept singing the song of predicting the weather, which in BW mechanics means he can actually decide the weather and he kept picking Torrential Downpour. At one point Takahachi was all
(gruff samurai voice) "Exalted Eye King, can you not make the weather more pleasant?"
SEK: (limp wafting drama-elf voice) "I do not control the weather, I merely predict it. I ask the season what it may bring."
Impetuous Lotus Peril: (Zoltar from G-Force voice) "Liar! I saw you picking!"
SEK: "I do not pick the weather, my player picks the weather, it is an extradiegetic mechanic allowing...."
ILP: "Silence elf! There is no significant difference between traditional role-playing game mechanics and those popularized in recent years which enable enhanced player control over the narrative! The Sublime Imperial Grandmaster of the Impetuous Lotus will have none of your divisive tribalism!"

Then we all laughed and smiled.

Because life is good and playing games wrong is really fun.

Burning Analysis:

Thus far the idea that everybody is a little bit the GM is totally holding true and one consequence of this is every player has to be careful not to spotlight-hog. It's pretty easy, at least so far, to have somebody do almost nothing for an hour--the whole ghost-fight was like just me and Cole. I mean, I'm sure some people are into just watching the theater-of-it kind of storygamingness but I think this particular campaign we here are playing with these people is going to be more fun the more people we can get into the mix at once.

Harald the Burnmaster stuck in the following rule from another game for the witch/acupuncturist which is a pretty decent fortunetelling mechanic, in his words:

"My augury rule is to give the prophet bonus dice to distribute on attempts to reach the stated prophecy on a successful prophecy"

*Dear Eye of Pedantry: Yes, it's a terribly problematic phrase. We're all real broken up about.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Martin and Shy Guy

So I was talking to people and thinking about this Martin essay.

In it, I basically lay out this hypothesis that the reason why alotta the people who prefer newer, more focused, game designs with really clear "this-is-in/this-is-out" rules do so is because they are kinda socially awkward and so they like that these games put stuff into rules rather than relying on the players and GM to socially negotiate stuff like "Ok, well how much detail do I have to go into to describe how I am tying some iron spikes together to make an impromptu fish-hook and can I trust you that you'll rule fairly on that?"*

I'm thinking mostly of the ones who are so attached to these kind of rules they can't figure out why anyone sane wouldn't want them.

Now I'm realizing I didn't fully think something out there:

I think it's not necessarily that (or only that) some socially awkward people like rules-as-written because they're kinda technocratic thinkers who like technocratic solutions. It may also be--and feel free to let me know how you feel here-- that these gamers are painfully shy people who see social confrontation in itself (regardless of the subject or stakes) as pretty scary and as something that kinda hurts. Or that at least takes a few of their hit points to do.

If you're them a game demanding (or just implying) that changes to standard operating procedure be socially negotiated is kind of offensive in itself. Like I want to play a leopardperson and I have to ask? And I don't have the rulebook to back me up? Fuck. That is in itself the game kind of harassing me.

In other words, to Shy Guy, the group assuming something as a default constitutes a sort of de facto pressure to go along with it.

"GM's discretion" is a problem not (or not just) because you don't trust the GM but because putting your 2 cents into that discussion is socially risky.

Further, if you were Shy: the Content As Written of any gamebook becomes extremely important (way more important than any DIY D&D person could instinctively understand) because not going along with the assumptions of the game will require some social negotiating and social negotiating hurts. (As opposed to being neutral or even fun, like it is most of the time for most of us because we're talking to our friends--or at least people with common interests--about a topic of common interest.) If there's a scary idea in that gamebook or a rule you don't like, that is going to be way more of a problem to negotiate away if you're a shy person. Shy guy doesn't even want to go near having to ask exactly how rituals in this Carcosa game are going to be handled.

If you're shy "expectations" (of all kinds) are not just things you blandly steamroll ten seconds into the first session, they're things it will cost you something emotionally to violate.

And if you are Shy and assume most gamers are like you (and maybe they are)(and which a Shy Guy or Gal could easily assume because if you're really shy you may only want to play with other shy people or may end up mostly playing in organized things with strangers) then wanting to play a game might seem to you like--of course--wanting to play the standard game. Because changing rules is hard and painful and who would wanna do that?

It might also explain why people get So. Fucking. Angry. about games with some mechanic or setting bit they don't like. If the game has lizard-dogs you are gonna have to confront someone or have lizard dogs, if a game has Vancian magic you are going to have to confront someone or use Vancian magic, if a game has paladins as merely a splatbook class you are going to have to confront someone about it being a splatbook class. It's all scary.

(Things I'm not saying:

Shy= Focused Design Fan
or the contrapositive of that
Not Shy=Not Focused Design Fan
Shy=Not Traditional Game fan
or the contrapositive of that
Not Shy=Traditional Game fan
I'm saying:
Vociferous Badwrongfunists Who Will Shit On Things That Aren't Focused Designs and Don't Understand Their Appeal constitute a subset of Shy People and that their Shyness may explain this part of their behavior.)

Now since I am really really not Shy Guy and neither are my players (they sure as fuck let me know when they don't like something), I am aware how far out on a limb I am going. I am aware how many assumption I'm making and how I haven't tested any of them.

Again: all this is a guess.

So I am asking you all.

Does this make sense? Does it match your experience?

And if you are the shy person and I have missed something crucial, please see this as a serious attempt to figure out what that is. I apologize in advance for my ignorance.

*As I said in the original essay, there are lots of reasons to like newer rules. This is just about one of those reasons and about the vicious partisan zeal with which some people advocate those reasons.

What's Up In Cobalt Reach

Ship just landed after narrowly escaping being incinerated half-way to port.
The girls decided to go to Cobalt Reach. So I'm deciding what exactly is in Cobalt Reach, and taking the group's temperature.

What I got so far...

(Of course, it's a plot she mainly created, so she doesn't have much trouble following it.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sword & Planet & Anime & Satan & Eberron & Margaret Thatcher

So I asked Google plus this question:

What, to your mind, is the difference between old Sword & Planet science-fantasy (John Carter, Carcosa, Hawkwind, Planet Algol) and newer Last Three Levels of the Japanese Video Game style science-fantasy (Lunar, Eberron, Final Fantasy). Are there any thematic/philosophical differences? Or is it all just art direction? And is Moebius the Rosetta Stone that translates here?

Here are some highlights from the discussion from various people (imagine quotation marks around all this stuff):


-To my mind, the Sword & Planet stuff evokes a feeling of savage struggle (Burroughs) and swashbuckling (Flash Gordon) that is reminiscent of historical and sword & sorcery fiction in tone and action. Technology is largely window dressing, an exotic element blending in with cultural stylings (thinking arabesque blending with Art Deco here).

Heavy Metal magazine and Marvel's Epic Illustrated, along with Moebius, bridge that gap, sometimes adding a touch of psychedelia.

Video game science fantasy, on the other hand (as well as a lot of the steampunk and cyberpunk aesthetic, as an aside) seem to fetishize the blend of technology and fantasy.

-This may just be me, but I've gotten a general "science/industry bad" in the old Sword and Planet stuff (in a "What hath man meddled with! What horrors hath he wrought upon the rest of us!") while a lot of the newer stuff is more "Invention, science and progress is good, even if occasionally used for bad things!"

-Tech (or magitech) seems to be ubiquitious/understood in more modern treatments while in older ones it seems to retain its unknown, mysterious culture as the province of madmen and freaks.

-I don't think they are similar--except in some surface ways, perhaps. Sword & Planet is (from the aughts to the seventies) science presented in such a way that it resembles fantasy. It mostly maintained it was science.

Eberron and Final Fantasy are expressly fantasy, but where magic is able to reproduce technological results.

(this is Cam Banks:)

-Sword & Planet and Sword & Sorcery both had their "bad guy" forces. In the former, it's industry and science, yeah, unless it's been redeemed (but even then, it threatens to go out of control). In the latter, it's sorcery and magic and so on. In both cases I think the heroes are raw, skilled, courageous types who oppose all of that. In the new stuff you're talking about, rarely is there the "this is totally out of our control!" approach, rather, it's "this is Evil (tm) but our version of this is totally Good (tm)."

-I don't know if there is a common rosetta stone. Moebius translates between Barsoomian and Moorcockian. Amano drew both Elric and FF.


-(Me) I often wonder if I knew more about anime whether there was more stuff that had that sexy 70s bad trip darkness. I definitely get the impression it was there but weirdly hidden--like how Japan's Black Sabbath equivalent was called "Flower Travelling Band" and is totally metal but...they're called Flower Travelling Band. Thinking about it...I think actually an attitude toward sex is a huge part of it. In old sword and planet there's a sort of satan/oldness/evil/femme fatale/sex=danger/mystery mentality whereas in the newer stuff there is often lots of sexiness but it's more about a sort of pre-married young people back-and-forth social dynamic. Actual sex is kinda off the table as a theme but flirting is everywhere.

-Seriously older : orientalism, decadence, tension of exhaustion/vigor

70's-derived : drugs, rocker culture, dropoutitude

-Well with the new stuff there is also that "One true love" stuff.. Which I don't know how prevalent that was in Sword and Planet stuff.

-Not un-prevalent.

-(Me again) Reconsidering my previous comment, there's tentacle hentai. Get rid of the high school and Urotsukidoji is very sword and planet. it's the sense of unfamiliarity that's missing in the later stuff. I think sword and planet sees the future as mysterious whereas the newer stuff sees it as just a setting.

-New school science fantasy, at least the Final Fantasy style stuff, is always caked on layers of metaphors and borrowed symbolism at the expense of everything else.


-It might be that the idea of endless technological innovation (at what was once considered breakneck pace by these writers grandparents) is now taken for granted.

Edgar Rice Burroughs would have been around people who for the most part, lived the same as their grandparents had, who lived the same as theirs, etc etc, on a technological basis. Burroughs would thus be part of the first generation to see the shift of constant innovation (technologically) and it would have been weird, mysterious and somewhat alien. But now the idea that technology isn't a constant engine forward would seem alien to folks. In a sense the idea of a future without huge amounts of new technology would seem alien (barring a disaster) while a swathe of new gizmo's is just another setting.

-(me) Here's one: in the old stuff technology is usually from the past (post apoc) (post '50s) (golden age behind us) (mysterious). In the new stuff it is what we are working in now (full metal alchemist)(new merging of human and machine etc)(speculative, experimental, not mysterious). And…mmmm..yet to see a non-trippy japanese sci fantasy, but I do think the obsession with symbolism does "normalize" a lot of it.-I would almost base that on the space race. Before it was a case where our technology seemed inferior to the possibilities of science. Once we put a man on the fuckin' moon though? Fuck those Atlanteans, even if they existed they obviously suck since I don't see any Atlantis flags on the moon (except more eloquent). I think the space age has really shifted mankind's perception of our place in history and the specialness of this moment in time.

-(Re: Trippiness) well there's a difference between "What i learned from this metaphorical experience" and "I am in the psychic now"....well it's not psychedelic when you go back to your rural village and petals are falling and you meditate upon how your journey brought you back to this place - the "trippy" is an illusion that breaks.


-And what about Warhammer 40k? Is that an in-between? Or does the long shadow of Orwell make it uniquely British?…the exoticism is kinda long boot-face-stamped out of 40k I think. What's the cosmic other in 40k? It's fucking evil and chaos and Satan and symbolic and you fight it.

-But i think all the stuff I see that's any good is sometimes "trippy" in that second way, even if it's just monster design...and well 40k has a difference in tone from Moorcock (or even Nemesis) but the difference isn't Britishness - plenty of sword-trip is British

Probably the difference is basically Thatcher.


-The difference may have something to do with 80s-D&D (and relatives) that contribute to a more vanilla fantasy/quest form and back to the rural village, i wonder, is a lot of the difference "gamification?"


Well the positiveness and lack of sex is definitely gamification. Possible Genealogy: Sword and planet ---->D&D and Star Wars -------->Final Fantasy------>postAnime sci-fantasy. Are D&D and Star Wars the translators here? The "force" is the only overt fantasy element in Star Wars really.

-Yeah i think D&D (and D&D-derived video games like Wizardry) and Star wars are a big part of the transition

Star Wars is cool but so not psychedelic. the layers and metaphor of JRPG video games, and their RPG descendents are often sort of the force writ baroque.

-I think the whole Human-Spirit > Everything aspect of a lot of anime (and by proxy, japanese video games) makes the mysterious unknown really hard to pull off. Its hard to take Azathoth as seriously when a little girl can take him because she is best friends with everyone.

-And is Cole right in saying that The Human Spririt is basically derived from (maybe a slight post-Taoization) of The Force?

-i feel like should also say i'm not painting a broad swath of "anything an anime has touched, ever" but a more narrow sense of "the type of fantasy especially in western RPGs and related media that takes its aesthetic from console JRPG".

Like, Eberron, while cool, is not very trippy outsde of a few peripheral elements.

Whereas Nausicaa goes BONNNNGGGGGGGG,

-But Nausicaa goes BONNNGGGG about a single little girl and like one kind of monster and with an eco-theme. Whereas all of Eberron is like Srslymorecrazyeveywhere (because D&D).

-Yeah and (because D&D) is a factor there, and Eberron is a whole setting which is designed to facilitiate many character's separated epics.

-It gets crazy there in the last few volumes. I mean, it pitches human progress as any kind of ideal and has a huge war is hell subplot and Evas and deathmold.

-Well Lodoss War is just 80s Vanilla D&D-The Movie


-Is the sheer disturbingness of Evangelion a sort of return-of-the-repressed sexdeathsatan metaphors from the Sword and Planet era? Like: hey Good Guy in Good/Bad postgame scifantasy Land remember when Evil meant something? AAAAAAAh brainFRY

Is Willow basically an anime?

-Willow is the lord of the rings made by the guy who came up with The Force so it's an expression of the same ideas.

-Evangelion is pretty tangential but obviously has influences from New Wave SF that was read by the same people who took drugs and read the 70's S&S/P.

-It's got robots and mysticism, if Star Wars is relevant then Evangelion is. I think the space as metaphor for mental interior and/or human destiny theme is reallllllly important

-I think the disturningness of Eva has more to do with the creator actually having a nervous breakdown near the end of the series.

-Ok "Well I know the creator's breakdown in Evangelion was a real thing, but all of this "fantasy" stuff is psychological: Is the lack of an expression of "the dark side" in the genre ("the Zentraedi are our friends and love love after all!") and the culture that created it relevant to that, though? I think maybe. The creator's work and breakdown are both an expression of something psychological as are the tropes of the genre.


-To address the original question, I've always seen the major thematic divide being that S&P seem to be more about a sort of "stagnation" (not sure if that's the best word) where the world has been this way for centuries, and Eberron-style worlds that have for of a feel of "progression" where there's obvious signs of advancement and change. Freeport's another example of the later style.

-What makes "Progression" exciting for a game setting? in the context of a (relatively trad) game, I think, progression isn't interactable with (unless you time travel to the future or something) while decline is, you interact with pre-decline stuff constantly.

I guess maybe if you have a lot of people furiously fighting progress that you can kill?

Is it just "optimism?" Thats a buzzword I see a lot in game-designer talk that, I admit it, I'm an asshole, but is not thrilling to me. But I wouldn't call Eberron "optimistic" anyway so maybe i'm totally out of bounds here

-I would call Keith Baker optimistic (as a human I know personally). So maybe I tend to kinda see Eberron as more "full of intrigue and adventure" than "full of decadent machination" because of that--which is just a slight turn of the coin. However, I think the whole "You can play the monster and s/he can be good" is a very positivey post-Star Wars theme compared to S&P which is more about cultural barriers even when the alien is helpful.

Does the game-friendlyness of post D&D post-videogame fantasy automatically make it more positive partially because every Other has to be a playable (therefore possibly good) race?

-Probably. See also : Worf.

-Or maybe it's more boring than all this: the popularity of Tolkien and pop "positive" sci fi (i.e. Star Trek, comics) simply has made all later-era sci fantasy more heroic and optimistic.

-Also the boom for this stuff was the late 80s when US cultural exports were shit-eating-grin positive.

-Can we blame toy-sellers for getting rid of satanic evil then? He-man and the rest?

-Though i'm not saying "satanic evil" so much as sexdrugsfuzzdistortionbrood.

-I think "Progressiveness" is something you can interact with, but it's done at the expectation/setting-buy-in level that at a real "character" level. Like, I have a hard time believing that a setting like FR or Elder Scrolls can be advanced 100 years but not actually have any societal or technological advancement. Although that's probably my mother the Social Studies teacher talking as well.

-I think Cole's saying "as a PC, you don't experience that progress as an event in the campaign" whereas you do find (and use) old stuff from back in the day. Though I'm not sure I agree --"brilliant new discoveries" appear a lot in games and things and are often mcguffins.


-I think this does leave out some cool things about postanime-specific themes like the sort of universal polyglot sexiness. You could kind of see the muscley shirtlessness of He Man and the endless "love" themes in She Ra as trying (in perhaps a clumsy American way) to get at the same flirty themes that a lot of anime has.

(Keith Baker, author of Eberron shows up)

-While I'm late to the conversation, I agree that while there is "ancient and mysterious magic" in Eberron, one of the underlying themes that matters to me is the continuous evolution of magic as a science and a force that affects society - which is a contrast to science/magic as a tool primarily of ancient times or dark forces. There are certainly dark elements to the world - uneasy balance between industry & politics, ancient evils on the rise, all manner of intrigues - but it is a world where new innovations are being developed every day.

With that said, I think that if you took a group of soldiers from the Last War and transported them deep in the middle of unexplored Xen'drik, you've got a great foundation for a Barsoom-y campaign... and in such a campaign you can find, for example, dark elves living in an ancient city of the giants and using magic they can no longer replicate on their own.

Whether or not it's a regular event depends on the direction the DM decides to go, but advancing magic is certainly a theme that can play an important role in an Eberron game... I wrote a piece about Dragonmarked industrial espionage a few weeks ago.

-i suppose you could advance the timeline by months between sessions and say "this year, they invented the telegraph," this year they invented the blimp," "this year they invented the camera"

i.e. "progress-via-equpiment-list-update"

-Great Pendragon Campaign does that.

(Keith again)

-I will say that given that magic-as-science is a theme of Eberron, I am frustrated by how little depth the history of magical innovation currently has. There are dates for a few key discoveries, but not a lot of focus on the key innovators and discoveries (aside from those of the present). It's certainly something I want to do more with in my next world.

-I think maybe there is a cultural movement timing differentiation thing going on - Eva was late 90s, Next Gen late 80s ... the positivist thing you could say starts with Macross in the Eighties, but before that the 70s/early 80s fantasy and sci-fi anime has a much more pulpy, nihilistic bent - stuff like Cobra, Fist of the NorthStar, Go Nagai &c


-However, I don't think it all reduces to: the 70s are the 70s the 80s are the 80s the 90s are the 90s. I think there's an interesting question of what, exactly, the supernatural and space are supposed to represent to people.