Thursday 30 October 2014

Halloween monsters in D&D: or, stuff that shouldn't work but does.

Right -- it's Halloween tomorrow, so let's talk about monsters.

Now, RPGs are full of monsters, but not all monsters are Halloween monsters. I can't find a good link right now, but Chris Sims has been heard to observe that, say, Dracula is a Halloween monster but Godzilla isn't. Some monsters are "horror" monsters while others aren't.

You can see this principle at work in D&D easily. Some monsters -- owlbears, for example -- are just very dangerous wildlife. Others are stand-ins for various human stereotypes -- orcs as brutish barbarians, hobgoblins as military stormtrooper types. Yet others are much more science-fiction-y and often have a kind of puzzle element to them. I'm trying to think of an example right now, but the only one that comes to mind is beholders and I think that isn't 100% accurate. Anyway, my point is that D&D and similar games mash up lots of different monster types, in ways that probably shouldn't work. 

Let's take the vampire, for instance. Vampires turn up in a lot of media, of course, but when they turn up in horror stories it tends to be personal. There are very few horror stories -- as opposed to paranormal romances or comedies or whatever -- in which a vampire is part of a larger monster-y context. Vampires are individual monsters, or at the very least a little conspiracy of monsters. 

The vampire's horror comes partly from how unnatural it is, partly from the way it transgresses social conventions (which is also why it's sexy), partly from its spooky powers. But in a setting that's completely different from ours, where magical powers are commonplace, a vampire shouldn't be really scary. He's basically a particularly buff stirge in a tailcoat, a wizard with a few extra powers. 

And yet, I think that vampires do tend to work in D&D. I have no problem having them in my game, certainly, although they haven't really come up yet. But my experience of most horror monsters in fantasy games is that they don't work too badly. I think this is to do with the way D&D is usually pretty comfortable genre-hopping. 

I liken this to early Doctor Who -- back in the day each new story was not just the same characters arriving in a new location, but very much the same characters arriving in a different genre. "The Romans" is full of weird farce, "The Gunfighters" is a parody of westerns, but others are horror stories, historical adventures, and more-or-less straight science fiction. My campaign tends to work in discrete episodes -- usually anyway -- so perhaps that's part of it; each sequence is its own thing so each sequence has its own genre elements. 

I'm not sure if that's reflected in published scenarios; obviously, when TSR decided to horror things up they created their own horror-y setting for it. Someone with more knowledge of the history of D&D could tell you. 

On the other hand, this may not be a feature of D&D specifically, since as far as I can tell Frankenstein's-monster-types don't work in D&D at all. The idea of a "flesh golem" just thumps the whole Frankenstein thing. Perhaps it's because the monster's thing is pretty much just where he comes from. He doesn't have any special powers or anything, other than being very tall. His whole thing is that he's unnatural, which kind of means he doesn't work when made part of a type and part of a broader category of constructs. Frankenstein's monster just isn't as versatile as a vampire. 

Perhaps, then, the reason that vampires work in D&D is that the supervillain aspect is already there? Dracula already has that mastermind aspect, and a castle is not un-dungeon-like, so he works as an adventure-story villain and perhaps brings that horror quality with him. But poor old Frankie, robbed of his subtext, is just a brute, which is OK, but it's not like fantasy games were short on brutes. You could mess around with the Monster to make it tactically interesting, but I don't know what you can do to make it thematically interesting. 

L to R; Mook, nope, sure!, OK, excellent, what? 

Anyway, I don't know. I was just musing on the ways in which you can steal horror, mystery and crime drama elements for D&D games and they somehow work, even divorced from their original context. Broadly speaking, I think it might be a strength of the ripoff pastiche nature of a lot of games; you bring in a particular symbol and players are happy to assume a lot of the things that go with that symbol, even if those things don't make a whole lot of sense given your system or setting. 

Speaking of horror, if you've read this far I should mention that my little Lovecraft-y Viking-y ebook "The Barest Branch" is on sale until the end of Halloween over at Drivethru. It's just £1.25 until the end of the sale. Check it out if that's your kind of thing. 

Monday 27 October 2014

D&D as street performance, or how to be the world's worst detective

(Update: the previous version of this post misidentified the university where Jennifer studies. My bad!)

The other day, I was walking through the Grafton Centre on my way to buy some shoes, when I met a young woman who handed me this:

So I asked her what it was, and she explained that she's a performing arts student from the University of Falmouth and that she was staging a performance the next day -- one indebted to D&D. I happened not to have a lot going on, so I decided to swing by while out running some errands. 

So, as you can see, her name is Jennifer Herron and the piece is called "Assassination! " It's a "scratch performance," which is to say a piece that isn't yet finished. Basically, it is a little mini-scenario that she runs for whoever happens by.

Character sheets! I played Krivoc, the half orc warrior, following in my traditional belief that the easiest way to encounter a new situation is playing a derpy face-kicker. Each character has an ability that gets activated by dinging a bell on the table, as you can see, together with a couple of sort of narrative personality traits. Sadly, in my enthusiasm to smite a fool I forgot to ding the bell myself.

And there's a map!

You can't go wrong with a map. 
After my own playthrough (found the culprit in the assassination but decided to side with her, framed someone I didn't like for the crime -- turns out a half-bright half-orc is not the person you want solving your crimes) I asked Jennifer why she had decided to use D&D for her project. She told me that she's an avid fan (and a LARPer) and that she thought of D&D as a form of interactive theatre -- her programme is apparently big on interactivity. 

The old "are RPGs art" debate is usually presented as a conflict between traditional D&D types and Storygamers or WoD enthusiasts. I think it is very interesting to see that it isn't like that for at least one D&D fan.

Someone -- possibly Gary Alan Fine? -- said that it was very interesting how gamers were able to switch between different modes of interaction (what would be called "stances" in Big Model Theory) without any warning, and how everyone at the table was able to understand that. For instance, I can go from speaking in character ("you son of a bitch, you sold us out!") to describing my character's actions ("and then I punch him in the chops") to talking about game mechanics ("six damage!") to talking about unrelated stuff ("pass the crisps?"). And although these are four very different kinds of communication, we can flip between them in a way that everyone at the table understands. 

I was thinking about this when Jennifer mentioned the kinds of intense emotional experiences that can happen in gaming. And I absolutely agree that those experiences are important -- but at the same time, I think that if you were to look at my D&D group swapping jokes or trying to puzzle their way through a dungeon room, you wouldn't think that you were looking at people engaging in a form of theatre. And yet, it's undeniable that those moments, when they do happen, do have a theatrical quality to them. So perhaps one of the interesting things about gaming is the way in which it can switch between those moments and other activities without (necessarily, anyway) disrupting any of them (although breaking immersion in live games can be a big problem, I suppose).

I asked Jennifer what the response of passersby had been, and she told me it had been variable -- some people had been responsive, but others had been a little reluctant. I think that getting people to be creative on cue -- even with the kind of prompts and constraints that a game provides -- is pretty challenging, and certainly I would never be able to set out my shingle and just run a little game for people in public. But then that's why I am not going into the performing arts, I suppose. (You may say that teaching is a performance, and it is, but it's not the same at all.)

Apparently the final performance might even involve drafting in other students as NPCs, which I think is a pretty interesting idea -- it would present a very different experience, but a lot of the structure would remain the same. In fact, you could run it for a "party" of audience members.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting take on the D&D experience -- and interesting in particular how closely a D&D art project resembles, well, a game of D&D. Although I think you might not be getting the full experience without a party of characters with differing agendas.

You can learn more about the development of the project by checking out Jennifer's YouTube channel here

I don't want to spam people with promotional links, but I will just mention that my little Lovecraft-y, Viking-y, horribly-depressing-y novella "The Barest Branch" is now on sale for a mere £1.25 at Drivethru as part of their Halloween sale. Sale ends October 31st, at which point it goes up to about £2, so ... still pretty cheap.

Next up, I'm going to talk about using "horror" monsters as D&D monsters, and why I think it works even though it absolutely shouldn't. 

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Trip report: SELWG

This past Sunday, pal Chris (of new steampunk fiction blog Dreadnaughts and Dragons) and I went to the annual SELWG wargames show at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in London. And it was pretty good!

I got some stuff -- nothing too exciting if you're not me, I guess. I'm mainly on this SAGA kick right now, and I got some Conquest Games Norman knights, discount Foundry Vikings (£8 for 10 figures, which is pretty good, especially for Foundry) and a Norman church from Timeline Miniatures, which is going to be a little 11th-c church for my Anglo-Saxon setting. No double-arch windows, but it'll do. With its later medieval crenellated top, it will also be the village church in my Strange Aeons games. I will be doing a more detailed blog on building and painting this. And I can use the last of my Renedra gravestones to give it a little detachable cemetery.

I also picked up a few bargains at the Bring and Buy, including this:

Compendium for £5? Well, all right. 
And from another trader, I picked up a copy of the Havok starter set for £1. I only became aware of this game recently -- it was a little game with plastic figures and stat cards and stuff, and it was one of those early attempts (1996, I think?) to do a totally-integrated game, where each figure comes with the rules for it. Mainly I got it out of curiosity, and for the robots! It has big stompy robots.

They are pretty stompy!
And of course there were games to see and participate in. 

Deal Wargames Society presented this Vietnam game in (I think) 15mm. I think my favourite thing about it was the little touches, from black-suited CIA agents stopping a car to villagers working in rice paddies. There were also some nice aircraft models, giving the game a multi-level appeal.

I really liked this rocket launch from Loughton Strike Force's "Hill 112" Normandy 1944 game.

Peter Pig were running a demo game (PBI, I think?). The thing I really liked about it was that the roads, ground colours and even some of the small terrain features like walls and haystacks were painted or mounted on the inside of this collapsing table. The trees and buildings were then added separately. If you look at the middle, you can see that it's hinged, sort of like a wallpapering table if the folding edge were the long edge. I thought that was a pretty cool idea. 

Southend Wargames Club did this "Talavera, but not as we know it" battle set in 1709. I really liked the fields, roads, and hills, which I felt were really lifelike. The makers informed me that they had actually chosen the terrain based on what was known to be planted in the fields around Talavera. That's more effort than I want to go to, but just varying the crops and patterns certainly makes the ground look very natural. 

GLC wargames club put on this Siege of Madrid game, featuring lots of MDF terrain -- the lightness of this material means nice tall buildings at a reasonable cost, and it really works well for an era like this one, where you have rendered walls and tall buildings. The added banners give it period flavour. I liked the command vignette, complete with Soviet military advisers. 

More MDF terrain on display in this participation tourney game of Crossed Lances. A big ring for the melee, lists, stands, archery butts ... it was pretty complete. We played a game of this. We also got to play in a chariot-racing game hosted by Crawley Wargames Club. Like all good participation games, there were hats: 
Chris models the latest in auriga fashions.
On the starting line. 
Chris at the end of turn one. 
Me, halfway through the last lap. 
     This was a great little participation game, with much reckless driving, breathless anticipation of cards turning over and applause when a young player took the victory and was rewarded with a free figure. 

I also picked up some free 15 mm sci-fi models from the Ground Zero Games stand, and Chris very generously gave me his. They will go into the 15 mm sci-fi pile, which is very definitely a project for next year, after the Vikings and the Normans and the 1/72 Romans and maybe some more Cthulhu stuff and then there will be the Reaper kickstarter arriving and and and ... 

Overall, I didn't do too badly. My painting score took a pretty nasty hit, but nothing I can't fix in a couple of weeks. I bought things I wanted, but other than the Havok box, which was a one-quid impulse buy, I don't think I bought anything I won't use or at least read. I even had a few pounds left at the end to put back in my conscience-free go-ape-shit-at-conventions tin. 

Friday 10 October 2014

Fallout: New Vegas and the Closing of the West

Today's post is another one in which I look at a video game and imagine a deeper cultural significance that may not exist. Mostly I do these over on my history blog (scroll down for the Skyrim stuff), but today I don't have even the most tangential history connection, so I'm just going to talk about Fallout: New Vegas and how a thing I found frustrating about the game might actually be one of its big themes.

I got my Xbox late in the console's life, so I only finished Fallout: New Vegas a few weeks ago. I had put off concluding it for a long time -- I started playing it in 2013, got to a certain point and then moved on to play other games. One of the reasons for this was that I found that the game's main storyline wasn't really what I enjoyed about it. 

The thing that I like about games like Fallout 3 and this one -- about this type of RPG in general, I guess -- is the exploration aspect. I like choosing a blank sector of the map and just saying "well, let's see what's over here." I like running into weird people and their weird problems. I like the hints, not at a wider story, but at the thousands of individual stories taking place everywhere in the world. 

And as the game progresses, there's less and less of that. The areas you visit have been cleared of baddies. Problems have been solved (at least in my case, because I tend to play a goody-two-shoes character in games), territory conquered, threats defeated. And finally there's nothing for it but to make your way to the climactic showdown at Hoover Dam, knowing that this means you have to say goodbye to the Wasteland. 

And I found that really frustrating and disappointing, even though I was pleased to see how it all ended. I popped in Fallout 3 (which I had also never finished) almost immediately to get back that that wandering-the-wasteland feeling. And then I began to think: this is a Western, right?

Today's activities will include: rootin', tootin', six-gun shootin'.
I borrow my summary of the core theme of the Western from Kenneth Hite, who phrased it thus (I paraphrase): 
Civilisation can only be defended from barbarism by the gun. Whoever takes up the gun is a barbarian.
And it's true -- many of the classic Westerns focus on this theme: a lone outsider or outcast who defends settled people from an external threat but then finds out that he can't exist in the society he's defended. Sometimes he dies, sometimes he rides on, and sometimes (The Magnificent Seven) it's a bit of both.

Ah, the forces of order. 

So was the disappointment and frustration I felt with the end of New Vegas actually how you're supposed to feel as a lone gunslinger when you finally take down the bad guy, only to realise that a bad-guy-free world has no place for your brand of rootless, .44-calibre problem solving? I loved the Wasteland, and I wanted to protect the people in it. But protecting the people killed the Wasteland, the Wasteland where anything could happen, where a man could wander as he liked with nothing but his trusty suit of power armour and heavy machine gun. I mean, Stetson and six-shooter. 

Now, obviously, my version of this experience is coloured by the fact that I sided with flawed, corrupt, bungling democracy, and that I routinely chose the nicey-nice option when available. I might feel different leaving behind a wasteland that I had terrorised and plundered, I guess. Or rather, I would feel the same way, but it would hardly be an iconic Western. 

I guess the thing I wonder is whether this "end of the frontier" phenomenon is something that the designers intended? Or is it just that if you populate a landscape with six-guns and sarsaparilla Western themes will just appear in the players' heads through the process of association? Is it just that the genre is so well-established? I expect I'll feel the same thing as I near the end of Fallout 3, and that won't have anything to do with its fundamental conflict of nostalgia vs bricolage. 

Does this extend to other genres? Can I get people to think about society's relationship to technology just by putting neon all over everything and giving everyone ill-advised haircuts?

I dunno. But from a game-running perspective I think it's an interesting question. 

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Do you recognise this miniature?

The other day, I painted one of the first miniatures I ever owned. Technically, in fact, I think it might have been a miniature my brother owned. When we were kids, the game stores in our hometown sold miniatures individually. They took them out of the packaging and put them in a display case, and you just asked for the one you wanted. Which means that I don't know where a lot of these figures came from, especially since the ones with integral bases have since been rebased.

Anyway, the figure is a female fighter, armed with a sword, a bow and a quiver of arrows. I like her faux-classical armour, which puts me in mind of early RuneQuest. I decided to echo Wonder Woman in the colour scheme, although I gave her light brown hair.

So do any of you guys know where this model comes from? I got it sometime in the mid-1980s and it's more of a 25 mm size. 

Monday 6 October 2014

Now that's a dragon

So, I recently wrote on my history blog about how I went to see the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibit at the British Museum. And it was very cool.

I was particularly struck by this Temptation of Saint Anthony by Jacques Callot. Click to enlarge:

I'm gonna zoom in on the dragon, although there's a lot of other great stuff there.

Look at that guy. Check out his majesty. I mean, I guess he's the devil rather than a dragon per se, but when I looked at him I thought dragon, so I'm gonna go with it. He's got a serpent twined around his arm which is itself breathing fire, he's got the other hand just holding fire, he's surrounded by an aura of blazing radiance, he appears to be breathing out monsters, and he's chained to the goddamn sky. He's got lesser monsters living in his wings like parasites, he's got an adoring cult there down below, and he seems to be just kind of generally blighting the area.

He makes me never want to look at this little guy again:

Fuck outta here, Young Red Dragon. 
I love the idea that the only reason the dragon doesn't come down and just ravage the shit out of whatever defenseless fantasy kingdom is below him is that in ages past some doomed party of fools chained him to the roof of the sky. That's both high-questular-fantasy as hell and also metal as hell. It ticks all the boxes. And having the dragon-worshipping apocalypse cult trying to break the chain is way better than the usual schtick where they're trying to wake him from his slumber, because in the slumber scenario, either:

a) you foil them, and you never get to see, let alone fight, the dragon, or 
b) they are on rails to wake him and you fight him but you feel like chumps because it was predetermined. 

Whereas here, even leaving aside the various quests and stuff you'd have to do just to get up there into the sky in the first place, you still get to see the dragon and maybe fight him a bit and certainly fight or avoid his various minions, but regardless you get to go where the action is rather than being the poor responsible fools who make sure there isn't any action at all. 

I think I may know what Wednesday Night D&D are doing once they have their fill of sailing the high seas in search of trayzhur.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

The swipe file: Cairo edition!

As I have mentioned, I was in London last weekend. Among the cheap books I picked up was a copy of Cairo, a one-volume hardcover graphic novel written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by M. K. Perker. I remembered having enjoyed some of Wilson's writing on the web (I have a notion that I was introduced to her by the Girl Wonder site, but I don't recall), but I didn't remember that she's writing the new Ms. Marvel series, which I ought to check out.

So, Cairo is ... OK. I would say that it is better in its concept than in its execution. All the elements of the story are fun: gangsters! Wizards! Jinn! Other dimensions! Reforming journalists! Stoned camels! Sadly, the way it's written is not as great.  It's very "as you know, Bob" talky sometimes, but I think my main problem with it is just that the story is too crowded. It has six main characters, five of whom undergo some kind of life-changing experience. But it doesn't have enough room to explore those, so they come off feeling kind of rushed. When we meet Lebanese-American traveller Shaheed, he seems like a cheerful friendly guy -- although we learn he has a dark secret. But no sooner does the secret come out than he has some big experiences that effectively change every single thing about his life. That's fine and all, but we barely knew him before, so it's hard to feel like the transformation has any weight.

At other times, the plot feels predictable because of its rushedness. For instance, when streetwise smuggler Ashraf and tough-but-principled special forces soldier Tova meet, you instantly think "gee, I wonder if these two are going to fall in love despite the vast differences that separate them."

(Cairo came out in like 2007, so a) it is obviously set in a very different Egypt, and b) the consensus seems to be that Wilson has tackled those problems.)

So Cairo the actual story is not as good as Cairo the modern 1,001-Nights fantasy concept. But that's OK! It was still a fun read, and on this blog we have a very special place for books that are full of good ideas but don't necessarily cohere as single works of art. And that place is: The Swipe File! Let's do this:

  • People grow an intoxicating drug in the wilderness. Animals graze on it and wander around high. 
  • "The jinn have a right to the empty places."
  • A wounded soldier accidentally strays into enemy(?) territory. 
  • "How is life as a wandering mystic?"
  • "There is another river beneath the Nile and it flows backwards."
  • A randomly-looted item turns out to be the important McGuffin. 
  • Water drips upward (fine, Prince of Darkness, but it's still cool). 
  • Jinn can fuck with probability, but they can't make anything because that's God's deal. 
  • A door within a labyrinth is visible only to some. 
  • "I am Nar, well-dressed drug lord and magician."
  • Knowledge of mythology and tradition allows explorers to intuit the dungeon map. 
  • "The wanderer who knocks in the cold hour before dawn, keeper of small horrors and subduer of great ones." That is a pretty good demon name. 
So there you go. Inspiration is everywhere, and I definitely got my £1.95 worth out of this book. And even though I wasn't totally thrilled with it, I will definitely check out that Ms Marvel run to see how the author tackles a superhero character.