Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Old-School Gaming As Punk...

Nothing too big this week.  The real world, with its myriad stresses and delights, has occupied a disproportionate (albeit appropriate) chunk of my time.  Nevertheless, I've had time to reflect upon the hobby and its place in my life.  Call it a bit of mental accounting, spiritual reflection, or whatever.  The fact is, I've always preferred a certain approach to our hobby, and whenever I deviate too far from that center I lose interest.  That's not to say alternative approaches are bad, mind you, only that my love of gaming is securely bound to my personal experiences and preferences - as it should be for everyone... 

The gaming I love recalls what it's like to be an eleven year old in the late 1970s who discovered this new thing called D&D.  It wasn't some slick, mass-market thing at the time, understand, but something positively garish and amateur to behold.  

There were no home computers (well, not enough to make any real impression) and no internet or social media.  If you knew someone who had a typewriter or early word processor it was a big deal, and the whole thing felt accessible because none of it was beyond the capabilities of the people actually playing the games.  It was homemade fun...

Even when you were playing D&D it was homemade fun because you were free to add or change anything through the social contract.  Anyone remember that?  

Some modern games seem bent on taking all the decision-making power away from the participants, mechanizing any and all possible choices and offering them back to the player as part of some optimal character build.  No social contract.  No negotiations.  Face the monsters and hope you achieved the optimal build.  Fine.  But it seems like all the effort is on the wrong side of the equation.  Most of the work should be done during play.

   
I call this Champions Syndrome.  You spend a week achieving the perfect build only to get bored shitless after a single session because the best work is behind you. 

While class and race were ostensibly central to the games I played, it was really the players, with their strategies and problem-solving, that ruled the day.  Whether you were a fragile magician with a single spell or a stout fighter with the intelligence of a clam, everyone was an actual person capable of making decisions and offering up a winning solution.

In one game our party distracted a hungry reptilian horror by catapulting the corpses of slain orcs (it's a long story) into the courtyard of an old castle, sneaking safely across while the monster enjoyed its unexpected feast.  Not one rule was invoked.  Not one.  Sure, the referee could have been an asshole.  But everyone understood that we were there to have fun and that the solution was a clever and reasonable one.  That's the good stuff...  

Your class?  Your spells?  That's just a foundation.  Your choices and clever strategies are what makes the game happen.  And you'll get none of this from any rulebook.

I'm not telling anyone to get off my lawn.  It's a big neighborhood and people can prune their bushes how they like.  But it seems to me that at least some so-called "modern" gaming externalizes the experience of play, and that's just not entertaining to me.

So give me clever small-press rules with no aspirations beyond being just a guide for the referee to follow.  Homemade fun with a homemade look and feel I can match with additions and changes of my own making.  And give me systems that put player choice and strategy ahead of mechanical solutions to everything.  Why bother playing if all you're gonna do is roll spot checks?  At that rate just skip the adventure, roll to see who died, and work up riches enough for the survivors to bicker over.  Me?  I'll be in my basement making my own fun the old-fashioned way.  Call me a relic (guilty as charged), but it's kind of subversive...   

It's that punk thing: This is a rule.  This is another.  This is a third.  Now make a game! 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Achilles, the Industry, and the End...

Gaming is fun.  Yeah, we totally get that.  As far as hobbies go, this one puts the "P" in participation and gets everyone involved in a way stamp collecting can't touch.  GMs build their own adventures, run their own campaigns, and devise new content.  It's a timeless refrain: the GM can add or change anything.  The rules are just a guide offering tools for the creative workbench.  And the players have their own creative options...  

So yeah, gaming is an all-hands-on-deck sort of affair.  And while this is the hobby's greatest strength, it's also the industry's Achilles heel and self-limiting.

Remember, the typical RPG is a set of written rules where the GM is free to add or change anything, going as far as creating original content and house rules to turn the source material on its head.  And all in the name of fun.  You can't do this with Monopoly any more than you can buy a Coke and turn it into a Mountain Dew.  Gaming is unique in this way; miniatures be damned, the action takes place inside the participant's collective heads.

Now gamers are a creative, intelligent lot, so they eat this stuff up and ask for seconds, preferably, served with a side of d20.  People are lining up to buy new stuff, and Drive-Thru RPG does a brisk business.  But the industry has a "competitor" in its own customers, although not in any mean-spirited or adversarial way.  Simply put, creative people quickly figure out how to develop their own rules, and since they're already happy to imagine whole worlds (if not entire universes), many inevitably drift to game design... 

And with self-publishing and print-on-demand options, it can surely happen.

Now, this is wonderful news for a hobby which, in my opinion, thrives on creative and enthusiastic amateurs making their own fun.  A nice rulebook is a wonder to behold, don't get me wrong.  But the action, indeed the adventures, take place inside the player's heads and ultimately wanders from the rulebook.  Attractive, professional production is essential for creating atmosphere, communicating information, and just makes it easier to read and absorb the rules.  But we don't live or play in the rulebook.  We play in our imagination...

And sooner or later, it's the players, not the product, doing all the heavy lifting!


The concept of the game is the game.  One player provides the setting and supporting characters and everyone else runs a character.  It's all decision making, exploration, and role-playing, as we're fond of saying.  Rules don't matter at this point, and when we eventually decide we need them, it can be as easy as saying "roll 7 or better on 2d6" with modifiers for difficulty.  And we can have all of this (and more) free of charge. 

Of course, people can devise awesome rules based on great ideas and wrap them up in a gorgeous package for sale.  Nothing wrong with that.  But when the most creative enthusiasts can make and share their own stuff in the social media universe, you realize that buying anything is a nicety and very often non-essential to enjoying the hobby.  Tabletop gaming as an industry is therefore self-limiting.  And long may it be.  It's really better this way.  

How far can the industry go?  It has a ceiling.  I went three years buying nothing more than paper, pencil, and the occasional replacement dice.  And Robyn and I spent close to a decade playing a game we sort of worked out around some simple mechanics and the social contract.  Social contracts are free, and P&P's content came from various adventures I judged over that time.  And God knows, we absolutely appreciate the folks who've bought and played our little ruleset.  We appreciate it because we know you really don't have to buy anything at all.  And we mean that in the most literal way possible.  Thank you...

The demand for games is out there.  But some will inevitably satisfy their urge to play and create by whipping up their own materials while the small-press industry absorbs many others.  Indeed, the two go hand in hand.  Remember, play happens outside the rulebook, and I've never seen a game that played better because it came in a slick package, even though I've certainly enjoyed these products and like having something physically nice for the bookshelf or the gaming table.  And when you can can tailor a favorite system to whatever purpose, there's absolutely an upper limit to the industry's maximum possible growth.     

Put another way, the gaming industry grows sideways more than it grows upward.  How many are living off game design?  Really?  But that's good, because the people in it tend to be those who love it, and this is reflected in their products.  We have a ceiling too, dear reader, because we make rules-lite games.  Blood of Pangea (plus its two supplements) covers everything from the ancient world to the far future, and its narrative emphasis pretty much ensures that you'll never need anything else to get what you want from it.  

We've sort of written ourselves out of the equation, and we know that at some point we'll have said everything we want (and need) to say.  Probably sooner than later.  And then, dear reader, the ball will be in your hands.  The industry may be inherently self-limiting as a rule, but the hobby (very happily) is a genie that won't let itself get put back into the bottle...

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Debbie's Screwing the Ankheg from the Mailroom (or Gaming's Only Sorta Like Storytelling)...

So you woke up to rain hammering your window like a million tiny castanets in time to an invisible (and doubtless sadistic) Spanish dancer.  You wanted to sleep in, but since you like being employed better you sucked it up, put down some coffee, and hit the road with the enthusiasm of a condemned prisoner making The Long Walk...

Some asshole in a Prius cut you off, and all the good parking spaces were taken; so you ran under your briefcase from across that toilet of a parking lot and bolted for the double doors with all the grace of a staggering drunk.  Someone yelled at you and you flipped them off in the privacy of your mind - and you hadn't even made it to your desk yet! 


You spent the morning reading the new Privacy Policy while trying to ignore Brad and Deborah yucking it up two cubicles down and then went to a staff meeting where everyone competed for who had the brownest nose.  You didn't win.  Lunch was a pointless and relatively tasteless affair, but things picked up at three when you found out Deborah slept with the new mail room guy.  No biggie, except that Debbie's married to your next-door neighbor and you don't know how (or if) you can possibly face him and keep this awful secret to yourself.  Your bad day couldn't end fast enough, to be honest...

Luckily, home and your spouse await and things get better.  He or she asks you about your day and you tell the tale.  That's right, the tale.  You tell the story of your day.   

So here's a truism about gaming.  That encounter with the ankheg was just a random happening.  Something the DM rolled up while your party took its shortcut through Farmer Jacob's field and stole corn to supplement rations.  It's no different from the Prius or the Privacy Policy read over a stale bagel.  Just a series of events, maybe not even connected in any coherent way.  But by the end of the adventure it becomes the story of your day, complete with all the dramatic arcs.  And maybe it takes time to unfold.  Debbie's screwing the mail guy, but the whole sad, sick story doesn't play out until a month later when her husband finds out and tosses her stuff on the lawn for all to see...

Ditto for gaming.  Individual events are just events in a simulation.  But taken in retrospect, they become the story of your character's day (or adventure, as the case may be) that contributes to a narrative arc no one could anticipate in advance, which to say: Gaming isn't storytelling.  It's story making, and happily, everyone at the table gets to participate!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Skepticism in the Age of Magic...

Skepticism is alive and well in the real world, where evidence for the supernatural is remarkably elusive.  In ten-thousand years of history we've seen one magical explanation after another overturned by naturalistic evidence.  A process which, incidentally, never happens in reverse.  I'm not saying the supernatural doesn't exist, only that the skeptics aren't stubborn or unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination...    

And that's good.  A healthy skepticism is the spice of life and brings contentious debate to just about everything.  But what about our fantasy worlds, where magic is on constant display and the gods intervene in a way that would convert Richard Dawkins and make The God Delusion a ridiculous proposition?  Is there room for skepticism, much less outright atheism, in such a setting?  To be clear, we aren't advocating an atheistic or naturalistic campaign unless that's what you happen to want, but only a world where skepticism is reasonable and the accepted cosmology less than certain and up for debate.

So first, and as a disclaimer, we can always imagine a low-magic world where the supernatural is rare and suitably understated.  Magic, when and if it occurs, can be written off as coincidence and monsters as a feature of the natural landscape.  But we aren't really talking about that universe, although skepticism surely lives there as well...  


No, we're talking about the "mage on every corner" type of world.  What sort of debate can possibly exist when your party members are happy to demonstrate magic and what it's capable of?  As it turns out, doubt can thrive even in the face of seemingly obvious evidence to the contrary, and the following might help to make it all happen:

#1 MAGIC ISN'T REALLY MAGIC

Nope.  It's more of a natural energy that can be harnessed and released by means of specialized formulas to some predetermined end.  This is hardly a new idea, and D&D broke with millennia of tradition by imagining it as anything other than the work of bound spirits flexing their muscle.  Not really that big of a deal except when it runs counter to the prevailing view in academic circles.  A benign contention to be sure, but one that adds flavor...   

#2 THE GODS AREN'T REAL

This is a bigger deal.  The gods don't exist, and any power supposedly granted through worship is really magic of the more ordinary sort.  Once again, D&D already imagined this with respect to lower-level spells, but ours applies to everything.  Now this is the stuff of heresy - and inquisitions.  How dare those ungrateful apostates deny the blessings of faith and reject the gods who make it all possible?  And what of The Church and its place in society?  This usually ends with thumb screws in a dungeon somewhere.       

#3 THE GODS ARE REAL, BUT...

Again, no.  They're really just powerful beings who've mastered natural energies and probably steal a bit from the faith of their followers.  This isn't a new idea either, but it really lays the ground for skepticism - and heresy - in an otherwise magical world.  Perhaps it's apostasy in the eyes of The Church, or maybe the so-called gods resent any revelations as to their true nature.  This one leads to sprawling cosmic quests in other dimensions. 

All of the above can upend the social order and make the skeptics reservoirs of authentic knowledge in a superstitious age.  Of course, just because some things are possible doesn't mean everything is real.  Far from it.  Charlatans abound, and perhaps that shady peddler sells more fake amulets because the real thing exists!  Either way, we don't have to imagine bland worlds of uniform belief.  Yes, gods and religions are constantly warring for human attention.  But if the gods and magic aren't what they seem, things can get hairy quick, with crusades and inquisitions vying with charlatans for mortal hearts and minds...