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Last week, a flare-up in joint pain heralded another bout of Serial Flu, that one-symptom-at-a-time never-really-sick variation of influenza that hits me now and then. Body aches most of last week; congestion and post-nasal drip over the weekend; digestive upset on Monday, after work. As usual, I never felt bad enough to really consider myself sick, and, aside from a general air of lingering blah, I thought I was pretty much done with it.

This evening, I've got the Extreme Tiredness symptom, along with a slight resurgence of stuffiness, and a mild, general achiness that's not quite the same as the Crippling Arthritic Agony of last week. It's not done with me yet.

I had my flu shot this year (though not my H1N1, yet); in years past, if I had my immunization, "serial flu" would almost never progress to full-on flu.

I doubt I'm contagious; I'm not really in virus-spreading sneeze/sniffle mode. I don't really feel sick, honestly, just run down. [ profile] rikoshi and [ profile] tealfox, I'll give you a heads up if I'm not fit to share breathing space with the Saga group on Saturday. I should be good, though.

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[ profile] paka posted some thoughts on LotR Elves vs. D&D Elves, in which he noted that Unca Gary wasn't that much of a Tolkien fan, since the Professor's work "wasn't pulpy enough for his tastes".

I responded:
I have long felt that the reason Dungeon Fantasy mutated into its own peculiar, inbred subgenre that, frankly, doesn't really WORK that well was because players tried to graft the tropes of Heroic Quest Fantasy onto a system whose initial assumptions were rooted in the very different tropes of picaresque Sword & Sorcery.

I may be the only person who thinks so anymore, but to me, D&D's haphazard combination of High Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery isn't so much a matter of "you got peanut butter in my chocolate" as "you're wearing plaid and paisley together."

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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.

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The Star Wars Saga game run by [ profile] rikoshi and [ profile] tealfox has really hit its stride. Tonight -- well, last night, now -- was the third session, and everything just clicked. All our sub-plots are coming together, Rikki and Teal have a developed a terrific synergy, and splitting an eight-person party into two four-person groups for combat lets us accomplish twice as much in half the time.

This is not, however, why I am immortalizing this session in my LiveJournal.

No, I'm making a record of this night's game because, in thirty-one years of gaming, and I have never rolled like I did tonight.

Six natural 20s.

The run started with the first two times my character -- a medical droid whose obligate pacifism is literally hardwired -- ever made an attack roll in combat.

Then they just started popping up.

It was insane.

And worth remembering.

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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)

...but, hooray! After a couple of years of not being able to get a gaming group together or sustain a game for more than three sessions, I am now in about as many games as my not-quite grown-up schedule can handle.

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Last night, I had a trio of kids in the store looking at the boxed Introductory Set for D&D4. They wanted something that would keep them entertained for the whole summer.

I told them this would be a good introduction -- it's inexpensive, and the tiles and markers are sufficiently useful that experienced players have bought the set to get them. If they liked it, they could come back and pick up the full books.

One of them noted that they weren't sure if they wanted to get TOO into it, because they didn't want to turn into...

And he paused.

And I finished, "geeks who work in a game store?"

They bought two sets.

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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?

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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. )
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Leverage is the best show ever.

They can stop making TV now. They're done.

I love caper movies, and the first two eps of this show are two of the best I've seen.

And it's very much a Gamer's Show. You'll be writing up character sheets for the PCs, um, protagonists before the first commercial break.

Really, I LOVE this show.

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Last week, I went through the RPG section at work, sorted everything out, and stuck almost anything published before 2004 on the Half Price Rack. One reason I did that was because there was some really intriguing stuff for d20 that had gotten buried amidst the piles of Cheap-Ass Third-Party Powergaming Supplements, and I wanted to get it out and visible. D&D 4th Edition has come along, and disenfranchised a bunch of hard-core 3d-edition players who could make good use of the off-beat material.

Today, after debating it for the last week, I purchased a big bag o' half-price Gamma World d20 stuff. Yes, that's a lot better than my employee discount.

Is there a conflict of interest involved in convincing the manager to let me put the old game stuff on sale, picking out what gets put on the sale rack, and then buying the stuff I really want myself? Maybe, but after speaking to a customer who had owned and played every edition of Gamma World since the first, and spoke highly of the d20 version, I decided to go for it.

First Impressions:
I am a happy serpent indeed.

It's been a long time since I've sat down and read a game book pretty much cover to cover, but I did just that this evening.

The "Sword & Sorcery" team over at White Wolf really had a feel for Gamma World. Sure, they could have thrown in a lot more weird and wild mutations, but a little Tim Truman art goes a long way. Too bad they didn't get Bigfella Machine, as well.

The high point of the book: the Community Development rules. In thirty years, I've only seen two or three other RPGs that even attempted to devise mechanics for social change, and to integrate it as an essential part of gameplay. D&D long ago abandoned the idea that player characters would eventually (and inveitably) build strongholds, gather followers, and gain political as well as personal power, and each subsequent edition has moved further and further from that idea.

Sure, when I was 16, that kind of thing seemed like a nuisance and a burden to my PC's adventuring lifestyle, but, um, I haven't been 16 in a very long time.

The Community rules were, I believe, new to Gamma World, and it's well-suited to the setting. While this is a post-apocalyptic setting, the emphasis has never been on destruction and despair, but on rebuilding from the ashes.

While I rant and grumble about how disconnected Dungeons & Dragons has become from its sword-and-sorcery roots, and how it has, over the years, become its own, inbred genre of Dungeon Fantasy... I didn't read much fantasy at all until after I started playing D&D.

On the contrary: I grew up watching the Planet of the Apes movies, and reading Kamandi: Last Boy On Earth. Thundarr the Barbarian debuted just a couple of years after I got sucked into the role-playing hobby.

The first D&D game that I ran, in fact, was set on a post-apocalyptic Earth -- as was the first one in which I regularly played.

The resurgence of Dungeon Fantasy that accompanied D&D 3.0/3.5 left me cold -- especially when I saw that first wave of offbeat fantasy settings for d20 getting pushed off the market by that flood of poorly-written compilations of cheesy spells, imbalanced prestige classes, and Monty Haul magic items.

I thought that it was because I'd "used up" the Dungeon Fantasy genre, wrung every possible note of interest from the Heroic Fantasy paradigm. I mean, as my major PC, I'd played out the Hero's Journey that Joseph Campbell so lovingly described without my DM or myself really realizing it until years later, when I finally got around to reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Maybe that's not it at all, though.

Maybe it's that my personal paradigm for over-the-top High Adventure doesn't have much at all to do with Elves and Dwarves and Orcs, and everything to do with ancient ruins, bizarre creatures, and (surprise, surprise) anthropomorphic animals.

Who wants to play?

One of my earliest LiveJournal entries, made almost exactly six years ago, was an anecdote about my favorite Gamma World character.
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Archaeologists Find Mayan Hell; Provide Plot of Mummy IV

It's like some kind of pulp adventure tale: deep in the Yucatan jungles, there's a flooded cave complex that the Mayans believed was the entrance to the Afterlife, Xibalba. Scuba divers have, slowly and carefully, explored the caverns and found vast, air-filled chambers filled with temples.

This is right out of Call of Cthulhu -- and I don't mean that in a good way. I mean that in a "Do Not Call Up What You Cannot Put Down" way.

It's cool, yes... but pretty damned creepy. I mean, we're talkin' LifeGems level creepy. The Mayan afterlife is not a happy place; "Xibalba" means "Place of Fear".

We're talking Hell itself, people. They've found Hell. This is not the start of any happy movie; Brendan Fraser wisecracks are the best we can look forward to here.

If I were given to Omens and Revelations....

EDIT: [ profile] halfelf reminded me that the Mayan calendar ends in 2012!

Okay, now I'm really creeped out.

Found via BoingBoing.
Coincidentally, I spent the morning reading pages at -- also found via BoingBoing.

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A call for assistance to the DC comics fans out there in the audience: I need your ideas!

As many of you know, I'm currently running a superhero RPG set in an alternate DC universe, where Superman and other characters started their careers at about the times they made their comic book debuts, and time passed normally. Heroes aged, had children, passed on their names, powers, and/or missions, and, in many cases, passed on.

It's the year 2020, and the generation of heroes that were teenagers in the 1990s and at the dawn of the Millennium are now the stalwart core of the Justice League: Starwoman, Static, and the Blue Beetle fight along the grandchildren of Superman and Wonder Woman.

The sole player-character in the campaign is a teenaged girl who's adopted the nom de guerre of Robin, protecting the innocent in a Gotham City that has been without a Batman or any other costumed hero for 15 years.

However, I need interesting NPCs to flesh out the setting. In the interests of Harvesting Good Ideas, I pose this question to the LiveJournal Hive Mind:

If you were going to play in this setting, who would you want to play?

Guidelines )

Have fun with this; think of it as another LJ Meme. I know that a good chunk of the fun we've had has been from banging out the timelines, and laughing about the ways things just fall together -- often more sensibly than they did in the "canon" source material.

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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..."

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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.
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After a few months of hiatus, I've resumed updating [ profile] legacy2020, the journal for my Mutants & Masterminds campaign set in an alternate DC Universe.

As I've mentioned in the past, it's given me an insight into the "fanfic" impulse. While most of it's just fun, I've found that the wholesale rewrite of 70 years of comic book history makes a good springboard for analysis of the original source material. Those interested in comic books, gaming, and fanfic might find it amusing; I'd rather enjoy getting some discussion going about timelines, characters, and story decisions, both in my game setting and the original "canon".

Unfortunately, since I also plan to use the journal to communicate information to my (only) player, I need to friends-lock posts that might reveal key story elements (including the two most recent ones). If you want to read the Sooper Seekrit Spoilers, please drop a comment in the introduction post, so I can add you!
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Back in the early 1990s, I ran a GURPS Supers game down in the Oceanside area. The premise was that the players were all playing versions of themselves, who got too close to a UFO crash site and wound up with Amazing Philadelphia Experiment-Based Powers when the thing exploded.

Really, I just planned to have a completely conventional spandex-and-secret-IDs superhero game.

Three things thwarted that goal, however:

  1. I've always had a "pick up on player input and run with it" style of hosting games.
  2. This was the heyday of the World of Darkness and The X-Files.
  3. One member of the group was a Marine MP, active duty at the time, whose previous assignments had included working with FEMA.

When we got to the point where the UFO crashed, our MP friend said something to the effect of, "I can't really say if FEMA has plans for this. But, if they did...."

And for the next few minutes, I just kicked back and let him do my job for me.

This turned the game into a classic Fugitives Hunted By The Government exercise, which I soon compounded by adding an unhealthy dose of Dean R. Koontz Sociopath-With-Powers.*

Well, it turns out that he wasn't making things up.

*Have I mentioned that sooner or later, every game I run that lasts more than a session or two turns into a horror game? I don't particularly like horror games, but I do have a knack for them.
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Odd. I've made light NaNoWriMo in years past -- honestly, I've outright mocked it. However, it just occurred to me that this year, in my own peculiar way, I actually participated.

I've had a mental block as a GM for several YEARS now, in no small part because of poor preparation skills. For last part of of November, however, I've been busily writing away, hammering out the background for a one-player superhero game I'll be starting tomorrow.

I'm sure I haven't gotten anywhere near 50 kwords, and it's more a series of timelines and outlines than prose -- but that's what one needs for a game setting. I've come up with interesting characters, long-term plot twists, and dramatic scenes, both as backstory and to be played out as the game progresses. In the last three days, I had a surge of inspiration, tying together three or four disparate elements and themes and bringing them together into one grand, intricate scheme.

And the oddest thing?

This is all building on notes and ideas I worked on last November... only to set them aside at the end of the month as other ideas took center stage.
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I was perusing some text files I wrote up at the end of last year, sketching out the initial outlines for a game setting, and got inspired again. I wanna run a game in this setting -- preferably a round-robin type game with rotating GMs, because, frankly, I'd have a blast playing in it myself.

This would be a Mutants & Masterminds 2nd Edition game set in an alternate DC Universe -- one where the major characters are introduced in the years they debuted in our world, and then age normally from there, interacting, marrying, having families and legacies.

It would steal heavily from "Elseworlds", especially Generations, The Golden Age, and The New Frontier.

I've put together tentative timelines for the Superman and Batman legacies, and I have ideas for the Marvel Family that I haven't typed up yet, but after that, I just... petered out. There are major legacies I need to timeline, and hten I need to go back, figure out how they intertwine, and revise accordingly.

So, I need a GEEKTANK! A thinktank of geeks to brainstorm ideas based on this premise -- largely just for the fun of it.

I may set up an LJ community for it -- if I could find some kind of Q&D Wiki, that would be ideal, since we could all brainstorm on timelines.

I know I've got fanfic writers and comics fans in my flist who could come up with good stuff here. Who wants in?
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Snark's Law of Attention Spans:
Players who will read and memorize two dozen volumes of background material for a published setting won't read a three-page background summary that you wrote for your own world.

Also known as "The Second 3W Rule".
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Nobody quite answered the question I thought I'd asked in my last post. They answered the part about why Fantasy fans keep doing the same thing over and over, but not the part that really interested me.

So let me ask the same question, differently:

If the appeal of Fantasy over Science Fiction is really the comfort of the familiar, why do so many Fantasy fans insist that it's "more imaginative" and "less restrictive" than Science Fiction?
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Over on Second Life, a friend of [ profile] silkspider's was helping another friend work up an RP sim.

She checked it out, and described it to me.

It's the most utterly generic fantasy I could think of.

Humans and Elves and Dwarves and Halflings are Good, Orcs and Goblins and Trolls are Evil, no, you can't play a noble, no, you can't be a Furry, no, you can't do this, that or the other thing.

If the appeal of Fantasy over Science Fiction is supposedly that you can do anything with Fantasy, why do people keep doing the same damned thing, over and over?

That's not a rhetorical question. I know some of you out there in Your Obedient Serpent's LJ Friends Sphere have used exactly that excuse to explain your preference for Fantasy over SF, in literature, game settings, or both. Explain yourselves!!
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"Beware of the Leopard!": When vital information is hidden in obscure locations, esp. when the people who require that information are blamed when they can't find it.

From Douglas Adams:

"But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."

"Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything."

"But the plans were on display ..."

"On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."

"That's the display department."

"With a torch."

"Ah, well, the lights had probably gone."

"So had the stairs."

"But look, you found the notice, didn't you?"

"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard'."

Exempli gratia, from a discussion on FurryMUCK:

Leonard proposed The Rules Lawyer's Maxim: Where there is no Text, there is an Argument.

[ profile] normanrafferty countered with Rafferty's Extension to the Rules Lawyer's Maxim: Stopping at the end of the line and not cross-referencing is NOT a lack of text.

Your Obedient Serpent responded with [ profile] athelind's Commentary on Rafferty's Extension to the Rules Lawyer's Maxim: If you can't FIND the rule, you don't HAVE the rule. Lack of cross-referencing IS a lack of text.

The Beware of the Leopard school of game design scatters vital rules for important situations -- say, combat -- all over the rulebook, with neither repetition for emphasis nor cross-reference. If important rules appear in the Index, you will only be able to find them if you know in advance what specific game-jargon term the system uses -- and that term will only be used in the Index and in the single obscure entry that's a footnote to a seldom-used table in the back of the book.

This is in no way a reference to actual leopards.
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A recently-popular thread over on has been dedicated to making game-related parodies of those corny motivational posters that workplaces hang on the walls to encourage us all to be good little cogs.

With the assistance of The Motivator, I offered this:

Ironclaw Motivational Poster Based On Disney's Robin Hood Poster

(Note that "Game X: It's Kinda Like That" is somewhere between "running joke" and "overused cliche" on this thread. It's also how at least two of us Sanguine freelancers have actually described the game to non-furry gamers: "Have you seen Disney's Robin Hood? It's kinda like that.")
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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.

March 2010

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