Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Players Align Characters Through Actions

Since I got back into role-playing almost 5 years ago I have never used alignment in a game. It just seems ass-backwards -- writing down a promise to do some abstract things on your sheet, in a vague terminology, and then arguing about whether the specific things you do add up to that vague promise or not. If you're not arguing about your alignment, you're either doing your alignment or ignoring it, either of which is equivalent to what a player does in my games anyway, depending on whether or not they have a clear character concept.

To paraphrase Gygax, "character background is the first three levels" and in the same spirit, alignment is what you do with your character. Player alignment. Not the semi-jokey kind of schemes that lay out how players tend to behave towards each other, the GM and the game structure. One of those appears below.

By now several of these sectors are as mythical as the catoblepas (has anyone ever actually seen a "scenery-chewing thespian" player?) but this will do to illustrate what I am not talking about. I am talking about observations made over the years as to how players, when not constrained by alignment, tend to play their characters. Player-determined alignment is real but, going beyond what I wrote several years ago, it doesn't correspond to any alignment scheme used in D&D or in the most fervid, hair-splitting heartbreaker. It's a characterology all its own, that deserves its own terms, put together in opposing pairs.

Never put a fork in a toaster - PolyvoreImpulsive: The player can't stand boredom and pushes the character to propose reckless plans, start fights, and generally see what they can get away with. Their action will usually account for half the party's failures and half their successes.

Strategic: One kind of leadership role, this player moves very cautiously, often is found physically restraining other characters, and wants time to think things through. Not a rules lawyer, but the most likely to consider the rules as part of the plan.

Exuberant: Another kind of leadership role, the player runs the character as a striding, swaggering bag of charm; not so much reckless as eager to please the crowd with the best move, the best solution. The crowd, by the way, includes the GM.

Quiet: This player may be introverted, unsure, or just enjoys watching the game play out around them. They respond when spoken to, are often asked to run point or guard the rear or cast a spell, but rarely propose anything on their own. There is a lot of middling GMing advice written about trying to draw this player out but I find that acknowledging their existence in small and meaningful ways works best.

Dark: This player, through their character, expects the worst of what's around them, and so feels justified in doing the second-worst. This can take many forms and is not always the stereotypical dark elf assassin, but distrust, avoidance and sneak attack form part of their usual counsel to the rest.

Naive: The player enjoys portraying an overly trusting person, whether a fool or just really kind-hearted, to lighten up the grim, heavy, paranoid world of adventure. They're such a perfect patsy for the usual DM array of sympathy traps that you almost feel bad springing them on such an obvious mark.

Obsessive: What the "thespian" stereotype gets wrong is that real acting is hard, ham acting is self-policing, and usually players who want to play their character to the hilt open up a can of spam based on one obsession, be it food, wealth, combat, sex, religion, or hate. They use it more as a running gag than an excuse for soliloquies. Really, there's enough irony in the water these days that if the room isn't laughing heartily, they'll turn off the shtick real quick.

Eccentric:  Kind of the mirror twin of the obsessive but coming from an opposite place, this character sends out a lot of random signals but there's a difference between playing weirdo and playing impulsive - the impulsive player is trying to accomplish something and sometimes succeeds but the eccentric is just trying to make a style point, like Nerval walking a lobster. Truth be told, though, frame-breaking jokes are so common among everyone that this one's "wacky" in-character pronouncements get mistaken for out-of-character banter half the time. White Wolf did a good job of writing niches for this kind of player into their games.

So with this scheme in mind, there's really no reason to write it on the character sheet, because it's what the player does. But for a GM, rolling a d8 or two to come up with personality elements for an NPC that's easy to play because you have the examples all around you - that's another matter.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015


I'm not sure if I'll get around to recounting the latest misadventure of the Muleteers, but there's a couple of posts to be had reflecting about the last session.

Huizinga, in The Waning of the Middle Ages, calls to attention "The Violent Tenor of Life"; the ease with which harsh and tender passions in alternation were unleashed, the revelling in cruelty. Although controversial as historiography, this description perhaps tells us more about what we moderns seek in the medieval, the archaic, the Renaissance or the Regency or the Wild West, when these are presented as times where life was cheap, morals were loose.

The role-playing game in its imaginative detachment allows the same vicarious pleasure in the impulsive act of grisly consequence. Vicarious? No, the direct pleasure of being able to say "I waste him with my crossbow" and having it happen as easily as saying it; of watching, horrified and grinning, in the mind's eye as a series of critical and fatal hits makes Peckinpah work of the enemy. The pleasure of being such a fearsome character and choosing to exert a brash and self-serving virtue; of hoisting sacks of coppers to urchins, the equivalent of Nino Brown serving up turkeys. The pleasure, even for mild-mannered character players, of being the monk hiding from the Vikings, the Wild West schoolmarm, the scholar who can live a little shady and still look a saint by comparison.

The roleplaying scenario strips away nervous inhibition and allows action as transgressive and pointless as that of the pictured fellow under the terrier crest who is spit-roasting a man for the crime of wearing a rebec on his head. Dealing out violence under these circumstances acquires a palatable irony because these are people long since dead, or better yet, who never could have lived.

One final pleasure, to the player, is finding out the boundaries of the world of action and joy. Does having a handful of hit points above the norm means that world is your arena whose inhabitants are merely bled and bowed bulls for the matador? Or rather, is it a place where crime is abhorred, vengeance is meted, and the arm of punishment is long if not swift?  Hurrah, for the scales are tipped in the favor of the latter option, the morality of the Hays Code, where we see every murder and blasphemy dealt out by the arch-hoodlum before the coppers surround him and fill him full of lead. Because to deal out the rough justice of consequences is the particular pleasure of the gamemaster. And the truly dispassionate gamemaster knows to make the delay or denial of justice, as unlikely as it may seem, a possible adventure in itself, if one of the hardest.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Muleteers: Joy's Return

The Muleteers on Sunday had a surprise visit from dwarf Joy and henchman Little Pig Man, eager to follow up rumors of an adventurer's republic being established in Garyburgh. They had picked up a wandering hermit, Freya (possibly pictured in the transplanar daguerrotype to the right, or in any event, a representative of that type). This mystic of St. Sylvain, carrying a rope made out of her own hair, seemed more inclined to stick around with the Muleteers in the end than the former members of the party. Perhaps they found the small scale of the "republic" unimpressive, with fewer than 200 civilian souls and a score of adventurers to defend it, and the only fortification a waits-high barricade around the town square.

In any case, the arrivals found the Muleteers coming back from the Castle around noon and persuaded them, uninjured, to turn around for a second chance at adventure! Grimnir, however, declined, citing a splitting headache, perhaps brought on by cognitive dissonance at the sight of a young hermit of the Church named after one of the holiest gods of his religious tradition.

The others quickly traced their steps back to the sinister temple they had been exploring on the second level, defeated the lone baboon ("Ugly Boy") who had been guarding the place and proceeded to  loot, smash, and defile (re-file?) with holy water the altar and great statues of Demogorgon. Tracing a circuitous corridor, they completed what appeared to be the southwest corner of the dungeon map. Along the way they encountered a puzzle that defeated their powers of deduction and dealt out harsh shocks that turned Mantog into a twitching wreck tied to a mule, and if not for luck would have made Freya's adventuring career very short indeed. Some storerooms, a pair of shriekers guarding the corpse of a rabbit adventurer clad in remorhaz-hide armor, abandoned orc barracks (not surprising given the recent depopulation) and a room with a dismantled blade mechanism.

At the end, the party decided to make their own adventure, and assailed a nest of giant ants with the aid of a gnome-summoned lizardman, truly a champion of his kind with near-maximum hit points. Alas, the ants were lucky too, and a series of high damage rolls soon had the Muleteers in full retreat, leaving the reptile to perish in involuntary bravery.

And so, the megadungeon, where boredom and clearing-out can always be remedied by taking a tilt at the nearest unsolved mystery or unconquered redoubt.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Think of the Former Children

Thankfully most examples of people saying "Childhood ... ruined" are in a jokey, double-entendre-finding, Captain Pugwash kind of vein.

But there are enough people who say it with a tone of outrage (usually about remakes) to get College Humor to produce a point-stretching, heavy-handed video about the phenomenon.

Travis Pitts: Childhood ... improved, actually

As someone who studies moralization I often ask myself why and how the hell people pour outrage into fiction, movies, music or games. I think I can explain this one.

"Think of the children" is the emotional trump card in moral arguments, right? Now, you can't plausibly say that the remakes and reboots and prequels are ruining a generation that never knew the original and may even prefer the new stuff. So by some convoluted twist of psychology and time, you argue that this entertainment product retroactively harms the child that you once were.

I don't know. Maybe you have to accept your own love of imaginative works, here and now, in order to start taking your juvenile enjoyments seriously and critically? In order to break them out of the shrinkwrapped exile where you might consign childhood to eternal nostalgia?

Because if you accept that as an adult you can still enjoy some of the things you enjoyed as a child, you should also give your maturity its due, and accept that you might no longer enjoy some of those things, and value coming to understand why.

UFO stands the test of time (plot and character, not costumes, natch).

The Planet of the Apes cartoon does not.

So I can take remakes on their merits (for example, the current Apes arc, which updates everything nicely while keeping just enough of the preposterousness and Heavy Lessons of the original). I'm happy to have parts of my "childhood ruined," if that means that I can have other parts of it validated.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Dwarves and Weather

It makes sense that a civilized underground race like the Dwarves would treat things we take for granted like the sun, moon and weather as we treat arcane astronomical phenomena. This means:
  • Advanced dwarven settlements often have an above-ground observatory with wind gauge, rain meter, mercury column, smoked glass for observing the Sun, and other such equipment.
  • Ouranology is the civilization advance responsible for maintaining an objective, sun-based standard of timekeeping, because dwarven settlements with a sleep-cycle-based calendar diverge greatly over long periods of time. But timekeeping by the moon? Weird, occult, something humans and elves do.
  • Very advanced ouranologists observe the clouds up close
  • Superstitions spring up about fate and basic personality depending on the state of the sun and moon at  time of birth (So you're an Afternoon Waning? Far out, so am I)
  • Dwarves who venture above ground are seen as cosmonauts of sorts, and there is fussing about the optimal weather conditions and possible catastrophes that seems baffling and neurotic to humans.
  • Continuing the analogy, dwarves with lots of above-ground experience have physiological adaptations (no longer blinded by sunlight, losing their agoraphobia) akin to the effects of zero-gravity, that make them a little strange to those in their native habitation.
  • When dwarves name things after the "Day" and "Night" (like the Day and Night Kings in Monte Cook's Ptolus, which brought this whole topic to mind) it's a lot more arcane and cosmic to them than when humans do.
  • Dwarves sneer at any science or magic that gives importance to the stars or planets. Size matters, and the biggest things in the sky are clearly the sun, moon and clouds.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Planes of Prognardia

Rarely does the concept album, hallmark of the intellectually aspirational rock group, actually gel into a realized fantastic world. Even more rarely does it approach the consistency - complete with maps - of the Atlantean prehistories imagined by the symphonic metal band Bal-Sagoth. No, what we mostly get are snippets, ripe for repurposing. But such snippets ... Imagined below are six pocket planes that resound from the halls of prog-rock music.

1. Sunhillow (Chaotic Good)
Source: Yes' Fragile, Jon Anderson's Olias of Sunhillow

This is the micro-planet depicted on the cover of Fragile whose mythos is expanded on the Olias album. The core of neutronium holds this little sphere together and allows the topographic oceans, Deanish peaks, Great Glimmering Road, and eight-mile trees to exist. The dwellers are pristine noble savages who hunt the buoyant Fish of the Plain, although not all is easy street, for the rough passage across the South Side of the Sky still burns in their memories. When the neutronium starts giving out, whole steradians of the planet come unmoored and Olias in his flying boat, with the chieftain's blessing, must take wing to find refuge for his people. More a place for some R&R and healing like 14 hit points a day than anything else.

2. The Court of the Crimson King (Chaotic Evil)
Source: King Crimson, don'tcha know

In a brooding castle saturated by characters of gothic-Dylanesque enigmiasis, in a carnivalesque whirl of masks, puppets, clowns, jesters and other Ligottian signifiers of existential unmooring, there holds his court the Crimson King. "Presente!" cry also The Fire Witch, Yellow Jester, Purple Piper, Patterned Juggler, Grinding Wheel, Keeper of the City Keys, and Black Queen, tormenting and interrogating the 21st Century Schizoids who decide to don the masks of fantasy characters and journey there across the astral. I imagine the King in Yellow looking across the Lake of Hali from his dreary castle and saying "Damn, now that's a party!"

3. The Plains of Tarkus (Chaotic Neutral)
Source: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Tarkus

RARR a grade school trapper-keeper panoply of kaiju-tastic critters that battle each other across the steppes and seas of a primal arena, kind of like Gamera Vs. Guiron but without the tinfoil dominatrices who eat child brains, sadly. We have the treaded tankadillo Tarkus hatched in a volcano, the pterodactyl-like Iconoclast, the Mass who is a metal horseshoe crab with grasshopper legs and missiles, the Manticore = giant sized manticore, and some crazy turreted fortress, and at the end Tarkus jumps off the cliffs of Dover and turns into .. Aquatarkus, not to be confused with Aquaman or Aqualung, although that would indeed be a teamup supreme. Don't listen to the lyrics, they are some kind of Vietnam war protest with Hammond organ and have nothing to do with the epic of Tarkus, entirely self-contained within the gatefold.

4. The Catacombs Under Broadway (Neutral Evil)
Source: Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

ok, a tribute band, but the slipperman looks great in color
Somewhere under a fictive Manhattan, Peter Gabriel playing a Nuyorican from the pantomime version of West Side Story stumbles and struts his way through a sideshow of instructive and disquieting monsters. There are Carpet Crawlers, a grand parade of lifeless packaging (which somehow has a Challenge Rating), the sinister characters Lilywhite Lilith and the Supernatural Anaesthetist, the seductive and, of course, vampiric pool of Lamias. Dungeon features include the cage, the cocoon, a chamber of 32 doors, and an underground river of rushing rapids and scree. Nasty, pustulent Slippermen await, attended by a Doctor who is happy to remove any and all external genitalia. At the end you find your brother ... or is it ... YOURSELF ... (whoa man)

All right. This panoply of freaks is mighty jolly dealing out disruptive life lessons to solo punk-kids armed with switchblade and spraycan. But how will they fare against a fully armed, name-leveled and fireball-blasting farrago of Dungeonchompers, I ask you?

5. The World of By-Tor (Neutral with Lawful Evil bad guys because Rush are libertarians)
Source: Rush, Caress of Steel and Fly By Night

this is canada, let's take "snow dog" literally
There are three locations in this cramped and unimpressive sub-world: a Generic Fantasy Burgh called Willowdale, down a river from there, a tower surrounded by a forest and dispiriting swamp; and a cave. In the tower dwells the Necromancer, who shoots wannabe Sabbath riffs from prisms to sap minds from afar. In the cave dwells the demonic Prince By-Tor, destined to be overcome by the Snow Dog unless you guys get to him first. The only interesting thing about this place is the face-heel turn; By-Tor starts out as the guy who banishes the Necromancer, while "Sweet Jane" inexplicably plays. Mostly, though, this is an embarrassing backwater of the multiverse, only good for telling yourself "I can read boxed text better than that guy," but at least adventurable as a cosm, unlike Cygnus X-1, the Temples of Syrinx, or the Red Barchetta Motorverse.

6. Blood Mountain (True Neutral)
Source: Mastodon's 2006, prog metal classic

THEIR MOST GAMEABLE ALBUM it should say on the sticker, but a gameability based on you all tripping balls both IRL and in character and you and your characters also multiclassing shamans for the duration. This gives you access to a taiga plane dominated by the skypole thrust of Blood Mountain, and whose ascent is complicated by colonies of birchmen, the thumping Cysquatch whose eye sees the future, and a Sleeping Giant it were not good to wake (stats as: a Richter 6.4 earthquake). Wolf form and trepanation may be of aid in evading the sharklike flying Hunters of the Sky and assessing the promise and omen of the Hand of Stone. At the summit awaits the mighty artifact, the Crystal Skull, which sloughs away the reptilian brain, allowing a new realm of emotional frankness and objectivity without the cringing need of self-preservation drumming at the back of the cranium. Or so it is whispered.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The Free Republic of Garyburg: Days 1 and 2

A play report from the Mad Archmage campaign, protagonized by the Muleteers.

In the aftermath of the orcish invasion from the Castle of the Mad Archmage, the village of Garyburgh was left with only one guard (a young woman with green-dyed hair, the archer Winona), no innkeeper,and - as casualty reports came in from outlying houses and huts - no priest or village headman either.Only the adventuring parties who had defended it - the Muleteers' own recuperating Nixington and Erasmo, as well as the Lightning's Hand and Free Roamers - remained as an effective fighting force. The other Muleteers were blithely going shopping in the Grey City, visiting various establishments including the Charlatan's Guild, dogged by street urchins still hearing of how "them ums with the mule ridin' gnome" had given a whole sack of coppers to a mob of unruly apprentices. But in Garyburgh, a momentous council of the adventurers, Winona, and six landholding farmers was formed.
Young, but apparently, capable.
After debate and an election with colored pebbles (dice, in actuality) deposited in an urn, Winona became head of the Committee of Public Safety by a single vote, with the grand title Lady Protectress. The tax collector and his family having fled, a Free Republic was declared until such time as the Grey City should offer relations again. Mundane tasks such as burial and the building of barricades were delegated, a treasury (held by Dorn Ironfoot of the Lightning's Hand) and armory (held by Orna Jellek of the Roamers) established and contributed to.  Moreover, the tavern passed into public hands, and was renamed the Orc's Head, as the current name "Wizard's Wench" grated on the sensibilities of the female members of the committee. Nixington received a commission to limn the new sign.

Someone recalled that there was a free-ranging family of former adventurers, known as the Sharp Arrows, who lived the lives of hunters in a great patch of brambles known as the Twisted Thickets to the west. An embassy consisting of the Ygg-priest Grimnir and Farmer Magnus went out that very afternoon. Perhaps not the best choice, as it turned out the family were fanatics of Pholtus who had burned temples of Ygg, and seemed more interested in saving the village from heathen scum than helping. On the way back Grimnir and Magnus showed prudence in avoiding some eldritch thorn-men who were devouring a rabbit,and found their way back with little further incident.

On the next day it was decided that a scouting party enter the dungeon to find further intelligence of the orcs. Taking in some of the cow meat slaughtered in the raid for the kobolds, they were rewarded with a kobold on "punishment detail." This kobold, Yiktog, took forcible point and was quickly bisected by a giant ant, who dragged the unfortunate off leaving a clear path. After inquiring of the wizard Marquand the Merely Magnificent and finding nothing, they decided to explore in the area where the Demogorgon cultists had last been seen.

Here they found a spiral staircase going down and guarded by a lone juvenile orc,who was quickly taken by surprise and shot in the head despite some difficulties of working around a zone of silence spell. Pressing onward, the party went past the dormant Fountain of Snakes, which only coughed up a few rattlers, quickly slain. They found a secret door that led to the living quarters of the former cult, with a small amount of coins and jewelry, and eerie furnishings: a bed with snakeskin sheets, and hangings that suggestively formed demonic outlines. Pressing through, they came upon a small room with curtains on one side, ghastly bestial cult paintings on the walls, and ritual objects sitting around; at a shriek from beyond the curtain (actually, time being called on the session), everyone lost their nerve and  beat a hasty retreat for the exit.

Experience points yet to be awarded for snakes, juvenile orcs, and dealing with ants: 450.