Thursday, 1 November 2018

Halloween session: Ravenloft Things

A few months ago I asked my group if they wanted to do a Halloween one-shot session and they enthusiastically agreed. I threw out some ideas to the wall to see what would stick. I knew from the start I wanted to do something inspired by Castlevania and Ravenloft and eventually I settled on "Stranger Things but replace the Down Under with Castlevania/Ravenloft and the Demogorgon with Strahd/Dracula". The setup that I put together consisted of the following:
  • all the PCs are kids/tweens/early teens, 10+d6 years old, residents of 80s small-town america
  • during an evening bike-ride through the forest shortcut on all hallows' eve, the kids get sucked into a gothic horror world they all recognize from an arcade game (think The Last Starfighter or Flight of the Navigator but the game is a Golden Axe/Shadows over Mystara/Symphony of blood thing  instead of the space shooter)
  • I lifted the basic premise of Castle Ravenloft almost wholesale (big castle, three items, scheming vampire, dinner invitation, etc.) but adjusted it for characters being kids
  • for the system I chose Cthulhu Dark, but I hacked it a bit to inject it with 80s flavour and I replaced the Insanity meter with a videogame heart harm mechanic
And then I crammed it all into a fast-forward mode 2.5 hour game session. Tropes about 80s kids are extremely easy to riff off because there is such a trove of material to use (Breakfast Club, Freaks & Geeks, Goonies, Neverending Story, Return to Oz, Karate Kid, the aforementioned Starfighter and Navigator, etc.) and the mix of humour and horror that emerged was really effortless and fun. Here's some shit the characters got up to:

  • they "rescued" a goose from the tavern they visited before ascending to the castle, named it Maverick, gave it a silk bow and lace hat and carried it around all the way to the final confrontation with Strahd
  • got into some awkward light romance stuff (I made a random PC relationship table and "secret crush" got rolled three times)
  • drank a witches brew that made them vomit cheese for the rest of the adventure
  • praised Rambo for fighting with the mujaheddin
  • Keith the survivalist redneck kid, discussing a course of action: "I'm not sure Jesus would be ok with that.", Ken, the goth kid: "Keith, it's time I came clean...I'm a Satanist."
  • got into some confusion about the ethnic background of black metal ("I though your dad was in the black panthers.")
  • trashtalked Strahd's mum
  • found the sunsword and holy symbol of ravenloft and managed to wound Strahd before getting whisked back to reality

There were some other cool moments and dumb jokes I'm forgetting now but all in all a success. Perhaps it will become a new tradition.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

On the fantasy genre, Part I: The (un)importance of tropes

Over on G+ (memento mori), +Brendan S was asking what made classic fantasy work for people. This post is largely a reaction to that thread. I wasn't the only one who felt compelled to blog about it, Richard G also decided to tackle it in a way that eruditely answers the implied antecedent question "what is fantasy?". I'm not going to formulate my own definition of fantasy here (although that has been in the pipeline for a while), instead, I'd like to talk about genre and quality a little more broadly.

In the thread I admitted my confusion in regard to what Brendan meant by the term "classic fantasy". Fantasy, as a genre appears to be a collection of tropes, the selection of which may appear to be almost entirely subjective, not unlike the "I know it when I see it" test for obscene pornography.

However, the word classic to me suggests a set of characteristic or particularly recognisable tropes, especially if accumulated or repeated over a period of time to the point they could be boiled down to a list and can easily be depicted satirically (for satire to work, it needs to satirise the familiar). Like I said in the thread, if I was to define classic fantasy, it would be by necessity defined by a degree of social consensus and certain broadly recognisable traits rather than my own private choice of authors. Incidentally I think this would fit rather well with official D&D setting materials produced by Wizards of the Coast.

Ironically, while the earlier incarnations of D&D have been a hodge-podge of diverse influences (clerics and vampires from Hammer Horror movies, monks from Wuxia and Kung Fu movies, combat mechanics inspired by Douglas Fairbanks movies and naval wargame mechanics, setting details cribbed from diverse fantasy authors like Tolkien, Vance and Howard, etc.) its collection of kitchen sink influences has come to represent the most trite and commercial variant of the fantasy genre. What we recognise as fantasy today is an otherwise incoherent but persistently reproduced selection of imagery from myth and precursor genre fiction.

Dragons, elves, dwarves, orcs, magic users, demons, vampires and zombies, quasi-medieval societies, ancient ruins...all of these originally fantastical elements have become today's cliches. Familiar and unexciting genre tropes, readily recognisable even by non-nerds and present across all kinds of media (videogames, comics, novels, movies, board games, anime and so on). When you say "fantasy" to a general audience I imagine that the image that will pop into their head will be more or less consistent with the pages of the Player's Handbook, the setting of World of Warcraft or a season of Game of Thrones to an equal degree. Without getting too far into it, I think we can safely say that today this kind of repetition of tropes is more often than not a kind of automatism and done as part of commercial reproduction and not any kind of deeply personal creative endeavour as it might have originally been with Tolkien.

That said, every genre has its own tropes, cliches, formulas and rules. I am always ready to argue that the so called literary fiction, that is, the "serious" and "respectable" member of the contemporary literature family that usually looks down on its trashier cousins like murder mysteries or science-fiction novels, is really just another commercial genre, with its own rules and audience expectations. The presence of tropes is not in itself a measure of quality. At the same time, originality can be easily overrated. Most (or even all) great works of fiction have been heavily inspired or sometimes even directly cribbed from other, previous works. Being different for the sake of being different is likewise not an indicator of excellence.

So going back to Brendan's question, let us first assume that "classic fantasy" is whatever list of bestseller books you might pull up from the internet on a cursory search. Like, oh, I don't know, this one. Classic to me means a canonised selection of authors, their canonisation independent from myself. It's the recognisable and obvious, because it's public. Once you have such a list, if I was to choose novels from that list based on my subjective tastes, based on what works for me, the criteria by which they ended up on the list in the first place would not, ideally speaking, overlap with my own criteria for picking them as my favourites.

I think that what makes fantasy good is no different from what makes other (literary) genres good. That is: a certain level of expertise or at least a distinctiveness of prose (or animation, or cinematography), an authentic interest and emotional investment on the part of the author, an engagement with themes that goes at least a little beyond the most superficial aesthetic reproduction and the capacity to communicate something new to the audience. For a thing to be good, it has to score high on most if not all of these scales.

Now, we might also talk about how a thing being good and a thing working for someone (ie. being up someone's alley, befitting their sensibilities, etc.) are two different things, but I think for a thing to work for you, it needs to have at least some level of quality to it in the first place.

So to recap:
1) Is the work aesthetically accomplished or distinct in some way? Is it well crafted or crafted with passion?
2) Did the author genuinely care about the work, does it reflect something deeply personal or sincere (even if it is hermetic, ironic or playful)?
3) Does the work touch on human, political, philosophical or other themes and experiences in some capacity? (something can be well crafted but devoid of ethical content)
4) Does the work make me think new thoughts or learn new facts? Does it spark new ideas or produce new emotions? If the work only affirms or repeats things I know and I just not along with it, it will feel empty.

If a work (fantasy or otherwise) gets a positive score on those criteria, then it works for me.

P.S.: There are of course also personal peeves, tastes, preferences, etc. at play but they are deeply subjective, multitudinous and rarely examined, so I doubt the practicality of discussing them. Like the fact that I prefer the early/dark middle ages and the late middle ages/renaissance to the high/middle middle ages. So if the fantasy world is set in an analogue of Europe in the year 550 or 1450, chances are I'll prefer it to a fantasy world set in an analogue of Europe in the year 1250. But it needs to fulfil the quality criteria to some degree first.

Friday, 12 October 2018

A decade of theory, a sort of recap

This post is more a note to myself than a public statement but I'm prepared to discuss any of the points below if someone disagrees with them. I'm not laying down dogma, I'm trying to organise my thoughts. It's a summary of my current ideas about roleplaying game theory.

1. What is roleplaying?
It is a form of play whose primary medium is a shared fiction.

By play I mean a non-serious, energy-dissipating activity that takes place in a metaphorical magic circle which suspends the rules of the real world. See Caillois etc.

By medium I mean both the means and the substance of play.

By fiction I simply mean any kind of imagined goings-on. This fiction must be shared, that is, I cannot be the sole owner of it. Even if I'm just sharing its ownership with some kind of oracular device or GM-emulator, there must be an element of it over which I have no control. Otherwise I'm simply engaging in daydreaming or phantasy (perhaps in service of world creation, novel writing etc.).

To role-play, means to act as if the fictional content has a realness to it, to pretend the fictional elements and outcomes matter, have weight, to care about stuff you wouldn't care about in the real world. This is done primarily by assuming or advocating the role of a character within this fiction.

2. What is a game?
A game is a (structured) activity where participants have goals (or objects, or aims, or agendas), either set by the game itself or invented by themselves and a set of rules within the constraints of which they try to achieve these goals.

Goals can be explicit or implicit, there can be one dominant goal or a plethora of smaller ones or layers of both.

Rules tend to be explicit, but participants often have their own unspoken or unexamined rules that they follow.

Side note: The conversation
Assuming that the medium of roleplaying games is the fiction, the state of this fiction needs to be constantly communicated and negotiated by the participants (much like pieces on a chessboard must be moved and their state adjusted for the game to proceed). This is done by participants engaging in a conversation (or exchange of information) with one another. The fiction of the game (the medium within which its action occurs) truly exists only within this exchange of information, so the two might possibly be used interchangeably.

3. With what aim are we playing a roleplaying game? (Goals)
While most other games have a pretty straightforward and explicit goal (score more points than the enemy team, etc.) many roleplaying games have traditionally been more obtuse in this context. In addition to any goals set by the game itself (for example "gain treasure to raise yourself to the rank of lord and gain your own castle"), the fictional, character-based nature of roleplaying games allows for all kinds of personal goals for both the character and the player. Temporary goals can arise, be resolved or fall by the wayside during play itself ("we need to gain the lady of the manor's trust", "I have to sneak out before he notices me", "we must survive this combat" etc.). A game will flounder when such long- and short-term goals will not be apparent or emerge naturally from the setup, character creation, setting, etc. A game need not be absolutely explicit about setting its goals as long as the players easily discover satisfying things to do or find themselves in fruitful situations with interesting consequences.

There are also other types of goals, some of them outside the game but they're either not intrinsic or unique to roleplaying or are so diverse and particular to individual games and players it would be a cyclopean task to compile a comprehensive categorisation. There have been attempts at this in the past but I haven't found any of them particularly convincing.

Side note: Big model and Caillois (again)
One of the possible approaches to categorising player goals (although this is a contentious term in this context) is presented by Ron Edwards' Big model and its Creative Agendas. It posits three orientations within moments of play: gamism, narrativism and simulationism. I have made many attempts at a more colloquial definition of the three, the most recent of which would be challenge-oriented play, theme-producing play, and fiction-affirming play. A big confusion regarding this model arises from third-hand accounts and colloquial usage applying it to both individual players and games, while the model originally describes slices of actual play. A serious disagreement exists whether these agendas necessarily exclude each other (as Edwards claims) or if they can coexist or effectively switch back and forth. Furthermore, the model itself has historically struggled to define or qualify simulationism whereas it produced positive and detailed readings of both gamism and narrativism. I've often drawn on the big model in the past but it's not without its limits or problems.

A thing I've noted in the past but never wrote about in this context are Caillois' categories of play: Agon (competition), Alea (luck), Mimicry (suspension of disbelief, pretend), Ilinx (altered perception, vertigo, adrenaline, etc.). Agon maps directly to challenge-oriented play. Alea exists in roleplaying games in the form of dice, although some eschew it for diceless, fiat- or fate-based resolution. It's up to debate if GM fiat counts as Alea in some cases (feeding input into a black box and hoping for a good result to come out) or its opposite in other (everything is deliberate and decided, there is no random chance). Mimicry is the act of roleplaying itself, although traditionally it had not been paired with Alea and Agon before D&D came about. Finally I see a kinship between Ilinx and the various concepts from larp theory (flow, bleed, etc.), the elusive concept of "immersion" and even the simple exhilaration of winning a tough fight in a challenge-oriented game. Unlike the Big model's creative agendas, these categories can be evidently present in various degrees. One thing that Caillois' categories don't cover, but is integral to roleplaying is the production of narratives (whether these are premeditated, intentionally pursued in play or post factum "war stories" told about the game). The premeditated story is not at all unique to roleplaying and can be said to fall under Ilinx (compare to a rush of adrenaline while watching a horror or action movie, ie. getting lost in the fiction) or Mimicry, if one is an actor in such a story (or perhaps a mix of both if you go full method acting). The post factum story is not unique to roleplaying either (you can tell stories about exciting football matches or camping trips or poker games) although there is something to be said for the sheer variance and wonder of stories that can be told about roleplaying sessions as opposed to most other games or activities. This is something that many boardgames have been experimenting with recently, like the Legacy family of games, Cole Wehrle's "experience" boardgames or the modern COIN wargames which all provide interesting and enduring sequences of events and outcomes, ripe for talking about later. The in-play formulation of narrative is considerably more unique here, although it, too, shares functions with other mediums like improv theatre, certain forms of creative writing, collaborative storytelling and so on. Ultimately, I think I'd add a two additional categories here and tentatively call them Poiesis and Catharsis. These are both art and literary terms, which is not surprising since roleplaying games are the conjunction of games and fiction (of which literature is the oldest structured expression, not counting oral folk traditions). Poiesis is the thrill of creation, children drawing is definitely a form of play, that I don't think the other categories properly capture. Ultimately, catharsis is about seeing the outcomes of choices play out, particularly if they are ethically charged choices. In literature seeing the protagonist fall or triumph, seeing the knave succeed or be punished are functions of comedy and tragedy, epos and drama, while in a rpg they are often a function of dice and system, which might put them on the spectrum of Alea, but that would ignore a whole emotional dimension of the affair.

In summary
Roleplaying games are structured activities where participants try to achieve their goals through the medium of a shared fiction and within the constraints of the rules.

To be functional, a game must at minimum enable (and - depending on the game - reinforce) the players to recognise, formulate and pursue both long and short term goals within its medium.

These goals can be wide and varied, from experiencing Ilinx to engaging in Agon, submitting to Alea or indulging in Mimicry, seeking Catharsis or practising Poiesis.

Credit where credit is due:
Roleplaying games as conversations is, as far as I'm aware, a thing Vincent Baker nailed down. Short and long term goals as a thing game design must care about is also his.
Big model and Creative agendas is Ron Edwards stuff, Objects is Vincent Baker again, the reduction of both down to dumb "goals" or "aims" is mine. I'm still waffling on the exact term I want to use.
The designer/game as a participant is from various sources but I think Zak was the first to formulate it as "the game (text) is a player" in a way that was useful and productive.
The stuff I got from Caillois I noted in the text.
Parts of this are also cribbed from the Care-Boss principle "system is the means by which participants agree to what happens in play", Vincent's "system provides unwelcome elements" (paraphrasing).

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Elven Lifecycle

Elves are functionally immortal. That is: if they don't get shanked by a rusty goblin knife, burned by dragonfire, torn limb from limb by a troll or meet some other sticky end, they have the capacity to live more or less indefinitely (at least until the world itself turns to cinder).

Like the natural world to which they are intrinsically linked through their fey blood, elves go through cycles of death and rebirth. An eleven life is not a straight line from birth to death, but rather a cyclical process, mirroring the seasons.

First of all, there are no elf children. Fey cannot give birth and thus stole human babies (replacing them with changelings) to increase or sustain their numbers. This was purely for show: although granted longevity and fey aspects, the stolen humans still grew, aged and died. They were good for parties and filling the seats at midsummer feasts, but they faded. So eventually the elves stopped taking them. Instead they contrived spells and charms to copulate with humans. That kinda backfired, too. Half-elves became as estranged children, still mortal and incapable of fitting in elven society. Sooner or later they all left for human lands, though they found them less welcoming than they hoped.

The absolute number of elves is inevitably falling and some say that when the last elf gives up their last breath, so will the last tree, the last flower, the last briar bush at the end of the green. Elves know this, but they also know there's no stopping it.

Since there are no elf babies, the "beginning" of an elf's life can be arbitrarily said to be their spring phase. Spring Elves craw out of their cocoons fully formed, with peachy pink flesh and dewy hair. Having been revitalised and freed from the darkness of their previous cycle they tend to be cheery and spry. Like children with no concept of death they are still drunk on their renewal, fully confident in their immortality, foolish and prone to take risks. Other elves regard them with some measure of contempt and a sliver of worry (perhaps bordering on fear), knowing that a Spring Elf is the greatest threat to both themselves and their species.

About a human lifetime later, the peachy skin grows darker and tanned, their hair stiffer and radiant like burnished gold, radiant and oppressive as the midday sun. Summer Elves are more parochial and conservative, their physical change makes them aware of the passing of time and the dual nature of their immortality. They become haughty and tyrannical in their ways, pursuing more elaborate and Machiavellian ambitions. This is the phase of their life when they make plans for hundreds of years down the road, when they seek to imprint themselves on the world at the height of their power, when they seek to rule the passing world and make it stand in awe at their glory.

Then another lifetime later, their hair begins to grow auburn or red, their skin pales to a parchment yellow. Autumn Elves begin to feel their power wane and while they may still lash out and fight with the relentlessness of autumn rain, they begin to withdraw and pursue more melancholy goals. This is the time when the greatest elven art is produced, when they spend decades on a single stanza of a single poem, secluded away in some thorny court or wandering the forests composing symphonies of a thousand birdsongs. They leave behind their plans to shape the world for another lifetime and instead begin to observe it, mourn it, and embellish it in little ways.

As the last phase comes to a close, their hair loses its colour becoming first silvery and then white, while their skin pales to a maggoty white. Winter Elves are cruel and bitter, with the temperament of a petulant child or resentful old man. They withdraw further into themselves, capable of little but hatred for other people (including their kin), a revulsion grown from the fears and insecurities of their own degrading state. As their bodies turn frail and gaunt, so do their minds lose their edge. The further they slip the more deranged and spiteful they become, reacting to the outside world like a hissing night creature caught in the lamplight. During the very last months of their winter, they begin to involuntarily secrete a milky sap. At which point they crawl up in some dark hole tearing up their old diaries and poems, spellbooks and love letters (or dry leaves and their own clothes, if paper is unavailable), mixing the paper with the sap and building a cocoon.

While Spring Elves are the most danger-prone, Winter Elves in their cocooning phase are both at their most dangerous and at their most vulnerable. Some of their kin might attempt to guard them, if they know where they holed up, but it's wise to keep your distance. Some mortals foolish enough have been known to attempt to "liberate" a powerful elf's spellbook before it was torn to bits by its owner. They did not count on the boundless spiteful savagery of a decrepit fae.

Once cocooned, it takes a few days for the elf to dissolve into opalescent goop, which then congeals and forms a new Spring Elf. These retain most of their memories and personalities, but they are invariably changed to some degree from their previous incarnation, and often lose a a significant part of their self in the final weeks of their madness.

The entire cycle lasts somewhere between 240 and 480 years, depending on various circumstances. If you wanna play a seasonal elf, pick your incarnation's current season or roll 4d100, with each season lasting a 100 years. The ageing process is slow enough that it probably won't enter play, but there are many spells and curses that advance ageing, as does spending time outside the elflands or being subject to harm. If you're an elf that lives the adventuring life, add 1d10 years to your age every time you drop below half your HP or reach 0 HP.

There's no mechanical distinction between the various phases, although I might write them up at some point.