Currently…

Currently PonderingEmergence vs. Determinism, although not in the usual “railroading r bad and u r bad for doin it” sense. It’s more to do with how the process of designing and ‘solving’ encounters works. Perhaps “Imagineer vs. Prepper” might be a better dichotomy.

Every so often Ben (co-host of that podcast I pretended to do for a while) pops up to ask for my perspective on a strategic or tactical choice that’s emerged in his Star Wars play-by-forum game, and I’m always flabberghasted by the amount of detail – if-this-then-that-ah-but-what-if-this that he presents in these scenarios. It’s not a PbP thing either – he’s the same in tabletop, he seems to think that he needs an elaborate map of his Brujah’s haven and a series of boltholes established all over the city.

Jaro, the DM of my intermittent Roll20 game, is the same – he’s a nice bloke but asking for exact rules on composition, cost and storage of bullets made me raise an eyebrow or two. In Jaro’s  case there’s an element of damage by a dick-move DM who once had an entire party die of exposure because nobody had said they were wearing clothes (this is a dick move because they were in mid-adventure when he dropped this bombshell). Jaro is something of an enthusiast for precision and adherence to rulebook and sourcebook, I think because he wants insulation from this sort of cockbothering behaviour, but it makes for some friction between us since I am definitely not inclined to the “gotcha” nor to the elaborate and intricate modelling of situations.

What I am about is a sketchier kind of gameplay where the fun is not in solving an elaborate situation with detailed resources and forward planning, but in making shit up as you go along. If there needs to be a chandelier for someone to swing off, there will be a chandelier (although dice must be rolled for swinging and the results of the roll are binding). If there needs to be an escape route it will be there when someone looks for it, if they look for it in a plausible place and if  they roll well on some sort of “can you find it in time” check.

This applies whether I’m playing or running the game. If I’m playing… well, the 5e game has now settled down into a predictable and well-oiled machine where I come up with a bare-bones plan which will work and leaves room to improvise, Charles overcomplicates it with needless flourishes and excessive moving parts which nevertheless impress Jaro into letting us get away with it, and we both have to bully Arianna into taking any sort of risk when executing the plan.

(Sidenote: Look, if you roll a rogue you have to accept that you’ll be sent on dangerous sneaky solo stuff, it’s the law, if you wanted to stay at the back and be safe you should have bagged the coveted Cleric/Mage slot and then I’d have been slavishly defending you and not Charles, and yes, I know you’re reading this, Ari, because you hang on my every golden word.)

I suspect this sort of thing has come to my attention because I’ve been playing a lot of single-player CRPGs lately, and those are all about picking your way through a predetermined encounter or chain of quests that trigger in a particular order. I generally suck at this since I’m used to muddling through and improvising, not having to talk to that guy to get that objective before I do this thing so I can actually get XP and phat lewtz and so on. I am getting better at it, but I still occasionally think “can I not just come out with my hands up, spin a plausible yarn about being attacked by four big lads with guns, and coming off best in the shoot-out because I’m brilliant, and then Dementate their disbelief away?”

 

Currently Playing: Besides occasional sessions of 5e or LotFP on the Intertrons, I am mostly playing Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines. I tried this for about five minutes back in the day (real time, strike one! FPS/action controls, strike two! likelihood of accidentally punching a hooker, breaching the Mass-Charade and getting shot in the cobblers, strike three!) but, like Planescape, I’ve reappraised it after a few years away. Buying one of those Razr game controller things (so that I didn’t wear out one half of my expensive split ergonomic keyboard, which I bought so that I didn’t wear out my ailing wrists while typing several thousand words a week for work) has helped me learn how to FPS even as it’s made my MMO-ing suffer and contributed to a drop-off in Warcraftery.

Bloodlines is fun, in a very oWoD kind of way – it feels like a sort of farewell tour of all the wacky shit which was due to disappear when Time of Judgement came out, and if approached in that style it’s not bad. Sadly, the game does indulge in the Major Sins of front-loading, reducing interactivity while NPCs show off in cutscenes, and including arbitrary combats which show up the limitations of my social-build Tremere, but… well, it’s oWoD.

(ETA: This is the sort of business decision which only makes sense if you’re White Wolf. You’re in the process of wrapping up your old game line and launching a whole new universe, and you make your tie-in video game a valedictory salute to the old rather than a launch platform for the new world with its new concepts, encouraging crossover and buy-in. It’s almost as bad as making a mechanistic nerdy-boy game with no particular focus while paranormal romance is ruling the roost, or taking the makers of a major motion picture based on a short story within your setting to court instead of using the buzz to republish and revamp said material. Essentially, you are spectacularly dumb and you deserve to go out of business within the decade.)

I am playing the GOG.com version with the extensive fan patch that actually makes it playable. I am also playing a Malkavian who thinks he’s a ninja (with a katana and a six dot Melee pool he is not entirely wrong about this, and shafting Sabbat thugs up the arse from Obfuscated safety has yet to get old) and a Tremere lounge singer (shagging her way through most encounters and heavily reliant on Disciplines in a scrap). I experimented, briefly, with a Ventrue dominatrix and a Nosferatu eco-terrorist hacker, but the Ventrue was a bit dull and the Nosferatu is definitely hard mode for someone not accustomed to first-person stealth-em-up. If this lot were all in the same party it’d be ‘perfect’ Classic WoD.

Incidentally, while the other V:tM game was very faithful in its adoption of Disciplines but introduced some overly granular percentile bollocks for stats and had an awful level-by-dots feeding/healing/buffing mechanic, this one keeps the elegance of the dot-based system (streamlining it with fewer dots and more defined combinations) and does good things with Disciplines. Streamlining Auspex, Presence, Obfuscate and so on as per the physical Disciplines and eliminating the action economy horrors  of Celerity (as far as I can tell, having not gotten to use it yet) is a good idea. I’ll have to try it in the tabletop game at some point. Hacking White Wolf’s excessive mechanisation = good call.

 

Currently Reading: The Prince (the treatise by Machiavelli, not the Netherese review/antiSocJus blogger/belch-vector, although I’m reading his blog too). Rob Kuntz was surprised that I could manage to write decent Renaissance-esque intrigue settings without having read The Prince and I’ve been meaning to make good on this for a while now. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (decently accessible social history, conveniently attuned to the needs of a modern reader who wants to understand the difference between Now and Then, possibly recommended reading for twenty-first century gamer-prats). The first four Discworld books (yes, again), although I’m currently on a reduced-fiction diet as I have bought quite a lot of non-fiction (Spinoza, Castaneda, Bowker’s biography of Orwell, the rest of Padel’s poetry essays, and a collection of excerpted Brecht) and had it sitting there for months.

 

Currently HobbyingI bought a job lot of cultists, demons, villains, zombies etc.  from Heresy Miniatures (they have a sale on until the end of July, buy now, beat the rush, help Andy recover from honourable Dragon-related fiscal suicide). These will be making up a Blood Bowl team/rounding out a Frostgrave warband/providing something for my Otherworld adventurers to slap around in RPGs. I was working on a new wargaming table but space seems to be at a premium these days and that one may have to go the way of the dodo. I realise that I barely wargame at all these days, which has checked my hand every time I consider giving Frostgrave or SAGA a proper poke. Insert gripe about how I am old and tired and hate learning new rules, too.

 

Currently Smoking: Poles.

Symptom of the Universe – the absence of a Mark III review

Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
— Henry David Thoreau

I had every intention of doing a full readthrough of the new core rules for Warmachine and Hordes, focusing on what had changed from the rules I ‘learned’ in 2005 and attempting to amuse the lay reader (those faithful few who come here for the Planescape reports, the Ravenloft ramblings and the ill-considered belchings on progress and the nature of things) as I went.

The thing is, reading this document cover to cover, paying close attention to every key word and every clause of every sentence and how it affects the operation of the game as a whole… well, that may be what’s demanded by the Zen Masters of the Privateer forums, but I tried to do it this morning and then naffed off to do the washing up instead.

The text is pedantic, semantic and hung up on niceties. I would call it autistic, in the sense that devilmen commonly use that word, i.e. to mean ‘desperately spoddy and inclined to excessive complexity’, but speaking as an autist I refuse to be associated with this sort of thing. As a player of the game I understand why such clarity is necessary to resolve those little snags and snickets which come up all the time, but reading the rules does not make me want to play the game in the slightest.

I have come to understand two things.

Firstly, why Privateer Press is so keen to have the Word spread through demonstration games rather than people just buying the books and giving them a shufty. If you start with the rulebook and attempt to learn a game like this before playing, you are either a twelve-year-old with time on his hands and wasted potential, or you are going to give up very shortly and get Settlers of Catan out instead because board game rules, and even the best of RPGs, are structured much more experientially. What’s the first thing you’ll want to do? Set up the game so you can start playing. This game starts with explaining the legalese used in its rules. Can you think of a less thrilling introduction?

Secondly, why an old schoolmate of mine, upon turning eighteen, abandoned all games to which his grandmother would not know the rules. This standard is not universal – some people’s grandmothers play bridge, a game so Byzantine it would make Anna Komnena blush, while my grandmother struggles with anything more complicated than Snap – but nevertheless, the choice makes more sense to me this morning than it did last night.

There is an elegant simplicity at the heart of this game, and others to which I have reacted with such sudden revulsion, but it is lost behind – OK, let me give you an example. I’ve played Magic: the Gathering, and the basic business of the lands, the mana, the creatures and the spells are all clear to me. Instants, Sorceries and Enchantments take a little semantic juggling, especially when explaining them to someone who doesn’t quite get it yet, but there is a clear difference that can be understood (“you can use that one whenever, that one on your turn before or after your attack, and that one on your turn before or after your attack but it sticks around until something gets rid of it”). When you get into the stack, and how to resolve the complex “this happens then that happens then – wait, I play this in response to that” timings, the red rage rises in me and I wonder why the fuck we’re doing this. When play becomes about these complexities, about maximising the potential of what can be done at each step of a complex process and ensuring the opponent can do nothing to stop you, if they even understand what’s happening in front of them, I throw all my cards out of the window and start drinking, irrespective of the sun’s position re. the yardarm.

I don’t want to offend any of my chums who play this game, nor my acquaintances who have worked on Mark III and are doubtless proud of what they’ve accomplished here. I don’t think you’re at fault here. I think it’s a symptom of the universe, really, Complexity emerges as surely as entropy increases, and one has to kill one’s darlings on a genocidal scale (I’m thinking third edition 40K levels of revision and abolition here) to bring it back under control. Meanwhile, as age wearies me and the years condemn, I am in less and less of a position to appreciate the myriad mechanisms on offer here. My reluctance to engage with this material is down to me too: there is an innate issue here but let’s be fair and admit that I am more affected by it than countless others will be. I’m still going to play Mark III but sitting down and assimilating the rules as a thing in themselves just isn’t going to work.

Terror, Horror and the Gothic Fantasy

There is a split in the tradition of Gothic fiction, almost as old as the recognisable genre itself. At its most clear, the split is between the ‘terror’ Gothic of Ann Radcliffe and the ‘horror’ Gothic of Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis. This is not after-the-fact critical flimflam but a distinction articulated by Radcliffe herself, around the time she was writing The Italian as a repudiation of Lewis’ style and proclivities.

Radcliffe’s Gothic plays upon the sensibilities of the novel readers of her day – middle-class women for the most part – and beneath its explained supernatural trappings it is as much a matter of manners as Austen. Among its qualities is the emphasis on ‘imagined evils over actual, physical threats, in accordance with theories of the sublime (terror expands our mind through imagination, while horror contracts it through earthly fears)’. The surroundings and situations in which Radcliffe’s heroines find themselves prey upon their susceptible, sensitive minds until they keel over in a swoon of pure terror at the thought of what might be about to happen.

As you’d expect, Lewis’ ‘horror’ Gothic is much more about physical threats: the dagger held to Matilda’s bosom presents the threat of injury to her own person and of sexual temptation to the onlooking Ambrosio, while the novels’ incidents are full of physical desire and panicked flight through dark places.

This is not to say that a given work is either terrifying or horrible, although Lewis seems to have won out. Terror and horror are present to varying degrees in varying works within the tradition. Masterpieces of the Gothic successfully blend them to some extent.

Frankenstein has the grotesque appearance and physical power of the Creature, but it also has the moral sensibility of the Creature and his creator at its heart, the ethical struggle over what the Creature might do or be. Dracula is closer to Lewis, a series of perilous incidents unfolding upon one another, but the physical and spiritual contamination of undeath is a threat of terror to the rational Victorian middle classes forming Stoker’s cast and readership. Gormenghast, the peak of the tradition as far as I’m concerned, comes in for flak because ‘nothing happens in the first book’ – the truth is that the first book is a slow burner which explores terror and, barring the library fire and Steerpike’s flight across the rooftops, provides little physical threat. The third book is a fever dream of horror as Titus reels from incident to incident with little comprehension of where he is or what is happening to him – the great evil which he imagines is the absence of a physical qualifier for his experience, the possibility that Gormenghast does not exist and never existed, but he is constantly beset by lesser physical evils and these drive the narrative. The middle book is the pinnacle, in which the physical perils of fire and water harmonise with the psychological perils of ritual and unfettered nature. But I digress.

On screen, Gothic often slides too far into horror. Horror films are rich with incidents and implied physical threats but they do not always achieve that access to the sublime sensibilities which is necessary for terror and thus the complete Gothic experience. Without cultivated access to the inner lives of characters, the events of Gothic cinema – however faithfully adapted – lose their ability to terrify. This is further compounded by the tendency of Gothic cinema to go easier on the physical threats than the gore porn of ‘pure’ horror. The result is the cosy non-horror of the Hammer movie or the Hinchcliffe-era Doctor Who serial: the style of the Gothic without its substance.

What is all this to the Master of Games? Well, let us consider Ravenloft. The original Module I6 is a blur of Hammeresque visual trappings and generic events which falls into exactly the same trap as the films which set its tone. It has too much of Lewis’ lurid adventuresome romp and not enough of Radcliffe’s excision of sensibility for my liking.

This is a problem of D&D and its ilk, if I’m honest. Terror resides in the imagination and the characters, the avatars by which we navigate the imagined world of the RPG, do not have an imagination of their own. It is the sensibility of the players at one’s actual table which must be identified and incorporated into the events of the game, and we must go beyond “your character may die!” – this is an imaginary peril which puts the wind up a player but it is nothing that roleplaying in some other genre does not accomplish equally as well. For the Gothic we must go further.

I have lunged for and sometimes achieved the complete Gothic experience in my gaming. It has invariably been done with players who I know well. I know their heartstrings and can saw on them as a virtuoso on his fiddle. In the early days of my Victorian Age Vampire group (fourteen years: we were so much younger then…) things were more Lewis than Radcliffe, a lurid bloodsoaked romp through Victorian London, more style than substance. It wasn’t until I knew the people behind the characters that I could feed them clashes in sensory perception, fragmented awareness of time, isolation in exactly the sort of place that preyed on their thoughts or the looming presence of a genius loci, and in so doing provoke them into roleplaying convincing fear or madness – and in one case have one player sleeping with the lights on for a week.

A Gothic module will only ever achieve tired aesthetic Hammerisms – the genre’s lowest common denominator played for lighthearted, unmoving fun. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the pinnacle of Gothic roleplaying. That needs tailoring. It needs players with sensibilities which can be played upon by a DM willing to do so to a point just shy of trauma. It’s not for everyone. Too much resilience drives it back into the realm of cliché and pastiche: not enough and the DM becomes a mere bully, fucking with vulnerable players who aren’t entertained by his antics. I haven’t had a group who can do it right for years and the last time I did I let them down by running Module I6 by the jolly hollow book instead of reaching out for what I knew was there, but I now have a couple of players with whom the right chord (D minor) might just be struck.