Thursday 30 June 2011

Tables and the Military

A brief interlude from the hit points posts, spurred on by DaveL's observations in the comments about the clunkiness of armor class tables.

Thinking about some of the things in 1970's roleplaying games that failed to survive in the 80's, one evolutionary dead end was the table. I'm not talking about wacky, 100 random things you roll on tables. Those are alive and kicking. Rather, I'm talking about tables that let you calculate things that, maybe, a simple algorithm could do for you instead. The experience points, hit and saving throw matrices in D&D, not to mention the famed Rolemaster line, are direct descendants of the board wargame table - combat results, weather, attrition, you name it.

And what experience in that generation prepared them for that tablemania? Why did the gaming generation in the 80's and after reject tables in favor of THAC0, roll-and-bonus mechanics, Target Numbers? Yes, it might just have been a development in game evolution; a change for the simpler and better. It certainly wasn't the change from table lookups to computers in education. That happened later. As late as 1996 I was teaching undergrad statistics at a major, wealthy (I mean loaded) US private university using a chalkboard, with a Chinese TA fresh off the boat, and tables in the back of the textbook.

Think about another aspect of 1970's wargaming that also went the way of the dodo - the numbered "case" system in rulebooks, peppered with inscrutable acronyms. Anyone who's read a US military field manual from the period (like this cheery example) will recognize the inspiration for the format of the wargame rulebook, down to the decimal points and sans-serif font. And yes, the thing is loaded with tables. The Advanced Squad Leader system goes so far as to organize all its modular rules into looseleaf binders, field manual style.

This, perhaps, is the real dividing line - between the generation that had a substantial portion of its men go through a military rite of passage thanks to the draft, and the first generation (mine, post-Vietnam) that did not. Tables may be clunky, but they require little thought, can be referred to in adverse conditions without ambiguity. And they're part of the military way of life. Field manuals can be cited chapter and verse, and their typography and illustrations, though lacking in professionally illustrated spiky armor and anorexic monsters, exude a certain authority.

My generation registered, but never got called up under the shadow of World War 3. Knowing people who suffered through military service in Spain and Greece, I'm not going to say that the draft is great for building character - though there's a difference between the mutual respect of populace and military in those countries, and in the USA. It is informative, however, that just as many of the present-day cheerleaders for war distinguished themselves as draft dodgers, the looming threat of being called up made young men in the 60's and 70's more anti-war. At any rate, we live in strange times where the military experience and games once again approximate each other, but from a different direction - war is now taking cues from computer games.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

The Character's Hit Points

My current game goes with the idea that the hit points of player characters and other beings with character levels represent some intangible essence that keeps them safe from serious harm until they fall to zero. Thereafter, a table of serious injuries applies. I have the severity determined by what fraction of the character's Constitution score they take below zero, though for simplicity's sake boundaries at -3 and -6 might also work, or even a die roll modified by the negative damage for real uncertainty.

Here's the table in one page rules format. In play we had some questions about how zero-level NPCs use this chart, so I created a "monster" result for them and monsters. Yep, monsters are going to be somewhat harder to kill now, though they'll at least have the grace to remain stunned for a while. Monsters without the appropriate body part will still be stunned.

click for full size
The one remaining question is what hit points mean under this system ... which I'll happily defer till next post.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

The Battleship's Hit Points

Hit points evolved from the game Battleship? Close.

Dave Arneson in this interview traces the concepts of hit points (and armor class, for that matter) back to when he exapted his US Civil War ironclads rules to represent heroic characters in a skirmish game. Both this system and the Milton Bradley system are great to model floating hulls that can take only so much structural damage before sinking.

And by the way, the "hit or no hit" way armor works in D&D also comes from this simulation of a floating hull where the armor is part of the structure. A shell either bounces off or penetrates it. There is no partial damage reduction because there is no meaty interior to the armored shell.

So, all you 8th level fighters are running around absorbing hits like the Graf Spee. Ridiculous, from a simulation point of view. But perfectly adapted to a gamer's need to act heroically - and that, in the end, is why hit points won out in gaming over limb-maiming and eye-gouging wound systems. Arneson even noted that a main reason to adopt the battleship system was to protect heroic characters from the instant, low-probability death possible under the Chainmail rules.

The hit point system means you are a hero at full fighting capacity right to your last gasp. It doesn't wear you down in a death spiral of diminishing returns. And it's easier to choose your battles, withdraw from a hairy situation, know when you've had enough.

More realistic combat systems hold open the possibility of random death or disablement with every blow. With smart players, this can make for an interesting game. It deters players from going into combat with weak creatures just to rack up experience points; makes them afraid to fight and eager to embrace alternative solutions. But sometimes you do want a game where characters fearlessly fight on, and hit points help that along.

My preference is for a game system that hedges its bets, combining these two features in a fair and fun way. Early on in D&D, house rules often adopted critical hit systems to make combat more realistic and deadly - the most influential of these being Iron Crown's Arms/Claw Law which would later evolve into the Rolemaster system. These also seem to be inspired by the critical hits found in some naval warfare systems, simulating lucky shots that blow up a ship's powder magazine or kill its captain. All very well when you have no personal investment in this or that ship. But the problem, as Gygax astutely notes in AD&D, is that spearing monsters through the eye may be fun, but having your own heroic character speared through the eye is not so fun.

The alternative Gygax proposed was a system of critical injury at zero or negative hit points, where player characters could still survive but were in danger of bleeding out at -10, losing 1 hp/round. Later refinements on this system have tied the negative points to Constitution, applied damage beyond hit points to ability scores more generally (for example Errant RPG), or effectively scored random critical hits with each blow received at zero or less (for example, the many variants on death and dismemberment tables).

In actual play, the last of these gives a nice balance; a zone where characters feel safe, and then a zone where they are at risk of death but still can survive by luck, and get afflicted with really impressive scars, maimings and war wounds. More on the nuts and bolts of that system next post.

Sunday 26 June 2011

The Panda's Hit Points

I guess everyone who writes about D&D has to tackle the enigma of hit points sometime. Here's the basic paradox:

1. Hit points are a gross abstraction, representing nothing more specific than how long a being can stay in combat without dying. By most accounts, a fighter with 50 hit points taking damage is dodging, ducking, wearing down her favor with the Gods, running out of luck. A dinosaur with 50 hit points taking damage, though, is taking huge slashes to its flesh and hide. This is poison to those who want their game to be a sensible simulation. It's one of the most frequent "problems" that tinkerers try to fix in D&D - by separating body points from luck points (Star Wars d20, etc. etc.), physical damage from defensive skill (Runequest, etc., etc.).By the standards of simulation, hit points are terrible.

2. Hit points are the most successful game element to be exported from D&D. Almost without exception, any computer or board game that simulates a fight at the skirmish level for the past 35 years has used hit points, life points, health bar, or some variation thereof, instead of a more realistic system where individual injuries are tracked. Compare the longevity and sales of Soul Calibur vs. Bushido Blade. By the standards of meeting gamers' needs, hit points are great.

I'm going to take a roundabout trip to explain the discrepancy between the two. I want to argue that hit points are an evolutionary exaptation in game design, adapting to needs gamers have that a more realistic system would not meet.

Exaptation in evolutionary biology means the development, through natural selection, of a new function for a given structure. The concept was popularized by Stephen Jay Gould in an essay on the panda's thumb. This appendage, used to grasp bamboo, actually evolved from one of the panda's wristbones. Another example is feathers, which originally evolved on dinosaurs for temperature regulation but then became important in flying.

Games also have selection pressure. In the game designer's ideal world, the best-selling games will be those that use elegant mechanisms to capture the essential experience of that which the designer is simulating. In the real world, market-dominating games tend to be meatballs like AD&D in its heyday and Monopoly.

Faced with this tragic state of affairs, designers will often resort to a narrative in which, Microsoft-like,  industry leaders achieved their position through sheer corporate throw-weight and user conservatism. I am not discounting these factors. But I want to present an alternative view. Although these games are anathema to intelligent design, they often hold within them features exapted from other games that crudely address some of the very real needs of game players. The crudity of these panda thumbs may offend the sensibilities of refined gamers, but they help explain how these games come out ahead in the more rough-and-tumble process of mass market natural selection.

Take Monopoly as a simulation of real estate dealing, for example. In real life, real estate moguls do not randomly move house from street to street, hoping they will not be forced to pay rent in an an expensive location. Their purchases do not depend on their physical residence, either, and precious few of them enter beauty contests. What a lousy simulation, huh?

These features make more sense in accounting for Monopoly's longevity as a family game. They are exaptations from dice-and-track games (Parcheesi, Snakes and Ladders) that let young kids play along and even succeed sometimes by sheer chance. Monopoly also gathers a couple of other game concepts alien to the simulation of real estate dealing - set trading and collecting, chance cards.

So where are hit points exapted from? Some of you may already know, but here's a roundabout clue:

T-shirt available at
More next time.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Unsexy Matriarchies

I’ve been vacillating about whether to include feminist/intersectional gaming blogs like The Border House and Go Make Me A Sandwich in my blog roll. 

On the one hand, it’s important to keep up awareness of these issues.

On the other hands, a) most of their articles are about computer gaming, which is not my focus here; b) a lot of the content boils down to outrage at the latest example of dumb and obvious sexploitation in the industry, which is a bit like writing about Hooters and saying “Boy howdy does this place objectify women.”

I really appreciated, then, this recent post on Border House that breaks away from both molds. It’s a breakdown of how a lot of fantasy matriarchal societies are unrealistic reflections of patriarchal male fantasies, centering on that ever-popular Gygaxian invention, the Drow.

The Underdark, as cast by Rick James.
Zaewen's line of argument: a real society in which women hold the power wouldn’t have them dressing up all sexy in thongs and 1980’s pirate boots. Flaunting sexuality is soft power, on those occasions when it even constitutes power. 

Which then raises the question, what would a more realistic society dominated by women look like? I think the answer to that question falls one of two ways depending on how much you want to incorporate la difference ... the biological differences between men and women ... as a part of this hypothetical female power.

Star Trek: The Next Generation ... well, tried, and failed famously, to flip la difference in the episode Angel One. It presented a society where women were big matronly amazons, men were little twinks, and everyone had feathered hair. Of course the whole setup ended up collapsing like a house of cards when some real men showed up, so the episode ended up being more regressive than progressive. But the squicky feeling at seeing those little guys with bare chests and earcuffs was a pretty good sign you weren’t just being treated to another Sexy Matriarchy.

Canadian writer and artist  Dave Sim took another obvious tack when he created a feminist dystopia in the latter half of his decades-long Cerebus comic book. Instead of reversing the gradient of physical strength, he based supremacy in Cirinist society on women’s ability to bear children. We get a pretty credible, if caricatured, matriarchal society from this convert to Islam and admirer of Oscar Wilde who explicitly hates women with every shred of his being (except for those who in Sim’s estimation carry, instead of extinguish, the creative spark that he associates with men ... like, uh, Coco Chanel ... I can’t make this stuff up). Men who don’t submit to female authority and take part in family life are confined to the company of other such men and encouraged to drink their life away in bars. This of course has nothing, I mean everything, to do with Sim’s own personal history.

What these random examples show, perhaps, is that even the most imaginative writers prefer to see female reign as just as morally bad as male domination. And that stereotypes run deep. The Star Trek episode plays with the discomfort of reversed sex roles but eventually upholds the Federation perspective which turns out to be only as semi-enlightened as 1980’s America. Sim’s world only feels plausible because it’s built on such solid stereotypical bedrock, where women entrap men sexually into becoming dads while men oscillate between creative genius and drunken dissipation.

I hear Joanna Russ did a better job of this, so I really need to pick up The Female Man.

Saturday 18 June 2011

Another Simpler DCC Idea: Wild & Critical Spells

So it seems the Mighty Deeds (why did I think Feats?) commentary and replacement rule was well received. Here's another idea for taking a complex rule from Goodman's Dungeon Crawl Classics game, and making it more modular and compatible with the standard run of D&D clones and variants.

Via LevinLight Wiki
Instead of having a separate table for wacky results for each spell, why not have the wacky results be ... other spells?

You can get more extreme with this, in terms of abandoning the spell slot system, but I want to work this out sticking as closely to the classic fire-and-forget casting system as possible. Another insight: "no result" is boring and frustrating for spellcasters. So I'm just excluding it as a possibility.

Whenever a magic-user is going to cast a spell, before the player has stated the targeting and area of the spell, roll d20.

The spell goes wild on a 1 if the caster can use spells of a higher level than the one being cast, or a 1-2 if the spell is of the caster's highest level. Add 1 to this wild range for every 2 points the caster's Wisdom is below 9, and subtract 1 if the caster's Wisdom is 13 or above.

The spell goes critical on a 20, a 19-20 if the caster's Wisdom is below 9, and 18-20 if it is below 5. There is no chance to go critical if Wisdom is 13 or above. Yes, magic-users may want to lose Wisdom to become more powerful and random, which is why some spend so much time delving into secrets of forbidden knowledge (insert sanity loss=wisdom loss system here).

Wild Spell: Roll at random on the list of magic-user spells for that level. The magic-user casts that spell instead, whether or not he or she knows it, but may target it at will. If you rolled by chance the spell the magic-user was trying to cast in the first place, the spell escalates; go to the next highest level, the magic-user picks a spell that will not be cast, and roll on that spell level table to find out the spell that is cast. If the spell picked is rolled, escalate to the next highest level, and so on.

A creative DM may have some of the spell's effect or style influenced by the spell originally cast. For example, a magic-user trying to cast Web who casts ESP instead may find that cobwebs appear on the walls, that shout out and echo the thoughts of the closest sentient being.

Critical Spell: Roll 2d6 and take the lower:
1: The spell is cast with double range, double duration, + 1 to each damage die, and -2 to saving throw.
2: The spell, once cast, is replaced in memory by a random spell of the same level.
3: The spell is cast with double effect (area or damage, for example) or with -4 to saving throw.
4: The spell is cast without using it up in memory.
5: The spell has its usual effect plus the effect of a spell the caster chooses of the same level or 1 level higher.
6: Roll twice, and 6 has no effect.

I think this system has a good chance to walk the line between player boredom and total player screwage. Instead of "you fail" it's more like "hey, make the most of Rope Trick right now."

Moral Disgust III: The Perverse

There's one last feature of moral disgust that might be worth exploring. It has to do with desire.

An up-and-coming theory in moral psychology says that we can make three morally relevant judgments on any behavior: the desire of the actor, the action he or she actually took, and what the consequences are. For example, someone might want to do something that hurts someone (bad desire), nonetheless carries out an action to help them (good action), but without meaning it, that helpful action actually backfires and hurts the person (bad consequences).

What this research tends to find, with a few exceptions and glitches, is that people tend to base recommendations about punishment and reward on consequences; base judgments of the action on what the action did; and base judgments of the person's character on his or her desire.

WHH: big in Japan
I want to focus on this link between character and desires because disgust, responding to people as "things" rather than actors, seems to have a link to desire. Those who are aficionados of weird literature know of William Hope Hodgson, and maybe have read what I consider his best story, The Voice in the Night. Without giving away too much, at one point one of the characters in the story gives in to a physical need that he knows will doom his humanity. What is particularly horrifying about this is the desire with which he succumbs to this temptation - "immediately filled with an inhuman desire" in Hodgson's words - and his struggle and self-loathing.

Meanwhile, on the social science side, some colleagues and I have been running a study that, if it works out, will back up some ideas we had about they way people can be seenless than fully human based on the emotions they feel ... well, now that the corpus callosum between the gamer and psych sides of my brain has fully fused, I can present this to you guys as a fully fledged villain-ology.

There is the Misguided Villain, who has the full range of human emotions - including the ability to feel disgust, remorse, hope. This one may be doing the wrong thing, but has the right desires.

There's the Animalistic Villain, with none of the higher emotions, only the bestial ones - lust, anger, fear, pleasure.

There's the Mechanistic Villain, with no emotions at all. Perfectly rational, with cruelty only as a side effect.

Finally, and most relevant, there's the Perverse Villain. This one has all the emotions but feels them at the wrong times: joy at people's suffering, disappointment at their success. This is the classic stage villain, and the one who most forcefully reveals the wrong desires that I suspect lead to moral disgust.

Horror - fear and disgust - both these emotions compel someone to flee. The more distance you put between yourself and the scary or disgusting thing, the more the emotion subsides. The horror of desire - of sweet-smelling corruption, of the desirable body with the skeleton face - is that you willingly bring yourself closer to the vile thing. But the vile thing is not so disturbing as what your self-conscious mind reveals about you. You are perverse. Your desire is corrupt. Like Hodgson's castaway, you yourself are the monster.

Do I use this in my campaign? Well, my players may remember an amorphous thing with mouths in the cellar of the millhouse ... a thing that radiated a smell of honey and fresh meat.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

One DCC Comment: Fighter Feats

Having now read the Dungeon Crawl Classics beta document, and observed the whirlstorm and piñata party of posting around it, I find that most things I want to say about it have already been said.

My personal reaction is: it could be great fun as a convention one-shot, but not something I'd use or even plunder for a campaign. The game is indeed old school, but think 1980 rather than 1975, and a 1980 that never existed at that. Imagine if every producer of heartbreakers and complications for the ol' roleplaying chassis had asked, not "How do I make this more realistic?" but "How do I make this more crazy and fun?" Imagine if in 2008, the Wizards team had asked, not "How do I make this more balanced and tactical?" but "How do I make this more crazy and fun?" That is certainly the obvious aim of this game. I'll reserve judgment on whether it is actual fun until such time as I sit down and play.

Also, I especially enjoyed the line drawings by Peter Mullen. They are like Sidney Sime's material as drawn by Tove Jansson, in other words, double weird fantastic.

But I want to focus in on one specific reaction I had (and Mr. Rients, too, in his scrawlings). I really liked the idea that fighters had a special power that they could use with some of their attack rolls, to do improvised maneuvers like knock an enemy back. The "Mighty Feats of Arms" in the player's section are great, and presented in the right amount of detail.

Then you get to the judge's section. And each MFoA is presented in excruciating detail, with a paragraph detailing the exact result in game terms for each level of success rolled.

Once you have written a rule you cannot unwrite it. It doesn't matter if you have encouraged the judge and players to "be creative, hey presto old school." The space for that creativity has to be kept open by not making any kind of official rule. Otherwise, whatever you improvise might be seen, on a later perusal, to be "wrong" or lacking.

In other words, if this was my reaction to the Mighty Feats rule for the players:

the judge section did this:

This betrays a fundamental uncertainty about audience. Are you writing for the kind of confident judge and players who feel good about improvising? Are you writing for the less than confident judge and players who need rules guidance at every step? Or are you writing  to help the second group make the transition to playing as the first group? DCC (and not just on this issue) seems to preach for the first group but practice for the second. I'll also note that there's precious little material out there that tries for the third goal.

By the way, if you want to implement "Mighty feats" in a more standard D&D-style game without rolling an extra die, a quick solution might be to roll the fighter's weapon damage die whether or not the hit succeeds, and have a feat-style effect happen on a natural 1 or 2. This advantages the dagger and other low-damage weapons, but also gives somewhat of a consolation prize for missing in combat.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Moral Disgust II: Purism

In the last disgust post I went over some of our research showing that moral disgust mostly protects moral codes concerning the body. But I don't think that's all to disgust. I just haven't figured out the experiments to prove it.

See, there's a grab bag of other things from various other published studies out there that elicit disgust. One study of the role of emotions in attitudes toward various social groups found that disgust was predicted by two things. One is kind of obvious: the perception that a group threatens physical health (so, HIV patients, for example). The other is less obvious: the perception that a group threatens important values (gay men score high on this as well as, via the HIV perception, the disease kind of threat).

And then there's esthetic disgust, or I guess esthetic-moral disgust. This is not the esthetic disgust from a painting of rotting meat, but the disgust that comes from seeing something as "contaminating" a moralized esthetic category. And what sets apart a moralized esthetic category from the usual kind? Fortunately, Zak has just drawn a cartoon that explains this very point.

It's the disgust face that fans of black doom grindcore metal make when confronted with symphonic black doom grindcore. It's the disgust face that fans of the game with clerics and no thieves make when they come across the game with thieves and no clerics.

The second most subdivided form of entertainment there is.
Values, moralized preferences, cultural norms about sex and food and body decoration ... I suspect that what binds these all together, what throws those who violate them on the midden of disgust, is that these are learned primary associations to the concepts of "good" or "bad" that are hard to justify.

After all, it's hard to articulate why freedom is good or why your country is or why the greatest band in the world is that way or why exactly men get circumcised in your culture. There's always some after-the-fact reason like "it's just good" or "it's more healthy." But the truth is, you probably learned all these things as a primary, Pavlovian link between whatever it is - the flag, the band, the physically weird - and the concept of "good" or "bad." And you probably prefer to associate with people who share the same associations.

This is why, in our studies, people specifically have a hard time explaining their disgust at sexual transgressions, apart from self-referential concepts like "it's just disgusting" or "they're just evil." Other studies show that people also have a hard time explaining why their core values, like freedom, equality or tradition, should be followed.

Extending this to all kinds of values, it then stands to reason that you're less likely to be disgusted with someone who who agrees with you that racial equality is good, but thinks that school vouchers (or whatever solution you prefer) are not the way to get there; you're likely to feel anger, because that person is at least in your community and just being frustrating. But if the person comes out and says that racial equality is not a highly valuable thing, not even good - they're an outright racist - that's more likely to feel disgusting. That person has shown themselves to be outside your true community.

Would you rather people play XBox?
One thing I find interesting about this moral-preferences-esthetics-values disgust is that it has a very weird reaction profile. If my esthetics are pragmatic, then (let's say) I love strawberry ice cream, will make do with raspberry cause it's kind of like strawberry only raspier, and just loathe chocolate. But if they're moralized, I will actually love strawberry, hate raspberry because it's a pathetic imitation and mockery of what strawberry is supposed to be, and be indifferent to chocolate. I think this is a vestige of contagion fear that comes from applying disgust to these moralized preferences. But this has abolutely nothing to do with nerds, fans, and gamers right?

All this is because the disgust reaction forms the boundary of the community. (I don't set these posts up, I swear...) So I won't give suggestions for working today's lesson into your game, because really, it applies more to your life as a gamer.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Journey to Saddleback III: Memory

(This continues my series of game-mastering problems and tips grafted onto play session reports. If you're more interested in the GM stuff than the play session, scroll down to below the ***.)

The party reconvened last night after a long time away. Action commenced at the gates of the hill town Saddleback, wherein our band found a cool reception in the tavern of the Badger Leaf dwarven clan, but a warmer reception in the halls of the Twisted Bar thanks to the gate guard Borran, who'd taken a liking to the group, possibly in particular to the she-dwarf Grumpka.

There was a somewhat noncommittal public audience with the town's governing Triad, two dwarves and a human who rule back-to-back from a rotating stone seat under the open air. There it emerged that rumors of a giant in the hills may have been grossly exaggerated by the Badger Leaf merchants met on the way to Trossley, who are after all wily and fiercely competitive. The strange coincidence, that after a dozen years of inactivity two groups of merchants should set out from the same two towns toward each other, was remarked upon.

During a long dwarven feast in the halls of the Twisted Bar clan, it emerged that two bereaved parents from the third family of the Twisted Bar tribe wished to unburden themselves of a sad memento - their daughter's bride-gift, a suit of chainmail armor, precisely what Grumpka had been looking for. The story emerged; betrayed by a faithless husband obsessed with human women, the daughter, Ysolde, sought advice from the lammasu Saheedra but then died falling from Saheedra's crag. Suicide is an unthinkable sin among the dwarves, and in the scandalous aftermath the husband fled from town and her child was abandoned. Some were surprised, and some were not, to learn that the husband was Doug, the bartender at Trossley's Duck and Whistle, and the child was Devin, who had been taken in by Saheedra.

With armor in hand, apples traded, and new friends and enemies made, the party set back out through the hills for Trossley. Almost immediately they came across a brushy box canyon from which two wolves growled at them. Deciding to pick a fight with the wolves, the party found two wolves turning to six (one approaching from behind) and some of the worst combat dice rolls they've ever experienced. In the end, the wolves were vanquished but the NPC muleteer and town guard lay dead, and multiple party members had serious wounds. We left off having just reached the resting point of the abandoned hermitage, a day's march from Trossley.


One problem that came up in this run was keeping the memories going of what has evolved into a quite complicated situation after a month-long gap in play. At one point, I couldn't recall an important detail like the terms of the financial agreement by which the party chose to accompany the "Nameless One" on his mercantile venture to Saddleback. This is a reminder that my usual method of improvising lots of details doesn't get me out of the need to keep notes and records. The most important of these being:

1: State of the party in time: whether they've rested overnight already, and so forth.
2: Terms of deals, prices of goods, etc.
3: Names of minor NPCs (hint: completely made-up names like "Zortaang" are a disaster - always go with something already in your memory structure, for example if I want a name for a logger-woman carpenter, I have them typecast as French Canadians so I pick the French name Lucille.)
4: Clues that the party have been given in conversation, ancient inscriptions, etc.

Veteran roleplayers (like the couple who live down the road, and since having two kids have reluctantly reduced their GMing and playing to only 5 weekly games at a time) know the importance of this. For example, when we would play with the aforementioned veterans, if he was DMing, she would be playing and setting down notes. Now imagine the notes accumulated from 10 or more years of 5-a-week campaigns ...

The options for us are either to designate a party notetaker, or have me step up my own notetaking. To keep track of time, I've been using an old unused calendar from 2003, marking an X on the lines between days to show the passage of a night and writing down the party's location. I suspect now more notes will have to go on there.

Another crucial thing (see under 3 above) is to make things easier to remember. I tend to drop details that repeatedly keep getting forgotten and don't add to the enjoyment or immersion of the game. For example, torches and living expenses. I feel the need not track either of these bit by bit but just charge a flat rate (1 copper a day for lodging and the same amount for food) or in the case of torches, ignore them as trips to the dungeon are not that frequent.

But if you've found any handy tricks for preserving memory in the long and short term please let me know.

Friday 10 June 2011

Moral Disgust I: The Body

One theme of my lab's research that is smashing into print in a esoteric, university-library-only journal near you this year (4 papers out or in press, 3 more under review) is the distinction between moral anger and moral disgust.

Two of Paul Ekman's research faces.
The first thing to recognize is that anger and disgust correlate highly across moral situations. So, if someone sees something and says they're "disgusted" they're also likely to say they're "angry." A less finicky language might just call both emotions of moral condemnation something like "outrage" and leave it like that.

Except what people call "disgust" also seems different for different kinds of outrage. What our research tends to find, using carefully varied scenarios, is that moral violations that involve harm or unfairness attract high levels of anger, and a kind of "disgust" that's very highly related to anger. But when you factor out the effects of anger, disgust really stands on its own mainly as a visceral response to moral codes about the use of the body.

In other words:
  • I tell you about greedy corrupt politicians - and you may say you are disgusted, but go "grrr".
  • I tell you about someone who has cloned his or her own muscle cells in order to eat a consensual, harmless, ethically sourced human steak - now you say you're disgusted, and go "yuck" - nobody is harmed, so you only go "grrr" a little - but importantly, most people (not all) feel there's something morally wrong about this technical cannibalism.
Jack Chick's "Gay Blade"
We came up with examples like the human steak to test, even for the most liberal of our respondents, the true limit of moral tolerance. If you're liberal and you want to know how conservative people feel about sexual immodesty or same-sex marriage, think about your own reaction to the human steak. Nobody's rights are violated, but there's a sense of wrong about it.

Back to imaginative literature and gaming. There's a tendency, most pronounced in works that aspire to  "epic" or "traditional" storytelling, to stack the deck with both moral anger and moral disgust - and to help that along with liberal lashings of physical disgust. Think of Frank Herbert's Baron Harkonnen, with his boils (physical disgust), catamites (moral disgust) and underhanded cruelty (moral anger/disgust/outrage). That works, if the reader plays along with the assumptions of the work. If the reader doesn't, this all-in-one moral universe becomes a nagging flaw. I mean, I love me some Jack Vance and in particular Lyonesse, but damn if "queer = villain" doesn't get tiresome in that series.

The body is often also moralized, and overlaid with disease and deformity arguments, to feed a dehumanizing and xenophobic political agenda. Just one very obvious example: the Nazi caricature of Jews encompassed disgust at alleged physical uncleanliness, strange dietary practices, physical abnormality, and sexual licentiousness. All this came to a sharp and pointed end with the final accusation to justify the Holocaust; Jews were not just gross but dangerous and malicious. Indeed, some of our recent unpublished studies implicate fear and moral anger, as well as disgust, in the tendency to dehumanize members of other social groups.

Yeah, yeah, so fantasy heroes are little Nazis slaughtering orcs. We've all heard that before, so that even the counter-cliche itself is at risk to get worn out. In my creations, I'd prefer to keep to hand the power of bodily-moral disgust, avoiding both cliches, letting the audience draw its own conclusions. These strange customs, they are weird and gross; the high priest marries his sister, ritual scars are salted to a fine purple hue, here's a feast to which everyone contributes a slice of their own flesh. Are these marks of villainy, or of mere strangeness? Our explorers of the unknown have signed up for encounters with both, in any event, and the interpretation is up to them.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

In Praise of Modular

I think there's some kind of message in the selection of Mike Curtis' Dungeon Alphabet to win the first Three Castles Award, the closest thing old-style roleplayers have to an Oscar. Or at least I choose to interpret it thus.

The award went, not to a fully implemented roleplaying game or setting, but to a creative aid with supreme versatility across many different games and settings. It beat out a field including two "system" products (LotFP and B/X Companion) and two "setting" products (Stonehell and Majestic Wilderlands).

If there's a message here, it's a congenial one for me, because I'm getting less and less excited about writing out a whole role-playing game as a vanity project for my houserules. As more and more of these retro-inspired labors of love keep coming out, I keep hearing - and feeling, myself - the same reaction:

"It's got some neat stuff I'll pilfer for my own game, but I wouldn't play using the whole thing."

So, why not just pack the neat stuff up, and set it out on the front doorstep for pickup? That way you don't have to worry which of seventeen and a half retro-clones your stuff is going to compete or be compatible with.

I've been on a break from creating new gaming material, between my usual computer being in the shop, and my game going on a long hiatus that hopefully will be broken this week. I've used this break to reflect on what's gotten the best reaction out of my creations. Without a doubt it's the material that people can plug into their own game - the one-page rules supplements in particular. I also have some encounter tables waiting in the wings, and like my NPC and trick tables they're also modular like modular furniture.

Or clothes that help you learn that light blue goes with dark blue.
Yep, modular is the way to go. Who needs yet another explanation of what a roleplaying game is or how fast you can move down an unlitten corridor? All I'm saying is, smart money's on Vornheim next year.

Gore Disgust

There seems to be a trigger of disgust with a biological function that goes beyond protecting us against infection. Known picturesquely as "violations of the body envelope," and more prosaically as "blood and gore," such revolting things include blood, viscera and other signs of injury. Far from being infectious, these things instead are in danger of being infected, if the person is still alive, so it kind of makes sense to keep your distance from them, which the disgust emotion encourages. Extreme forms of gore disgust have been implicated in blood and injection phobias.

Researchers have found one interesting biological marker of gore disgust that's different from others; when most people react to blood and injuries, the heart rate goes down, rather than up as it does when seeing infectious or immoral things. This makes some sense as an automatic reaction to blood that could be your own; if that's true, you need to stop pumping it out so quickly.

Blood and gore is also fear- and anxiety-provoking. It reminds us of our bodies' mortality and tells us that right here and now, we could be next. This blend of disgust and the fear emotions has been identified as horror. Although research is lacking on this topic, I believe that many people see the ability to feel horror as a marker of moral standing, a guarantee that the person will not resort to violence because of revulsion at its consequences.

Certainly, lots of parents are OK with their children killing hundreds of people or creatures in a video game, as long as there's no blood or gore. It's hard to convince someone by reason not to be disgusted, but one of the better ways is to repeatedly expose them to the disgusting stuff until they get used to it. The concern aroused by gore in games and earlier media, such as comic books, is that children will become hardened to the disgusting signs of violence, and become more violent as a result.

The infamous EC Comics baseball story.
Is this concern justified? I'm not so sure. One group of people that needs to get used to blood and gore is doctors, nurses and EMTs, but this lets them help people more effectively. I do believe that many people have an effective, emotional brake on committing violence, but this doesn't respond to the aftermath of violence; that would be too late. Rather, it responds to the act of physically harming another person.

Army psychiatrist David Grossman made this case in the book On Killing, gathering historical and clinical evidence that many soldiers actually avoid directly harming the enemy - an aversion eliminated in US ground forces since Vietnam through human-target conditioning. His concern, which made the media around the time of the Columbine massacre, was that first-person shooter games were doing the same job on the youth of America. More solid experimental work in recent years has pinpointed an emotional reaction in the brain that makes people reluctant to end one human life even to save five others. This reaction is strongest if the scenario forces the person to actually apply personal energy to the killing, as opposed to pushing a button. Both these lines of research identify the key aversion as happening before the violence, not afterwards when gore is strewn around.

One of the few RPG systems that acknowledges this is Lamentations of the Flame Princess, with its portrait of the fighter class as someone who has become accustomed to violence, and as such can uniquely deal it out most effectively. Indeed, part of military training from Roman times on has involved not just teaching soldiers how to strike accurately, but how to overcome their aversion to doing so. Rather than indulging in blood-soaked wish-fulfillment, a mature approach to combat in games will acknowledge this unpleasant moral fact in one way or another.

Getting back to the topic of evoking emotions in a game, signs of death and gore should evoke horror in your players, but more on the fear side than the disgust side. They're a time-honored way to signal that Something Nasty is about ... the encounter may not be level-appropriate ... your characters may want to consider turning tail and running. In any event, apart from the odd grindhouse edition, gore in tabletop games remains enacted in the theater of the imagination, of little moral danger to anyone.

Why, then, the moral concern about the gruesome and macabre? All will be revealed - when I conclude the disgust series with a look at the moral uses of repugnance.

Sunday 5 June 2011

Deformity Disgust

Some scholars have argued that bodily deformities, asymmetries, and mutilations arouse disgust because they are cues to disease. They point to studies showing that seeing any kind of deformity makes the concept of disease more accessible and available, as measured by psychological tasks similar to free-association. This is true even of deformities that science tells us have no relation to contagious infection, such as birth defects or missing limbs. The idea is that our cultural/biological immune system thinks we're better safe than sorry, loading us with a tendency to get disgusted about any sort of strangeness of body.

That may be so, originally. But disgust serves another purpose than just protecting us from disease. It's a response protecting our fragile self-awareness from existential strangeness, from things that blur the human category, and from people who violate the cultural practices that are required to set us apart from the animals. One such practice was the blackening of teeth by the aristocracy of Heian-era Japan. By the strict biological interpretation of disgust, rotten or missing teeth are a cue to disease. But Lady Murakami, in her diary, wrote of the revulsion felt at seeing the white teeth of a commoner, which were like those of an animal.

Fantasy literature and gaming abound in animal-humans and other monstrous beings that cross the boundary between people and other. Disgust is one reaction to such creatures.

Some monsters are more likely than others to be disgusting: crossbreeds with disgusting animals, like fish, pigs or octopi; creatures with key aspects of humanity altered or missing, like bones or a face. Some mutants are fairly normal in fantasy, mainly because they are crosses between humans and domestic or noble animals that we semi-humanize anyway (centaurs, satyrs). They take on a disgusting aspect only when we think of the possibility that they were created through human-animal sex, as the mythical Minotaur was. Regulating our sexual possibilities, of course, is another way society makes our bodies human rather than animal. In most societies, even the most liberal, disgust at monstrous, unnatural or indiscriminate couplings is a mainstay of social order.

Disgust is not just a marker of the nonhuman, but an active route to dehumanization and extermination. Pig-face orcs bring with them a mandate to be killed in a way that pigs or humans do not. Their very existence offends the natural order, they mingle Platonic forms in a way that must be exterminated, though we cannot articulate why. We still have primitive reflexes, conditioned by fiction and the way we talk about the world, that draw an equivalence between what's natural (actually, what fits into our human idea of nature) and what's moral. Picture the following exchange in fantasy land:

"I've found the source of those strange monkey-slug-polyp things. They come from a vast, bubbling pool of slime in the swamp, surmounted by a swaying, tentacled pillar of flesh."
"How amazing! Let's go there to observe and celebrate the diversity of life in this magical world!"

Not very likely, right?

A more sophisticated development turns the simple association of physical deformity with evil into a story, where the physical deformity is a consequence of evil. This kind of narrative can even take on a populist slant, as in the urban rumors of pig-faced women that circulated in previous eras, where the deformity is a punishment visited on the child for the mother's lack of charity.

Unlike fantasyland, reality presents us with no such physical cues to evil. People who present a monstrous aspect usually got that way through no fault of their own. This leads to a second, more liberating impulse in fictional treatments, itself by now also a cliche - the sympathetic, misunderstood, even heroic monster, from Beauty's Beast to the Elephant Man to the Swamp Thing.

Weird or heroic fantasy follows the first two patterns, where the monstrous is to be exterminated as a reflex. Science fiction, though, often follows the sympathetic pattern. Think of Gamma World's scheme where everyone's a mutant, or the typical galactic romance with its teeming variety of aliens. In the words of SF author Jeff Noon: "Pure is poor."

So we get one more insight into the much-discussed flumph: as a good-aligned creature, its monstrous aspect (those tentacles, that mouth) is anathema to the conservative physical-moral equations of fantasy, but fits right at home in science fiction.

Friday 3 June 2011

Something Awful Rags on Raggi!

I've been enjoying the snarky WTF D&D? series, lampooning old school roleplaying games and art (but from the inside), on SomethingAwful for some time now.

Well, now, with the author's collusion, they've turned their eye on the Old School Recombination and Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Just remember, there is no such thing as bad publicity!

Thursday 2 June 2011

Basic Disgust

The best scholarship on disgust recognizes that it's made up of many "layers" - responding to a variety of unseen threats that have arisen over the course of biological and cultural evolution. There's no evidence, however, that any form of disgust is completely hard-wired. Like language, we have a built-in system of learning disgust responses. After we have learned them, from other people's reactions, they seem to come automatically and naturally. But very young children don't show disgust, and what exactly is disgusting seems to vary from culture to culture. With some primary objects (like feces or rotten meat) it makes good sense to recoil from them, because they can carry disease. Others are more variable; urine, for example, is seen as a health product in some circles in India.

The disgust that attaches to disease-carrying substances or people is known as basic disgust or core disgust. It's clear that people in earlier technological ages had a much higher threshold for this than we do now. In medieval European cities, waste disposal was done in the street. Late-medieval advice on courtly manners seem to be made for a modern five-year-old, telling adults not to wipe their nose with their sleeve.

"Dennis, there's some lovely filth down here."
The rookie mistake that's often made when re-creating such an environment, in fiction or a game, is to put all of these gritty, grimy aspects front and center. Lurching lepers, brimming chamberpots, rats and lice, skewed and missing teeth, all mark out this sophomoric "keepin' it real" approach.

All of this misses a huge point: disgust is a language. It needs to be translated to produce the right emotional effect against the cultural background of the audience. In just the same way David Milch, writer of the HBO series "Deadwood," recognized that his characters would have historically sworn by God, Christ and Hell. But because those oaths sound mild to the ears of a more secular 21st century, he intentionally replaced them with the Tarantinoesque obscenities that series is famous for.

The effect of putting a crap bucket in every kobold lair in gaming, too, is rarely as intended. It drives a wedge between the modern sensibilities of the players and the medieval disgust thresholds of the characters. This fights against absorbing play, which depends on making the players feel what the characters might be feeling. Worse yet, in gaming you are only depicting or talking about disgusting things (thankfully). This can lead to another unwanted response to second-hand gross-outs - laughter.

To be truly effective, disease-related gross-outs in a game should be few and far between. They should have the rules back-up to make both players and characters recoil. The rot grub in AD&D has been much maligned. But knowing it is out there did make players a lot less willing to root around in dung piles. It visibly stands for the invisible diseases that disgust at its most basic level protects us against. Rats, mummies, anything foul that gives a chance to catch a disease, likewise add to the keep-away factor.

Try grubby instead of gritty ...

Rolling chances to catch a disease for living in a city have never been satisfactory in gaming, even if they are historically accurate. The city is just too attractive a destination for your adventurer's purposes. Its disease perils are too abstract, failing to arouse burnt-out medieval sensibilities about squalor. But ordering disease rolls for too-cheap lodging, or hit point losses for sleeping rough, gives players something they can avoid, giving meaning to their fastidiousness.

There's one other thing about disgusting objects that most old-school rules don't model: they're contagious, like those invisible diseases. Once you have players figure out that someone with a disease has a chance of transmitting it to anyone nearby, you bet that curing them and setting a quarantine will take on urgency. A green slime that kills you instantly is bad enough, but one that settles on you and keeps you alive just long enough to send spores out to land on your friends is worse, a gruesome kind of living death.

Next up: Mutations and mutilations!