athelind: (Default)
Mostly for my own reference:

Akin's Laws of Spacecraft Design

While Dr. Akin is an aerospace engineer, most if not all of these Laws apply to systems design in general.

[ profile] normanrafferty should take particular note of the following:

14. (Edison's Law) "Better" is the enemy of "good".

Snagged from [ profile] theweaselking, whom I forgot to credit when I first posted this.

athelind: (Default)
Your Obedient Serpent has no idea what he's gonna do to relax in the near future, because all the things he's frittered away his spare-and-not-so-spare time on over the years actively piss him off right now.

This is, in part, because he's frittered away so much of his life on them, and in part because, well, Busman's Holiday. One of his sources of stress is his low-paying retail job, selling all those time-consuming distractions.

athelind: (Default)
Old leezard is old.

I talk about RPGs with a lot of people, most notably, [ profile] normanrafferty.

The Rat has been gaming almost as long as I have, but that "almost" is significant -- never more so than when he'll contradict me about "how things were in the early days".1 I notice similar disconnects when reading LiveJournals, blogs... even the Designer Notes inside published RPGs.

What Rafferty and most other gamers don't realize is those few short years between 1978, when Your Obedient Serpent started gaming, and 1983-84, when The Rat started gaming, are a lot like the first three minutes after the Big Bang.2

Science Fiction Fans refer to "First Fandom" as those who were actively involved in fannish activity before 1 January 1938. The role-playing equivalent, IMNSHO, would be those already playing D&D when Dallas Egbert went missing on 16 August 1979 (yep, exactly 30 years ago this Sunday).3

Git offa my hex paper lawn, you whippersnappers! )

athelind: (Default)
I announced today, to my FurryMUCK clique, that I didn't want to see any more trailers for Monster Hunter 3. The game doesn't just annoy me: it actively pisses me off, and worse, it makes me think badly not only of gamers in general but of Japanese culture, in wide, bigoted swaths.

The game is beautifully animated, and the eponymous monsters of the title are magnificently designed. Every trailer looks like a wonderful Discovery Channel nature documentary of a world that never was, full of dinosaurs and dragons and even more exotic creatures -- right up until you get to the gameplay, which involves killing things and dismembering them for their body parts to make cheesy, tawdry consumer goods kewl weapons and armor and magic items.

It's jarring.

The generation that grew up on Cute And Fuzzy Cockfighting Seizure Monsters has graduated to Heroic Head-Bashing Harp Seal Hunters. Look at these marvelous creatures! The loving detail that went into their creation! The magnificent, balletic fluidity of their motion! LET'S HIT THEM WITH CLUBS!

This is a game that comes from one of the last whaling nations on Earth. I'm sorry -- this is that "wide, bigoted swath" I mentioned -- but I can't help but see a connection.

This doesn't piss me off as a guy who pretends to be a dragon online. This pisses me off as an Environmental Scientist, and a human being raised with some semblance of decency and empathy toward the natural world.

I don't put much credence into combat games as "murder simulators", but I do think the prevalent attitude these games have that animals serve no purpose other than to exploit, enslave or slaughter provides a bad example.

I wish I could believe that this was meant ironically, or as a commentary on the exploitation of the natural world. The unambitious modeling and jerky animation of the player avatars certainly suggests that; they're raw, brutish intrusions on the elegantly savage ballet of the "monsters". A decade of Happy Cartoony Cockfighting Games For Little Children makes that hard, though.

And after all that self-righteous ranting to my homies about how terrible it is to brainwash kiddies into seeing the slaughter and exploitation of magnificent animals as something fun and exciting, I announced that I was gonna go grab a burger before work.
And then, at work, I was chatting with two of my regular customers, and one of them said, "you really need to get a PSP. Do you have any consoles at all? There's this game..."
"Funny thing, that", said I...

athelind: (Default)
Back in 1993, I ran a GURPS Space game for my local gaming group. A local BBS -- remember those? -- was the organizing center of our social activities in those days, and it was common practice to use it to schedule games and distribute material.

I came up with a simple premise for a setting, wrote up a quick history to give everyone the basics, and set it up so that the players themselves could create the planet and the culture from which their characters hailed.

When we sat down to play, I found that most of the players hadn't bothered to read the background post.

These are people who would memorize setting information in stacks of published material.

[ profile] normanrafferty calls this "Complete Stranger Theory": players are more willing to accept the work of a complete stranger than they are that of the person sitting in the same room.

(Since Rafferty designs tabletop games and uses his local group as playtesters, you can imagine how frustrating this must get for him.)

This came to mind because, yesterday evening, I leafed through the Russian Doll file structure of my hard drive and found, nested in Archive folders two or three deep, the files from that time-lost game.

Both [ profile] normanrafferty and [ profile] rodant_kapoor asserted that they would have read it -- so let's test that, shall we?

tl;dr )

I've said "four pages" in relating this story over the years; it actually comes out to less than a page and a half, as originally formatted.

It's evident what I was reading at the time; there are bits in there obviously cribbed from Phil Foglio's Buck Godot: Zap Gun for Hire, and some obvious influence from David Brin's work, especially Earth.

The general framework, however, is pretty good: Humanity colonizes worlds using "slow FTL", develops dozens of cultures in comparative isolation, and then, poof, the discovery of "fast FTL" drops everyone in each other's back yard -- and First Contact.

There, okay, I just summed it up in one run-on sentence. But really, was a page and a half that onerous?

athelind: (Default)
Posting this so I don't lose the link: d20 Modern, The Full Monte

They have a zipped, downloadable version right there on the front page.

For those baffled by this, geeky prattle follows. )
athelind: (Default)
Amongst various other loot which I will quite enjoy, I received the entire seven-book Dark Horse release of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series -- a seminal sword-and-sorcery saga that contributed much more to the heart and soul of Dungeons & Dragons than Tolkien's more superficial influence.

Combine this with my recent ruminations re: Gamma World, and Your Obedient Serpent may be hankerin' to run a good, old-skool, High Adventure campaign in the near future....

athelind: (Default)
[ profile] paka posted a "D&D Meme" last night. I'm not going to answer the whole thing; regular readers have probably deduced that I haven't played enough D&D in recent decades to be able to answer them. One question, however, pushed one of my buttons:

8) Halfling or Gnome?

I've been saying this since AD&D1: Why does D&D even HAVE Gnomes? They're REDUNDANT. The ecological niches that Gnomes traditionally fill in folklore get filled by either Dwarves or Halflings. In TV Tropes lingo, they're not "Stouts" and they're not "Cutes".

Really, there's nothing for Gnomes to DO except fill up an unused folklore name; that's why every single edition and sub-edition and variant setting gives'em an entirely different gimmick and identity. If you look at the First Edition version, it was really a half-assed, gamery attempt to cash in on adapt the Gnomes from the Huygen & Poortvliet coffee-table book that was so popular in '78.

When the Tolkien Estate groused about them using "Hobbit" in the first printing of Greyhawk, they should have just dubbed THEM "Gnomes" instead of "Halflings", and been done with it.
athelind: (Default)
In the 1965 Batman tale, "Partners in Plunder" (Batman #169, February 1965), the Caped Crusader had to deal with that Felonious Fowl, The Penguin, in the second Silver Age Appearance of said scurrilous scofflaw.

The Dishonorable Mister Cobblepott, you see, had just been released from prison... again... and had the villain's equivalent of writer's block. He simply could not come up with a sufficiently flamboyant plot to be worthy of his attention -- and that of the Dynamic Duo.

What? Go straight? and give up the game?? Nonsense!!

Instead, in a flash of Genre Savvy inspiration, he came up with a plan to have Batman and Robin plan his next caper for him. He set up a seemingly-honest front selling his trademark umbrellas, and then pulled entirely random umbrella-related stunts around Gotham City: exploding umbrellas, giant, radio-controlled umbrellas, and more.

At one point, Batman and Robin show up in the umbrella shop to warn him that they're onto him, but, of course, they have no real proof. After they leave, Robin notes in puzzlement that Cobblepott was wearing his monocle on the wrong eye.

He plants a radio transmitter in one of the errant bumbershoots, and, when Batman and Robin have it in their hands, he cheerfully listens in as they piece together the "clues" he's left, figure out the "target" he plans to steal, and thoroughly detail the way they think he's going to pull it off.

He chortles, and goes through with exactly that crime, exactly the way they described it. He does tweak a few things, but to no avail; he winds up in their clutches anyway.

He doesn't care, though. Why not? Well, for one, the World's Greatest Detectives never figure out that they planned the job for him.

For another... they're still scratching their heads over the significance of the monocle.

And he reveals, to the reader alone... there was no significance. He put it in the wrong eye just to fuck with them.

This was later adapted into Burgess Meredith's two-part debut as The Penguin in the Adam West Batman TV show: "Fine Feathered Finks"/"The Penguin's a Jinx".

Reading this tale a few months back pretty much cemented Oswald's status as My Favorite Bat-Villain.

It also describes My GMing style -- or my most successful one, that is -- which is why it merits the Argot entry.

As a Game Host, the approach that works best to me is to have a general framework in mind, but be willing to change things on the fly -- and to be willing to take good suggestions from the player, whether they intended them as suggestions or not.

(The obvious extension of this, of course, is the Monocle Mystery: Always leave a loose end or two to mess with their heads.)

As an example:

In the first big adventure of the [ profile] legacy2020 game, Robin rattled off this entirely reasonable chain of "villain profiling" logic that ended with, "so, obviously, Squid's hideout must be HERE."

I stopped, blinked, and realized that what Robin's player had come up with was far better than anything I'd thought of myself. So... there it was. Penguin Plotting prevailed!

[ profile] eggshellhammer contrasts this with pixelbitching, "Like in the old adventure games, where you had to click just... the right... pixel... And it looked like every... other... pixel..."

athelind: (Default)
Every so often, people will ask me why I have no interest in video and computer games, or insist that I'd like some game or another, if I "just gave it a try". I'm going to try to respond to that. I will try very hard to explain why these games don't hold any appeal for me, without trying to make it sound like you're wrong for enjoying them. It's a hard balance to maintain, so please grant me your pardon in advance if I cross the line.

For the last few days, [ profile] bradhicks has veered away from his usual political insights to discuss the recent overhaul of City of Heroes/City of Villains.

Please understand, I'm a die-hard superhero fan. It's my genre. If any MMORPG should be able to get my attention, it's this one. The game mechanics sound well-considered, the visuals are impressive...

...and I just have no interest in it. It's the usual rounds of pointless combat and trivial errands that, near as I can tell, characterize pretty much the whole computer "RPG" genre. I guess it's not for me.

Today, Mr. Hicks waxed enthusiastic about "Epic Archetype Story Arcs". In CoX, if you have a certain character class, you get to experience specific adventures that give more detail to the ongoing storyline.

As far as I can tell, though, that storyline plays out the same way no matter what you do, so long as you "succeed". If you don't "succeed" by the set victory conditions... you keep trying until you get it "right". If you don't play at all... it still goes on, as if you had.

I've seen people "play" World of Warcraft by setting their character up in a situation requiring a sequence of rote, repetitive movements, putting a book on the keyboard so the key keeps pressing, and walking away. To me, that captures the essence of the whole process.

I... just don't see the appeal. If the story plays out pretty much the same way no matter who's involved, does it really need me to play it?

Maybe it's not that I "don't get" these newfangled video games. Maybe it's that I don't recognize this as play -- but I don't recognize it as story, either.

For me, "story" is something you observe; "play" is something you do. Role-Playing, for me, has to be a creative act; I have to feel that my presence, playing my character, has generated a story that would not have existed without my participation.

Wandering through toy stores over the years, I've noticed that, the more features and gimmicks a toy has, the less actual participation they require from the child. They aren't designed for kids to play with so much as to have kids push a button and watch the toys play for them.*

It's the same with tabletop game settings like the old World of Darkness, where there's a big, official Story Arc that overwhelmed the whole milieu. If your gaming group relied heavily on stock adventures, then, ultimately, your actions as individual PCs didn't matter much at all -- you either got to be one small cog in the Big NPC Machinery, or you were Out Of The Loop.

The illusion of participation that's the core of most computer games is a big dose of cognitive dissonance for me. If I want to watch someone else's story unfold, I'm happy enough to open up a book or a comic or turn on the TV. If I play, I want to engage my imagination. I want to know that the game has turned out differently because of my participation. If I'm trying to immerse myself in a story, I don't want to be pestered to "interact" with a bunch of predetermined options; it breaks the narrative flow.

So, really. It's not you. It's me.


* Kids being kids, they're sure to find their own uses for things. ("You're playing it wrong!") Still, I think the expectation still bleeds through.
athelind: (Default)
As most of you know, I dabble in RPG design, mostly as a sounding board for [ profile] normanrafferty. Some of you may also know that I am (like three out of four people in the fandom) working on a "fantasy epic" of my own. Thus, many of my conversations revolve around the Theory and Practice of World Creation.

Last night, the conversation took a startlingly familiar turn. I opined, as I often have over the decades, that "The best fantasy is written by people who do research, who don't just shrug and say, 'well, it's a fantasy, I can just make stuff up.' Too much fantasy these days is written by peole who think that reading Tolkien counts as 'research'."

The response: "Why does fantasy have to be based on research into what happened? Isn't true fantasy stuff that is Completely Made Up From Scratch? The only difference between basing your game on research of ancient myths and Tolkien is that their books are older."

(I haven't attributed the source because a) I don't want the person in question to feel like I'm "picking on them" in a public forum, and b) the sentiment is so often expressed.)

The obvious comparison is SF, of course. I've read a lot of science fiction, and it's not hard to tell the difference between the stuff written by people who know something about science and are willing to do some research on a topic before writing a novel around it, and the people who just read a lot of Star Trek and Star Wars novels and copied what they did.

However, a better comparison is comic book art.

I've read a lot of superhero comics. The medium has a lot of stylization, a lot of visual shorthand.

The most adept comic book artists have a deep-seated understanding of human anatomy. Their stylizations are based on that knowledge. Jack Kirby was famous for his impossible, dramatic poses -- but the man knew how the human body worked, and how to exaggerate it for effect.

When a comic book artist learned exclusively from reading comics, it shows. He applies the stylizations and conventions without really understanding the underlying structures. He uses the shorthand without grasping what it stands for. His exaggerations become more exaggerated, until his figures are so defomred and distorted that they bear only a painful resemblance to the human form. On the surface, the art may look slick and cool and cutting-edge, but on closer examination, it just doesn't hold together.

There's also... well, as an environmental scientist, I think of it as a "bottleneck effect". When you rely on second- and third- and fourth-hand sources for inspiration, you lose nuances and concepts and ideas with every successive iteration. Writers and gamers often proclaim that doing research just trammels on their Unfettered Creativity -- but so much of their output just winds up looking the same.

You want "Unfettered Creativity"? Our ancestors spent generations coming up with all manner of, well, wacked-out shit. I guarantee you that twenty minutes in the library skimming the Motif-Index of Folk Literature* will give you more useful, inventive, exotic ideas than reading the complete works of Robert Jordan, R.A. Salvatore, and Margaret Weis put together.

It will certainly get your farther than reading the Dungeon Master's Guide or the Eberron sourcebook.

I should also say, by all of this, I am not advocating that All Fantasy Must Look Like Old Fairy Tales. To the contrary, I'm protesting the sameness of the bulk of the genre. Doing research, immersing yourself in folklore and history, serves two purposes: not only will it give you a richer, deeper reserve of concepts from which to draw -- it also will help you break away from the endless litany of cliches and do something genuinely different and innovative.

*True Confession Time: I discovered the MIFL through a "Recommended Reading" article in Dragon Magazine, c. 1978-80.
athelind: (Default)
It has come to my attention that many D&D players spend a great deal of time, energy and effort complaining about core concepts in the system: Alignment, Class, Level, the Magic System, incompatibility between optional rules sets, and even things that exist at the setting level rather than the mechanical level, such as the perponderance of monsters that make no damned sense. Rather than just discarding or modifying those aspects of the game to tailor it more to their preferences, they instead apply torturous rationalizations to make sense of inherently arbitrary, irrational rules.

If the objections and rationalizations were isolated, one could justify simply "gaming around them"; however, at some point or another, the same people have brought every core concept of the game into question -- and yet, far too often, the questioners resist both the idea of actively changing the rules (which the OGL/d20 revolution has made more feasible than ever) or finding another system less heavily burdened with the ill-conceived baggage of '70s Miniatures Wargaming (which the OGL/d20 revolution has not yet managed to make impossible).

Granted, this has always been The Nature of the Beast. however, since the introduction of Third Edition and the "d20 Revolution", it often seems as though the players of that system simply refuse to acknowledge the existence of other game systems in any but the most offhand and academic manner ("Yeah, but nobody plays that").

Many D&D players also have a tendency to approach any discussion of game design in terms of whether or not it would work in D&D. Frequently, one person will bring up some aspect of mythology or folklore -- folk magics, for example, or the role of consecrated ritual tools in magickal practice -- and note that few existing game systems incorporate these ideas in their mechanics. Far too often, a D&D player will dismiss the question by saying something that boils down to "There's really no way to explain that in D&D terms."

This tendency to shoehorn every circumstance into an arbitrary and inappropriate frame of reference while at the same time discounting the validity of other frames of reference strikes me as being unwholesomely... Republican.

EDIT: I do apologize for this popping up again in everyone's Friends list. Semagic did something weird and reposted it, over-writing the time stamp on the original.

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