Friday, December 4, 2009

My god, sir - you bloody read it, didn't you?!

Now, I'm aware that I've pretty much abandoned this whole interblag thing for quite a while. Stuff like that happens when you have to work in order to eat, and your only non-work computer is deceased. However, I am spurred to action because of an incredible occurrence - someone has reviewed Normality. Reviewed it very positively.

See, when Vish (my co-author) and I wrote Normality, we had high hopes but were actually not entirely convinced it was playable. We found out that it was when we ran it ourselves, but we still weren't convinced anyone but us could run it. I whacked it up on my own free site and the wonderful One Thousand Monkeys, One Thousand Typewriters because I thought it'd be interesting to see if anyone gave a hoot.

By in large, they didn't - which is fine. Normality is after all an extended angry rant, regardless of its merits as a game or a setting. Then I got an email from a fellow by the name of Wess, who called himself "Suicide Puppet". He was enamoured of the poor twisted thing, is (I believe) considering some companion work for it.

He's also started a blog called Blur about RPGs - specifically those he considers to be doing interesting conceptual things with the hobby. And he gave our little baby pride of place as his first review.

Thanks Wess. You guys should totally go check out Blur - it's shaping up to be something really interesting...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Self-Preservation? Over-rated! (or "Losing is fun!")

I was just reflecting on behaviours that annoy me as a roleplayer, when exhibited by other players. One of those is getting overly pissy when a character is killed, or is forced into an unfavourable circumstance. Now, on consideration it became clear that I'm occasionally guilty of those particular flaws myself. So, in an attempt to get around this, I tried an experiment - create a character built to fail. Put in no sense of self-preservation whatever, and some form of destructive character flaw that liable to destroy them sooner rather than later, and see how it goes.

Both of the characters I created in this way were created for old-Vampire, and both were far more fun to play than I'd hitherto expected. Both were built with personal priorities that guaranteed them quick Humanity loss, and had no sense of self-preservation in-character either. As it turned out, the chronicles in question ended before either of them did finally destroy themselves - but this was more luck on their part and short length of chronicles than anything else. This proved liberating in play, as it meant I was never worried about long-term consequences for my character, and never strayed into what I call "preservationist" play.
I define "preservationist" play as the over-consciousness on the part of the player of managing a character's resources and prospects. Not that there's anything wrong with having a character whose profit- or advancement-seeking behaviour can serve as a motivator. It's just that you need to remember that your character, their social standing and their resources are all entirely imaginary.

Again, I'm not in favour of deliberately shafting player characters as a matter if policy - but surely the odd shafting doesn't count as foul play? Let's go for a movie comparison - they're not always accurate in relation to roleplaying games, but I like 'em anyway. In both Yojimbo and the Western remake A Fist Full Of Dollars the main character gets beaten up, and has all his equipment taken. In response, he takes some time out to recuperate and train, then goes and kills his enemies using the resources he has to hand at the time.

If this happened to a character in the hands of a "preservationist" player, there'd be a strong chance of an instant rage-quit response. Even if they stay in the game, there's liable to be some animosity directed at the GM for fucking about with their character.

In my view, characters exist to be fucked about with. Not that this should be done maliciously or at the expense of genuine fun (there's a reason I hate Monopoly, after all) but in some games it is entirely appropriate to occasionallynail the little buggers to the floor. Even if I'm one of the little buggers concerned.

Remember: losing is fun!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What's the matter with White Wolf?

First off - the point is that this is a rant with a title stolen from an essay called "What's the matter with Kansas?" where the point was to demonstrate that everyone who lived in Kansas was crazy and every mad thing the US did as a matter of policy happens in Kansas first. The point of this rant is not to defend White Wolf, but to figure out precisely what it is about them that pisses me off, and why I thought they were so good (because I did) in the first place.

The primary reason White Wolf piss me off is the same as the reason I would cheerfully gut George Lucas - they made something I once loved into something utterly crappy. But, as is clear on a re-watching of Star Wars or a re-reading of old WoD books, they weren't that great to start with. So what was the appeal in the first place?

The first factor, I suspect is age. I started playing Vampire when I was 14, having played nought but MERP and one astoundingly shoddy game of Shadowrun beforehand. Being particularly vulnerable to wangst at that point, Vampire seemed like pretty much the best thing since sliced bread, and expansion into Changeling, Mage and eventually Werewolf from there on out only maintained my massive adolescent WW-hardon.

The other factor is book-ownership. I never owned a single source or splatbook for the entirety of my WW-honeymoon period - I just had the (blessedly simple compared to MERP or Shadowrun) rules and setting explained to me by the ST and other players. In retrospect, this is the best possible way to play a WW game, as it means all WW metafiction is filtered through sane human minds first, and setting info is given out on a relevance-level and need-to-know basis.

Unfortunately, I have since realised that what I really liked about WW was the groups I played with. Every one of them had two things in common I had never experienced before: a maximum of one really annoying layer (as opposed to a minimum of 3) and a really good ST. The STs are probably the most crucial factor here, as they all had ideas of their own which were utterly unrelated to the metaplot of WoD and were pretty tolerant (even encouraging) of genuine inventiveness in character-creation and roleplaying (something totally alien to MERP).

The only truly shite WW game I had heard of was totally excusable on WW's part, as it was run by a notorious local gamer who has a bad rep for setting and metaplot obsession, railroading, and being an incredibly whiny bitch all the time. Seriously. The man plays in every local LARP and is always killed by other players for the crime of being too annoying to live, within the first three sessions.

Since those halcyon days, I have been involved in a couple of Vampire LARPS (which all suffered from the same fatal STing flaws - run by aforementioned notorious gamer or one of his cohorts) but otherwise had only tangential contact with WoD in either incarnation.

Last year I played in a long-term Vampire LARP which (though generally well-run and pretty entertaining) threw into sharp relief everything that had historically rankled with me about WoD. Since joining this forum and reading some pretty savage reviews of WW books, it's becoming clearer and clearer to me that almost none of the things that I liked about WW's games had anything to do with them. I like the promise the WW gave me, but not the way they tried to fulfil them.

So, in no particular order, here are the things I personally think White Wolf consistently do wrong:
  1. A game system that is less intuitive than it looks. Example - my last WW character was a Malkavian (crazy vampire) obsessed with occultism. In order to mirror this, I took a real hodgepodge of Disciplines to reflect his patchwork-magpie approach to magic and academia. What this did was to make him incredibly ineffective in terms of game mechanics.
    Because: White Wolf superpowers never have anything to do with your rank in the superpower - it's always tied to some other dumbarse stat. Why won't you let me have someone who's no good at stealth but awesome at being invisible you dicks? Or a werewolf who can knock people over without having to know surgery? From what I've read about Exalted it appears to be the apotheosis of this principle. Being railroaded into a particular min-max-y line of character creation doesn't actually piss me off that much unless you lie to me about it.

  2. A back-story and meta-plot that is almost entirely a detriment to the game world. All five of the original WoD games are (Vampire, Werewolf, Changeling, Mage, Wraith) are awesome ideas which only begin to blow really hard when you read the background fiction and splatbooks. On the subject of Vampire splatbooks, it has been my observation that there is usually one sentence (not counting specialised extra superpowers which may or may not be any good, depending) that is worth reading.

  3. The stupid urge to have all WoD games inhabit the exact same WoD. It was actually OK to have inconsistencies between the various worlds - it fit with their whole "reality is subjective" angle. Every attempt to gel the settings into a coherent world turned the suck up a notch.

  4. The assumption that they are in fact the apex of the gaming industry, rather than an (admittedly notable) piece of divergent evolution. People are currently doing what White Wolf originally set out to do better than they do it. People are also realising that being a bit limited in scope is actually OK, so long as you take everything at its face value and don't try to force it into being anything else. D&D is good at being D&D, and that's OK guys. We acknowledge that you're over it, but you have to realise that some people (even intelligent people who realise its limitations) find it entertaining.

Still and all, I'm glad I went through a WW phase. I kind of owe them my continual interest in roleplaying games. So, despite all the shit, thanks for that guys.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Things that can sensibly be said about roleplaying system design and theory - or: why Ron Edwards, and his enemies were *all nearly* right.

I've been reading a bit about roleplaying theory, and its history lately. It's pretty depressing stuff on many counts - lots of tiny minds fuelled by monstrous egos wrecking themselves on the rocks of public opinion while people stand by and laugh on the sidelines. The major difficulty seems to be that each person who gets an idea seems convinced that This is the Way that It Is, and ends up unable to shake that idea. The reason that it's a big problem is that I'm less and less convinced that there can ever be a unified theory of roleplaying game design, and any attempt to build a game according to flawed design principles is totally doomed to failure.

There are two main reasons that roleplaying theory is an inherently flawed field (that is to say, there actually isn't much sensible you can say on the topic):
  1. Most attempts at a universal theory tying together all strands of the roleplaying hobby tend to be geared toward justifying the author's personal biases in terms of play style. This is certainly true of GNS theory, as can be seen by Ron Edwards management of The Forge, if not his writing on the theory itself.
    Even if theory authors avoid this trap, they still need to be aware that their own biases in terms of play style will have a bearing on what they consider to be a "good" roleplaying game - which is what roleplaying theory is all about. It does make sense to talk about "good" and "bad" roleplaying systems, but those labels are fairly subjective - even F.A.T.A.L. has defenders.
  2. A huge portion of the roleplaying experience is made up by elements out of the direct control of the game designer. Designers can specify which behaviours players should be rewarded for and which should be punished, and they can define a whole host of other contributing factors (setting, mechanical structure, prose tone, etc.) which colour the gaming experience but at the end of the day it's down to the people sitting round the table to control how it all play out.
    System matters - it colours the players experience, and it defines the framework they're going to operate in - but if people want to play as cocks in jets, they will do so regardless of systemic or setting considerations.
The one thing Ron Edwards got unequivocally right was his criticism of White Wolf based on the disconnect between their mechanical system and the promise that the World of Darkness line held out. They offered "story gaming" (which at least looked new and exciting) and instead delivered a set of games which had a broken mechanic and more complex morality systems than usual.

The lesson to be learned from this? There is one thing, and one thing only you can sensibly say in terms of roleplaying theory: make your game as much like it is as you possibly can. That is to say, if you want crazy martial-arts combat, focus on that. If you want complicated personal plots relating to characters' painful backgrounds, focus on that. Every bit of the setting, and every die-roll, card-draw, match of paper-rock-scissors or protracted argument of the system should be dedicated to supporting your core idea.

Do not, under ANY circumstances, try to do everything all at once.