Tuesday 26 January 2016

Star Wars, Dying Earth, and the Programmed Setting

This contains discussion of Star Wars VII, no major plot spoilers but some general criticism. (Also, it's five weeks in, so see the damn film already.)

Robin Laws' Dying Earth RPG is not just a role-playing game set in Jack Vance's literary world. It also tries to codify the essential elements of that world - game as criticism. According to Laws the elements of a Vancian picaresque tale are: odd customs, crafty swindles, heated protests and presumptuous claims, casual cruelty, weird magic, strange vistas, ruined wonders, exotic food, and foppish apparel. The system also handles such Vancian happenings as being persuaded against your better interest, and winning great wealth only to lose it all ("All is mutability!")

And Episode VII for me was also a recombination of the elements of "Star Wars": you could see the boxes being checked off, with "doomsday machine", "terrifying monsters", "lightsaber duel", "alien cantina" and so on. But really that is nothing new. I remember reading more than one Star Wars novel in the 90's that seemed like a reshake of elements from the first three movies. Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy featured a doomsday device called the Suncrusher. There were monsters, dogfights, lightsaber duels and star lowlife a-plenty.

Also: if you tried to do a love story, a police procedural, a picaresque in the Star Wars universe, it might work, but would it be "Star Wars"? The hesitation in the answer reveals that, like the Dying Earth, Star Wars is a programmed setting. It not only provides character types, artifacts and settings, but dictates the plot and action. Compare this to a setting that has become unprogrammed, like the Wild West. While at one time there might have been a stock plot for the cowboy yarn, over many generations its expansion and reinvention has left room for social commentary, horror, preposterous steampunk action-adventure, etc.

Meanwhile, things might have gone differently if the second Star Wars trilogy's attempt to expand the repertoire with political drama, noir elements and romance had been at all convincing. But it wasn't. George Lucas caused a lot of buzz recently defending that trilogy and how he populated it “with different planets, with different spaceships – you know, to make it new.” It's a shallow view, but one that by omission acknowledges that the other "new" elements were failures, that the only things that stand up in those films are the laser duels, space battles, and spectacle. This is probably what sent J. J. Abrams running back to formula, from the potential of a universe to the safety of a program.

I think there's also a reason for the greater popularity of programmed settings over unprogrammed in roleplaying. The Standard Renfaire-Tolkien Setting, with its cozy taverns, dour dwarves, righteous paladins and hen's egg sized diamonds, is a convenient backdrop against which the slightest departure from custom - be it to invoke a different culture, a different genre or just something different - blazes forth like a star of creativity. And on the players' side, a solid and well-known backdrop gives a basis for their own creativity and improvisation.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

Surprise Kills Obmi

Obmi is dead. That supervillainous boss of the third level of the Castle of the Mad Archmage, uncatchable nemesis of Gary Gygax's players, was rushed in his lair and taken apart by the terrible force of the Muleteers. And they weren't even at full spells and hits. Here's how (spoilers for CotMA obviously).

"Just go right at 'em" - Captain Aubrey
1. Strategic surprise. Good intentions paid off. Over the last few sessions, the adventurers had been probing and chipping away at the force of hobgoblins, bugbears and goblins in the northeast of the level. A rival party, the Lightning's Hand, had meanwhile fallen foul of Obmi; in cleaning out the last of the orcs in the southeast, they ran across the hobgoblins, with whom they thought they had a deal. But Obmi had been doing dungeon diplomacy to unite the humanoid groups, and the hobgoblins turned on the Hand, killing their main fighter with the aid of a hold person spell from their cleric. Fleeing, they ran into the conveniently placed Obmi and his minions, and (seeing as I rolled snake eyes for the success of this encounter, when playing through the actions of the NPC party) had to surrender after some brutal treatment.

The party was originally planning to go after the hobgoblins, at which point the tribe would have sent a runner to warn Obmi, who would have hooked around with his gnoll squad and a couple of other friends to block their retreat. Even with the aid of the Knights of Antonius, a group of holy warriors who were helping them out, this would have been serious Surtrouble for the Muleteers. But then the voice of morality spoke up in the form of Freya, the hermit, who reminded them of their duty to rescue the Hand.

In their reconnaissance the Knights had found a couple of passages forking off with the intersection marked with the dwarven rune for "O." It was there that dungeon doctrine was again ignored, and the Knights and Muleteers split up, each having one passage to search. Luck, too, came into it as the Muleteers picked the one that would lead them straight to Obmi's lab and lair.

2. Tactical surprise. Ordinarily on their way to Obmi's lair the Mules would have run across a small group of orcs, all that remained of the once mighty Grinning Skull tribe, who had be set by Obmi to patrol the maze. However, at the very same time, the goblin runner from the hobgoblins had been banging on one of the one-way doors into the maze, and the orcs were escorting him back to the door of the lair, which a gnoll guard opened.

Just then Titus the gnome and self-styled muleborne knight decided to try to sneak down the corridor behind them, wearing metal armor,and thus failing. "Hey!" The orcs swiveled around and everyone rushed forward, led by Titus, who started incanting the syllables of his Choke spell... only to fail and cast a different random spell of the same level instead at the targets (he must have mispronounced Choke as Shock) ... the most fortuitous Lightning Bolt. Bouncing around in the confined space, the bolt fried all the humanoids and miraculously stopped just short of hitting the caster.

The path to the huge lair room was now clear and everyone rushed in as fast as they could. Five gnolls were at various places in the room, Obmi was over by the wall tormenting one of the Hand party captives, who were all strapped and locked into various devices and tables. A huge swiveling brass machine with a pointy end was installed in the middle of the room. Bort the fighter, running to engage Obmi, placed himself in a position to fight the six remaining gnolls as they tried to come out of their adjacent barracks room. This was a crucial if unwitting decision that gave the party tactical control of the room.

With a few good decisions and strokes of luck the party had given themselves a huge positional advantage, which was to widen when Obmi, acting out a tragic flaw, chose to use his invisibility ring and boots of speed not to get away, but to make it to his pride and joy, the repulsor ray machine in the middle of the room. (This flaw was activated by some unusually high morale rolls I threw for Obmi.) The beam pushed back a column of party reinforcements as they tried to enter the room, but the energy wizard Orbit managed to get off a Shatter spell that blew a hose on the contraption. With most of the gnolls in the lair now dead, and the rest hemmed into their barracks, the party swarmed around the dwarf, cutting off his escape and eventually finishing him.

I could have further ruled that the invisibility and boots of speed would allow Obmi to slip past engaging enemies, but the result felt like a just reward for audacious action, phenomenal luck, and the folly of the usually slippery villain. Things would have been very different if Obmi had been shielded by a swarm of gnolls and able to pound the front line with his returnng hammer. What I observed years ago was borne out that day: the advantage of surprise is not always to the home team.