Sunday 29 September 2013

The Fundamental Uncoolness of D&D

Having availed myself of the free download of Gygax and Mentzer's Temple of Elemental Evil last week, I was immediately stopped dead in my tracks by this ... well ... astounding opening salvo:

By any standard of modern game writing this looks overwrought, paid-by-the-word, hamfisted. There's the stumbling glee to get that awful, awful simile out, the blustering admonitions to players and the DM. Fluff phrases abound - "in the near future, and in the far as well"; "a very small part indeed"; "such is a role playing game." Oh boy, do we really need to be told that the module does not need to be played through all in one sitting? Or to "turn now" to a section on the same page?

But after the initial surge of mockery I stopped. Where have we heard this kind of voice before? Let's see...

In the notorious video that came packaged in TSR's Dragonstrike boardgame...

And wherever people lovingly, or not-so-lovingly, mock the D&D experience ...

Indeed, there is magic in the incantatory repetition of stock phrases - a magic that, from the outside, looks like utter tomfoolery. But a sure sign of total commitment to some world-within-a-world is that you feel free to make these literary gaffes, unselfconsciously, encouraging the listener or reader to join you in immersion. 

Think about the kinds of statements that sportscasters make in the heat of the moment, the kind of verbal fluff they put in there to fill time and keep interest going but that don't stand up too well on reconsideration: "The game will be won by the side that scores the most points" and so forth. 

There's even a term for this kind of material in storytelling: the oral-formulaic, epithets and stock phrases intended to keep bards in preliterate societies on point and on the beat. It has a transporting effect when recited as poetry, but put it on the printed page and it seems redundant and quaint, as Miguel de Cervantes observed in Don Quixote:
And of them all he considered none so good as the words of the famous Feliciano de Silva. For his brilliant style and those complicated sentences seemed to him very pearls, especially when he came upon those love-passages and challenges frequently written in the manner of: 'The reason for the unreason with which you treat my reason, so weakens my reason that with reason I complain of your beauty'; and also when he read: 'The high heavens that with their stars divinely fortify you in your divinity and make you deserving of the desert that your greatness deserves.'
The danger in this kind of language and this kind of transportation is of being uncool - losing self-possession and becoming lost in the fantasy world, looking a fool to someone who is not in on the game.

With this in hand we can understand why the Dragonstrike video is there in the game to begin. After all, it teaches no rules; it does not set the atmosphere for the story, so much as tell a version of it. If it exists to promote the game, packaging it inside the box is surely a bad move. No, it is there to advertise the fundamental uncoolness of D&D: the FUDD. Because losing your cool, one way or another, can be intensely fun.

The hammy acting and amateurish effects in that video are not just products of a budget limitation. The High Gygaxian prose is not just a stylistic affectation in need of an editor. Both serve to advertise the FUDD, much as Corman Henley has observed that the risible features of e-mail scams work to deter attention from people who would not fall for them anyway.

Once you understand and accept the FUDD, then many of the arguments and stylistic poses in modern roleplaying take on new meaning. Like pearl around an irritant, a thick layer of defenses has grown around the raw, pulsing shame of the FUDD, often becoming themselves tainted and identified with the uncoolness of the game. Otherwise reasonable people are driven to make statements like "D&D is not a roleplaying game" or dress up their games in cooled-down mid-20th century iconic graphics in their desperation to stave off the FUDD. I'll unpack these defenses more, in the coming days.

"D&D is uncool" - it's a statement as obvious as the nose on your face, yet like your nose, you're rarely aware of it. But what is uncool, or cool for that matter? Dare you follow along, as I spin a tale of how cool evolved - how, over the long years, it made the transformation from a tool of resistance to a tool of repression? For alas, the tale is long and I have not the time or space to tell it all in one go. Instead, gentle reader, stay your impatience until the next installation of our faithful web-log, and time indeed will tell whether or not the tale convinces you!


Thursday 12 September 2013

Fiasco: We All Had Fun In Spite of the Rules

Last weekend's game of Fiasco, like the other three I've been in, was a crazy blast featuring a preposterous mix of meth dealing, Narcanon, Cthulhu phenomena and Alaska. But I also had the strong, recurring feeling that we were having fun in spite of the rules - that the dice mechanics were inelegant and largely had to be worked around. I have always had the strong urge while playing this game to either Ignore the Dice or Respect the Dice.

Case 1: the rolling for relationships and objects/locations/goals by taking dice from a large pool, which gives a bewildering amount of choice for people who go first and an unsatisfying lack of choice for those who go last.

Ignore the Dice: Just pick.

Respect the Dice: Just roll d6/d6 (and make sure every option on that table is AWESOME, and if you can't think of AWESOME, then have 12 or 20 instead of 36 options)

Case 2: the unclear gamesmanship of taking and granting dice during play. Black or white dice are granted to other players in the first round, then to yourself in the second round, either by yourself (if you let the others set the scene) or the others (if you set the scene yourself). At the end, the only people whose characters have positive outcomes are those who have a large imbalance of black vs. white dice (either way). There's also a tension between players who have been gaming this aspect of the game, and others who have just been playing to make a fun story. You could argue that the negative outcome feeds the grimness of the tale, but in the source material of botched-caper films, there's a space for characters who against all odds come out all right.

Ignore the Dice: Just wager for black and white tokens, with outcome based on the imbalance or some other means.

Respect the Dice: Just roll for outcome, regardless of what happened during play.

The larger point about game design is that Fiasco's flaws are very much traceable to an ideology of player agency. An ideology is distinguishable from a technique when it starts getting in the way of fun. Forget GNS or anything else, here are my three necessary ingredients for fun in a game- PLAYER-centered instead of DESIGNER-centered:

1. agency - ability of players to make meaningful choices
2. surprise - results can come up that shock and galvanize the whole table
3. representation - the opposite of an abstract game, where you can visualize how the game mechanics create a compelling situation or story

My point is, the dice element in Fiasco adds very little to point 2, which dice are there to do. Either go full-on storygame (Ignore Dice) and get surprise from the interaction of players, or respect the dice, and open up to the full ranges of twists and turns that they are there to provide.

Another way to put it perhaps: the choices involved in selecting from dice, granting dice, and reading dice at the end are not representational. "Representational" in this game would be picking some sort of theme or strategy for your character, seeing it through and watching it influence play, and having it inform the outcome at the end.

Tuesday 10 September 2013

The Lichway My Way, and Diorama Encounters

The Lichway (previously) belongs to that admirable class of adventure writing, where engaging ideas are presented with just enough detail for a DM to improve and improvise. As a low-level dungeon with a one-page map, and yes, as a tomb, I rank it up there with Tomb of the Iron God.

Here are some of the hacks and improvisations I did for my GenCon run:

1. Why are people suddenly interested in this abandoned tomb? Well, it turns out that linguistic pedantry is responsible. For years, adventurers kept out because they thought "lichway" was a warning that a skeletal super-sorcerer was in residence. Only recently did some tavern busybody point out that "lich" as an old English word simply refers to a corpse. This started a wave of exploration involving the party as at least the third human group to enter the dungeon.

(British audiences, perhaps, were clearer on this linguistic point due to the common usage of "lich-gate" to refer to a church's cemetery gate, and the general deeper history grounding of UK vs. US gaming circles.)

2. The map uses architectural notation for door hingeing, not Elvis notation. At first I interpreted this as the doors all being ajar, with some weird results (intelligent creatures that should have been hearing each other were ignoring each other instead). As always, discretion and situation awareness are key.

3. I thought people might recognize the susurrus from the Fiend Folio, so I transformed it into a pan flute golem. Yes, a pan flute golem. That meant it had to keep pacing within its cage to keep the undead-sleeping sound up, which meant that when the adventurers lassoed it and brought it to its feet ... party over.

I also really appreciated that a few key encounters were described as diorama-like tableaux - rival adventurers getting set to bash in a door, goblins torturing a stirge, xvarts telling jokes among eaach other, that kind of thing. I've tend to avoid these in my own writing - they seemed stagey and set-piece - but they really work in practice, and one of my adventures was criticized on for not having more of them, or as Bryce put it, "Hex encounters need lots of active things." 

It's even possible that the traditional surprise roll can be replaced by a more descriptive "what are the monsters doing?" roll, which together with the manner of the party's approach would determine surprise in a more natural way. If written into the scenario, this roll can be replaced with whatever the creatures are said to be doing. I might approach this sometime soon as a partial replacement for my more complex-looking 52 Pages surprise system.

Thursday 5 September 2013

The Lichway (White Dwarf 9): Concept and Design

Spoilers, of course, are ahead.

The most "WTF" illustration I could find.

I never really understood the point of the Sussurus monster from its description in the ol' Fiend Folio. A big headless ape made of honeycombed bone channels? Wind blows through it and makes a sound that sleeps the undead? Only after opening Albie Fiore's White Dwarf module The Lichway, from 1978, do we see this critter in its original context. Yes, it makes perfect sense as the linchpin of a puzzle-trick set up to confound murderhobo play. If you kill it or drive it away, the colossal undead army it was keeping asleep wakes up and comes after your weedy 1st level party.

There's a clear debt the James Raggi module Death Frost Doom owes to this module. In DFD, the undead-sleeping monster is a plant that has to be hacked down to get to a treasure, its sound described with the word "susurrus." Fighting Fantasist calls this more than coincidence and cries foul; another review gives DFD a pass. I think it's no coincidence, but it is possible that Raggi's starting point here was the monster from the Fiend Folio, a source more available to someone who grew up in the US than old White Dwarf issues. Although it is odd that of all the undead critters it could be keeping asleep - up to and including an actual lich - the "undead army" happens to get picked. It's also peculiar that we expect attribution for adventure ideas but not monster variants, but there it is.

Anyway, I also agree with Fighting Fantasist that the original trick is more fair to the players. Yes, DFD famously delivers "doom," but the point of horror or any other foreign genre in an adventure game is to provide a setting that can be won through by cooperation and wit, not to "doom" the party. The Lichway gives a clue in the form of a rhyme and a couple of sample undead that are lying on the ground sleeping, and gives more options in interacting with the caged-up critter.

Structurally, The Lichway offers a single path of least resistance on the way to the susurrus, who sits atop a big hidden treasure. Following the ever-louder sound, through a couple of easily opened doorways, leads you right there. There are also side paths that pass through secret doors and a flooded area, leading ultimately to the secondary path of the dungeon, occupied primarily by the renegade magic-user Dark Odo and her minions. In terms of my previous article, this is an almost-railroad that gives the possibility of alternate paths, Jaquays-style. But in practice, to reach the susurrus any other way is hard.

The most likely scenario, then, is that the party proceeds down the right-hand path, screws up at the climax and has to run from the skeletal multitude that appears along their previous path, and so flees back through the left-hand passage, encountering Dark Odo along the way. Because of the clueing and design, though, it doesn't feel like a railroad in play, and this kind of illusionism is perfect for a limited-run adventure - or as the title describes it, a "mini-dungeon."

Next: Hacking, fudging and running the Lichway, and the value of "diorama-style" descriptions.

Monday 2 September 2013

Interruption: 30 Day Meme Snappy Answer Repository

We interrupt your scheduled series of posts to bring you the following public service.

Below I discharge any vestigial allegiance to these "post a day" meme-a-spheres. You may do the same in the comments if you like.

Day 1-How you got started

Day 2-Favorite Playable Race

Day 3-Favorite Playable Class

Day 4-Favorite Gameworld
KRYNN 2020

Day 5-Your favorite set of dice/individual die

Day 6-Favorite Diety

Day 7-Favorite Edition

Day 8-Favorite Character You Have Played

Day 9-Favorite Character You Haven’t Played

Day 10-Craziest thing that’s happened that you saw (to party/character/your players etc)

Day 11-Favorite Adventure You Have Ran

Day 12-Favorite Dungeon Type/Location

Day 13-Favorite Trap/Puzzle

Day 14-Favorite NPC

Day 15-Favorite Monster (Undead)

Day 16-Favorite Monster (Abberation)

Day 17-Favorite Monster (Animal/Vermin)

Day 18-Favorite Monster (Immortal/Outsider)
JEHOVAH (7,777,777 HP!!!)

Day 19-Favorite Monster (Elemental/Plant)

Day 20-Favorite Monster (Humanoid/Natural/Fey)

Day 21-Favorite Dragon Color/Type

Day 22-Favorite Monster Overall

Day 23-Least Favorite Monster Overall

Day 24-Favorite energy type

Day 25-Favorite magic item (your character’s or someone else’s)

Day 26-Favorite nonmagic item (your character’s or someone else’s)

Day 27-A character you want to play in the future

Day 28-A character you will never play ever again

Day 29-What is the number you always seem to roll on a d20?
42!!!!!!! (hhgttg 4 life)

Day 30-Best DM You’ve Had

Considerations of the One-Shot Dungeon

Justin Alexander's blog posts about "Jaquaying the dungeon" are often cited in support of building non-linear pathways into an adventure location. I've found one case where things need to proceed a little differently, though: the one-shot adventure, meant to be played in the four hours or so allotted in a convention slot or a gaming club meeting, with no campaign following through.

The one-shot adventure adds the following two considerations:

1. At most, you have four to eight chunks of significant interaction to work with before the adventure is over, which can be combats, exploration problems to overcome, or rooms that invite deep exploration.

2. It's desirable to have the party be able to reach some kind of goal or climax, with skillful play, by the end of the adventure. Note that "skillful play" part; I've seen DMs in tournament modules fudge dice rolls to help the party reach the end, but there has to be some sense of earning it, or the reward is hollow.

Thing is, the campaign has all the time in the world. If the party spends their four to eight chunks noodling around the insignificant halls of the dungeon, they can make it up next time. If they never reach the climax now, they can wait to reach it later. But if the one-shot party misses, they get no more chances. If they miss, it should be because of something they did, not because they took the wrong random turning somewhere. This suggests a couple of different approaches ...

White Pluming it. In the manner of TSR's S2, where a forking hallway early on leads the party into one of three mostly self-contained adventure paths. There's something not quite satisfying about this. I mean, they might as well have been going through the wilderness and choosing between separate adventures.

Jaquaying with signposts. The dungeon architecture is porous, but clues lead the players to the climactic area or areas, with distractions to tempt the unwary. This could work.

Forget Jaquaying. Does the sense of player choice have to come from changes in the direction of travel? Could it be choosing instead what to try, what to look into, what to disturb and what not to, what to take and what to leave? Although Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is sometimes lambasted as a "railroad," its design is really a sensible choice for a one-shot tournament module. The players really have to think about what to get involved with and what to leave alone; just as time is the players' ally in letting them stretch their exploration across the sessions of an extended campaign, it's their enemy in the one-shot, which can add to the challenge instead of subtracting.

Next post: The experience that sparked these musings - running The Lichway after midnight at GenCon!