Friday, 18 April 2014

Next 52: Psionicist

OK, short break from heavy aesthetic slogging. I made a psionicist class for Next 52 Pages and the rules can with little effort be ported to any other system. The spell schools are Enchantment, Divination, Alteration and Destruction (fire, force).

While making it a balanced option I have also tried to preserve the rarity and elitism of the class ("Wow, Skip! You tested psionic!") and the possibility that they open the party up to a whole new kind of attention and danger from big-brained mutations. It's not quite the long-range sensing and communication of the Hiero novels but maybe some more Divination spells in that vein could be added.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Adversity Overload

Put together unicorns, rainbow colors, pixies, moonlight and mountains and sparkles and mystery.

Art by PristineDream on
Does this fit the description of dungeon adventure kitsch? Not really. This picture may be fantasy overload but it's not dungeon overload because it lacks the element of adversity - or mortal menace and danger. Adversity is what you overload to stress the element of fantasy adventure.

There's a paradox in the ways adversity can be overloaded: either by leaning on obvious signifiers of danger, or by creating an environment where danger is concealed everywhere so that the lack of danger also signifies danger. Let's consider the obvious first.

Skulls on mountains (more the merrier...)

From the D&D cartoon
Snakes and daggers on skulls (tattoo flash by Hamera@deviantart):

Swords on seats ...

Spikes, spiders, sharks, crags, blades, fangs, claws, boulders, chasms, chains, bones, wolves, dragons, fire, lava, ice, lightning, lasers ... Adversity!

Now, the other way to overload adversity has something to do with this meme going around (first spotted in the hands of Jack Holt):

Why is Westeros not somewhere you'd want to go? Because unlike the other two worlds, there is no safe and cozy space there. Adversity is part of adventure, of course, but things become overloaded when it starts to appear everywhere, when players start to take it in and see it everywhere.

Adversity kitsch fuels the killer DM legends, the elaborate traps, the "Gotcha" monsters built to subvert and punish rational player behavior. Most of all it overloads deception to create omnipresent threat in adventure design, endlessly repeated in the kind of adventure-hook cheap heat where the inn is really run by werewolves, the farmhouse is really the head of a demon, the friendly talking badger is the charmed sock puppet of the arch-lich conspiracy, and the treasure, folks, is cursed.

So adversity overload taken to the extreme would present you with this ...

Which is just an illusion, luring you in to this:

And the change in character art after 2000 or so? From facing adversity, character designs now project adversity. Today they bristle with spikes and flanged armor-blades and energy auras, whereas before they were just poor working stiff adventurers plunged into Lava Skull Mountain. But this is all by way of getting at the next and final building block of dungeon kitsch: Awesomeness ...

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Archaic Overload

Last time, I introduced the concepts of kitsch and overload. Although kitsch-criticism was developed by members and satellites of the Frankfurt School in the mid-20th century, it's been opposed since then, for its aesthetic and economic elitism, its stand against mass production and mass preferences. I tried to separate from the loaded term "kitsch" the concept that a work of art or imagination can have effect by overloading its impact - saturating its content in the direction of commonly accepted forms, rather than perpendicular to or away from them.

I don't think there's any argument that by whatever name, kitsch or overload is the dominant form in the aesthetics of both commercial and DIY adventure gaming. In fact, it can be broken down into three elements of style that begin with an "A". The first one is the overload of Archaism.

Archaism kitsch can be seen in the way artists choose to depict that quintessential adventure setting, the dungeon. Number one earmark is the set-dressing habit of "dungeon architecture." The classic fieldstone walls and ensconced torches have a tendency to adorn even chambers deep in the earth that should be hewn out of the living rock, and where torches would quickly consume all available oxygen, even if there were minions to replace them on the hour ...

The reason for the overload: if you just have economical 5' passages hewn through stone, they could be anything - a Cold War bunker entrance, a Minoan adit, a university steam tunnel. The stone blocks and iron-reinforced doors yell "Castle!" as loudly as they can. But this is not an inevitable choice. Here's an illustration by John Bingham, from Mouth of the Shadowvein, that manages to avoid the medieval style of Archaic dungeon overload (although doubling down on Adversity with its centipede floor):

The bas-reliefs, however, remind us that another way to convey Archaism is to raid the archaeological toybox: statues, reliefs, mosaics, skull doors and demon thrones. In fact, the default overload response to "What part of antiquity?" is "All of it." So we derive the typical adventure setting with its anachronistic cohabitation of Roman, Dark Age, High Medieval, cod-Renaissance, and Nation X imitations.

Fanciful depictions of never-were civilizations and lost races also go in the mix, the costumes and scenery derived from a mix of medieval and faux-barbaric sources, with sex appeal turned way up. Compare the standard loincloths-and-bangles "Conanesque" setting with ones such as Tekumel, drawing on similar source material, but with more originality.

Focus on any one period of history, and you lose the freedom of archaic overload. If the setting is medieval, the question becomes how medieval - fairy-tale medieval, or boils-and-rats medieval? The more representational you get when it comes to history, the more you have to worry about things that make history boring - for example, a party of freebooting adventurers would almost certainly be outlawed in every jurisdiction of a feudal society. So paradoxically, even as dungeon kitsch evokes the medieval, it also avoids its hard questions.

To illustrate -- early gaming illustrations, a stone's throw away from medieval wargaming, felt  free to present fairly realistic armaments:

David C Sutherland III
But later developments in art, as producers judged audience reactions, created a glossy, "generic antiquity" overload feel (note the introduction of fanciful elements like the feathers and armor molding in the Larry Elmore Dragonlance piece):

And still later, illustrations cranked up the depiction of the next overload element: Adversity. Yes, even on a costume. More next time.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Dungeon Kitsch

I am going to argue that much of the aesthetic of adventure gaming has evolved toward a form of kitsch.

That sounds pretty harsh. I don't mean it to be, exactly. So to start digging out of this rhetorical hole, what is kitsch? And is there a nicer term for it?

Religious kitsch
Well, first, I have picked out the first three meaningful photographs of "kitsch" that Google Images sees fit to provide, as anchor for the discussion.

Tretchikoff's Chinese Girl
Wikipedia opines: "a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons." Oxford Dictionaries have it, "Art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way." But those are not quite adequate definitions, for me. They judge, but don't illuminate.

1950's-style kitsch wunderkammer
As it turns out, 20th century visual art critics had a lot to say about kitsch. Writing for the University of Chicago, Whitney Rugg sums up: "Kitsch tends to mimic the effects produced by real sensory experiences ... presenting highly charged imagery, language, or music that triggers an automatic, and therefore unreflective, emotional reaction." 

And further... "Milan Kundera calls this key quality of kitsch the 'second tear:' 'Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see the children running in the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running in the grass! It is the second tear which makes kitsch kitsch.'"

That's more like it. It's about the kitsch aesthetic, not about the kitsch object itself, which can be described as a mass-produced object that simulates opulence or sentiment through the easiest means. In the kitsch aesthetic, there are no defining features, because it necessarily piggybacks on an already achieved mode of culture, as Clement Greenberg remarked in 1939. There is not just kitsch, but cuteness kitsch, nostalgia kitsch, classical-music kitsch, military heroism kitsch, and so on. 

Religious kitsch uses excessive realism to depict what should be more stylized (see the Mary plaques, above), but modernity kitsch uses excessive stylization to wink and elbow-nudge its way into the future (see the 50's Populuxe furniture, above.) The Chinese Girl makes most sense as kitsch of the avant-garde; a magazine-art depiction given a banal exoticized subject and an unusual color choice that passes for sophistication.  

So, building on Kundera's definition, let's call a kitsch approach this: one that seeks to arouse the feelings most normal for its subject matter, by multiple straightforward and obvious means. 

It's this overloading that gives the echo effect, the second tear, the feeling that you are not only seeing something awesome or magnificent or sad, but you are sure that anyone else like you who sees this would also feel that way, pushing you outward into the comfort of conformity rather than inward into the doubts of introspection. It's also this overloading that gives rise to the ironic enjoyment -- climbing down from sophistication to a simpler palate, understanding why it's manipulative and in the same moment refusing to reject it entirely because it is so raw and vivid.

Now, here's that less judgmental name for kitsch -- overload -- although I may not always want to abandon the judgment entirely. And to my eye, Dungeon Overload, if you will, can be defined by its reaching for three A's: Antiquity, Awesomeness and Adversity. But that is a topic to continue next time.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Demihumans In Hardcore Mode

The basic superiority of demihuman player characters bedeviled the first and second editions of AD&D and haunted later versions of the game. In AD&D you got a raftload of benefits for being an elf or a dwarf - languages, dark vision, special defenses. Also, there were stat bonuses and penalties you could optimize to your class so the bonuses really helped and the penalties didn't hurt, especially with the generous "4d6 drop lowest" method of generating scores.

Simply put, there were few reasons to take a human over an elf magic-user, a human over a dwarf or half-orc fighter, a human over a demi-human thief. Most campaigns wouldn't live long enough to push up against level limits, and multiclassing could soften their sting by packing as many levels as allowed into a more slowly-advancing, super-skilled character. Then there was that other curious drawback of elves, again only really relevant at high levels: the raise dead spell wouldn't work on them because they didn't have souls.

Usually (certainly, in D&D from 2000 on) the solution is to give humans extra skills, feats, ability scores to compensate. But the raise dead peculiarity suggests another solution. Most house rules I know have some way to mitigate death at zero HP, whether it be AD&D's "bleeding out" or the kind of "death and dismemberment" rules I use in my game. Why not have these options available only to humans, or at least give humans a greater chance of surviving at 0 hit points and below?

In effect, the benefits of being a demi-human would be balanced by making them like computer games' hardcore mode, where there are no saves and death is permanent. At the very least, for example, they would bleed out at -5 instead of -10 HP, or suffer a -2 penalty to a 2d6 dismemberment table. Most harshly, they would die at -1 HP, with just the tiniest saving grace at 0.

The setting rationale could go as follows:
  • Elves: Have no souls, their spirits once loosed from flesh are quick to return to the great beyond.
  • Half-orcs: Likewise a bit light in the soul department. If a DM really is serious about making their social stigma count in the campaign, then they can compensate by giving only 50% of the penalty, and likewise for half-elves.
  • Dwarves: Are tough, but when seriously injured, have a tendency to return to the native stone; dead dwarves turn to stone statues and can be stone-fleshed back to a point where healing can work for a little while.
  • Gnomes and halflings: Have really sweet afterlives full of rollercoasters and second breakfast, and don't bother sticking around in this vale of tears.
  • Humans: Are uncertain about their final destination, so cling tenaciously to life against the odds.
Really, if you play by-the-book AD&D, PCs have to be handed huge amounts of loot in order to level up, so buying raise dead spells eventually fulfils a safety-net niche similar to death and dismemberment - a risk you take with the system shock roll, but by no means the automatic end of the character. In that case, the elf drawback starts kicking in around third level or so when it becomes economically feasible to buy clerical services. But my new idea is more in line with how a lot of new-old-school DMs run games, and extends to all the demihuman races.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Broken Sword, Broken Elves

As a teen I read Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions but never got around to its slightly later-written companion volume, The Broken Sword, until recently. Both can rightly be said to be foundational works in fantasy literature and gaming, influencing both Moorcock and Gygax with their supernatural struggles between Law and Chaos. But what's also informative is what Gygax didn't pick up from this "Appendix N" novel and put into Dungeons and Dragons.

The trippy UK paperback cover.
The Broken Sword uses many of the concepts and adversaries from Three Hearts; elves, trolls, Christendom, witches, a magic sword, and the Law-Chaos divide. The mythic terrain changes, from a fantasy world based on Carolingian legend to a semi-historical Norse England. So does the point of view; instead of a transported modern hero we have an omniscient, archaism-dotted narrative of a Norse jarl's son fostered in Faerie and the changeling who replaced him.

The Law-Chaos war in Three Hearts is straightforward, but the main matter in this novel is a war between two powers of Chaos, the elves and the trolls. The conflict is tragic rather than heroic, because its Pyrrhic outcome heralds the weakening and fading of the hosts of Chaos. Our lawful world, as in Tolkien's and Moorcock's fantasies, must somehow be arrived at from these narratives set in a dim and unknown past.

Although cruel and evil, the fey races and their mortal allies cannot help but be read as the antiheroes of the story. Law is also more complicated; although Christian belief and oath protect against Chaos, the "White Christ" is far offstage, compared to the Lawful Norse gods - in particular, Odin - who are shown taking a more active hand to set Chaos against Chaos. This situation has parallels to the further complications of alignment in AD&D. Strife can happen within the camp of Evil (Chaos) as well as Good (Law).

Now, about those elves. Anderson's elves, trolls, dwarfs and other fey creatures inhabit a parallel world. They are normally invisible except to those humans who have been granted "witch-sight" through sorcery. However, their deeds sometimes manifest as omens, portents and misfortune for humans.

(As an aside, this would be a great campaign rationale. Ever wonder why the king with his retinue of knights can't go after those goblins threatening the village? They need the adventurers, witch-sighted all, to actually see the goblins.)

Fey creatures also cannot handle iron and are harmed by it. This means that a fostered human or changeling, as well as the dwarfs who are not iron-shy, become valuable tools in the elf-troll war. We catch a glimpse of this in the OD&D and Holmes D&D logic of elves choosing to be fighters or magic-users each day. Holmes apparently elaborated on the reason for this in a novel. Simply enough, the choice to wear iron armor and weapons would nullify the elf's magic. But although games like Runequest took the idea and ran even further with it,  AD&D dropped it cold.

If people complain that elves are overpowered in AD&D and later editions, perhaps one reason is that Gygax chose to go with the Tolkien view of elves as benevolent, superhuman beings. What would have happened instead if he'd taken up the Anderson view of elves as powerful and innately magical, but limited by weakness to the inexorable forces of Law and metallurgy? We'd have perhaps a darker D&D, one with the kind of fey elves that other new-old-school settings have embraced (here, here and here as notable instances.)

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Next 52: Demihuman Options

"Elves in AD&D are unbalanced!"

"Well, that just goes to show ..." Something about the literary influences Gygax denied, which I'll explain next time. 

In the meantime, here are some expansion rules for my balanced elves, dwarves, and gnomes who obey the 52 Pages' Race-As-Class logic. Much easier to balance C options than (C x R) options. 

As usual, sober Isotype game design involves but a few meaningful points of pizzazz. Color magic makes all the elves special; the night elf can be a drow, a word or a purple long-eared galoot. Most of the fighter's powers in 52PP are extra attack granting (chop till you drop, extra attack on low roll) and the standard dwarf doesn't have them, which makes this little berserker guy fun but dangerous.

Oh, and have the silhouettes that aren't from Telecanter. Candle redacted because gnomes have dark vision.